The terror of self-satisfaction

What goes on in the mind of a jihadi?

A few weeks ago, I had a close encounter with a jihadi suicide bomber. That got me thinking. We know that jihadis are motivated by a perverted notion of religion. But not all jihadis are suicide bombers. What was the extra ingredient, I wondered, that turned a jihadi into one? What's going on in his mind?

I say "him" because most of the jihadis in Pakistan so far have been young men. But this may change. Last month, burqa-clad female students took over the Hafsa mosque in Islamabad. To begin with, they wanted to defend the mosque, which the authorities want to demolish. Then they started kidnapping "prostitutes" - which was basically anyone not wearing a burqa. Now they are demanding sharia law and want to turn Pakistan into an "Islamic state". If their demands are not met, they say, they will unleash a wave of suicide bombings.

I take these women seriously. While filming a Dispatches investigation for Channel 4 on Pakistan, I went to the Hafsa mosque. The female students stood, shoulder to shoulder, wielding sticks. Some kept a vigil on the roof where a machine-gun was on display. Security forces prevented me from getting inside the mosque, but I managed to talk to their shrouded comrades a few days later. Although their rhetoric was blood-curdling, what really worried me was how contented they were. They were angry and ready to kill and be killed. But, above all, they oozed buckets of self-satisfaction.

I found the same contentment in the jihadi I interviewed in Karachi. He was captured in a police raid wearing a jacket containing 6.5 kilos of explosive, and carrying three grenades. Still in his early twenties, if he had succeeded in his mission he would have killed many people. Armed police brought him for interview, his face covered, and in shackles that reminded me of the Middle Ages. I was nervous. But he was cool as a mountain stream. He was neither disturbed nor concerned; he showed no feelings or emotions. He was exceptionally happy to be a jihadi, he said. I learned from the police that most jihadis in their custody were like this.

What makes them so contented? The idea that they have a place in paradise is partly responsible. But there is more at play than just religion.

Terrorist groups, like most employers, demand certain qualities from their recruits. And the jihadi recruits have to meet certain psycho logical standards. It helps if they have been educated in a madrasa, where they are taught that Islam is not a faith or a world-view but an absolute, an unchanging list of dos and don'ts that have to be adhered to at all costs.

But more important is for the jihadis to have a psychological make-up that can easily be manipulated by their handlers. Jihadis do not receive much training. What they do go through is a process of speedy but effective brainwashing. They have to be impressionable, empty vessels into which any old junk can be poured and defined as Absolute Truth. That is why so many of them tend to be so young.

The brainwashing is achieved through two processes. First, their mental framework is rearranged and fitted with exclusive transmitters and no receivers. They can speak but cannot listen. Rather, they can spout only certain tailor-made phrases and pieties. So a conversation with them can only be a one-way affair. They become quite incapable of rotational thought, and it becomes impossible to argue or reason with them. Second, they are transported into a beatific space where all human concerns become irrelevant. Hence, the contentment that they experience. The jihadi I interviewed was having some kind of mystical experience, I felt. He was altogether on another plane, a different universe, where what happened to him or what he did to others was totally meaningless. The window of paradise had been opened for him, and he could feel its fragrant draught. That experience was the only thing that really mattered to him.

So, what goes on in the minds of jihadis? Nothing. Because there is nothing inside them. All their humanity has been flushed out. Emotions and feelings have evaporated; critical faculties and moral compasses have been removed; they have been divorced from human concerns and experience. That's what I saw when I met the female jihadis of Hafsa mosque. I felt their contentment. And it made me quiver with fear.

"Between the Mullahs and the Military" is on Channel 4's "Dispatches" programme on Monday 23 April (8pm). A special report on Pakistan appears in the New Statesman next week

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.