National Security

How to Save the Republican Party

Why the GOP needs to stop navel-gazing and embrace internationalism all over again. 

There is a fine American tradition that holds that politics stops at the water's edge, as Senator Arthur Vandenberg once said. The dirty little secret, of course, is that it doesn't. And it shouldn't. Politics is how decisions are made in a democracy -- not by bureaucrats, or the military, or the clergy, but by the elected representatives of the American people. Decisions about national security and foreign policy are no different. And when it comes to the politics of those critical issues, my beloved Republican Party has some soul-searching to do.

Our last election was not primarily, or even secondarily, about national security and foreign policy. But to the extent that a referendum was held on those issues, polls show that most Americans gave their vote to the Democrats. This was a sea change, and there are many reasons for it, but a major one is clearly the legacy of the Iraq war. As Phillip Carter of the Center for a New American Security has written, "The Republicans' mismanagement of the war allowed Democrats to reclaim an issue lost to them since the Truman administration." He is right, of course. And the result is that Republicans are now engaged in a fight for the soul of our party on matters of national security and foreign policy.

This current debate is only the latest chapter in a long-running argument among Republicans about America's role in the world. We can go all the way back to the debates that brought Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft together, and then drove them apart. Later, we Republicans argued over the isolationism of William Borah and Charles Lindbergh. We argued after World War II whether we should contain communism or roll it back. We argued over détente toward the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. And we argued in the 1990s about the conflicting visions for the party offered by Republicans such as Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan. Indeed, Republican unity on foreign policy is more the exception than the rule -- the product of a charismatic leader, such as Ronald Reagan, or unique events, such as the September 11 attacks. And these arguments are often most contentious when the U.S. economy is weak.

Not only is this debate among Republicans not new, it is not at all bad. Indeed, it is a good thing. What Republicans need now is a vigorous contest of ideas on national security and foreign policy. This contest can and should be conducted respectfully and without name-calling, which is something that even an old whacko-bird like me must remember from time to time.

Of course, the stakes of this contest could not be more serious, as we were reminded last week by the terrorist attack in Boston. We are debating matters of life and death. And that is far more important than the future of any political party.

I cannot recall another time when our international challenges have been more complex or more uncertain. The project of European integration is facing existential pressures. The global economy continues its rapid shift toward the Pacific. The rise of China, India, and other great powers is shifting the balance of power in Asia and the world. North Korea and Iran are developing nuclear and missile capabilities that constitute a direct threat to the United States and our allies. The old geopolitical order in the Middle East and North Africa continues to collapse and an epic struggle is underway to define what takes its place. Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists are on the march across the region. And with each passing day, Syria is becoming a failed state with possibly tons of chemical weapons and thousands of al Qaeda-backed fighters.

For all of the threats we face, however, the opportunities that exist in our world are far, far greater. No one benefits more from America's global leadership than Americans ourselves. That is why, for our own economic interests, we must seize the tremendous opportunities before us to expand free and open trade. For our own geopolitical interests, we must deepen the peace between the major powers of the world. And for our own national security interests, we must support friends and potential friends who want to embrace the cause of freedom and democracy.

I know some Americans want to pull back from the world right now. That's a luxury we can't afford. We are America. We can't retreat into splendid isolation. We can't withdraw from the world. We can't escape its challenges. And we can't afford to cut ourselves off from its opportunities. That is not what America does. America leads. And if we don't lead, who will? How will that be better for us?

For all of these reasons, the Republican Party cannot afford to turn away from our proud traditions of internationalism. And let's be clear what that means. Internationalism means active global leadership to shape events in the world to the benefit of our interests and values. It means maintaining a strong defense as the best way to prevent war. It means support for free trade. It means standing by our friends and allies and working to add to their ranks. And above all, it means recognizing that our interests are our values, and our values are our interests.

Now, this doesn't mean there will never be short-term tensions between our interests and our values. There always have been and always will be. America is not an NGO. Nor does internationalism mean that America can or should serve as the world's policeman. It doesn't mean that our power is limitless. And it doesn't mean the answer to every problem is military intervention. No one believes that.

I am a proud internationalist, but I recognize that an internationalist foreign policy is a tough sell in America today, especially among Republicans. And I understand why. Americans are intensely war-weary. And they are tired of bearing the burdens of world leadership when our domestic and economic problems seem far more urgent.

This is leading to a broader political rebalancing. After the September 11 attacks, we embarked on an expansive foreign policy. Spending on defense and foreign assistance went up, and energy shifted to the president. Now things are changing. Americans want a foreign policy contraction. Our foreign assistance and defense budgets are on a steep decline. The desire to curb presidential power is growing, and the political momentum is shifting toward the Congress.

America has gone through this kind of political rebalancing before, and much of the time we have gotten it wrong. That is how we got isolationism and disarmament after World War I. That is how we got a hollow army after Vietnam. And that is how we weakened our national security after the Cold War in the hope of cashing in on a peace dividend. We can't afford to repeat these mistakes. We can't afford to think the world will give us a holiday from history just because we are tired. We can't assume the tide of war will recede just because we wish it so.

Protecting our national security, as always, requires American leadership and an internationalist foreign policy. But the American people today want to do less, not more. So the key question, especially for Republicans like me, is: How do we make internationalism viable and sustainable amid today's political realities?

Right now, the political momentum among Republicans is with those who want to do less -- who want to slash foreign aid, cut defense spending, pull back from the world, and constrain the president. These positions haven't triumphed, but support for them is building. And that support will continue to build among Republicans if the only options they have are a status quo they don't like -- and the politically popular position to cut more, do less, and disengage from the world. It is incumbent upon internationalists like me to offer my fellow Republicans and all Americans a better alternative -- to fashion a new Republican internationalism.

This better alternative would begin with strengthening the domestic sources of our great power. Rebuilding America's confidence and willingness to lead in the world must begin at home. This requires reforming our tax code, fixing our fiscal situation, and getting our economy growing robustly. It requires an aggressive free trade agenda, which we have not had in years. It requires taking advantage of new technologies that could significantly boost America's energy production. It requires the further economic integration of North America, which can enhance our global competitiveness. And of course, it requires comprehensive immigration reform, which a bipartisan group of my colleagues and I introduced yesterday.

A better alternative also requires a more sustainable approach to the fight against terrorism. The war against al Qaeda today is very different than it was 12 years ago. The center of gravity is shifting to al Qaeda-affiliated groups that are now on the march in the Middle East, North Africa, and across the Sahel.

And yet, Republicans are growing more divided on how to combat terrorism. Last month, most Republican senators joined a filibuster to protest the president's policies on the use of armed drones.  Rather than debating the very real dilemmas associated with targeted killings, my colleagues chose to focus instead on the theoretical possibility that the president would use a drone to kill Americans on U.S. soil, even if they are not engaged in hostilities. As misguided as this exercise was, the political pressures on Republicans to join in were significant, and many ultimately did, including many who know better.

But what internationalists like me have to concede is that, while I believe my libertarian friends are wrong in how they wish to change our counterterrorism policy, they are responding to real flaws and uncertainties in that policy. This is why these critics, misguided though they are, now have the political initiative. And that's why our current approach to counterterrorism is becoming unsustainable.

Republican internationalists have to take the lead in developing a better alternative. We need to put our counterterrorism policy on a new political and legal foundation in order to make it politically sustainable over the years to come. I believe this requires legislation. Since this conflict began, the Congress has at times enshrined in statute the principles and practices by which America will wage this war. We did this with the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Acts of 2006 and 2009. Now the Congress must act again.

We need to update the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress passed on September 14, 2001, to account for the evolving threat we face. We need to enshrine in law the principles that must govern the conduct of this war, both by this president and his successors, especially on the use of armed drones. We need to preserve but clarify the commander in chief's war powers, while insisting on greater transparency and broader congressional oversight of how these war powers are employed. In the coming weeks, I plan to work with a bipartisan group of my Senate colleagues to introduce legislation to achieve these and other goals.

We also need to create a better alternative on national defense. The effects of sequestration are every bit as catastrophic as our military leaders warned. Entire air wings are being grounded. Soldiers are training without bullets. The deployment of an aircraft carrier has been cancelled. And a new readiness crisis is emerging.

What's worse, the effects of sequestration come on top of defense budgets that were already flattening and legacy costs that are rapidly escalating. So the Defense Department is not only receiving less money; it is getting less value out of the money it is receiving. The net effect of this fiscal pressure is that we are at risk of crippling our military and harming its ability to meet our strategic priorities.

These consequences are increasingly acute for the effort to rebalance our national security strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region. There is broad agreement that this must be a top priority. As the balance of power that has maintained peace in the region for seven decades now shifts in profound ways, the United States must maintain a military presence in the region that reassures our friends and allies and safeguards our own core economic and security interests. This will not be possible if our prioritization of Asia simply means that U.S. Pacific Command gets the largest piece of a drastically shrinking pie. That will lead to a hollow rebalance.

But here, too, we have to acknowledge an inconvenient fact: Sequestration has occurred, in part, because a growing public frustration with the culture of waste and inefficiency at the Defense Department went unaddressed for too long. During my time in the Senate, I have witnessed the emergence of a military-industrial-congressional complex that has corrupted and crippled the defense acquisition process. This system can now be said to be successful only in one respect: turning billions of taxpayer dollars into weapons systems that are consistently delivered late, flawed, and vastly over budget -- if, that is, these systems are delivered at all.

For example, there was the Expeditionary Combat Support System, which the Air Force had to cancel last year after wasting roughly $1 billion and receiving no combat capability. The Littoral Combat Ship already costs nearly twice as much per ship as planned. A recent study found that, from 2004 to 2010, cancelled programs consumed an average of 35-45 percent of the Army's annual budget for development, testing, and engineering. The Joint Strike Fighter, which will become the first trillion-dollar weapon system in history, is being purchased before being tested, which drives up costs enormously. And the system is still not fully proven. These chronic cost overruns even extend to our military basing: The estimated cost of realigning U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific region had nearly tripled before the Senate Armed Services Committee intervened and effectively demanded a new plan.

If Republican internationalists want to save our military from the sequester, and future sequesters, we will have to demand a lot more from the Defense Department. This means insisting that they "buy smart" -- focusing their limited resources on systems and services that promise a return on investment. It means ensuring that the Defense Department is as good at buying defense programs as industry is at selling them. It means encouraging real competition for contracts, setting realistic program goals, and managing them aggressively in ways that encourage innovation and productivity. It means making hard, unpopular choices to limit the spiraling growth of personnel and health care costs that are devouring the defense budget. And on overseas military force posture, it means moving away from expensive permanent basing arrangements in favor of less costly rotational deployments, possibly co-located in host nation facilities. Absent real changes like these, public pressure will only build to cut defense more and more.

We face a similar challenge with our foreign assistance. It now seems that every piece of legislation the Senate considers faces an inevitable amendment that would cut off all of our assistance to Egypt or some other critical country. And unfortunately, these kinds of provisions keep winning more and more votes.

Yes, we internationalists have to continue explaining how foreign assistance serves our national security interests. And yes, we have to continue reminding people that we spend far less on foreign aid than most assume -- roughly 1 percent of our budget. But just as with defense spending, we also have to acknowledge a similar inconvenient fact here as well. Though the critics who want to slash our foreign aid are wrong, they are winning the political argument because they have a point: These programs have not always delivered a good return on investment to American taxpayers, and some of them are misaligned with present realities.

Take our assistance to Egypt, which is a popular target in Congress these days. A quarter of the Arab world lives in Egypt. Its future will have a significant influence on the future of the Middle East, including the security of Israel. It is for good reason that Egypt remains one of the top recipients of our foreign assistance. But in the aftermath of Egypt's revolution, its security challenges have changed significantly. Egypt greatest threats are increasingly unconventional, such as al Qaeda affiliated terrorists, insecure borders, and instability in the Sinai. And yet, most of our $1.3 billion in annual security assistance to Egypt goes to conventional defense systems, such as F-16s and M-1 tanks. It is getting harder to make the case for assistance to Egypt in large part because our programs seem out of step with our priorities.

Here, too, Republican internationalists have to do more than just plead our case; we have to offer a better alternative. Some in Congress want to put political conditions on our security assistance to Egypt. I don't believe that works. If it is in our national security interest to provide that assistance, we will. And if we have to waive our own conditions to do so, it only makes us look weak and unprincipled.

A better approach would be for Congress to put conditions on our own government -- to clearly state our goals, interests, and values, and require strategies for achieving them. This approach could be applicable to any country. But in the case of Egypt, it would mean temporarily withholding our security assistance until we get a strategy for redirecting more of our money toward military cooperation that prioritizes unconventional threats. It would also mean temporarily withholding our economic assistance until we get a new strategy for how our government will use this money to further our interest in a democratic and prosperous Egypt. This is the approach I proposed during consideration of the Continuing Resolution. And I am working now with some of my colleagues to turn these ideas into legislation.

Ultimately, to build political support for foreign assistance, internationalists have to do a better job of ensuring a positive return on these investments. We must be able to show the American people that while foreign aid may not make its recipients love us, it does further our national interests and values. And one priority I would propose in this respect is security sector reform in the broader Middle East.

Across this region, we see new democracies that lack the capacity to secure their territory, respond to threats, and enforce the rule of law. Egypt needs a new police force. Tunisia needs help with border security. Libya is trying to build a new national security force from scratch. These governments, and others like them, don't want al Qaeda affiliated groups exploiting their countries any more than we do. They have a lot of will to resist these groups. They just need help with the means.

If these countries want our assistance to reform or rebuild their security sectors, I believe it is in our interest to provide it -- because if their governments cannot address the threats in their own countries, we will suffer. It will just be a matter of time. It is far better to be able to rely on partners that can address these threats themselves. But for them to be more effective, our partners need our help.

Of course, there will always be those rare cases when speaking up for friends or even offering them our assistance isn't good enough -- when our core interests and values summon us to act more directly ourselves. I believe that is the case today in Syria, a tragic conflict that has been made all the more dangerous by the Assad regime's recent use of chemical weapons, which the U.S. intelligence community and some of our closest allies now assess has occurred.

I believe that the longer this conflict goes, the worse it gets from both a moral and strategic standpoint. I believe that with every passing day, we have less ability to shape outcomes on the ground that serve our interests. I understand the situation in Syria is hugely complicated, and that there are no easy or ideal options. But I also believe the choice we face is not complicated at all: Do the costs of inaction outweigh the costs of action? I believe they do. And as much as I hate war and wish to avoid it, I believe this conflict will grind on with all of its worsening effects until the balance of power shifts more decisively against Assad.

No one should think that we have to destroy every air defense system or put tens of thousands of boots on the ground to make a difference in Syria. We have more limited options. We could, for example, organize an overt and large-scale operation to train and equip Syrian opposition forces that have been properly vetted. We could use our precision strike capabilities to target Assad's aircraft and Scud missile launchers on the ground without our pilots having to fly into the teeth of Syria's air defenses. We could use similar weapons to selectively destroy artillery pieces and make their crews think twice about remaining at their posts. We could also use Patriot missile batteries outside of Syria to help protect safe zones inside of Syria.

Would any of this immediately end the conflict? Probably not. But would it save innocent lives in Syria? Would it help us regain the trust of the Syrian people? Would it give the moderate opposition a better chance to succeed, and to marginalize the radicals, and to be in a better position to provide security in Syria on the day after Assad falls? To me, the answer to all of these questions is yes.

I know that when times are tough here at home, as they are now, idealism in foreign policy is a tough sell. And I know the Iraq war still casts a long shadow over this debate. All of us, Republicans most of all, must learn the painful lessons that Iraq teaches us about prudence, and humility, and the limitations of our power. We must also acknowledge that we won the war and are losing the peace. However, we cannot allow ourselves to be so haunted by the ghosts of Iraq that we are rendered incapable of taking action where our interests and our values most demand it. Nor can we allow the disappointment, thus far, of our highest hopes for Iraq to make us numb and cynical about the moral purposes of American power.

America will not be able to play a role in every struggle on behalf of human rights and democracy in the world. But that cannot be an argument for playing little to no role at all. That is not what I believe the brave souls across this world who still long for freedom and dignity want from America. I've spoken with many of them in refugee camps, prisons, universities, polling stations, and other places. They are still confident in us. They are still counting on us. They still have faith in America. What they want to know is whether America still has faith in itself.

From Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, Republican internationalists have affirmed that the expansion of freedom, and democracy, and prosperity not only makes our world more just, but also more secure. We have affirmed that America must stand up for people who share our values because it is right -- but also because we have an interest in seizing opportunities to make more friends and fewer enemies, and to shape conditions in the world that allow our citizens to live in peace and freedom at home. That is what Republicans must reaffirm now -- for when our values are in retreat in the world, our interests are usually not safe either.

I am a loyal Republican, and I care deeply about the future of my party. But the future of my country will always be more important. Right now, the far left and the far right in America are coming together in favor of pulling us back from the world. The president and I have had our differences. Many of those differences will persist. But there are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my own party.

It is incumbent upon the internationalists in this country, both Republicans and Democrats, to join together to sustain America's global leadership amid our current political realities. Republican internationalists must do our part. But we will never succeed without presidential leadership. We internationalists need the president to speak to the American people, to shape their thinking about the world, to explain why the benefits of our global leadership are worth the costs, and to help us sustain a bipartisan consensus in favor of a new American internationalism.

This should be a Republican goal. It should be a Democratic goal. And so long as I have the privilege and honor to serve my country, it will remain my goal.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

National Security

Brief Interviews with Hideous Terrorists

What it's like to sit and talk with jihadists, neo-Nazis, and lone-wolf killers.

A few times, I have felt myself in the presence of true evil. At those times, I learned what it means to have the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It's not just an expression. It happened to me when I met with a leader who recruited cannon fodder for his "jihad," and on a few other occasions in the last couple decades that I've spent interviewing terrorists to learn why they do what they do. But, more often, the evil I've witnessed has been banal. I have found myself able to understand the mistaken moral logic that can turn a boy into a terrorist.

Here's a surprising thing. Almost everywhere -- in Pakistan, in Indonesia, in Texas -- terrorists offer you tea. Sometimes a full meal.

Otherwise, they are quite different from one another. Their motivations vary -- from irredentism, to pleasing the God they claim to worship, to cleansing the Earth of the mud-people that contaminate the world of purity in their minds. Some live in war zones with grievances that are easy for outsiders to grasp; for others, living in the cushy West, the war that is taking place is principally in their own minds, often over identity. Some are paid, some are blackmailed. Some are recruited, and some recruit themselves to their own holy war, whether at home or far away.

That latter seems to be what happened with Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who, according to the latest reporting, recruited themselves to their own "jihad" against America, based, in part, on their opposition to the U.S. role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When it comes to understanding -- and stopping -- these kinds of leaderless resisters and small cells, we need to understand how terrorists think as individuals. Political science does not get us there. Leaderless resistance and lone-wolf terrorism is also about personalities and personal experience. Lone wolves and small groups may have commonalities, but we won't know that until we talk to enough of them. That is more art than science -- and the results, as investigators are now finding with Dzhokhar, can be as baffling as they are illuminating.

Last summer, I interviewed a neo-Nazi who had killed two police officers in a botched attempt to rob a bank to raise money for the movement. He was also a mercenary, convicted of war crimes in Bosnia. He fought on the Croatian side, he said, because he was attracted to the fascist ideology of the Ustashi, the Croatian Revolutionary Movement aligned with the Nazis during World War II. Although he is now serving a life sentence in a high-security prison, he is particular about whom he will meet with. Before agreeing to talk to me, he insisted on reading my last two books, one of which is about terrorism. The other is about my own rape, when I was 15. I was uncomfortable giving him my last book. I don't like the idea of being a character in a terrorist's mind. But that was the bargain we had struck, and I stuck with it.

The prison authorities gave me two hours to interview him the first day, four hours the second. I was not allowed to tape the interview. I was not even allowed to bring my own pen into the prison, in case I had a miniature weapon or recording devices hidden inside it. I had to switch pens with the guard.

I was not allowed to bring my own water or food into the prison, so, on the day of our first interview, he brought me tea from the prisoner's dining area. The second day, he also brought ham sandwiches. It's hard to talk to a person like this for four hours straight without sustenance. And besides, I wanted to accept what he was offering me -- this is how rapport is built. I must see the humanity in the murderer, something very uncomfortable to do. But one of the sandwiches on the tray he had prepared for us had a perfect half-moon bite taken out of the ham. I chose another, apparently unbitten one. I tried not to imagine him spitting in it. I had the sense he wanted to contaminate me with what he feels, a coldness in him.

He made sure to bring my rape into the room. He was born the year I was raped, he told me, right at the outset, in what I thought was a move to establish dominance. I was okay with granting him that dominance for the six hours we were together. There was a cord I could pull, the guards told me, in case of emergency. We'll all come running, they said. I would not have made it as far as that cord if the neo-Nazi wanted to hurt me. But somehow, I knew he wanted to talk to me a lot more than he wanted to kill me. I believe he wanted some kind of absolution.

Here is the unspoken bargain between the terrorists and me: I make myself vulnerable and they will not harm me. I must strive not to reveal fear, and to trust that they won't hurt me, despite their machismo and manufactured rage. And they, in turn, will consider telling me the truth, but only half-truths. That is our bargain.

The neo-Nazi told me that he loves killing people. He also told me, "All terrorists are like me.  They come up with an ideology to justify killing, but the desire to kill comes first." I do not accept his theory of terrorism, but I did not argue with him. He admitted to having tortured animals as a child, but he seemed somewhat ashamed, as if he knew that I might conclude he is a psychopath. He did not want to tell me how many people he had killed, but he said there were a lot. He had also tortured prisoners held at a camp in Bosnia and confessed he was frustrated that he didn't get the same pleasure out of torturing people that he did out of killing them.

While an interview like this is underway, I have to force judgment out of my mind. Something happens in the room that makes it possible for the killer to speak. I am pure curiosity. It's genuine, not faked. I follow the killer's logic and emotions so closely that my own logic, my own emotions, are temporarily at bay. So curious about the story, I can evacuate myself of ordinary feeling. Afterwards, they feel better. They often invite me back. Sometimes they write me letters.

But it costs me. When I'm able to tape the interview, it often takes me months to work up the courage to listen. After the interview with the neo-Nazi who loves to kill, I had to take a sauna. And a steam bath. And bathe in a pool. It took weeks, after that interview, for me to feel fully human again, as if I had joined the neo-Nazi in another reality and it took great effort to come back to earth.

But most of the terrorists I've talked to do not tell me they love to kill. Sometimes, I confess, I cannot help feeling sorry for them.

On my first trip to Lahore, in 1999, members of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba agreed to talk with me. It was the first time I had met any mujahideen. Two of them came to my hotel. The older one wore an elephant-gray shalwar and kameez, wrinkled in the humidity like slept-in pajamas, over a colossal frame. Traditional Pakistani slippers, with turned-up pointy toes and mirrors, gave his feet an incongruously elfin look. He walked heavily, ostentatiously relaxed. His hands, which were soft and brown, looked big enough to crush me with a single swat.

It was the younger one, a new recruit, that got to me. He was beautiful. Slim, but strong-looking, with luminous skin and clear, intelligent eyes. He had the obligatory beard of a fundamentalist, but it was neatly trimmed, as if he were having trouble giving up some of the habits of privilege. He wore a hand-embroidered, stark-white shalwar, perfectly pressed. His English was refined. Right away it seemed to me he was specially chosen to meet with me, to make it seem as if the group were populated with boys like him.

The two of them came to see me to determine whether it was safe for their leader, their emir, to meet with me, or if I was there on behalf of India's intelligence agency, perhaps to murder him. "As a result of their inspection, they have determined that you work for the CIA," my guide would later inform me, seemingly bemused. "Anyway, it's okay; they are flattered if the CIA is interested in them," he says.

"How did they decide that I'm not planning to assassinate your leader?" I asked.

"It is obvious," he says. "You can tell a person's character by looking in her eyes. You have innocence in your eyes."

I often recall this conversation. I no longer believe that character can be discerned by visual inspection, having met so many innocent-looking people capable of such horror, and this feels like a terrible loss. I also wonder whether I still have innocence in my eyes, after talking with so many killers.

Once I passed their test, they drove me to Muridke, where the headquarters of Lashkar is located. In the car I talked with the young man, who told me I should call him Ahmed, a nom de guerre.  He told me he had a master's degree in engineering and that he was doing computer work for Lashkar.

I asked how he came to join the LeT. "I came to Islam intellectually. I read a lot. I realized that the Islamic way of life is the best way of life."

"A single event can turn your life around. That is what happened to me," he added, without specifying what that event was.

"Are you going to be fighting in Kashmir?" I asked, Kashmir being the focus of many Pakistani jihadi groups at the time. "The emir decides who goes to fight. He decides each person's role in the struggle. He has not selected me to fight," Ahmed admitted.

I sensed that he did not want me to see his disappointment. He was a good boy, determined to follow his superiors' orders, not only in action, but also in spirit. He told me he planned to pursue a doctorate so that he could help Lashkar with technology. I kept thinking of his mother, how heartbroken she must be that her son had gotten radicalized. I do not usually share my own views with determined terrorists, but in this case, I tried to talk Ahmed into leaving the group.

I did not succeed. Two years later I discovered that Ahmed's emir had granted his wish to fight in Kashmir. He was killed soon afterwards.  

Ahmed's story was tragic but not uncommon for young men recruited by well-established terrorist groups like Lashkar. More distinctive are the motivations of the so-called lone wolves -- terrorists who operate with little or no guidance, as the Tsarnaevs seem to have. They each have their own unique blend of grievances and hopes for redressing them.

In 1999, I met perhaps the first of the lone wolves fighting a perceived jihad against America: Mir Aimal Kansi, a Pakistani resident of Virginia, who in 1993 had shot and killed two CIA officers and wounded three others. Kansi had spent most of his time in the United States inside the Pakistani immigrant community in Northern Virginia. He rented rooms from expatriates and worked for their companies. But he never really found his way. His acquaintances would later describe him as socially awkward.

Kansi had had a difficult childhood. He was described by relatives as brooding and introspective, the loner in the family. He suffered from a seizure disorder as a child, but recovered by the time he was 10 years old. After Aimal's mother died in 1982, he became even more isolated, his relatives said.

Kansi explained to me that he attacked the CIA for both religious and political reasons. He opposed U.S. policy toward Israel and was angry that U.S. troops had persisted in "attacking Iraq" after Iraqi troops had withdrawn from Kuwait in 1991. He said that American policies were "anti-Islamic" worldwide.

He told me that he went to the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan to practice shooting. He had spent a lot of time there, he told me. But although he professed to know members of Harkat-ul-Ansar, Hizbul-ul-Mujahideen, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, he never joined any of what he called "big groups." He told me his favorite book was Macbeth and the person he most admired was Osama bin Laden, because "he stands up for all Muslims."

Eventually it emerged that for Kansi, attacking the CIA was partly a "religious duty," as he put it, but also retaliation for something about the way he felt that the CIA had treated him, or his father, or both. According to Pakistani officials interviewed by American reporters, not only Kansi's father, but also Kansi himself may have had a relationship with the CIA. A Pakistani intelligence official told a writer for the New Yorker, "Abdullah Jan, at least one of his cousins and two of his sons, including Aimal, were an integral part of the CIA-ISI weapons pipeline to the mujahideen."

Soon after the interview he started writing me letters, further explicating his positions -- and inviting me to become a Muslim.

In one response, I asked him what he would have done if his mother had asked him not to proceed with his murderous plans. "If my mother would have been alive, she would have got me married and I would have never been in the U.S. I would have been living in the Pakistan with my mother and wife," Kansi said.

He was executed by lethal injection on November 14, 2002.

What can one make of this mix of extreme alienation, an attraction to terrorist ideology, a lack of desire (or capacity) to join an organized terrorist group, combined with a desire for revenge for perceived wrongs, some of which appear to be personal? Kansi operated on his own with few if any communications with a known terrorist group. The form of terrorism he practiced was new at the time -- but was soon facilitated greatly by the growth of the Internet.

One of the things I've learned from interviewing terrorists is that we cannot necessarily infer individuals' motives by reading their manifestos. Our conversations usually start with a recitation of their political or religious motivations, but it's the personal history that made them vulnerable to the narrative they spin. After all, in targeting innocents, they are almost always violating their own religious traditions and societal norms. There has to be some reason, beyond their political grievances, that they are willing to kill innocents, rather than using less violent means to change their world. Once you get past the politics, there is something they tend to share: They know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are; there is no gray in their world. And there is often a theme: humiliation, disaffection, or confusion about their identity. While terrorists have much in common, every alienated lone wolf, it would seem, is alienated in his own way.

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