KSG Terror Sleuth Publishes Interviews With Extremists

Kennedy School of Government Lecturer on Public Policy Jessica Stern has sat face-to-face with some of the most dangerous and elusive religious extremists and terrorists.

Now Stern—who served as the inspiration for the character played by Nicole Kidman in the 1997 film The Peacemaker about nuclear-weapons terrorism—has penned a book that attempts to answer fears surrounding the current debate about American national security. Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill is based on years of conversations with extremists and her research into international terrorism and reaches out to a popular audience.

The book was conceived while she was researching her last work, The Ultimate Terrorists. Instead of studying her subjects from afar, Stern decided to actually call some of the individuals who had tried to obtain chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. What she found was a startling perspective on the mystery surrounding religious militants.

“One of my first conversations was with a man who had been involved in an identity Christian cult. I was curious as to how a person who was so deeply religious could be involved in a cult that did such horrible things,” Stern recalls.

Within each chapter of Terror in the Name of God, Stern delves into the fusion of religion and terrorism in the modern world.

“I think that people who get involved in religious terror often start out with an interest in violence. But I also think that religion is susceptible to abuse,” she says. “I see religion as having two sides. One, the spiritual side that has to do with a person’s communion with the divine. The second side has to do with collective identity—often a collective identity in opposition to others.”

This connection between spiritual extremists and terror is both a sensitive and complicated one to relate to popular audiences.

But Stern, under the direction of famed editor Jason Epstein, tried to conquer this challenge by simply letting the words of the extremists stand for themselves and leaving actual interviews in the text.

“When I went to a commercial publisher, they didn’t push me to cater to the masses; they pushed me to become a better writer.” Stern says.

Terror in the Name of God still contains all the analytical force of Stern’s last book, but contains a more accessible discussion on the why and how of terror and religious extremist acts, focusing on modern changes in terrorist methods and leadership.

As a former member of the White House’s National Security Council and the founder of the Nuclear Smuggling Group within the council, Stern has had a close eye on the culture of terrorism from the mid-nineties. Stern says that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 created a “revolution in perception,” rather than an actual revolution in the way terror groups actually operate in the world.

“9-11, although it was deeply shocking and emotionally distressing, wasn’t exactly ‘surprising,’” she says. “It was really an evolution from what we’ve seen before.”

Stern has been very vocal in communicating her opinions on the current war on terrorism. She has written dozens of articles on terror groups, nuclear and chemical weapons policy, and the current tensions between the United States and the Middle East. Her op-ed article “How America Created a Terrorist Haven,” which appeared last month in the New York Times, expounded upon the viewpoint that current policies have actually created an environment ripe for growing terrorist activity.

In all her writings, Stern gives ample warning to guard against a rhetoric of panic.

“I believe that attacking Iraq without international support played into the terrorists’ goal of portraying the United States as a hegemonic nation that only cares about its own affairs and not about Muslims,” she says.

Stern’s approach is more calm than reactionary. She advocates the inclusion of all parties in discussions of global terror and difference of belief.