What makes a terrorist?

    If you’ve ever wondered what makes somebody willing to strap explosives around his chest and detonate them for a cause, you should listen to my Fresh Air interview today with Ken Ballen.

    He’s a former prosecutor and congressional investigator who founded a non-profit called Terror Free Tomorrow, which does research on the causes of extremism. Over the past five years, Ballen has interviewed more than 100 Islamic radicals – some reformed, including a disfigured survivor of his own suicide attack – and some still very much committed to jihad.

    He tells the story of six of them in his new book, Terrorist in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals.

    There’s no single epiphany of understanding here, but the personal stories of the jihadists are fascinating. It’s striking how young most are when they decide to become soldiers of god, and how American policy blunders have fueled the growth of militant Islam.

    Ballen has a fascinating description of a special prison in Saudi Arabia called the Care Center, which is devoted to re-educating jihadists. When authorities decide an inmate is truly reformed, many are released with a generous gift – thousands of dollars for a dowry, so they can marry and become productive, or at least harmless citizens.

    With Ballen’s interview on today’s show is an interview by David Bianculli with Howard Gordon, co-creator of the new Showtime series Homeland, which deals with issues of terror and counterterrorism also.

    You can hear Fresh Air at 3 and 7 on 91FM. If you’re listening outside the Philadelphia area, find a station here. And you can always listen, get a podcast, or learn more at the Fresh Air website.

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