Q&A with Loretta Napoleoni: The ever-changing face of terrrorism

Posted by: Shanna Carpenter


At TEDGlobal, Loretta Napoleoni gave a fascinating talk on her exclusive opportunity to speak with members of the secretive Italian terrorist group, the Red Brigades, and the startling insight she’s gained over decades of studying the economics of terrorism. Before her talk posted, she chatted with the TEDBlog and shared a little more of her unusual knowledge of the world of terrorism.

The direct interactions you had with the Red Brigades were fascinating. Since that time, have you had that kind of direct interaction with other terrorist groups?

Oh, yes. I wrote a book on Iraq. In fact, it’s called Insurgent Iraq: Al-Zarqawi and the New Generation. To write that book, which came out in 2005, I actually interviewed members of the Al-Zarqawi group. These were people who were very close to insiders in Iraq. I interviewed people in Amman, and some of them had met him before when he was growing up, some of them had met in prison, and it all helped me to get an idea of his personality. I also interviewed people in Spain who came mostly from Syria and they were part of the Salafi movement, which was also close to this group.

Of course, these interviews were conducted in a different way from the Red Brigades interviews. I interviewed the Red Brigades when their armed struggle was finished, so I did those interviews in prison. Obviously, the atmosphere was very different because I had a legal kind of access. I was allowed inside the prison where I was allowed to talk to them, whereas the interviews with the Al-Zarqawi group were done in secret, often through an intermediary who also was a translator. A lot of interviews were conducted by email.

The interesting thing is that there was a sort of personality profile that became evident. Now, I am not saying that there is one single type of individual who is a better type of terrorist than another. What I am saying is that the circumstances that push certain individuals over the edge, to become terrorists, are generally very, very similar. There are of course, people that resist this kind of temptation and people that don’t. I found a lot of similarity between Al-Zarqawi and his inner group and some members of the Red Brigades, for example. That, from a psychological point of view is very interesting.

Now, a lot of armed organizations will talk to me, and I have had contact with others in a less detailed and in-depth context. Once you have been allowed to discuss certain issues with one armed organization, then a sort of trust is built, and so other armed organizations will talk to you.

In order to establish trust, did you sometimes have to withhold information? Essentially, are there things you know that you can’t tell the world?

Not really, because they will never tell you anything that they shouldn’t tell you. The interviews are always conducted about issues that belong to the past or that are already known. They’ll never tell you confidential information, because they don’t know you.

Also, I wouldn’t ask these kinds of questions. I would never ask, “Did you actually mastermind the bombing of the Amman hotels in 2005?” I would never do that, because that would put me in a very awkward situation. I’m more interested in the way they actually operate and also in the root causes and ideology of their group. They’re very happy to talk about that. They want to tell you why they’re doing what they’re doing.

I never met one single member of an armed organization that was a psychopath, somebody that really wanted to kill for the pleasure of killing or somebody that was motivated only by vengeance. I never met anybody like that. There was always a very strong political background, and this is what they want to talk to you about.

Another TED speaker, Diane Benscoter, talks about her time in a cult and there are moments when you are talking about the people who make good terrorists that sound very similar to what she describes when talking about people who make good cult members. Do you see similarities here as well?

Yes. I think generally the heads of terrorist groups are very, very smart people. They’re also great manipulators. I would presume that cult leaders are identical. These sort of individuals are very strong, they have very strong charisma.

I have a story that I think is very interesting from this psychological perspective. While I was interviewing the Red Brigades, I met this guy who had learned how to paint in jail and showed me a few of his paintings. The paintings were beautiful. You looked at the paintings and couldn’t believe that the person who did them had also killed people. There was a certain kind of sensitivity, there was also a certain kind of peaceful message in these paintings. So, I became interested and spoke a lot with him, and I found him to be an incredibly gentle person. You would not have believed that this guy was actually a terrorist. Then, later on, I met somebody else from his specific group, recruited more or less at the same time, and this other member of the Red Brigades told me that everybody within that group knew that this guy had been lured into terrorism by the leader of that region. The leader of that region was a very charismatic individual and he realized that that guy was easily manipulated, and he used him.

It was quite a sad story from the human point of view. The life of this individual was now completely destroyed, because he had to spend over twenty years in jail when he really is, basically a non-violent individual. Later on, he realized that. He realized his mistakes and he told me, “If I could go back, I would never do what I did again.” Now, very few of them actually said that.


Oh, absolutely. Most of them won’t say that at all.

So, the ideology is so strong for most members that they don’t regret violent behavior?

Well, I don’t think it’s the ideology. I think that anybody can become a terrorist. That’s my point of view. But, not everybody can actually kill. In order to reach that level, you have to be deeply convinced. So very few people — even when they give up the armed struggle, end up in jail or whatever and abandon that part of their life — very few question their position, because if they did their lives would be totally destroyed.

Now the individual I was speaking about from the Red Brigades was a particularly gentle and sensitive individual. I think he could have been easily manipulated by his sect. All he wanted was to be part of something, to belong to something, to be accepted by the others. He found a way to achieve all of these goals, and it happened to be the Red Brigades. It could have been anything. It could have been any sect that fulfilled these goals for him.

What are some of the most economically powerful terrorist groups in the world today and what are some of the traits they have in common?

Well, today I think the most powerful group is the Taliban. Al Qaeda is also very powerful, but the Taliban is slowly but surely taking back Afghanistan, so that there is now a sort of mix that exists there of both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Another very powerful group is the Colombian FARC, which has merged with the Colombian cartel.

The new type of terrorist we’re seeing today is a terrorist that is linked to narcotics traffickers, and whose primary source of economic power is actually narcotics. That’s different from 9/11. You see, before 9/11 it was very different because you had somebody like Osama Bin Laden, who was very wealthy and had sponsors — he had money diverted from the Gulf to fund Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda was born in the 1980s, a sort of offspring of the first mujahideen. There was a different history there, and funding primarily came from sponsors or people who were a part of the organization and who were very wealthy. Today, we’re dealing with a completely different animal. Now, we have this mix of classic criminal behavior and terrorism and that is actually quite dangerous. These guys are not only fighting for an ideal or to achieve a certain goal, but also to maintain a certain kind of economy within the criminal economy. This also makes them harder and harder to track down.

The day that the Taliban manages to re-conquer Afghanistan, hypothetically, they are not going to become something different. And now, they are criminals and not only in the sense of being terrorists. That is a degeneration of the criminal and terrorist models, linked of course to globalization, that I think is going to make things much worse in the future.

READ MORE: Loretta Napoleoni discusses the funding of Hezbollah, revolutionary ways to counteract terrorism and her lifelong fascination with political violence. Do you think that there’s a difference between groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda and groups like Hezbollah and Hamas that seem to be a little bit more localized?

No. I don’t think there’s a huge difference. I think that Hezbollah and Hamas are not in a situation where crime and narcotics can sustain them 100 percent, but there are links with crime and narcotics. For example, we know that cocaine now comes from Colombia or Venezuela, is flown to West Africa and from there is distributed to Europe in various ways. One way is inland, and inland traffic is controlled by Nigerian organized crime, and part of this business is handled by groups that report to Hezbollah. These are primarily criminal groups who are part of the diaspora of Lebanon — there are a lot of Lebanese living in West Africa.

Why would criminal groups fund the Hezbollah? Because they’re all part of the same world. The diaspora in West Africa is not so interested in what is happening back home. They’re not planning to come back home. But, it’s a bit like supporting a football team — this is what I’m going to support because I’m Lebanese and I don’t want this government in place. I send the money because Hezbollah are my people.

In reality, when you look at the religious principles that the members of Hezbollah say they aspire to, they all condemn criminal behavior. Yet, everybody is doing it. You see the contradiction? I think because you can make money so quickly through crime, because crime pays so well, you end up becoming a criminal and using part of this money to support your family, which in a way are the Hezbollah in Lebanon. This is the chain.

It really is scary. Terrorists are changing tactics almost daily. What I said in July at TED is only valid today up to a certain point, because so much has changed even since then. And, we’re not really doing anything. We’re failing to understand the connections, in part because it is quite complex. But, I think we’re also failing to understand the connections because we don’t want to see them, because they are too scary and too close to home.

What are some steps that you think we should be taking to help counteract terrorism, economically or otherwise?

First of all, I want to note again, that whatever I say today about this will be different in six months. But, I will say that I think that one of the first things that should be done today to fight terrorism is to stop considering it a threat to national security, because it’s not. None of these organizations have the power to destroy a state. If we did this, it would bring terrorism back to the domain of crime. This would solve many problems. For example, right now the US is attempting to bring the people imprisoned at Guantanamo to trial, but this is a legal nightmare — they’ve created a monster and now they don’t know how to get rid of it. So that is the first step.

The second step is to look at where the funds are coming from, and for sure narcotics today is one of, if not the most important source of revenue. So, I would legalize drugs. I know that this is never going to happen. I sit on so many committees on this issue and I can tell you that the world’s experts on narcotics, every single one, in private will tell you, “Yes, that’s the solution. We legalize drugs, we control the drugs, we tax them and we make sure that those who are being supported by drug revenue don’t get that money anymore.” But, the real issue is the moral issue. Which government is going to tell its citizens that it’s going to legalize drugs because this is the only way to create a safer world? They’ve used the argument that drugs destroy society for so long. This would require a completely different worldview and approach to politics. However, it would cut out a lot of these illegal revenues and therefore a lot of crime.

The third step would be to interrupt the funding. We know that money goes from the Gulf regularly to fund the Taliban. We know that money goes to Afghanistan and to Pakistan. We know that India is also involved. There’s a lot of state-sponsored terrorism going on and we know that. So, if we really wanted to inconvenience terrorists then we would denounce these kinds of relationships. But again, that would put the foreign policy of the United States and Europe on a completely different foot, and it’s not going to happen. So, I think in the long run, at least in Central Asia, I think China will intervene. You see, the latest is that the narcotics traffickers that are in business with the Taliban are targeting China as a new primary market.

In your TEDTalk, you explain that you changed your life completely to study terrorism. Do you ever regret this decision?

Well, I know that this is what I was meant to do. This is me. But, I’m a very strange person. I’ve always been very interested in political violence. When I finished high school, I did a small dissertation about political violence and fascism in Italy. I feel fulfilled because I feel like this is what I am meant to do.

But, sometimes I do wish I were a more normal person and that I was ignorant of these things, because it’s very depressing knowledge. It’s also very depressing to meet these people and see their humanity. Most people are able to live their lives with an understanding of the world that is basically black and white, but I have learned to see it in infinite shades of gray.

Comments (3)

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  • saks . commented on Jan 18 2010

    eye opener!

    • Anil K Gupta commented on Feb 7 2010

      i am intrigued by the complete absence on the discussion about justice, fairness and other such social issues while describing terrorists. To see terrorists only as ideological extremists is to miss the point that evolution of a dissenter into violent terrorist does not take place in one day. We should look into the social cleavages ina given region, look for multiple motivations and not fall for simple description as charisma of leader and innocent people falling for his charm. This is naive. I admire author’s courage and also effort to understand the roots of terrorism. But then one should not commit mistake like Indian government is doing now, to see this problem is mere a law and order problem rather than that of inertia, injustice and indifference towards the problems of poor. i wrote a an article on Innovation Insurgent, one can find it on web or http://www.sristi.org/anilg to argue that we should harness the anger–the most precious resource of our times for larger social good.