The Psychology of Apocalyptic Hostage Takers

Nairobi mall attackThe slaughter perpetrated by members of the al-Shabaab terrorist organization in the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi left approximately 67 innocent people dead. While the ramifications of this incident are still being investigated, the crisis generated by a small unit of a radical Islamist militia is in itself instrumental in highlighting the psychology of those who may be considered as apocalyptic hostage takers.

The Dubrovka Theater in late October 2002, a public school in Beslan in September 2004 or the Westgate Mall in September 2013 are all tragedies that led to the same conclusions. While Chechens holding spectators hostage in an Opera House, Arab foreign fighters massacring children in their classrooms and Africans killing shoppers in the middle of a random day may have nothing directly linking them, their modus operandi and especially the psychology behind their actions establish a direct bridge between those diverse groups of Islamic terrorists.

The concept of apocalyptic hostage takers may be defined by three key aspects intrinsic to the crises mentioned above. The first and most straight-forward point is the choice of targets that, in this case, represent the terrorists’ will to destroy the key to intellectual and social life of a world they do not understand and cannot integrate into. The second aspect stemming from the choice of targets is the need to destroy life in its most natural form. For this, Islamist hostage takers do not simply torture and kill but also express no willingness to live. The last notion central to this idea of apocalyptic hostage taking is that Islamist terrorists see the process of leading dozens of innocent people to death as an irrational spiritual experience linking the group of self-proclaimed righteous to the early followers of the Muslim prophet Mohamed.

The first step necessary for understanding the nihilistic and apocalyptic vision of the world present in the hostage takers’ minds is the analysis of the objectives chosen by the Islamist terrorists for their attacks. In the fall of 2002, approximately 50 armed elements of the Riyad As Salahideen took control of the Moscow Dubrovka theater. The hostage taking of hundreds of innocent spectators during a representation of the Nord-Ost opera underlines an essential element revealing the disregard Islamist terrorists have for culture and arts. In an end of the world mentality built upon a dogmatic understanding of a totalitarian ideology, opera houses are part of a freedom of mind that cannot be tolerated. While adults are not supposed to indulge themselves in the pleasures of music and dance, children are not free to study and learn. The massacre in Beslan was the outstanding proof that, pushed by their irrational understanding of life, militiamen are unable to grasp the sanctity of a school and its classrooms. In the apocalyptic state of mind no one is out of reach from the wrath of God, a wrath meant to destroy every aspect of individual freedom and brought forward by men and women armed with automatic weapons and strapped with explosive vests. The Westgate mall is the latest example pointing in that direction. Al-Shabaab militiamen did not only target civilians, they perpetrated an attack on an infrastructure constituting an utter blasphemy in their corrupted mindset. Leisure and self-appreciation found in shopping are elements highly incompatible with the ultra-conservative understanding of Islam espoused by these terrorist groups.

The second element essential to the Moscow, the Beslan and the Nairobi hostage taking crisis is the absolute will to destroy life. Hostage taking incidents led by radical Islamists differ from any other event of this kind as they are based on abuse of the victims, an apocalyptic discourse and utterly unattainable objectives. The overall irrationality of the goals stated by terrorists, may it be the independence of Chechnya or the supposed act of war against Kenyan policies, underlines the inexistence of a clear strategy pursued by the perpetrators. Neither al-Shabaab operatives nor Arabs and Chechens wish to obtain a clear strategic victory out of these hostage takings. In addition, the assailants clearly express their will to die. Their discourse, their attire and their tactics set them at the margins of the society they intend to demolish. For this, the arbitrary execution of innocent spectators and the gruesome torture of random shoppers is only part of the hostage takers’ macabre walk toward a certain death. Since the victims do not and objectively cannot enter the exclusive spiritual circle of the terrorists, any act of brutality is apparently justified to destroy the social fabric of the radical Islamists’ perceived enemies.

The psychology of apocalyptic hostage takers may better be understood by linking it to the modern intellectual fathers of radical Islam: Sayyid Qutb and Ayman Al Zawhiri. These two Egyptians have contributed in developing the concept of a Muslim vanguard using physical and aggressive Jihad to lead fellow coreligionists toward the real meaning of Allah’s precepts. In this vision, all those who are not part of the vanguard movement are to be considered legitimate targets whose death would serve the goal of cleansing the world’s sins. In this theory, the amount of dead cannot be limited and the final objective cannot truly be quantified leading it to be an irrational way of preaching the apocalypse. Both Al Qutb and Al Zawahiri have developed their theories by building on the much fantasized experience of early Muslims, the Muhajireen, who performed hijra from Mecca to Medina with Mohammed. Detached from its motherland, the community is meant to fight for a sacred cause and rely solely on its members.

The utter detachment from any temporal and earthly reality along with the unwillingness to set clear and attainable goals are the key elements setting radical Islamist hostage takers at the margin of a society they do not want to be part of. Since, in their understanding, only the destruction of human life can bring out the truth of the Quran’s teachings, their resulting apocalyptic views are key to understand and counter the tactics used in Moscow, Beslan and Nairobi. Shall other incidents of this kind occur, no negotiations, no socio-political understanding and no indirect support should be allowed as all of it reinforces those who disregard the core of human life. In fact, only the direct destruction of these nuclei of irrational killers may save the lives of innocent men and women.

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  • ken baskin

    If I may, I suggest anger management courses for these hostage-takers – I hope that I’m not being too draconian in calling for this punishment. In a saner world, I’ve got the rope now you find a tree – but that’s so ‘ old school ‘ now. Let’s find root causes for their anger because we are to blame, not them. Justin Trudeau talks about the search for ‘ root causes ‘ of anger. I’m sure that the 5-year-old girl who received 5 bullets in the shopping mall must have done something to seal her fate. The ‘ freedom fighter ‘ who squeezed the trigger five times can’t even be called a terrorist – he’s a ‘ militant ‘ now.

  • A Z

    I think terror causing others to cease and desist, to brink the will of another ethic or religious group is a clear and attainable goal.

    Coupled with a immigration, baby jihad, and the leftist enablers it is a winner.

    While terror by itself will not win, when you have liberal elites making up reasons why should self immolate our own cultures. The use such arguments as white guilt, past imperialism, mutli-culturalism, cultural relativism, racism, cultural ENRICHERS amd last we need to understand their grievances.

    • A Z

      If a Muslims immigrates to Sweden, the Swedish left calls them a cultural ENRICHER.

      What would the left call a Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu immigrating to Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Egypt?

      What if these non Muslims immigrated to these countries made up 10% of the population had higher birth rates and further immigration as going to push their number past 20%? Would the left applaud?

      • knowshistory

        an infidel that immigrated to a muslim majority nation would be called suicidal by anyone that understands the situation. regarding theoretical infidel. immigration guaranteed to overwhelm the indigent muslim population of a previously muslim-majority nation: this scenario is just not imaginable. muslims are evil, not stupid. they would never allow infidels to take over a muslim majority nation. muslims COLLECT jizya. they do not pay it. muslim INDIVIDUALS are suicidal. western NATIONS are suicidal. it is the murderous elites, government officials, and media of western countries that have guaranteed genocide for their infidel majority. it is no wonder that western media and governments are not concerned with the ongoing genocide of Christians in Egypt and sudan. they are causing genocide of Christians in Europe and America.

        • A Z

          Yes, I know.

          Immigration to Muslim countries would not be tolerated. the point is a thought experiment to be used is a discussion or a debate with a dies hard liberal to see if they flinch and to debate the actual feasibility of it.

          Would they lie about its chance of success?

          Would they shrug it off saying Muslims would allow it but no westerner would want to move and so therefore the point is moot.

          The point is to get them to defend a position/a statement/ an ideal. To fix them in place.

  • Biff Henderson

    Nihilistic: rejecting all religious and moral principles in the belief that life is meaningless. The jihadis and this reader would not use this language to describe their mindset. Other than that it was informative and well thought out.

  • Jeff Gerke

    Great article, Riccardo; thank you. Could you please elaborate on something you said? You wrote, “In their understanding, only the destruction of human life can bring out the truth of the Quran’s teachings.” So…what are you saying IS the truth of the Quran’s teachings? Are you saying that the Quran teaches that all human life must be destroyed? Surely that can’t be, because then all Muslims would be targeted to be destroyed too. Even “the good ones” in any Muslim’s own circle. What did you mean here?

  • Skeptic7

    So much for karma.

  • JacksonPearson

    In the case of Muhammad, we have a criminal child molester, wife abuser, rapist, murderer, torturer, extortionist, slaver, terrorist just a small sample of the criminality of Muhammad. If God picked such a prophet to represent him anywhere in the universe and gave divine sanction and support/encouragement to His prophet’s criminal acts then God would no longer be Moral Perfection and therefore no longer God but just an accomplice to his evil prophet.

    God would be equally guilty in all the criminal acts perpetrated by Muhammad. God would be just a wanton criminal. Just as Adolph Hitler and Comrade Stalin were not prophets of God so to Muhammad was no prophet of God.

  • jcd0101

    It is true and it is building now
    you can see it, even in america tons of muslims all who do not believe in freedom
    Not while they keep their women in burkas and threaten gays and well everyone else..

    And these liberal morons keep apologizing for them
    Helping them to achieve their goals
    this is why when the stuff hits the fan
    All who have a dnc sticker, an obama sticker
    a co-exist sticker..
    Must be considered as working for the enemy..
    I am sorry to be so blunt..
    But its the truth..