The Dr. Ruth of Counter-Terrorism

Dr. Nancy Kobrin explains how a culture that forces males to be terrified of females leads them to murder and suicide.

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Dr. Nancy Kobrin, a psychoanalyst with a Ph.D. in romance and semitic languages, specializing in Aljamía and Old Spanish in Arabic script. She is an expert on the Minnesota Somali diaspora and a graduate of the Human Terrain System program at Leavenworth Kansas. Her new book is The Banality of Suicide Terrorism: The Naked Truth About the Psychology of Islamic Suicide Bombing.

FP: Nancy Kobrin, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Congratulations on your book. Tell us about its significance and what makes it different from all other books on suicide terrorism to date.

Kobrin: Thank you so much Jamie. I must say how indebted I am to you and the entire staff at because you provided the opportunity and invaluable space to discuss and debate my theory for the suicide attack with other colleagues. If it hadn’t been here at Frontpage, I wonder if this book would have ever been written. My thanks and gratitude to you all.

This is a psychological study and its significance is that it is the first to address early childhood development and its crucial role that it plays in suicide terrorism with regard to the psychology of extremism and gender – specifically with the emphasis on the devalued female in Arab Muslim shame honor cultures which have developed suicide terrorism. This is not to blame the female or the mother but to understand the power and control of her and its devastating consequences.

To the best of my knowledge and to date, I know of no other book or theory, which has made the link between the horrific abuse of the female and its ramifications with regard to murder-suicide, her split-off body parts and the alleged honor killing. I hasten to add that we are only at the beginning of understanding the phenomenon and we are in the model T stage of integrating a more in-depth or shall we say psychodynamic approach to the knowledge that we have about terrorism.

Because I understand non-verbal communication and ninety-five percent of what we communicate is nonverbal, the focus of the book is primarily on the nonverbal predatory behavior of these terrorists by looking at the imagery.

It is understandable that we tend to stress the terrible nature of the incitement of the ideologies of Jihad and violence, which are indeed extremely important. However, by over focusing on its “verbiage”, this tends to obscure an already confusing and terrorizing picture. The ideologies act like a girdle, which harnesses the pre-existing rage of a fragile abused child grown into a “time-bomb” of a personality. I’ll give an example later in the interview when I address the issue of the female suicide bomber, how we can easily miss a “hidden communication” in this terrorism, precisely because it is so deeply terrorizing.

This is why people are always mystified by the “nice guy or gal jihadi next door.” The mask of “peace” is so well developed, giving perfect cover for a rageful personality. It hides the embroiled rage and it is so terrorizing that “We just don’t want to go there. . .” This is also why Islam can present itself as a religion of peace when it is a religion of two pieces – Jihad and Peace – two sides of a coin. If we are going to be effective in filleting the phenomenon of Islamic suicide terrorism, it is imperative that the imagery be taken into consideration and factored in with the ideologies. When read together, then other questions can be raised concerning the psychological function of religious and cultural practices.

How did I come to this realization? I recall the first psychiatric child patient that I ever had to interview. It was on a locked ward and I was tasked to establish a rapport with a five year old boy who was hospitalized for setting fires -- immolation.  I was told to talk with him and engage him through a game of checkers. No sooner did we sit down that he had his foot on top of mine under the table. I said to myself – OMG, alpha male dominance. I realized that he was absolutely terrified of me.

Terror is not to be equated with fear. It is nameless dread, non-verbal which encapsulates a complete sense of utter vulnerability, tantamount to death.

FP: It took very long to get the book into print. How come?

Kobrin: You know, I didn't quite understand it at first myself but it turned out to be a valuable experience and it taught me a lot about terror. It was a humbling experience.

In January of 2002 I took a month sabbatical in Jerusalem. Suicide bombings became an every day occurrence. Lots of suicide bombings were going on. It was there when I came across the image of Shakespeare’s Othello who commits murder-suicide that I grasped the violent simplicity of Islamic suicide terrorism. Let us recall that Othello was a North African, a Moor and military man who married Desdemona the daughter of an Italian senator. He murders her and then commits suicide. Islamic suicide terrorism grounds itself in this kind of death though it is a hybrid of murder-suicide, serial killing by the suicide bomber proxy and a jihadi honor killing. But this is territory that few want to explore.

The book was sketched out in 2002. Bottom line – it was at two different publishing houses before it wound up at Potomac. I believe the two other presses were too “freaked out” to publish it because of the function of terror, especially the terror of retaliation, being targeted. Again, people have a very poor understanding of terror. The terrors run so deep that we tend to be dissociated from them. Most of us live in denial, busy with our daily lives. It is too terrifying to recognize the impending death threat of power and control, so we disengage. It is also too terrifying to tap into this primitive unexplored territory (i.e., the unconscious motivations behind terrorism).

FP: What is your background? What influenced you to come up with your ideas about suicide terrorism?

Kobrin: I have always followed my passion and my studies evolved. I did a doctorate in comparative literature, romance and semitic languages. I am dyslexic so I came to be fascinated with verbal and nonverbal language very early.

While writing my dissertation, I wound up on a training analyst’s couch; this is when it all came to life. I discovered a new world in depth but fascinating in its valuing the simplicity of explanation. I found the analytic experience extremely helpful and interesting.  I became very interested in trauma.

I was following all the research coming out of Israel concerning the victims of terrorism and it dawned on me that I needed to understand the mind of the perpetrator. So I started studying this on my own after the truck bombs went off in Lebanon in the early 1980s. I then realized that it had to be looked at functionally - victim-perpetrator together as a kind of unhealthy bonding. The terrorists do not have a sense of intimacy -- they bond by maintaining a connection to those they murder and over whom they take control.

The summer before 9/11 Dr. Joan Lachkar invited me to participate in a seminar on suicide terrorism in Los Angeles. She wrote a very important dissertation on the narratives/fantasies in the Bible and the Quran. I also had some questions, which I sent to the Interdisciplinary Center in Counter Terrorism in Tel Aviv and the Israeli who identified Osama Bin Laden wrote me back. This fellow informally mentored me and inspired me to study the history of terrorism. He does not necessarily agree with my theory but I remain deeply indebted to him. He has practical knowledge of the “Matzav” = the situation that is unparalleled and unequalled.

While I was schlepping back and forth to Israel, I realized that the jihad was going on in Minnesota. We have the largest population outside of Mogadishu of Somalis in the world. I familiarized myself well with the peoples, the cultures and af-Somali, the language. I am a very practical person. I went into the community as well as the county jail and did prison interviews. So I have hands on experience right in my own back yard. I want to stress that the major of Somalis are law abiding good people who want to put food on the table, clothe their children and send them to school. However, there is an element that seeks jihad.

FP: Talk some more about Arab culture and its views of mothers.

Kobrin: In Arab Muslim culture you are never ever permitted to separate from your mother, ever. This means that you are glued to her and she is more important than your wife. It means that you are not permitted to establish your own sense of self, i.e. separate from her. Your wife is ultimately devalued and the upshot is that you harbor unbelievable, disavowed rage toward your mother, in essence one has no real effective father – the father is too busy with his other wives and women.

This creates tremendous ambivalence, on the one hand to want to bond with mother (ummi) and on the other hand at the same time remaining terrified of her, resulting in a confusing sense of identity. Perhaps this is why Muslims struggle so and are always fighting to prove their identity.  Proving their existence becomes a more pervasive force than life itself. “I’d rather die by blowing myself up than looe my identity as a Muslim brother.”

Counter terrorist experts are often taught that Arabs need very strong fathers because the father is absent and that is what they respond to. However, this is merely the symptom of the problem – that the devalued female has been internalized by them and they can not relate to the female. They, the males, are terrorized by her and her body. The mother is larger than life, almost in a category un-to-herself. This is where the bitter paradox comes in as much as males can idealize the female, they can also feel enormously terrorized by the female body.

The end result of these tragic forces leave these males very confused. If we could put them on the couch we might suggest they are in desperate need of sex education. The males are not only confused, they suffer from severe deprivation ending up depriving themselves of very basic human needs. The irony is that they shame/blame everyone for depriving them but ultimately they are the real “deprivers.” So instead of love for the mother/female, the replacement becomes the destruction of her. In psychodynamic terms this is known as primitive envy. In essence the very love that is required to maintain healthy love bonds, is the very thing that makes them feel powerless and impotent so they must defend against this by becoming killers and murderers. We however pay the price. Sometimes I think of myself as the Dr. Ruth of counter-terrorism. I kid you not.

FP: Your position on Islam?

Kobrin: I take the same position as my colleague Ibn Warraq – I believe that there are millions upon millions of moderate Muslims but Islam itself is not moderate, especially those who identify with Sharia law.

Having said that – I endorse Tawfik Hamid’s position that the ummah, the world-wide Muslim community unwittingly and wittingly engages in passive terrorism. All too often they can too easily hide behind the mask of peace and let the jihadis do the dirty work.

This is not acceptable and they need to be called on it.

FP: Revenge and deprivation in and of themselves clearly does not explain female suicide bombers as in the recent bombings in Moscow. Tell us your views on why.

Kobrin: Actually it is quite simple and bizarrely clever – this kind of terrorism and rage is about the prenatal mother. The male terrorists make a concrete image of the prenatal mother -- the female suicide bomber who is repeatedly described by the media as if she were pregnant, symbolized by hiding the bombs under her clothing. This is a good example of a not so hidden communication per se but one that is readily missed if a person does not know well his or her own terrors from our first years of life. In some instances the female suicide bomber has actually been pregnant and in other instances, faux pregnant bellies have been made for the female suicide bomber to hide the bombs. It is a “two-fer” for the male terrorists – they get to kill off their own females while at the same time murdering us.

The prenatal mother is the essence of dependency needs. It is the time in life when everything is taken care of for us. While it might not be perfect, nonetheless it is a time of encapsulation where the majority of one’s needs and vulnerabilities are taken care of. Yet after the female being devalued for centuries, the female suicide bomber can find honor and respect within the twisted psychology of the male dominated terrorist group.

Yes, it can be reported by the media and the foiled female suicide bombers can say that they were “seeking revenge” but the complexity of the early life history of these devalued and abused females make them ripe to be brain washed which harnesses their own unconscious rage about having been manipulated and abused to turn this outward by murdering others. It is uncontrollable unleashed rage, which exceeds murder itself because body parts are created in the process as in serial killing. Simply stated it is a way of maintaining a bond with the mother of pain – a part objection connection – her dismembered body parts which are now the body parts of the targeted innocent victims.

The female suicide bomber merely internalizes the male rage of the female as self-hatred. She becomes victim-victimizer as my colleague Dr. Anat Berko has named her. The female suicide bomber is the most expandable of the terrorist chain. The Islamic female suicide bomber image is in stark contrast to Christianity where the prenatal mother, Mary and her post-partem motherhood with Jesus, are sacred images, venerated and cherished.

FP: What can we do to fight to this pathology and enemy we face?

Kobrin: We must invest in the little Muslim girl. We must help all those who live under a death threat. For brevity here I refer your readers to the last chapter of my book where I make a series of suggestions.

In addition to this I have recently also started to work on a conceptual dictionary of this peculiar language of the terrorists, which I call Desperanto. I hope to map out images, use of objects by terrorists and their tough talk, using open sources from journalism, etc. to show other primitive  nonverbal and verbal communications in this vein, in order to help counter terrorist experts expand their understanding should they so desire. I believe that these communications can be extracted from what we know about terrorism and from it, a language can be built which in turn can be hooked up with the ideologies. I parallel this understanding of communication to an abused child in play therapy. If a child took a car and rammed it repeatedly into the back of a truck, we would wonder if he or she had been anally raped. While it is not exactly the same and we do not have terrorists in therapy nor am I advocating that, we should still try to map out the nonverbal communications in a more systematic manner. My hunch is too that the people who work in biometrics have a good sense of this body language but alas, I have not had the opportunity to work with them. This would help us make better interventions, earlier as well as better profiling. The reason why it is so difficult to profile is that the psychopathology is very early developmentally and it takes us outside our comfort zone.

FP: Nancy Kobrin, thank you for joining us. This is all fascinating, original and frightening stuff. Hope to talk to you again soon.

I encourage all our readers to order Dr. Kobrin's new book: The Banality of Suicide Terrorism: The Naked Truth About the Psychology of Islamic Suicide Bombing.