Those Who Turn to Terrorism Feel Powerless and Isolated
An Interview with Zak Ebrahim

Why do people turn to terrorism? We asked Zak Ebrahim, who, during his youth, saw his father become a terrorist.

Interviewer: Hanako Cho

Q: As you know, terrorist states and the new terrorist group, known as Khorasan, are now recruiting more and more people. For what reasons, or for what purposes, are new recruits attracted to terrorist groups?

A: Most people, who are indoctrinated into these sorts of ideologies, lack of opportunities, as well as feel fear, which I believe also plays a very big role. In order to indoctrinate someone, he has to feel very isolated and has to be cut off from the world. He has to think that anything outside of his very small bubble, the one in which he lives, is potentially dangerous, which continues the fear.

Unfortunately, there are people in this world that believe groups like ISIS, for example, are going to give them the power that they don’t have in their normal lives. So, they gravitate toward them.


Terrorist Organizations Seek Ways to Obtain Power

Q: I heard that your father had a direct link with Osama bin Laden through a Mosque in Berkeley. What is your take on terrorist groups, like Al-qaeda and others, which interpret Islam in extreme ways, and use mosques as recruitment tools to gather new members?

A: The vast majority of the leaders of these groups are not religious scholars. They take certain parts that they agree with, and ignore the parts that they don’t. Their real goals are not to promote religion or to promote their version of religion. Their only goal is to gain power, and they use religion as an excuse to do it.


Radical Islam Isn’t as Popular as the People in the Media Want the Public to Believe It Is

Q: Terrorist leaders aren’t scholars, and they interpret Islam in their own ways?

A: That’s correct. One of the reasons that I wrote my book was because I wanted to show people what it was like within the ideology, and I also wanted to point out that my experience was very unique, even for Muslims. The vast majority of Muslims in the world never expose themselves to violent extremism.

I had a very unique experience. When we’re talking about men and women, who are joining groups like ISIS, we’re talking about a few hundred people, or maybe even a few thousand people, who are coming from the West, for example, to fight with these kinds of groups. Unfortunately, they get more attention than the many millions of Muslims who live peacefully among everyone else everyday of their lives.


People Individually Interpret Religious Ideas for Their Own Reasons

Q: It’s very sad that people have begun to equate Islam with terrorism because Islam itself is a very good spiritual tradition. Why do you think radical ideologies have had their roots in the teachings of Islam?

A: In a book as large as its religious text, you can find a sentence here or a sentence there to justify anything, good or bad. It has less to do with the religion than it does with individual people and how they interpret the teachings.

I’m very lucky because for the last five or six years, since I started speaking publicly about my experiences, I’ve gotten to meet people of every faith, of every religion, of no religion at all, who work everyday to try and make this world a better place. I think it comes down to people’s individual personalities, and whether they wish to work together with others, or to help only themselves, or to dominate others. That’s where the interpretations come in.


Propaganda Is a Powerful Recruiting Tool for Terrorist Organizations

Q: What was the reason terrorism attracted your father? Did he have some underlying dislike for American culture? Do you think terrorists in his group shared his feelings?

A: To a certain extent, perhaps some of his anger could have been pointed toward American culture, and his people shared it, but it was less about American culture than it was about the American government and its foreign policy around the world. Unfortunately, when the United States government has acted abroad, these kinds of groups have used its decisions as propaganda to find new recruits.

I don’t think anyone would say that the last twelve years or so, which America has spent in Iraq, has made it a more stable place. Thousands of U.S. military members and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died as a result of war, and that has just helped to create more propaganda for these sorts of terrorists groups to use to try and recruit people.


America Should Put Its Money, not Its Weapons, to Use in Winning Hearts and Minds

People need to find a different solution. They can’t use bombs to turn countries into democracies. They can’t bomb people into loving them. These missiles cost tens of thousand of dollars each. They’d be much more successful if they were to use that money to build schools.


U.S. Leaders Should Target Opportunities to Work with the Normal, Everyday Muslims

Q: What’s your alternative solution to changing countries into democratic nations?

A: I’m not a terrorism expert. I’m not a political expert either. I wish I had a good answer for you.

Many people see the United States as a country that takes action. However, they feel that the U.S. is only doing it to serve its own interests, and it’s not really sticking up for the ideals of freedom and democracy.

For a large part, the U.S. government should try to, rather than dominating its enemies with its military, after all this time, realize that it needs to work with the vast majority of people who aren’t acting violently, rather than just trying to kill the people who are committing violent acts.


America Shouldn’t Maintain Its Role as the World’s Policeman

Q: Your alternative solution is to give hope to the hopeless. For as you said, there’s a lack of opportunities, which is why people are attracted to terrorist groups. What type of opportunities would you like to provide if you could have your way?

A: The U.S. should stop trying to use violence. It has to allow people help themselves. The United States can’t be the world’s policeman. It must try to allow other people to solve their own problems.

Tensions Between Israel and Palestine Made Mr. Kahane an Easy Target for My Father

Q: I’d like to know your opinion on why Israeli people have become targets for assassination attempts. I heard one of your father’s original targets was Ariel Sharon, who was then on the Prime Minister track. Why do you think he targeted Ariel Sharon?

A: Why he was initially targeted?

Q: Yes.

A: I would assume that it was because he was going to be the Prime Minister of Israel, and there were tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians. Ultimately, I believe my father settled on Meir Kahane because, in many ways, he was an easier target.


Terrorists Use People’s Frustrations as Excuses for Their Extreme Behaviors

Q: Do you belive terrorists dislike the country of Israel itself?

A: Much of the frustration has come from the suffering of the Palestinian people, but I really couldn’t tell you for sure what the terrorists motivations were. Honestly, often times they have been only excuses, which terrorists have used to act out their own fantasies.


People Must Oppose Extremist Solutions to Global Problems

Q: What is your take on the Palestinian issue?

A: I’m not an analyst. Lots of people hold opinions, and they’re very excited to share them. What I would say is that people on both sides need to realize that there’s no military solution to their problems. There’s no political solution to their problems. Individuals need to come together and say, “We refuse to support the actions of extremists on both sides.”


My Experience of Bullying in America Encouraged Me to Feel Empathy for Others

Q: You’ve already told your story, but I’d like to ask how it was to live in 20 different homes by the time you turned 19 years old. Did this experience nurture your sense of empathy towards others?

A: I wouldn’t say so. In many ways, my empathy was a direct result of the bullying that I experienced because I moved around so much. We were very poor, and we lived in poor neighborhoods. I went to bad schools, and I was always the new kid. I knew what it was like to be victimized for being different from other people through no fault of my own.

When I was put in a position where I could potentially victimize someone else, I knew that I didn’t want to make the other person feel the way I had felt. The bullying really helped my understanding of empathy. It helped me to realize that I shouldn’t be judging people based on arbitrary measurements like their race or religion, and should be judging people based on their characters and the ways they treated others.


As a Child, I Imagined My Father as the Person He Was Before He Became Radicalized

Q: Have you forgiven your father?

A: That’s a very difficult question. For most of my life, I’ve tried to hold on to the image of my father that I remembered from when I was very young, which was before he became radicalized. That’s who I believed my father was. But as I got older, I realized I didn’t really know my father at all.


Later, I Turned My Anger over My Father’s Decisions into Positive Energy

Then, I thought to myself, maybe I hated him because of all the negative repercussions from his actions on my life. But I realized, if I ever wanted to do something good with my difficult experiences, I had to channel that anger into something positive. So, I tried to channel my energy into doing something good.


My Mother Kept Our Family Together While My Father Was in Prison

Q: How has your relationship with your mother been? You’ve been living with her since the U.S. government incarcerated your father, right?

A: Yes.

My mother is the strongest woman that I’ve ever met. She has kept our family together through some very difficult decisions. Even when she didn’t make the right decisions, I know that she was always trying to make the best decisions for our family. As an adult, I’m amazed that she got us through everything. I’m just so amazed at her strength.


My Mother Allowed Me to Be Open Minded

Q: During your TED Talk, you commented that she became tired of the hating of other people.

A: For me, it had two meanings. I could see in her face and eyes the toll that all her hate and the violence, which has come from it, had taken on her life, and at the same time, it also felt like she was giving me the permission to go out into the world and experience it, the way that it was, instead of trying to fit everyone into a very tiny mold. I could go out into the world and experience everyone with an open mind, and take it from there.


After My Father Joined His Terrorist Group, He Spent Less Time at Home

Q: Your father probably didn’t see you very much when you were very young, did he? He became a terrorist when you were seven years old, right? Were you able to sense any changes in him when he became one?

A: Before he ever went to prison, I noticed some changes. He became more impatient. He spent less and less time at home, and used more and more of his time for the group of men that eventually were involved in the World Trade Center bombing.


My Father Could Only See What Was Wrong with America

Q: Was it a subtle or gradual change?

A: When I was six or seven, he began to become more radicalized, and within a year, he was in prison. To a seven year old, that was sudden. As for gradual changes, I just remember, even at seven years old, noticing differences in him, and one day asking him, “When did you become such a good Muslim?”

Because as a young kid, I assumed his new fervor that he had was somehow a sign of him being a better Muslim. And I remember him telling me his reason, which was when he came America, he saw everything that was wrong with it.

Even to me, as a young child, I sensed a very big difference in him.


His Group Gave Him Something to Believe In When He Felt Powerless in the World

Q: Did the influence of those people around him make him radicalized?

A: He’d felt very powerless. He had lost his job because he’d been injured, and he had been separated from the Muslim community. That group of men made him feel like he had the power to do something.

At the same time, I don’t want to make it sound like he didn’t know what he was doing. He was very well aware of his actions and the implications of his actions.


My Father Had a Plan to Flee the United States with Fake Passports

Q: Was he aware of what his group had intended to do?

A: The FBI found four Nicaraguan passports with our pictures in them with fake names. Apparently, he had made plans to try to escape the United States after whatever violent actions he intended to take. He was very well aware of what he was doing and the potential danger in it for him and his family.


He Was Suffering from Depression at the Time

Q: Was it despair inside of him that created the terrorist?

A: I can only look back, and try to understand. I can’t answer for sure.

He was very badly burnt in an accident at work. He was sent home with pain killers and anti-depressants. My mother told me years later that he became very depressed, and he didn’t even sleep in bed with her.

He just sat next to the heater in their room, and read his Koran. Unfortunately, it was around that time he began to interact with the blind Sheikh, who ultimately helped to plan the bombing of the World Trade Center. He came under his influence.


Speaking to the General Public Has Made Me a Happier and More Confident Person

Q: I realize you’ve made difficult choices, and you stand as proof that there’s always a possibility to resist violence. As a peace activist, what will you do, moving forward, to continue to make an impact on those people who choose to resort to violence?

A: I, like many people in their early 20’s, knew I wanted to do something positive with my life, but I wasn’t sure what it was. Ever since I started speaking publically, and sharing my story, and getting to interact with people, I’ve felt like a really good person.

I’m just so grateful that people have reacted with such positivity and have given me such support. It’s made me feel quite better as a human being, more confident, and certainly happier with my life. I hope to continue to do it.

Hopefully, I’ll inspire people and show others who have had difficult experiences, similar to mine, whether it’s religious extremism, bullying, or domestic violence, that things don’t always have to be that way.

In fact, things are always changing, and it’s up to us, and the choices that we make, to decide in which direction we will go.


I Hope to Continue the Interfaith Dialogue that I’ve Begun

Q: What kind of responses have you received since you published your book?

A: It’s not an exaggeration to say that 99.9% of people’s reactions have been incredibly positive, and I feel so lucky that people are responding in such a wonderful way.

When I got into this work, I knew that not everyone would agree with what I was going to say, no matter how I said it. But to be honest, even in knowing that beforehand, I’ve been so happily surprised at how things have evolved in all corners of the world and from all different belief systems. It’s just been incredible.

The work, which I do, for interfaith dialog, and getting to interact with all kinds of people from all different faiths and religions, has been incredibly fulfilling for me. I really hope that I will be able to continue to do so in the future.

Those Who Turn to Terrorism Feel Powerless and Isolated
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