Inside the Jihadi Mind: What Makes It Tick?

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Jihadis in Kashmir
Jihadis in Kashmir (Photo: SAJJAD QAYYUM/AFP/Getty Images)

Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst and counter terrorist expert who has worked extensively with military and police forces world-wide. She was among the first to interview Somali prisoners in Minnesota where she lived for 30 years. She holds a doctorate in Islamic literature and is a graduate of the U.S. army’s Human Terrain Program.  She is the author of four books: The Banality of Suicide Terrorism Penetrating the Terrorist PsycheThe Maternal Drama of the Chechen Jihadi and The Jihadi Dictionary. Her fifth book, The Last Two Jews of Mogadishu Living Under Al Shabaab’s Fire, will be released in December 2017. She is currently writing a book titled Children Who Kill Children with Norman Simms.

The following is Clarion Project’s interview with Dr. Hartevelt Kobrin:

Clarion Project: Your theory is that the prologue to violence comes from the jihadi’s early childhood development? Can you explain?

Dr. Hartevelt Kobrin: I focus my work on early childhood development, the mind and body language of the Islamic terrorist. My mentor was the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Sander Breiner, the leading authority on the history of child slaughter.

His work was ground breaking concerning group dynamics of shame/honor cultures and their child-rearing practices. Almost all suicide attacks have arisen out of shame/honor cultures, even the Tamil Tigers.

Shame is often overlooked when trying to understand the jihadi.

There are four things to keep in mind when trying to understand this behavior:

  1. All behavior is potentially meaningful.
  2. We are more alike than we are different.
  3. Violence is violence – it does not matter how we humans label it (political terrorism or intimate terrorism, i.e., domestic violence). On the one hand, such labels allow us to organize material for study, but on the other hand, such categories create blind spots. In the case of political terrorism, the label does not allow for an intensive exploration of early childhood development and maternal attachment.
  4. Everybody has a mother was the New York Times Magazine title for an article on Zaccarias Moussaiou, the alleged 19th highjacker of 9/11. For the jihadis, the mother is their Achilles’ heel because they never separated from her. This creates a dependent personality which is emasculated. It is taboo to separate psychologically from the mother. The mother is made out to be the heroic ummi (mommy) when in fact this is a cover-up and a psychological defense mechanism against their unmet dependency needs and their rage about being infantilized in this shame/honor culture. [Counter-terrorism expert] Rohan Gunaratna was quoted in Playboy magazine that in Pakistan the police haul in the mother to the jail and strip her naked in front of the jihadi in order to get him to talk. They shame him.

When the Islamic suicide truck bombs went off in Lebanon in the early 1980s, I began focusing on the jihadi perpetrator.  I had already been treating victims of trauma, so I shifted to the perpetrators. I had an “aha” moment and realized that I had to understand the victim-victimizer relationship, i.e. how jihadis bond violently to their victims.

Bonding is the key. This behavior is also how a perpetrator of domestic violence bonds violently to his partner, often ending in murder-suicide. This is called a death fusion – conjoint murder-suicide. Suicide bombing is mass death fusion.

In jihadi culture there is a lot of rape. This is another manifestation of bonding violently to another. It is a malignant life fusion. Rape is concrete behavior in order to control the other.

Early childhood is when and where we learn how to relate to others. There is well-documented evidence that there is massive child abuse in jihadi culture.

As the famous child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott said – Home is where we start from. The graphic imagery that the jihadis create tell us that their homes were violent.

Another factor, noted by the Turkish Cypriot Muslim psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan is that the need to hate and the need to have an enemy is in place by age three. It is learned behavior in the home.

Shaming is another key ingredient. Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of a Hamas leader who wrote the autobiographical book The Green Prince, said that the greatest enemy is shame. Shame destroys the early personality of a child. It is brutal to grow up in a shaming environment.

Shaming destroys a child’s fledgling personality. The jihadi shame/honor culture is a hyper-shaming entity. The devalued female underpins the entire enterprise. Males harbor terrors of the female body because they can not understand how such a devalued creature produces a baby.

In this culture, the female is devalued and only receives her first taste of honor when she has a male baby. In fact, it is then that she changes her name and is wedded to the baby such as Umm Osama, mother of Osama.

The trauma of a female being a constant object of hatred in this shame/honor culture impacts on her baby unconsciously. This is called intergenerational transmission of trauma.

There are many other intervening factors. In shame/honor cultures, there is massive scapegoating, vacillating between passive-aggressive behavior and outright brutal aggression such as honor killings and FGM.

The jihadi projects his unconscious toxic feelings of shame into a scapegoat. One of my books, The Maternal Drama of the Chechen Jihadi, details all of this. My book has been downloaded in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc. Former jihadis have written to me saying that I am among the first to explain to them what had happened to them in their homes. The book can be downloaded here.

The jihadis also never developed empathy in their childhoods. They can show a kind of pseudo empathy for their own, but it is not genuine.

Professor Marco Iacoboni of UCLA discovered mirror neurons and their connection to the development of empathy. In his book, Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy, Iacoboni shows how mirror neurons are key factors that are missing in those who exhibit violent behavior.

The mother, who herself is traumatized in the shame/honor culture is responsible for making makes the brain of the baby. It is during this maternal attachment that the capacity for empathy fails to develop.

The allure of jihad is its violent sadomasochism, which expresses itself in violent communally-shared psychosexual fantasies, packaged by the religious violent ideologies. This is also why we have so many converts to Islam who radicalize; they love the sadomasochistic violent fantasies that they held before they converted. Radical Islam just justifies them.

People shy away from thinking about the jihadis as having been abused during childhood because it can create a sense of empathy for them. This is not my intention. My aim is to make the seemingly chaotic and terrifying explainable. If you can make sense out of the terrorist behavior, you are on the offense in this war.


Clarion: You call the jihadi’s mother their “Achilles heel.” Why is that?

Dr. Hartevelt Kobrin: The Achilles’ heel is their vulnerability and how counter terrorism can effectively work against the jihadi by understanding their psychodynamic and integrating them into their offense plans.

As I mentioned, the jihadis operate in a hyper shame/honor culture where the group self is more important than the individual self. They do not go through an individuation separation stage like we do in the West.

It is a social taboo to separate from the mother, so they embody a fused maternal symbiosis. The heroic mother is a cover up for their extreme fear of the female – that is why they abuse females to control them and make them submit.

If this culture, if the male honor, sharaf, is “injured” through shaming or humiliation, one must willfully spill blood in order to cleanse honor. Female honor is called ird (the same word as “vagina”).  If damaged, there is no mechanism to redeem her honor and therefore she must be murdered (i.e., honor killed).

This again shows us how violently people in this culture bond to each other. The threat of murder is always there. The eldest brother is tasked with carrying out the honor killing. Murder allows them to “reboot” the scapegoating process and then start all over again.

When I began writing my first book, The Banality of Suicide Bombing, I came to the image of Shakespeare’s Othello who is a North African Muslim commander who marries Desdemona, the daughter of an Italian senator. An intermarriage. He is paranoid about his wife and exhibits blinding rages of jealousy. In the end, he murders her and then commits suicide. It is a death fusion. I realized that Shakespeare understood this cultural conflict.


Clarion: Can you explain how the building of a baby’s brain contributes to the decision to become a jihadi?

Dr. Hartevelt Kobrin: Brain development is a process. Shaming a child early on is like planting an Improvised Explosive Device in the soul of a child. It will detonate years later under the right conditions as in the case of many of the teen jihadis.

As teens, boys have a “Maserati” body with raging testosterone but poorly developed critical thinking skills (i.e. cognitive deficits which promote risk-taking behaviors, etc.)  This, too, is nested in the social environment of the shame/honor culture, which advocates violent behavior and scapegoating.  Meaning, you never have to assume responsibility for your behavior, you can always blame the other.


Clarion:What is the connection between domestic violence and Islamist suicide bombings?

Dr. Hartevelt Kobrin: Ninety-four percent of what we communicate is non-verbal. The crime scene of Islamic suicide bombing embodies murder-suicide message as I noted above.

Where else do we find murder-suicide? Domestic violence. Much has been written on domestic violence as being a form of traumatic bonding. To the best of my knowledge, the exact statistics on jihadis engaging in domestic violence is not known.

However in the UK in 2008, the Centre for Social Cohesion did geo-mapping and where they found domestic violence, they found the jihadis. Domestic violence and jihad fit like hand in glove because it is the way the jihadi bonds to their partners and to us.


Clarion: Do these mechanisms work the same way in female jihadis? If not, how do you explain this phenomenon?

Dr. Hartevelt Kobrin: In many ways, it is very similar because each individual harbors a variety of unconscious identifications with male and female. But the big thing is that in these rigid shame/honor jihadi cultures, the female internalizes male hatred of the female as self-hatred. It is unconscious, but it is uncanny.


Clarion: You have noted that there is a similarity between the internal life of serial killers and violent Islamists. Can you explain?

Dr. Hartevelt Kobrin: While I was working on the graphic imagery of the suicide attack site, I asked myself, what is the meaning of the body parts, which journalists always talk about in their articles. I found that in serial killing, the serial killer often dismantles the body of his victim.

The literature talks about how the body parts are a concrete representation of an un-integrated picture of the mother’s body. When a baby is born, the baby understands the mother in part as a series of objects — the breast, the mouth, the touch of skin, hair, eyes, etc.


Clarion: What is the difference between “going postal” and jihad? 

Dr. Hartevelt Kobrin: In the 1980s, we began to see active shooter incidents where postal workers went beserk. Now we have a parallel: active jihadi shooters in the work place. So we see that these artificially constructed linguistic labels like serial killing, active shooters, murder-suicide also occur in Islamic terrorism, such as in the San Bernardino attack.

The difference in part is the violent religious sadomasochistic ideologies that the experts use to separate out jihad from “regular” crime. I understand why we need categories, but we need to be alert to their downside and the limitations of such labeling.

Many counter terrorist experts need to make this distinction in order to bring order to chaos. Many will call the jihadis “rational actors” because they can obsessively plan, plot, strategize, recruit and tactically figure out all the details to near perfection.

I say fine, call them “rational actors,” but put the stress on “actors,” because they are acting out unconsciously a rage that exceeds murder itself, and this rage can be traced back to very early childhood.

Yes, the religious ideologies, which these jihadis wear as a mask of sanity, are important.

However, the secret, inner life of that “nice guy neighbor” living next door who became radicalized is a mess of violent psychosexual sadomasochistic fantasies. If we overlook early childhood development as the prologue for violence, we will continue to have the problem.


Clarion: You have said that political correctness is really unconscious terror. Can you explain?

Dr. Hartevelt Kobrin: PC is really about unconscious terror and an identification with the aggressor such as in the Stockholm Syndrome. The jihadis are very good at causing an identification with the aggressor.

Bin Laden remarked that people like “the strong horse,” though he probably didn’t know why. It’s because the aggressor becomes the carrier of the aggression of those he seeks to terrorize unconsciously. He gets them to submit. His targeted audience then starts to identify with the aggressor; they become passive, paralyzed and dissociated from their own vulnerabilities.



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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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