A Terrorism Expert Turns Her Gaze Inward
By Karin Fischer, The Chronicle Review, June 20, 2010
When the jihadis plied her with a bowl of fruit, Jessica Stern briefly considered: Were they being hospitable, or were they trying to do her harm?
It was 1999, and Stern, a Harvard-trained expert on terrorism, was at the compound of Lashkar e Taiba, or Army of the Pure, a Pakistani militant group believed to be associated with Al Qaeda and, later, behind the attacks in Mumbai that left nearly 175 people dead. She was alone, a woman, an American, and a Jew.
But Stern pushed her fear of poisoning away, allowing herself, she said later, to feel only curiosity and empathy: Who were these men, this henna-bearded emir and three elders, and what impelled them to acts of violence?
Stern's interview with the chiefs of Lashkar e Taiba, and her conversations with aspiring mujahedin at Pakistani madrassas, with Jewish radicals in West Bank settlements, and even with a former Christian cult leader, living in a Texas trailer park, formed the basis of her 2003 book, Terror in the Name of God (HarperCollins), a pathbreaking work that delved into the motivations of terrorists. She went beyond a calculus of geopolitics and policy to dissect the personal origins of violent extremism, to delve into the ways in which belief, humiliation, and disenfranchisement can be turned to terrorism.
Now, Stern has taken on an equally challenging project, examining how her interest in terrorism is rooted in her own terror—her rape, at gunpoint, at the age of 15. Her latest book, Denial (HarperCollins), details an unflinching investigation that led to the identification of Stern's attacker, a serial rapist, as well as her attempt to reconcile the reactions that police, her family, and she herself had to the assault.
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Why does terrorism fascinate me? Because of the terror in my past - Jessica Stern, Washington Post