Are terrorists mad, bad, or a combination of the two? It takes a special sort of mind to prepare to kill large numbers of people on the basis of a highly speculative political analysis. Orsini’s remarkable book gets as close as any to understanding this sort of thinking. Although it can be hard going at times, with dollops of pedantic sociology, the book is sustained throughout by stark and candid quotes from past members of the Red Brigades, an Italian terrorist group active in the 1970s. The Red Brigades were animated by a simplistic Marxism, and Orsini is at pains to stress the importance of ideology in legitimating terrorism. It is not hard to recognize similar tendencies in other groups: the conviction that the group has a vanguard role that enables its members to see the struggle with unmatched clarity, the belief that unswerving devotion to the cause creates a right to do anything for it, and a readiness to deny the humanity of all opponents. Although Orsini does not compare his leftist terrorists with Islamists, he does show elements of the same mindset in past Marxist groups and also in contemporary neofascists.
Whereas Orsini manages to paint a disturbing portrait of a vicious group, Miniter looks at one of the key figures in al Qaeda, Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Mohammed was a pioneer of mass-casualty terrorism, involved in both the 1993 and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, and he proved his “toughness” by beheading the bound journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. Miniter’s research is meticulous, and his revelations about Mohammed’s time in the United States are interesting, but the portrait of Mohammed remains shallow. That might be because Mohammed himself is shallow; his motivations appear more secular than spiritual, bound up with a sense of the injustice faced by his native Baluchistan in Pakistan and by the Palestinians. Miniter uses Mohammed, who was waterboarded, to attempt to assess the pros and cons of extreme interrogation techniques. The United States might gain valuable intelligence from it, he concludes, but in doing so abandons the moral high ground.