PW: Early in the research for Terror in the Name of God, a friend suggested that when you interviewed religious terrorists, you should imagine yourself as ready to become one of them. Were you able to do that?
Jessica Stern: It's hard to be with someone who has done things that you think are evil, for whatever reason, and just sit and talk with them. What I came to feel was not so much that I could become a terrorist, but I could imagine myself having feelings that might give rise to the terrorist impulse. Listening and trying to hear their stories, I learned to understand their feelings without sitting in judgment.
PW: Did you ever worry that you might not come back from an interview?
JS: The most dangerous groups from that aspect would have been the ones that are now part of bin Laden's International Islamic Front, but when I met with them, they were anti-American in a mostly rhetorical sense. It didn't feel quite so obviously threatening to me until after the murder of Daniel Pearl. That really made me think about what I had been doing.
I was scared on a number of occasions, but once I was in the presence of the militants, I didn't feel they were going to hurt me. My vulnerability as a woman alone also made me safer, ironically. I felt that I was entering a psychological compact: by making myself vulnerable to them, they would agree to take care of me and not kill me.
PW: What got you interested in terrorism in the first place?
JS: I more or less fell into it. I had written about the prospect for terrorists using chemical weapons in my dissertation on chemical warfare and have more or less alternated between working on weapons of mass destruction and terrorism (or the combination) ever since. I think my colleagues used to find my field of study a bit eccentric.
PW: This book is as much about your personal journey as about the political issues.
JS: Jason [Epstein, who served as an editorial consultant on the book] made me do it. I had written another book where the interviews were in the footnotes. I had signed the contract for that book [with Ecco Press], and I went to New York so we could celebrate over lunch, and he basically told me, "I like the introduction."
PW: How did you handle it?
JS: I was devastated and furious. I felt like this legendary editor wanted to turn me into My Fair Lady, and I could either be flattered or insulted. I decided I was too old to change, that I was going to be insulted and not do it. I was ready to fire him. But I guess he hypnotized me, because I ended up doing exactly what he wanted me to do, even though I was convinced it was something a different person would write. So when I wrote the book he wanted, it was as much an adventure for me as the other stuff you're asking about.
PW: Accused bomber Eric Rudolph fits your profile of a religious terrorist. Yet he probably received extensive support from locals during his years on the run.
JS: The sympathy of the broader population makes a big difference in the effectiveness of a terrorist. There's tremendous sympathy in parts of the United States for Eric Rudolph and the movement he represents. So when we look at the polls about how people in the Islamic world feel about Americans, we should be concerned about how they perceive us.
PW: What else does that mean for winning the war on terrorism?
JS: If our attacking Iraq with no obvious well-articulated reason strongly increases anti-American sentiment not just throughout the Islamic world, as it turns out, but throughout the entire world, that's something that ought to have gone into the calculation. I also think we really need to take the problem of failed and failing states more seriously than we do now. I'm glad to see serious attention paid to failing states not just on humanitarian grounds, or on international security grounds, but on U.S. national security grounds, in the administration's articulated policy. I haven't seen evidence, though, in terms of action, that the administration really does recognize the problem. The failed or failing state is a perfect recruiting ground for terrorists and, in the case of postwar Iraq, a perfect image for recruiting terrorists in other countries as well.