Humanising a terrorist

By Ahmad El-Muhammady

Ahmad El-Muhammady, who works with the Malaysian government to rehabilitate violent extremists, says we need to understand the people behind terrorism.

“You seriously interview terrorists?” Surprised but intrigued. That’s the most common and immediate reaction from people when I tell them what I do.

It’s understandable. There is something about serious acts of violence that both repulses ordinary people like you and me and yet ignites our dark interest. We are all curious as to what might drive someone to extreme acts. We feel it might reveal something about what it means to be human.

We’re not incorrect. To rehabilitate a terrorist — to bring a person back from the clutches of an extreme ideology — you need to delve a little deeper into their personal story to understand their motivations.

If I have learned anything from my line of work, it is that while their actions have been terrible, they are not mindless monsters. When I was introduced for the first time to 12 Jama’ah Islamiyyah members in 2011, I was struck by the fact that they look so normal, sensible, and coherent. They were courteous and well mannered. They reminded me of my schoolmates in the persantren, or traditional religious school, in the 90s. Theoretically, anyone of us could become a terrorist, if subjected to similar influences and experiences. Perhaps that’s what worries people.


In my job, the interviews I conduct support the Malaysian government’s rehabilitation process. Through my conversations with terrorists, we work out how best to try to alter their thinking so they are no longer a threat to society. To prepare for these difficult conversations, the prison’s officer-in-charge would brief me on each detainee’s background, level of involvement, state of mind, and degree of cooperation.

My mission is clear: try to figure out their ideology and motivations. But of course, I always discover much more than I set out to.

A heart to heart conversation with a terrorist consists of three parts

In the detention centre, I start by making light conversation to set them at ease. I address them as “akhi” — an Arabic term that means ‘brother’ — or “ukhti” for ‘sister’. The tone I use is calm, composed — friendly even. I try not to raise my voice. It may seem like simple things but nuances like these affect how long they’re going to talk to me for. If I make it too formal to begin with, I will only get so far.

The second part is finding out how they ended up in a terrorist group. Was it through a friend or an acquaintance? Through self-study? Or just a chance encounter? What drew them in? The key is not to sound judgemental. Always give them the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to tell their story.

The third part is understanding the roots of their ideology. To talk to a terrorist, you need to understand their ‘language’ (the jargon and technical terms they use) and their ‘discourse’ (the books and ideologues they refer to, certain historical events they often cite, the passages and phrases they love to quote, and histories of their movements).

This part is challenging because it requires familiarity with their way of speaking. If you understand the jargon, you are more likely to gain a deeper insight into their worldviews. If you are not familiar with this, they will know that you have no idea what they are talking about. If you can’t understand what they’re on about, they will be less likely to give you the information you want.

But the most important thing in terrorist interviewing is your ability to build a connection with them — a process that takes time and repeated visits. People can sense if you’re just there to collect data or extract information. You need to build trust and rapport in order to get into their deeper self.

What makes someone a terrorist?

There are many reasons as to why someone is recruited, but I think all are ultimately human in nature. We might immediately think of religious motivations and political ideologies, but these are not inherently powerful without the personal aspect.

People who are vulnerable to recruitment sometimes come from unstable families or backgrounds. They feel rejected. We underestimate the power of human connection and communication — not only within families but in the wider world too. We must make efforts to interact with communities that are not our own to destroy misconceptions and this sense of foreignness.

Back to the right path

We live in a democracy in Malaysia. We are not trying to control people’s minds. But we are trying to stop activities that harm innocent civilians. Deradicalisation is not about policing thought: a common criticism. In fact, the majority of detainees will retain some of their radical ideas albeit without the violence.

My experience tells me that the government needs to incorporate this softer rehabilitative approach as a strategy to counter and prevent violent extremism. Police interrogations, prison sentences, and sanctions, are not the only solution.

I was motivated to help because I think terrorists deserve a second chance. This might seem controversial; after all, some have committed atrocities many would consider unforgivable. But we shouldn’t ostracise them. We should try to see them as fellow human beings, affected by various factors that have ultimately led them down the wrong path. And if we make an effort to understand them, and what pushed them towards radicalisation, we can go a long way towards preventing future terror attacks.

Like in many other aspects of life, a quiet, heart-to-heart conversation can soften even the most hardened terrorist. It is not the sound of shouts and guns but the sounds of whispers that can change people.

Ahmad El-Muhammady is a lecturer of Political Science and Islamic Studies at the International Islamic University Malaysia. He was appointed by Malaysian government as part of a rehabilitation team for terrorists in Malaysia. In November 2017, he was interviewed as part of UNDP’s #ExtremeLives, a live video series investigating the stories of people affected by extremism in Asia. Watch his interview here.

This article is republished with permission from the UNDP in Asia and the Pacific.