"The one thing the terrorists don't like," says author Aaron Klein, "is being called terrorists."
This is why, says Klein - the Jerusalem bureau chief for the right-wing news Web site WorldNetDaily.com, and a columnist for the equally conservative Jewish Press - the subjects of his best-selling book, Schmoozing with Terrorists (published by World Ahead Media), are unhappy with its title.
"They prefer to be called 'jihadists,'" explains Klein, noting the apparent nuance that is a clear-cut distinction in the eyes of those who believe it is their religious duty to spread Islam throughout the world, by any means at their disposal.
"My response was to tell those who complained to me about my use of the word that when someone violently targets civilians, that's what he is."
That members and leaders of every major Palestinian terrorist organization ever agreed to talk (via translators) to Klein - a 28-year-old "nice Jewish boy" from Philadelphia - let alone continue to contact him after reading what he writes, seems surprising, if not unlikely. Klein disagrees. Not only does he insist that any journalist who wishes to interview terrorist leaders "can simply phone them up," but, he asserts, "they are proud of their goals and achievements, and glad to have a platform for promotion."
Which begs the question: Why provide such a platform? Because, argues Klein, the West in general, and Western media in particular, tend to play down or ignore the realities of radical Islam. Klein believes it's necessary, therefore, "to educate people on what the war on terrorism is really about," by giving a genuine glimpse into the psyche of suicide bombers and their recruiters.
In an hour-long interview in Jerusalem last month, Klein tried to do just that.
What makes terrorists tick?
That's a good question. A lot of people think that terrorism is about pieces of territory - that Hizbullah just wants to get the Shaba Farms back, for example. Others think that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the whole rest of the alphabet of Palestinian terrorists simply want to destroy Israel or that al-Qaida wants America out of the Middle East. But one thing that has really been driven home to me in all my talks with terrorists - which is the thesis of all of my work - is that they are looking to serve Allah by spreading Islam around the world. That's what makes them tick.
It is often said of terrorists that desperation and poverty - sometimes mental illness - is at the root of their actions. Is there truth to that?
It's true that if you watch CNN or read The New York Times, you would get that impression. Because whenever there's a suicide bombing in Israel, right away they present human interest stories about how the bomber is poor and living under Israeli occupation. And this is in spite of the fact that in the history of modern civilization, there's no other instance of people under occupation blowing themselves up.
But, about a year and a half ago, I met with a 22-year-old Palestinian who had been recruited to become a suicide bomber for Islamic Jihad and his recruiter in Jenin, and I specifically asked them whether they were carrying out their operations because of poverty and desperation. Their response was to get offended and call it Zionist propaganda. They explained that suicide is forbidden in Islam, and that blowing oneself up in the midst of innocent men, women and children does not constitute suicide, but rather jihad for Allah - that therefore it is not only allowed, but it is the creed.
Do the bombers actually believe they're going to paradise?
The suicide bombers themselves, and even some of the mid-level terrorists, absolutely believe they're going to paradise, where they will be met by 72 dark-eyed virgins. The senior leaders, however, don't seem to believe a lot of what they tell their acolytes. What is interesting about the 72-virgin thing that recruiters and would-be bombers repeat all the time is that it is not in the Koran. The Koran describes a paradise for martyrs as having virgins and full-breasted maidens, but the number 72 doesn't appear. That comes later, in the Hadith [oral tradition]. Anecdotally, once I was meeting with the senior leadership of al-Aksa Martyrs' Brigade in Nablus, and I brought along an American radio host, Rusty Humphries. And Humphries kept pushing them to show us where the bit about 72 virgins appears in the Koran. So they began flipping through the pages, pulling out all sorts of verses that had nothing to do with 72 virgins. Ultimately they conceded that it wasn't in there. But they didn't like being challenged, and they told me later not to bring Humphries back there ever again.
This underscores the heart of the problem - that at its very foundation there is no argument for terrorism. It's so easy to deconstruct. But most of the media out there take the terrorists' lying responses and move on to the next question without challenging them.
Another thing worth noting is that whenever I meet with terrorist leaders - who constantly tell me how brave they are, and how they're not afraid of the Israeli Zionists - they are always surrounded by women and children.
Is this because they believe Israelis try to avoid killing women and children?
Do they say so, or is this your interpretation?
When I ask them about it, they absolutely don't acknowledge it. But my problem is not with the terrorists who don't acknowledge it; it's with the reporters who don't acknowledge it. Because whenever there's an Israeli anti-terror operation in which Arab civilians are killed, right away we have this moral equivalency between the side that tries to minimize civilian casualties and the side that tries to maximize them.
Are you saying that your goal in interviewing these terrorists is to educate the West about what they're really up to?
Indeed. And I always find that terrorists are very proud of their goals and ideology, unlike the media that report on them. Talk to any terrorist and he'll be very open about his aim to destroy Israel as a stepping stone to achieving his ultimate goal of spreading Islam across the world. I actually enjoy talking to terrorists more than politicians, because when I ask terrorists why they're blowing themselves up, they give me an honest answer.
How is it they're willing to talk to you if what you're doing is exposing them? Aren't you killing their lobby, in effect?
Maybe that's the way you see it, but they think I'm doing them a favor - and perhaps I am - by giving them a platform from which to explain themselves. I don't analyze what they say; I quote them, and they are very thankful for this.
You say that you might be doing them a favor. In what way? By getting their message out to like-minded brethren?
I don't think that I'm doing them any favor. I'm saying that they want to get their ideology out there, and so maybe they believe that the best way to do it is to have an open microphone. From my perspective, what I'm doing is trying to educate people on what the war on terrorism is really about. We often embolden terrorists without even realizing it, through policies of evacuation, withdrawal, dialogue and negotiations. The terrorists are very open about the fact that if you evacuate territory, they are going to use that territory to stage further attacks toward your annihilation. If you sign a cease-fire with them, they call it a hudna, which comes from the Koran. It's the truce that Muhammad signed on his way to conquering Mecca, which he later violated. For them, a cease-fire is the chance to rebuild and regroup and prepare for the final goal of the enemy's annihilation. So what I'm trying to do here is educate Americans on what works and what doesn't work.
You keep saying that their ultimate goal is global jihad. But there are so many different groups who oppose each other. Can you really talk about the Sunnis and the Shi'ites - or Fatah and Hamas - in the same breath?
On the ground there are a lot of different factions all vying for power. But when it comes to fighting the enemy, they unite.
Do you hear support among terrorists for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
Absolutely. Any dictator who threatens to annihilate Israel is admired by Palestinian terrorists. Anyway, if you pay them enough money, they're going to do your bidding for you. And Iran is giving a fortune not only to Hamas, but to Fatah's al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade, which coordinates on a regular basis with Hizbullah, which we all know is backed by Iran and Syria.
Before disengagement, critics of the withdrawal said that Israel would be abandoning the territory to an al-Qaida state in the making. Now, you and others refer to it as an Iranian proxy. Which is it?
What's the difference, really, when they're all fighting for the same thing? Al-Qaida is certainly ideologically present in Gaza, where it has ties with Hamas. But at the moment, there isn't much difference between the goals and the way attacks are carried out between these and Iranian-backed terrorists. They're fighting the same enemies - America and America's proxy, Israel.
How informed are the terrorists you've come in contact with about American and Israeli politics?
Many are well-versed, certainly on Israeli politics. Interestingly, when there was a report about [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert's health issues, I received two separate phone calls from leaders of al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade to make sure that he was OK, because they wanted to make sure that he would stay in power.
Because they would rather have a Kadima-led government than a Likud-led one. Olmert is more accommodating; his actual election platform was withdrawal from the West Bank, and the terrorists love that, because for them a withdrawal is more territory from which to attack Israel. When it comes to American politics, they understand the difference between Democrats and Republicans, but they don't know so much about the particulars of the US presidential candidates. They consider all Americans as infidels, but they're going to support whichever political party in America they believe will help them achieve their short-term goals - and the Democrats are more outspoken on withdrawing troops from Iraq. Furthermore, Barack Obama is talking about sitting down with the Iranian president, so they'd all prefer to see a Democrat win the presidential election. In fact, I did an interview in April with Ahmad Yusuf, the chief political adviser to Hamas in Gaza, in which he endorsed Obama and compared him to John F. Kennedy.
What are you saying, then - that these terrorists want to negotiate? You claim they view all Americans as infidels, yet Ahmad Yusuf compared Obama favorably to Kennedy.
They support negotiations with the West, because they see negotiations as a sign of weakness on the part of the West - as a sign that they're bringing the West to its knees.
Do they mention specific events to illustrate that they are "bringing the West to its knees"?
Just a few weeks ago, al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade and Islamic Jihad attempted to attack the Erez crossing and failed. Olmert's response was to pull IDF troops a little bit further back into Israel. In an interview I conducted immediately after this with a Popular Resistance Committee spokesman, he said that this is a sign that the Israeli paper tiger is going to fall. He compared the retreat from Erez to the retreat from Gaza, to the retreat from Lebanon and to giving Palestinians territory in the West Bank.
Why do they agree to talk to you, a Jew, let alone phone you up regularly?
I think it's incredible that I can phone the leaders of terrorist organizations and ask them where they are, while the IDF can't find them and doesn't take them out. But it's not me, it's any reporter. I guarantee you that if I gave you their numbers and you called them up and said you were from The Jerusalem Post, they'd love it. Any reporter who wants to interview a Palestinian terrorist will find that it's very easy to do.
Do you have to pretend that you're on their side when you talk to them?
No. And this is why I think that they have some respect for me. Just as I see them as exotic for being the enemy and dangerous terrorists, they see me, too, as exotic - the pink elephant, a Jew they actually get to talk to. And they relish the opportunity to debate, from a religious perspective, militant Islam vs Judaism. They are as fascinated with me as a Jew as I am with them as terrorists. Furthermore, they say their beef isn't with Jews, but with occupiers, which is a huge lie. Just look at the Palestinian media. It's full of Nazi-like propaganda - with Jews portrayed as pigs and monkeys. This causes many Palestinians to have a total misconception about Jews as all evil.
Couldn't one argue that there are plenty of Israelis who see Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, as all evil?
Maybe there are misconceptions on both sides, but on one side there are people telling their kids to become suicide bombers and kill Israelis indiscriminately in cafes, and on the other side, there are people advocating freedom and democracy. So you can't compare the two.
Are you not afraid that these terrorists you interview will kidnap or kill you?
I understand that there's danger in what I'm doing. At the same time, if you look at the kidnappings of journalists in the Palestinian areas, you'll note that they were carried out by masked gunmen - not by a particular terrorist interviewed by a reporter. Believe it or not, when you go in, they protect you.
Have you brought up the issue of kidnapped soldiers Gilad Schalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev with the terrorists?
Yes. They're very proud of these kidnappings, because they understand that average Israelis really can't tolerate even a single soldier being in such a situation, and that therefore Israel is probably going to release Palestinian prisoners or sign a cease-fire in order to try and get them back. To them, when Israel releases Palestinian prisoners, it just goes to show that kidnapping works.
Are they surprised that Israelis value each individual soldier enough to want to make big deals to get them back?
I didn't ask specifically about that, but what they do express is finding anything about Israeli society that they can exploit.
Have you discussed 9/11 with them?
That's one topic they don't like discussing. The only thing they say is that 9/11 was a Zionist conspiracy. They say, "Don't pin that on us." They simply don't want to be associated with it.
On the other hand, many al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade guys walk around with high-powered assault rifles that were provided by the US, and they told me that they used American funding, arms and training to shoot at the Israelis. They said that if it hadn't been for those things, they don't think the second intifada in 2000 would have been as successful as it was. They credit the American training for a lot of dead Jews.
These were weapons and training the Americans provided for Fatah to fight Hamas?
That was the logic - pitting one bad guy against the other. We saw how well that worked. America gave hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, training and weapons to Fatah. Then Hamas took over Gaza - and terrorists are now showing off to me that they're using American jeeps, American assault rifles and even some shoulder-mounted machine guns to hit Israeli targets. Hamas gave me a list of all the American weapons in their possession, and I wrote an article about this. They translated my article into Arabic and posted it on Hamas's official Web site.
How do Fatah terrorists talk about PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen)?
They say that he's their leader, and that every attack they carry out is supported by him. They don't say that he orchestrates the attacks, but that the attacks are not contradictory to Fatah's platform. In other words, al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade is not some random offshoot of Fatah; it's the leader of Fatah's security forces.
How do the terrorists you've spoken to envision the future of the region?
They're certain of victory. They're certain they're going to destroy Israel, and that it will cease to exist. When I ask them how they can believe that, when Israel has the mightiest military in the Middle East, they point to Israel's defeat against Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006 as proof that it's a paper tiger.
Are they unaware of other reasons why Israel might not be destroyed - such as the fact that it's a flourishing, modern society, with endless construction and other accomplishments?
They know that Jews are industrious, but what they see is Israel in retreat. They don't really pay attention to its hi-tech sector, as long as they can fire rockets into the area where the hi-tech sector is located. They truly believe that missiles are going to be flying over the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway in the very near future.
But how do they envision their own society, in the event that their goals of defeating Israel and the US are achieved?
That's just it. They have no plan beyond jihad. Look, there are a million and a half Arabs in Gaza - some would say trapped there. Can you imagine if there were a million and a half Jews trapped there? They'd build Singapore. When I ask the terrorists about why they haven't built anything in Gaza, they say that they can't build anything until they get all of their land back. They don't seem to have a long-term plan beyond that.