Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals (Review)

Book cover for "Terrorists in Love" by Ken Ballen.Title: Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals

Author: Ken Ballen

Narrator: Peter Ganim

Publication Year: 2011

Pages: 336 (audio length: 12 hours 36 minutes)

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Audiobook version purchased from Audible.com

From the cover:

Imagine a world where a boy’s dreams dictate the behavior of warriors in battle; where a young couple’s only release from forbidden love is death; where religious extremism, blind hatred, and endemic corruption combine to form a lethal ideology that can hijack a man’s life forever. This is the world of Terrorists in Love.

A former federal prosecutor and congressional investigator, Ken Ballen spent five years as a pollster and a researcher with rare access — via local government officials, journalists, and clerics — interviewing more than a hundred Islamic radicals, asking them searching questions about their inner lives, deepest faith, and what it was that ultimately drove them to jihad. Intimate and enlightening, Terrorists in Love opens a fresh window into the realm of violent extremism as Ballen profiles six of these men — from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia — revealing a universe of militancy so strange that it seems suffused with magical realism.

Mystical dreams and visions, the demonic figure of the United States, intense sexual repression, crumbling family and tribal structures — the story that emerges here is both shocking and breathtakingly complex. Terrorists in Love introduces us to men like Ahmad Al-Shayea, an Al Qaeda suicide bomber who survives his attack only to become fiercely pro-American; Zeddy, who trains terrorists while being paid by America’s ally, the Pakistani Army; and Malik, Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s personal seer. Lifting the veil on the mysterious world of Muslim holy warriors, Ballen probes these men’s deepest secrets, revealing the motivations behind their deadly missions and delivering a startling new exploration of what drives them to violence and why there is yet an unexpected hope for peace. An extraordinarily gifted listener and storyteller, Ballen takes us where no one has dared to go — deep into the secret heart of Islamic fundamentalism, providing a glimpse at the lives, loves, frustrations, and methods of those whose mission it is to destroy us.

I will start out this review by admitting that I though, from the title, that the book would be about actual love stories.

While there are a few narratives in Terrorists in Love that included a “love story” component, they don’t all do so. And had I truly read the description of the book properly, I would’ve known this ahead of time myself. Oh well, live and learn, right?

With or without love stories, Ballen has managed to put something truly fascinating together in this book. While we hear about “Islamic” terrorists in the news with varying frequency depending on what has happened recently, we pretty much never hear from the terrorists themselves about their stories. It is this gap that Ballen attempts to fill with this book, and I’d personally say that he succeeds with flying colours.

The six narratives in the book express a range of motivations for participating in jihad. Some are more like what the mainstream media would have us believe – like the stories of men seeing pictures of torture in Abu Ghraib and directing their anger against Americans in Iraq – but I would say that most of the motivations expressed throughout Terrorists in Love are more complex and mainstream than you might expect. It’s definitely an eye-opener for anyone who thinks they “know” why terrorists do what they do, and especially for anyone who still thinks they can blame Islam for what men do in its name.

There were a few moments in the text that made me cringe for the assumptions that were made (like referring to a miswak as something that jihadis chew) and sentences that were written (such as Ballen saying he will “uncover a world behind the veil” – aren’t we done with those stupid metaphors yet?). But, overall, I felt like The author did a tremendous job of collating the stories of these men and presenting them for a curious audience.

I think that stories like these should be required reading for anyone who really wants to know what’s behind the practice of terrorism by “jihadis” in today’s world. It might surprise you or shock the assumptions out of readers, but that can only be a good thing. Pick up a copy of Terrorists in Love when you see it – it’s a fascinating read!


This book is a part of the Ramadan Reading event happening here this month.

You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.

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