How terrorists see themselves – with the CIA

The CIA talked about terrorists’ self perception at Oakland University on Thursday, Feb. 2. Career Services held the event, and Pi Sigma Alpha sponsored it.

Randy Burkett, CIA director of operations officer, discussed terrorism over Skype.

Burkett worked in East Asian counterterrorism and counterproliferation. He has also served as an intelligence educator for the CIA and is chair of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, where he taught courses on intelligence and international terrorism. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s in national security affairs and over 20 years of experience in the military.

Burkett discussed how terrorists view themselves. He said, even though Americans don’t tend to agree or sympathize with terrorists, it’s important to understand how they think to dismantle and lessen terrorism in the future.

“Terrorism is violence, or the threat of violence, for political purposes in which the victims are not the intended audience,” he said.

Burkett said sometimes other acts of violence are mislabeled as terrorism and emphasized that terrorism, because of its intent, is different from mass murder, hate crimes and other similar events.

When he was teaching intelligence courses, he would bring in psychologists to teach people how terrorists perceive themselves.

Burkett said his colleague, Marc Sageman, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Terrorism in the Foreign Policy Research Institute, once looked at 400 members of al-Qaida and discovered less than 10 percent of them had mental illness.

“This is less mental illness than you find in the general population,” Burkett said. “What you’re dealing with is people who believe they are making rational decisions.”

Burkett added that 90 percent of people who went on to lead al-Qaida came from caring homes.

He also looked at the idea of terrorists being individuals who are unemployed or of lower socioeconomic statuses and turn to terrorism out of desperation. Of 102 al-Qaida leaders, 18 percent were upper-class, 56 percent were middle-class and 57 percent were professionals. He said 73 percent of the 400 al-Qaida members were married.

He then turned his attention to religion and stressed that it is not a good indicator of terrorism. Terrorists are typically not well-educated when it comes to religion.

“For ISIS, the more someone is educated in the Quran, the less likely they are to volunteer as a suicide bomber,” Burkett said. “The only role religion plays in terrorism is it becomes the justifying ideology that terrorists use to identify who is the ‘us’ versus who is the ‘them.’”

Burkett said many young men are recruited into terrorist groups around age 25. 

“It’s not so much about evil or hate as it is about empathy and a desire to be seen protecting others,” Burkett said. “They see themselves as protecting those who can’t protect themselves. They’re looking for a damsel in distress, they’re looking to be the hero. They’re looking to engage in something that’s bigger than themselves.”

To terrorists, it becomes a war of good versus evil, and ultimately, their morals degrade in order to combat their idea of evil by any means necessary.

After the presentation, Burkett opened the floor to questions. When the video chat concluded, students were able to talk with four CIA representatives about career opportunities. 

“Career Services works really closely with the CIA,” said Amy Ring Cebelak, a career consultant at Career Services. “A big part of what we do is connect students with employers. The CIA comes on campus pretty regularly to do recruiting, and they came to us with this special topic and asked if they thought students would be interested.”