This week a federal grand jury indicted Army soldier Naser Jason Abdo, age 21, on three charges related to a plot to attack soldiers near Fort Hood, Texas. When authorities arrested him, they found in his possession bomb-making materials, a gun, ammunition, and the article "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom," from a recent issue of al-Qaeda’s English online journal Inspire. Initial questioning of Abdo indicates that his intended targets were U.S. military personnel.
Much of the attention on this case so far has focused on Abdo’s religion—Islam—and his refusal to deploy to Afghanistan. As Rep. John Carter, whose 31st District in Texas includes Fort Hood, announced, “We may well have averted a repeat of the tragic 2009 radical Islamic terror attack.”
Any effort to make sense of this troubled young man will need to include understanding how he chose to approach and interpret his religion, and perhaps most importantly, why he adopted the interpretation he did. Any effort to understand Abdo without considering this question would be profoundly incomplete.
Yet tucked away, often near the closing paragraph of the articles about this case, is mention of an issue that I believe warrants more attention than it has received in the past decade of terrorism studies: namely, pornography. And in Abdo's case, child pornography.
In May, the Army charged Abdo with possession of child pornography found on a computer he used. Due to this charge, when Abdo was found to be “absent without leave” (AWOL) from his unit in Kentucky earlier this month, the Army was preparing an Article 32 hearing against him, which can lead to a general court martial.
Before examining this, I want to be clear. Considering whether pornography use may have been one factor shaping Abdo’s disturbing behavior is not to pin the lone cause of Abdo’s pursuit of terrorist violence on pornography.
Pornography is not a necessary cause of terrorism. The abolition of pornography would not lead to the cessation of terrorism in the world. Terrorism existed well before graphic pornography and its mass spread via the internet.
Likewise, pornography is not a sufficient cause for terrorism. There are pornography users, even addicts, who do not become terrorists. Given how widespread the viewing of pornography is today, if the direct result of each individual’s pornography use were terrorist violence, one could conceivably argue that pornography proliferation would pose a more widespread threat to human existence than nuclear proliferation.
Yet pornography now appears frequently in the possession of violent terrorists and their supporters, including Osama bin Laden. Regarding “smut” found on captured media, in 2010, a Department of Defense al-Qaeda analyst was quoted in The Atlantic: “We have terabytes of this stuff.” Terabytes. That’s a lot of “smut.”
I wonder whether the pornography of today—now ubiquitous and increasingly grotesque—is one of the influences warping the mentality of those who aspire to or who actually go on to engage in ever more grotesque public violence.
Would those terabytes of pornography and such more aptly be dubbed “terrorbytes”? Why, after all, would an al-Qaeda affiliate, as reported in 2009 from interrogations in Mauritania, select pornography to target new recruits? We need to know.
As terrorism researchers Daniel Bynum and Christine Fair point out in an article about the modern terrorists we have been pursuing, especially since 9/11, the fact of the matter is that “they get intimate with cows and donkeys. Our terrorist enemies trade on the perception that they’re well trained and religiously devout, but in fact, many are fools and perverts who are far less organized and sophisticated than we imagine. Can being more realistic about who our foes actually are help us stop the truly dangerous ones?”
In a powerful 1993 article, Andrea Dworkin maintains that it was no coincidence that the former Yugoslavia was home to both a free-flow of pornography, which was remarkably fluid and unbounded by the standards of that pre-internet time, and then absolutely horrific violence. She suggests that the wide circulation of pornography functioned as instruction in “a way of being: dehumanization of women; bigotry and aggression harnessed to destroying the body of the enemy; invasion as a male right.”
In the former Yugoslavia, “the pornography,” Dworkin argues, “was war propaganda that trained an army of rapists who waited for permission to advance. An atavistic nationalism provided the trigger and defined the targets.” Ideas, ideologies, and –isms do matter, but they do not exist in isolation.
Consider an ideology like a seed and the disposition of the mind like soil. The particular nature of the seed determines what may become of it. Yet at the same time, the elements of the soil are part and parcel of shaping the manner in which the particular seed grows. A seed in toxic soil can grow into a terrible distortion of the plant it is meant to become. What happens when a radical ideology adheres in a pornography-saturated mind?
I believe our country needs to invest in research that questions whether it makes a difference when the minds that advocate for extremist ideologies are minds warped by pornography use. Perhaps the twisting of the mind that results from pornography has an impact—an exceptionally dark, dangerous impact—on how radicalized individuals act out the concepts of their ideology.
Dworkin raised this specter in 1993, but since then, our general public attitude to the presence of pornography in violent conflict seems virtually unchanged. Just as in 1993, our tendency today is to dismiss it as simply an indicator that “boys will be boys.”
However, two changes since 1993 may jolt us into at least considering that a dismissive “boys will be boys” attitude is no longer a sufficient level of understanding.
The first change is that since 1993, we have experienced the domestication of terrorist violence in America. This conflict-violence can no longer be dismissed as an “over there,” foreign, out-of-sight-out-of-mind issue. If, if, there is a pornography association with this terrorist violence, then today, unlike in 1993, the potential impact now is here, right here at home. It was as morally repugnant in 1993 as it is today, but now it is harder to turn a blind eye to it.
The second change is that since 9/11, the U.S. government has had opportunity to observe, and in many cases, acquire, personal media from untold numbers of those involved in terrorism and the support of terrorism. We may be sitting on a massive data set for studying the intersection of pornography use and support for twisted violence such as terrorism.
The coalescence of these two changes presents not only horrific new challenges, but also an opportunity to bring research to bear on whether or not there is a nexus of influence with pornography and the grotesqueness of some modern conflict-violence.
We may need to invest in understanding the impact of pornography on those who use it, particularly on those who also become obsessed with extremist ideologies. So, I wonder, is anyone in the U.S. government tracking and surveying the presence and types of pornography on these media? If we have access to the libraries of the personal pornography preferences of those who support and engage in terrorist violence, we may have a window into the dark corners of their minds. What lurks there? It may be to our own peril that we would ignore this information before us.
In seeking to understand terrorists, studying their ideas alone is not enough. We need to study and understand their minds—and in this day and age, this includes, in perhaps more cases than we are aware of, minds shaped by pornography.
Sometimes terrorists’ identification of their motivating ideologies can tell us more about who the terrorists aspire to be than who they actually are. Most significantly, if we want to understand modern terrorism in order better to prevent and counter it, we need to go beyond the surface level of what terrorists want us to believe about themselves and delve instead, to the extent possible, into the deepest levels of their actual lived reality.
Consider Abdo. In his words, he kept trying to portray himself as a man driven by righteous religious motivation. When he volunteered to join the military in 2009, he said, “I thought God would be proud of me.” Just a year later, he sought exemption from his Army unit’s deployment to Afghanistan on grounds of conscientious objection, again citing his personal religious motivation.
Contrary to his views of 2009 and contrary to the view of other Muslims, including Muslim jurists, Abdo claimed in 2010, “Any Muslim who knows his religion or maybe takes into account what his religion says can find out very clearly why he should not participate in the U.S. military.” Abdo wrote that instead of deploying to Afghanistan, he wanted to use his time to "revive the faith of the Muslim nation." He also claimed, "I want to use my experience to show Muslims how we can lead our lives.”
Yet his words do not tell the whole story. As evidenced by Abdo’s possession of child pornography, he appears to have had interests other than—and in conflict with—just being a man who “knows his religion” or who takes his religion “into account.”
When there is dissonance of words and actions, words are not enough to explain behavior. What is needed is a comprehensive and authentic account of who an individual is. Focusing exclusively on ideology, as expressed in words, risks turning a blind eye to the internal reality of a person as expressed in his or her actions.
If we want to understand the inner workings of terrorists and would-be terrorists, we must seek to understand their entire person, including the relationship—or inconsistencies—between their words and actions. In the case of the 9/11 hijackers who visited strip clubs, and in the case of Abdo and among what seems like an increasing number of terrorists, actions include sexual perversions and pornography use that cannot be squared with what these ideological terrorists and their supporters espouse.
I do not know what link, if any, exists between terrorism and pornography, but I do think this question warrants attention. Since 9/11, we have investigated radical ideologies that claim their affirmation in Islam, and that terrorists have identified as their inspiration. Yet when terrorists adhering to such ideologies are found with pornography, we tend to look only at the terrorists’ words, not at the reality of their behavior.
Today, the lives of terrorists and aspiring terrorists often include the use of pornography. The pornography on their captured media and in their online activities is information that tells us something about them. What remains in question, however, is whether or not we will seek knowledge and understanding from this information.
With the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks staring us in the face, we already know that our failure to have an approach to security that is robust and accurate has dire consequences. Pornography has long circulated nearly unbounded due to calls for “freedom,” but what if we are actually making ourselves less free by allowing pornography itself to be more freely accessible?
Are there security costs to the free-flow of pornography? If so, what are they? Are we as a society putting ourselves at risk by turning a blind eye to pornography proliferation?
I wonder further: Could it be that pornography drives some users to a desperate search for some sort of radical “purification” from the pornographic decay in their soul? Could it be that the greater the wedge pornography use drives between an individual’s religious aspirations and the individual’s actions, the more the desperation escalates, culminating in increasingly horrific public violence, even terrorism?
As Bynum and Fair pointedly questioned, “Can being more realistic about who our foes actually are help us stop the truly dangerous ones?”
Here I offer only questions. I do not know their answers or what rigorous studies of these and related issues will yield. I merely think the time has come to suggest that our continued failure to ask these questions and to pursue their answers may be a mistake we make at our own national peril.
Jennifer S. Bryson is the director of the Witherspoon Institute’s Islam and Civil Society Project.