Little Details: Protection and reflection

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Al-Qaeda. ISIS. ISIL. Khorasan. Terrorist organizations multiply in a world of political turmoil, ethno-religious strife and gaping wealth disparities. Threats to our sense of security proliferate, at home and abroad.
Al-Qaeda, the global militant Islamist group, became a household word following the 9/11 attacks. Operating across borders, Al-Qaeda introduced Americans to suicidal terror missions and the concept of “sleeper cells” awaiting activation.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), is a Sunni jihadist group claiming religious authority over all Muslims. Levant refers, collectively, to Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus and an area within southern Turkey. This is the group which released the “Flames of War” video; it runs like movie trailer, designed to instill fear while also serving as a recruitment tool for those who would join their cause. ISIS is also associated with recent, gruesome beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker.
Khorasan, based in Syria, has historic ties to Al-Qaeda and is deemed to pose particular threats to targets in Europe and the United States.
As someone who follows the news, it sometimes feels like trying to keep up with the “terrorist agency du jour,” tracking the ever-evolving players, tactics and geographies of these groups.
Terrorism is defined as political activity relying on violence—or the threat of violence—to achieve one’s means. Terrorism reflects a certain desperation. It is often a weapon of the weak, used to strike a much more powerful, yet seemingly less nimble, foe.
Who is or is not a terrorist is subject to some interpretation.
Ireland’s protracted war for independence spurred home-grown insurgents to engage in violent acts—sabotage, kidnappings and bombings—against better-equipped British military forces. Were these freedom fighters or brazen terrorists, willing to kill in pursuit of their political objectives?
American foreign policy earned us friends and foes. Brandishing military and economic might made us a key player in the complex chess game of international relations. One move impacts another, which impacts another.
As the Obama administration wrestles with the latest incarnations of terrorism, I find myself wondering about the mindset of those recruited to carry out violent terrorist acts. This is what I learned:
Terrorists tend to be revolutionaries, seeking significant change. They focus almost entirely on planning and carrying out acts of terrorism. They feel cheated by society. Young men with little to lose and an orientation toward risk-taking are common recruits, but women can be found among their ranks. They tend to see issues as black or white, with very little gray in between. To those who would harm us, the United States represents a corrupt existing order, an order which must be overthrown, even at the expense of loss of innocents.
Democracies are more vulnerable to terrorist attacks than totalitarian systems. Freedom of movement, the right to bear arms and the lack of military omnipresence provide positive conditions for terrorist acts. The challenge remains in how to stop and/or slow terrorism without curtailing civil liberties.
As we build coalitions, send military advisors, fly drones and contemplate another series of boots-on-the-ground offensives, I can only hope we step up efforts to evaluate our nation’s image and actions as a parallel step. Understanding why we are hated just might be a positive step in resolving present and future conflicts.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper, a Williston resident, was a 2013 finalist for the Coolidge Prize for Journalism. Reader comments are welcome at or