Interview with "Terrorists in Love" author Ken Ballen
Please welcome Ken Ballen, author of Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals, to On the Bookcase! Use this interview in our book club meeting to help your discussion by delving deeper into his research for his new book.
- As an American Jew, did you ever fear for your safety during your time in the Middle East, South Asia, and Indonesia? Did you feel explicitly targeted or in danger due to your nationality and/or your religion?
The danger is real. One of the journalists who helped me in Pakistan was subsequently targeted and killed. As a former federal prosecutor, I took as many safety precautions as possible.
- What was it like to interview convicted killers and terrorists? How did you ultimately select the six men to profile?
I have spent nearly two decades of my career interrogating criminals and terrorists, from organized crime and Mafia hit men, to drug dealers, child molesters, con artists, corrupt politicians, murderers, and terrorists themselves. The six individuals profiled had the most compelling stories, defying conventional wisdom. Their life stories are also broadly representative of the more than one hundred other terrorists and radicals I interviewed over a five year period.
- Did your interviews change the scope of what you’re trying to accomplish with Terror Free Tomorrow, the non-profit research organization you chair?
As a federal prosecutor, Congressional investigator and President of Terror Free Tomorrow, I have often been cited as an “expert” on terrorism. Conducting these interviews, particularly of the six people featured in the book, changed everything I thought I knew.
- Was there a particular story or interviewee that you found most compelling? One that you were especially moved by?
All in different ways moved me—that’s why I write about them. I would say that my dinner dream with Shaheed, which led him to renounce terrorism, had to be the most moving encounter. To see someone renounce terrorism from a meeting with you is a profound experience.
- After talking with these former and current radicals, do you give greater meaning to your dreams? Did your interactions with Shaheed make you reconsider their importance?
I’m not sure I give greater importance to my own dreams. Even though my experience with Shaheed was dramatic, it could have ended up quite differently for me, even possibly putting me in danger. Certainly, I would now think twice before sharing my dreams with radical Muslims!
- Do you see hope or viability in Kamal’s more humanistic interpretation of the Quran? Do you think this religious message has the potential to spread and overtake the extremist view?
Whether or not I see hope, more importantly, Kamal does. As I write in the book, change must come from within.
- What are your feelings about Pakistan and their relation to the U.S. in the war on terror?
I was able to corroborate the essential elements of Zeddy’s account. It should deeply terrify anyone who cares about not only the United States but also the future of humanity.
- Do you plan to keep in touch with your acquaintances in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan? Have you heard from any recently?
Yes, I keep in touch with about half of those profiled in the book.
- In your Afterword, you outline a position on American policy in the Middle East. How can someone who’s read your book help spread the message about Middle Eastern democracy “under a Muslim vision”? Can you suggest any ways to get involved?
There are many ways to become involved. I believe that inter-religious dialogue is essential. Of course, any reader is also free to support the work of Terror Free Tomorrow.
Kenneth Ballen is President and founder of Terror Free Tomorrow, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization, which investigates the causes of extremism. Ballen has spent two decades on the frontlines of law enforcement, international relations, intelligence oversight and congressional investigations. As a federal prosecutor, Ballen successfully convicted international terrorists. He also prosecuted major figures in organized crime, international narcotics, and one of the first cases in the United States involving illegal financing for Middle Eastern terrorists. Ballen has regularly contributed to CNN, and its companion website CNN.com.