The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Fareed Zakaria on 'Mumbai' style terrorism: It's time to encourage 'religious revulsion'

November 19, 2009 |  2:50 pm

HBO is airing a really scary movie tonight at 8. It isn't "District 9" or "Paranormal Activity." It's a documentary called "Terror in Mumbai," about the infamous 2008 terrorist attack that killed 170 people, wounded another 300 and, in the eyes of many anti-terrorist experts, may have served as a dress rehearsal for future terrorist actions in other parts of the world -- including here in the good old USA. Having watched the film, I can assure you that it's far more than another dutiful re-creation of a tragic incident of modern-day bloodshed.

In fact, the film (directed by Dan Reed and narrated by Newsweek and CNN's Fareed Zakaria) is truly chilling, often more reminiscent of a creepy sci-fi thriller than a documentary. The reason? In addition to all the usual footage of violence and chaos, we get to eavesdrop on the conversations between the 10 young Pakistani men and their handler as they lay siege to Mumbai, leaving bombs in taxis, using guns and grenades to butcher innocent civilians in train stations, cafes and two of the city's most famous hotels.

Although the Indian police were, as Zakaria told me yesterday, "hapless, cowardly and utterly disorganized," the Indian secret service had managed to infiltrate the Pakistani terrorist group and give them a host of cellphone SIM cards, some of which were in use by the terrorists during the attack. So we get to be voyeurs of a sort, listening in on their conversations as they roam up and down hotel corridors and take over one of the city's Jewish centers, deciding who they will take hostage and when they will kill them. (At one point, you can even hear the gunshots over the phone.)

The terrorists are programmed, you might even say hypnotized, by their controller. He encourages and cajoles them over the phone from Pakistan, then when they have done as much damage as possible, orders them to kill themselves. But one terrorist survives, superficially wounded, and we are allowed to watch a video of his police interrogation as well. For me, the scariest part of the movie was realizing that these were not battle-hardened jihadists. In fact, they are uneducated, largely clueless kids who have such an utterly bleak outlook on life that they see indiscriminate killing as their ticket to heaven.

Zakaria believes that the roots of terrorism lie in poverty and a culture of hate. His prescription for change often sounds like do-goodism, so much so that Robert Lloyd, who reviewed the film in my paper today, gently mocked Zakaria, saying his introduction to the film "reminded me of the kind of prologues once appended to films about juvenile delinquency."

So when I got on the phone with Zakaria, who is a leading expert on global politics, I asked him the obvious question: How do we possibly defend ourselves against a bunch of deluded religious extremists who essentially act like an army of George Romero-style zombies? Here's what he had to say:

"We all would agree that where there are bad guys, you have to go after them and, frankly, kill them," he says. "But you can't have an anti-terrorist policy that is just based on killing these people, because there is an inexhaustible supply of them. Of course, we can't just throw up our hands either. What we need to do is find ways to create fewer cesspools of despair, so you don't have a situation like you do in this film, where we learn from the one surviving terrorist that his family was so poor that his father basically sold him into terrorism. We need to create a sense of hope and a belief in personal advancement, so these men might have a sense of mastery and control over their own lives."

But, I asked, isn't their devotion to radical Islam -- the terrorist group is known as the Army of the Righteous -- far more powerful than a few good civic projects? A fair point, says Zakaria. But he pointed to the example of largely Muslim countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Indonesia as examples of places where extremism isn't all-powerful.

"If you look at Jordan, it used to be very anti-American and very radicalized," he says. "But over the last decade, it's really modernized its economy and, as a result, it's not a society that is generating new generations of suicide bombers. You also see that in Turkey and Indonesia, where you're not seeing large new generations of jihadists. And that's because those countries have made huge strides in their economic development. I think what we have to do is encourage support for religious revulsion. We have to tread carefully, maybe even covertly, but we need to support internal religious forces that are built around discouraging jihad, that can argue that it is an offense against universal human rights."

So what does Zakaria hope that viewers here will take away from the film? "I hope, for Americans, that this film will open people's eyes. It shows us that when it comes to terrorists like these, that we are not up against a hardened, well-schooled jihadist army. These are boys -- rural, uneducated young men with no hopes or prospects -- who were taken advantage of by their controllers. So I hope this film demystifies our notion of terrorism. I know that ending poverty isn't a magic bullet. But it would be a powerful weapon to change the circumstances of these kind of kids. If they had any education at all, they wouldn't believe the fantasies that their controllers gave them. They might actually believe that they aren't victims but they are people who can transform their lives."

The belief in transforming our lives, in catapulting ourselves out of poverty and despair, is certainly deeply ingrained in America, the land of opportunity. The big, unanswerable question is whether that belief can be transplanted to other cultures, especially ones that nurture the kind of vicious thuggery we see in the horrifying "Terror in Mumbai."