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Becoming a terrorist provides income, safety and identity

How do people become involved in terrorist organisations? Liesbeth van der Heide sought the answer to this question in a Malian prison, where she interviewed terrorists in a tiny cell. She discovered that the will to survive and social context are often more decisive than individual ideological convictions. A detail that can make a big difference in the international fight against terrorism. PhD ceremony on 11 May.

Van der Heide’s research question more or less landed in her lap when she found herself in Mali in 2016 for her work for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. ‘Mali has been in the grip of violence and terrorism for years. In the capital, Bamako, many terrorists are in prison who were arrested in the north of the country and were members of local or Arab terrorist groups. The government knows that they smuggled weapons for al-Qaeda or belonged to the Touareg rebels, but it doesn’t know who exactly these people are and why they are terrorists.’ The Malian Ministry of Justice and Security asked Van der Heide to find this out.

Liesbeth van der Heide together with guards from the Koulikoro prison in Mali.

Speaking freely

Van der Heide calls it, ‘a unique opportunity.’ ‘In many countries it is difficult to get terrorists to talk. And terrorists are often not very talkative while their trial is still in progress. Things are different in Mail: the prisoners have little prospect of a fair trial and can speak freely.’ Between 2016 and 2020 Van der Heide travelled to Mail 18 times for interviews with 30 terrorists and 75 counter-terrorism professionals.


During her prison visits Van der Heide, together with an Italian and a French researcher, spoke to terrorists of all shapes and sizes: from a former Gaddafi bodyguard and arms smuggler to the head of a local Sharia police force. ‘They were interesting, sometimes very personal conversations about their life in prison, their past and their motives.’

The cell where Liesbeth van der Heide interviewed prisoners.

Van der Heide gained an important insight during a conversation with a somewhat older prisoner. ‘Terrorists often oppose the government, so we asked everyone how they saw Mali. This man replied: “I was born in a country that others call Mali.” That is such an essential point. These people aren’t bound by national borders and can’t count on a government to provide clean water, good education and security for them. They make the pragmatic choice for terrorist groups that do offer these facilities and political representation.’

Western theory versus the practice

Van der Heide’s findings are at odds with the prevailing Western lens, which focuses almost exclusively on the individual. ‘But it’s not only an individual choice or individual ideological conviction that makes people become involved with terrorist groups. It’s more about the role of the group. We see terrorist organisations that whole families – whole villages even – join to survive. What these groups have to offer is simply seen as a better alternative.’

Also relevant for foreign fighters in Syria

Van der Hoofd has been head of the Municipality of The Hague’s radicalisation response since 2020. ‘We in the Netherlands often focus on the individual but with foreign fighters returning from Syria, the role of the group and the social network is really big.’ Van der Heide and her team are therefore trying to see how they can involve this social network. ‘We are looking at whether people have an alternative network and how we can contribute to that. Because if we only focus our prevention and rehabilitation approach on the individual, that’s just a drop in the ocean.’

Text: Julie de Graaf
Banner photo: A guard in the
Koulikoro prison in Mali. Credit: ICRC Audiovisual Archives
Photos in text: Liesbeth van der Heide

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