Is There a Nexus between Torture and Radicalization?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 13

A great deal of debate surrounds the factors driving the brand of radical Islam in the Middle East that inspires some individuals to commit acts of violence. A recurring theme in extremist discourse is opposition to incumbent authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. For radical Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda, unwavering U.S. support for the autocracies that rule Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region tops a list of grievances toward what amounts to pillars of U.S. foreign policy in the region. In addition to al-Qaeda, however, most Muslims in the Middle East also see these regimes as oppressive, corrupt and illegitimate. Authoritarian regimes in the region are also widely viewed as compliant agents of a U.S.-led neo-colonial order as opposed to being accountable to their own people. Ironically, having realized that most of al-Qaeda’s leaders and foot soldiers received their start in radical opposition politics in their home countries, including U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the United States identified the persistence of authoritarianism in the Middle East as a critical factor in the spread of radicalization in its call for greater political liberalization and democratization in the region after the September 11 attacks [1].

Radical Islamist discourse highlighting the scourge of authoritarianism in the Middle East takes on many forms. One subject in particular, however, receives a great deal of attention in militant literature, communiqués, and discussions on radical Islamist chat room forums: The practice of systematic torture by the ruling regimes, especially that which occurs in prisons. Brutal and humiliating forms of torture are common instruments of control and coercion by the security services in police states intent on rooting out all forms of dissent. Previously the domain of human rights activists, researchers investigating the many pathways toward radicalization in the Middle East are increasingly considering the impact of torture and other abuses at the hands of the state during periods of incarceration in an effort to better understand the psychology of the radicalization process. Many researchers see these kinds of experiences as formative in the path toward violent radicalization [2].

There is ample evidence that a number of prominent militants—including al-Qaeda deputy commander Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri and the late al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—endured systematic torture at the hands of the Egyptian and Jordanian authorities, respectively (see Terrorism Monitor, May 4, 2006). Many observers believe that their turn toward extreme radicalism represented as much an attempt to exact revenge against their tormentors and, by extension, the United States, as it was about fulfilling an ideology. Those who knew Zawahiri and can relate to his experience believe that his behavior today is greatly influenced by his pursuit of personal redemption to compensate for divulging information about his associates after breaking down amid brutal torture sessions during his imprisonment in the early 1980s [3]. For radical Islamists and their sympathizers, U.S. economic, military, and diplomatic support for regimes that engage in this kind of activity against their own citizens vindicates al-Qaeda’s claims of the existence of a U.S.-led plot to attack Muslims and undermine Islam. In al-Qaeda’s view, these circumstances require that Muslims organize and take up arms in self-defense against the United States and its allies in the region.

Torture in Extremist Discourse

Radical Islamist literature and discourse is replete with references to torture. The infamous al-Qaeda training manual “Military Studies in the Jihad against the Tyrants,” more commonly referred to as the “Manchester Document,” includes references to the oppression and torture endured by Muslims at the hands of “apostate” rulers whose prisons are “equipped with the most modern torture devices” [4]. Al-Zawahiri’s public statements often contain references to torture by the Egyptian regime and others in the region. In addressing the nature of U.S.-Egyptian relations during a May 2007 statement, Zawahiri criticizes what he labels “American hypocrisy, which calls for democracy even as it considers [Egyptian president] Hosni Mubarak to be one of its closest friends, and which sends detainees to be tortured in Egypt, exports tools of torture to Egypt and spends millions to support the security organs and their executioners in Egypt, even as the American State Department, in its annual report on human rights, criticizes the Egyptian government because it tortures detainees!” [5]

Following the July 11, 2007 suicide bombing claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) against a military barracks in Lakhdaria, Algeria, two members of a radical Islamist chat room forum with seemingly intimate knowledge of Algerian affairs refer to the attack as an act of vengeance and provide insights into the possible motivations of the attackers:

“Revenge has come 13 years after the massacre of Lakhdaria perpetrated by members of the base who kidnapped, tortured, and slaughtered 35 Muslims and strew their torn bodies in the streets. Their blood-thirstiness reached the extent of slaughtering an old sheikh (Muhammed Moutadjer) like a sheep after torturing him. There is also a mansion (a villa) which they use as a center (or laboratory as they call it) for brutal torture. This place is called the ‘Villa Copawi,’ established by the French during the period of direct colonialism for the same mission (torture, killing, violation of honor); this place is known to all near and far…

“What about the women that were raped inside the barracks in front of their husbands and sons? What about the little girls, no more than ten years old, who were tortured inside the barracks in front of their fathers…? My brother, you have forgotten about all this, but we have not forgotten and will never forget. This is a day of judgment for the Pharaoh of Algeria and his soldiers” [6].

Explicit references to accounts of torture in the region by al-Qaeda and other militants helps sustain the narrative that Muslims and Islam as a whole are under siege by a hostile U.S.-led campaign. These messages also resonate with wide segments of society in U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes in the region.

Torture and Social Control

In the Middle East, the use of torture is not reserved for violent militants. On the contrary, authoritarian regimes regularly resort to draconian measures against moderate democratic reform-minded Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, secular and liberal opposition dissidents, or even student protestors to eliminate challenges to their rule. These measures are often carried out in the name of maintaining stability or protecting national security. In reality, they are about regime survival. Many observers are convinced that this vicious cycle of systematic abuse has the potential to radicalize dissident activists, leading some to join the ranks of violent militants to avenge their ordeal. At the very least, these practices vindicate the claims of extremists regarding the conduct of regional governments.

The accounts of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq shocked Americans and the international community. In the Middle East, however, the extent of the abuses uncovered at Abu Ghraib was not out of the ordinary. In many ways, the events at Abu Ghraib were emblematic of what many have grown accustomed to in their own countries. Severe beatings, electric shocks, sexual humiliation and abuse, sleep and food deprivation, and threats against family members and associates, among other things, are common tactics used by authoritarian regimes to attack their opponents. By perpetuating a climate of fear, authoritarian regimes are able to engender a kind of tacit obedience among citizens.

Addressing the prevalence of torture, let alone the nexus between torture and radicalization, remains a taboo in the Middle East. Due to fears of reprisals by the authorities, many researchers and journalists in the region practice a form of self-censorship when addressing the topic. As a result, there is a dearth of primary source research on the topic. At the same time, a number of organizations and opposition dissidents are beginning to raise the issue, despite fears of reprisals by the authorities [7]. The disclosure of a graphic video of Egyptian police officers beating and sexually abusing Emad al-Kabir—who was held by police officers at a police station in the Boulaq el-Dakrour section of Giza in Greater Cairo for apparently resisting authorities during a January 2006 incident when he attempted to mediate a dispute between the officers and his cousin—caused outrage in the Middle East. The abusers filmed the ordeal and forwarded the footage to the cell phones of the detainee’s friends to humiliate their victim (Daily Star Egypt, May 22). Al-Kabir was neither an Islamic militant nor a political dissident. Nevertheless, graphic scenes from the video appeared amid firsthand accounts of similar experiences endured by ordinary citizens and political dissidents in the Middle East during a lengthy videotaped statement by Zawahiri released in July 2007. Zawahiri devoted a segment of his presentation to the issue of torture in the Middle East in a savvy effort to reach out to a mainstream audience [8].

This controversial subject was also brought to the forefront of debate with the publication of the widely popular Egyptian novel Imarat Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building) by Alaa al-Aswany [9]. The book treats the nexus between torture and radicalization through the character of Taha al-Shazli, a disaffected young man who joins an Islamist opposition group in Cairo. After being detained for taking part in a public demonstration, Taha is subject to extreme forms of torture by the hands of the Egyptian security officials, including severe beatings and sexual abuse, in an attempt to extract information about his political affiliations and the identities of his associates. Taha, angry and humiliated at his ordeal, is eventually released by his captors but is never the same. Bent on exacting revenge on his tormentors, Taha’s disaffection with the Egyptian regime evolves into a visceral hatred that can only be satisfied through violence. Al-Aswany’s fictional account of Taha’s experience provides a glimpse into one aspect of the radicalization process in the Middle East that is too often ignored.


Based on the discourse of al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist organizations, the current trajectory of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East will continue to serve as a battle cry for militants to take up arms against the United States. The prevalence of systematic torture and the persistence of authoritarianism in countries the United States counts as loyal allies will facilitate this process. These conditions will also provide al-Qaeda’s highly-effective media and propaganda wings with ample material to implicate the United States in the activities of regional security services. Regardless of political sensitivities, this subject requires far more attention from serious researchers examining the paths toward political radicalization.


1. Chris Zambelis, “The Strategic Implications of Political Liberalization and Democratization in the Middle East,” Parameters 35(3), Autumn 2005, pp. 87-102.

2. Thomas Heghammer, “Terrorist Recruitment and Radicalization in Saudi Arabia,” Middle East Policy 13(4), December 2006, pp. 39-60.

3. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s experience in an Egyptian prison and the torture endured by his associates is chronicled in Montasser al-Zayat, The Road to Al-Qaeda: The Story of Bin Laden’s Right-Hand Man, (London, Pluto Press, 2004), pp. 31-32.

4. See Part I of “Military Studies in the Jihad against the Tyrants” at

5. “Interview with Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Al-Sahab Media, May 5, 2007.

6. Quoted in “Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb/The Suicide Bomber Suhaib Pulverizes a Barracks,” [Arabic] July 18, 2007 at [no longer accessible].

7. In Egypt groups such as the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) are at the forefront of shedding light on the prevalence of torture by the security services and advocating on behalf of victims. For more details, see For more graphic accounts of torture in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, see

8. See excerpts from Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s July 4, 2007 statement addressing the issue of torture in the Middle East, entitled “The Advice of One Concerned” at . The entire video is available at .

9. Alaa al-Aswany, The Yacoubian Building, (Cairo, American University of Cairo Press, 2004).