Ballen, a former federal prosecutor, tells the personal stories of six jihadists. With an empathetic, nuanced treatment, he probes these Muslim lives in order to analyze the decisions that led them to Islamist terror. Ballen discovers all kinds of love in Muslim contexts interacting with jihad's nihilistic hate.
Ballen begins with a one-time hedonistic Saudi slacker seeking personal redemption in the murderous piety of jihad in post-Saddam Iraq. The reader also meets another Saudi terrorist who sought martyrdom in Iraq in order to be reunited in eternal paradise with his true love, stolen through family treachery. A third Saudi turned to jihad because of his family's repression of his same-sex attraction for a first cousin.
Love takes on a broader meaning with other jihadists. In Pakistan, Ballen meets an Afghan seer who sought Islamic purity with the Taliban. One Pakistani became a jihadi in reaction to the Anglophile ways of his upper-class Pakistani background. Another member of Pakistan's elite entered the jihad movement through a religious awakening following a personal corporal humiliation in school.
Other jihadists, like Osama bin Laden, the author maintains, are "deeply scared of losing" a competition between the "Great Tempter" embodied in "American ideals of freedom, achievement, and individuality" and the "radical Islamist model of collective identity, personal sublimation, and unquestioning faith."
Thus love of self, love of others, and love of the good, however misunderstood, often drive Ballen's subjects towards jihad's seductive, brutal message. Echoing Hannah Arendt's observations about the Nazis and "banality of evil," Ballen shows how "looking for love in all the wrong places" in often cruel and corrupt Muslim-majority societies can direct frustrated individuals down a path of hate and violence.
In Ballen's recounting, love can also overcome jihad's hatred. While some Muslims may remain unshakable adherents of a violence-sustained Islamic supremacy, others may reject it given the freedom to satisfy their various loves, either within or without Islam. The Saudi slacker, for example, becomes pro-American after receiving American medical care in Iraq for his horrible wounds sustained as an unwitting would-be suicide bomber. Dreams, meanwhile, described by Ballen as so significant for Muslims, play a role in the gay Saudi's development of an all-encompassing love for humanity. The cheated Saudi lover and the Anglicized upper-class Pakistani, meanwhile, ultimately assess jihad's corrupted hate as no substitute for real love.
Such decisions have major implications for the security of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.