In the past few months, the world has heard the stories of the "American Taliban," the British "shoe bomber" and the "Tartan Taliban" -- Westerners suspected of having links to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network or fighting for Afghanistan's Taliban militia. What in their backgrounds could have led them down these unorthodox paths?
Prague, 10 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- First came the reports about John Walker, the 20-year-old Californian found among Taliban fighters following a prison uprising in Mazar-i-Sharif early in December.
Then, in late December, U.S. authorities apprehended a British citizen, Richard Reid, after he allegedly tried to detonate a bomb hidden in his shoe while aboard a flight from Paris to Miami. Reid told investigators he acted alone, but authorities suspect him of having links with Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Days later, a compatriot of Reid's -- Scotsman James McLintock -- was reportedly arrested on the Afghan-Pakistan border on suspicion of having links to Al-Qaeda.
And in early January, 15-year-old American Charles Bishop flew a small plane into a Florida skyscraper, killing himself but no one inside. He left behind a note investigators say was sympathetic to bin Laden.
In the days and weeks that followed these incidents, numerous media reports have attempted to explain the motives behind the behavior of these four Westerners.
There have been reports of how the middle-class Walker attended an "alternative" high school in the United States and converted to Islam as a teenager -- apparently inspired by the autobiography of black militant leader Malcolm X.
There are also stories about Richard Reid's father, who himself spent time in jail and who found out that his son may have tried to blow himself up, along with nearly 200 other passengers, by reading about the incident in a newspaper.
Other reports describe McLintock as a long-standing hero in Bradford -- an English town with a large Muslim population -- for fighting with Afghanistan's mujahedin against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
These stories have fascinated and horrified the world. Westerners especially seem puzzled as to what could lead their compatriots to such extreme behavior in the name of radical, violent causes with roots half a world away.
In the search for an answer, mental imbalance due to illness or drugs has arisen as a possible theory.
McLintock -- dubbed the "Tartan Taliban" -- came from what sounds like a normal family in the east of Scotland. Media reports in the U.K. say his mother is a former teacher, his father a university lecturer. Brought up a Catholic, McLintock is reported to have dropped out of zoology studies after suffering from mental illness. In the 1980s, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Yaqub Mohammed.
Speculation has surfaced that a chemical imbalance may have tipped young Charles Bishop over the edge. A report today in Britain's "The Independent" newspaper alleges that Bishop -- who prior to his suicide note had not been heard to express sympathy for bin Laden -- had been taking the acne drug Roaccutane, also known as Accutane. Critics say this drug can make those who take it suicidal, although its manufacturer denies the claim.
But something else could have been at work, at least with Walker and Reid, says Stephen Pollard, a senior fellow at the Center for the New Europe in Brussels. He says both men -- who, in addition to Bishop, come from broken homes -- share one key similarity.
"When you probe a bit deeper, the thing that stares out at you is that they were both brought up in families which, for one reason or another -- one as a conscious choice and the other just by neglecting it -- failed to inculcate a sense of positive and clear values to their respective offspring," Pollard says.
In Reid's case, he says, this appears to have been the result of parental neglect. Reid's parents separated when he was four, and his father was largely absent during Reid's teenage years. For Walker, who was raised in a well-to-do California suburb, Pollard says the neglect came in a slightly different form.
"Walker's, on the other hand, was almost a positive decision not to inculcate any values, the idea that, as progressive types -- his father was a lawyer and very respectable and so on -- [you] actually shouldn't be instilling any sense of values, and that it's up to children themselves to decide how they want to determine their lives," Pollard says.
Pollard says that, obviously, not everyone who lacks parental guidance ends up rejecting one's own culture or planning terrorist acts. But he argues that such a family situation can leave impressionable youngsters looking for something to "fill the vacuum." In these cases, he says, that "something" appears to be extreme ideology.
Pollard says prisons -- at least in the U.K. -- are known as ideal recruiting grounds for fundamentalist groups, who offer disaffected young men a system of values and a sense of purpose.
Reid, the alleged "shoe bomber," reportedly converted to Islam while serving a prison term -- a transformation his father is also said to have undergone while in jail. The leader of the London mosque Reid attended told reporters that Reid appeared to have fallen into extremist company and may have met another visitor at the mosque -- Zacarias Moussaoui, an accused conspirator in the 11 September attacks against the United States.
Pollard says, "The fact is we need values and morals, and they're almost part of our hardwiring as human beings. If we don't have those -- and they don't just arise naturally, we have to get them from our peers and from the way we're brought up and so on -- [we're] totally lost, and we're completely at sea."
Pollard says thrill-seeking could also go some way toward explaining the behavior of these young men. The trouble is, says U.K.-based psychologist Peter Marsh, there's a bit of that in all of us.
Marsh is director of the Social Issues Research Center, which focuses on lifestyles and social behavior.
"You can certainly see some of these trends, behaviors, as being reflective of sensation-seeking, thrill-seeking and in some cases, identity-seeking -- wanting to be part of this strongly unified group," Marsh says. "But the problem there is that most of us have those kinds of needs from time to time, to have a sense of belonging, to have a bit of excitement in our lives. Why in some cases it starts to manifest itself in far more extreme ways than in other people -- that is always very difficult to determine."
He continues, "It could also be that in some cases the simplest explanations are the best. I'm quite often asked as a psychologist, 'Why do people join gangs and go round beating each other up?' And the simplest answer, I'm afraid, is that they love it. They get a lot of excitement from it. They actually like the thrill, the frisson of excitement that goes with it. Maybe in some cases that's about the limit of what psychology can offer."
Marsh says he doesn't agree with the idea that a lack of values leads to extreme behavior. Just look at the Taliban, he says. No one can accuse Afghanistan's former ruling militia of lacking values.
Marsh says these cases may just be the kind of extremist behavior that happens from time to time and which, in the end, defies explanation.
"We will have to concede in some cases [that] there isn't an explanation. It was inexplicable, and I think that is the right thing to do. And certainly as a social psychologist, I freely admit, yes, there are patterns of behavior where I haven't got a clue what caused them," Marsh says. "I think maybe a bit more modesty on the part of these people [commentators] might be welcome."