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The Need to Chatter

Al Qaeda cell members in Italy were vicious and desperate to belong.

September 28, 2002

Any parent who's ever chauffeured a carload of teens has eavesdropped, eyes riveted on the road ahead, ears tuned to the young people chattering innocently among themselves about adolescent priorities--clothing, friends, music, movie scenes, schoolyard observations, clothing, something they heard or saw or something they heard someone saw. Their open talk, even in the obvious presence of an alien adult, prompts a smile and a recollection of other times and places when a previous generation chattered away about important things that no longer matter.

So it was particularly chilling, as a worthy reminder of a more stark and lethal world out there, to read Sebastian Rotella's recent account in The Times of chatter recorded by Italian authorities of Al Qaeda terrorist cell members in Milan, Italy.

Those religious extremists knew authorities, like adult chauffeurs, were eavesdropping and bugging phones, apartments, even a mosque. So they drove around in a favorite car, which also was bugged.

The need to chatter, even when strangers are listening, must be an international human compulsion; witness the growing number of public cell phone chats we must overhear.

Chatter can sound meaningless and still inadvertently reveal passing priorities or predicaments. Or it can provide terrorist plot details sought by police. But chatter is also important as social process, even for terrorist wannabes.

With each word spoken and heard, transcripts revealed, the talkers reassured themselves and each other of their belonging to that group at that time, of being listened to, laughed with, chided and most of all included.

The desperation of those exiles adrift in a foreign culture to be accepted, to belong to a familiar group and to be propped up and reassured by peers is palpable even if their chatter is far more lethal than any teen fashion talk.

Both vicious and lonely, the terrorists exchanged war stories, professed a desire for martyrdom, whined about their host country. "I hate the people. I hate the documents," says one. "I want to go anywhere else." On one tape they discuss with relish videos of colleagues executing captured Russian soldiers.

Such chatter, an Italian prosecutor says, helps the group remain cohesive and relentlessly fanaticized in a secular Western culture full of many temptations.

For readers far away, this overheard chatter also provides a revealing window into some far less innocent minds and counters the temptation to forget that idle chatter these days isn't always idle.

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