Terrorism Update
Show/Hide Search
    Click to Enlarge

Terror in the Mind

The arrest of a number of qualified medical professionals in connection with the latest terrorist plot in UK has once again shaken widely-held stereotypes of terrorist profiles encouraged by poorly informed literature and mass media.

Public perceptions have long been shaped by the search for a ‘terrorist personality’ and for ‘root causes’ of terrorism that would help explain why particular individuals resort to extreme and random violence against innocents.

This proclivity has produced a large volume of literature that locates terrorism in psychopathology, deprivation, frustration and a range of social, political, economic and psychological ‘root causes’.

Rigorous studies on the subject, however, have entirely failed to establish any coherent linkage between particular ‘root causes’, personality profiles, or psychopathologies, and the choice of terrorism.

Troubled psyche

It is, of course, the case that terrorists are troubled individuals, deeply alienated from society. Certain personality and biographical characteristics may, of course, produce a particular predisposition to terrorist, criminal or violent mobilisation.

It is obvious that a happy, well-adjusted, productive, successful and prosperous individual would not be the ideal target of terrorist recruiters. But it is not the case that an angry, frustrated, unemployed and otherwise unsuccessful and miserable individual would be an automatic candidate.

As one psychological study notes, "An individual who drops out of society can just as well become a monk or a hermit instead of a terrorist."

The ‘psychopath terrorist’ stereotype is also dismissed in serious literature. While psychopathic or otherwise mentally ill individuals may on occasion engage in acts of terrorism, or be recruited by terrorist groups, these would be exceptions, rather than the rule.

The lack of psychological control among individuals suffering from recognisable psychological disorders makes them unsuitable for participation in a terrorist organisation, which demands a high measure of discipline, submission to authority, and capacity for ‘rational’ behaviour – albeit within an alternative rationality peculiar to the group’s subculture.

An individual susceptible to unpredictable, uncontrollable, self-centred and erratic behaviour would tend to call attention to himself, would be unreliable in situations of stress, and would jeopardise the group’s operations, or even survival. Terrorist recruiters would, consequently, tend to automatically screen out such individuals.

Indeed, in this context, "the best documented generalisation is negative; terrorists do not show any striking psychopathology."

Terrorists do not, in other words, demonstrate any unique set of qualities, and are not discernably different, in psychological terms, or in terms of unique biographical histories, from those who reject terrorism.

In order to best understand the decision to resort to terrorism, it is useful to regard terrorism, not as a unique pathology, but simply as a method – in the present case, a method of war, of protest, or of rebellion.

It is generally the case that a method will be adopted wherever it is perceived to have acceptable probabilities of success.

A rational – though morally reprehensible – calculus underlies the decision in favour of terrorism. Terrorists convince themselves that violence targeting non-combatants and innocents is the ‘only means’ to achieve their ‘noble’ objectives under prevailing conditions, and that, consequently, the use of this method is acceptable for the purported ‘greater good’.

Nevertheless, the moral contradiction inherent in this calculus is disturbing and difficult to overcome. If you are fighting for ‘freedom’, how can you terminate the very possibility of the freedom of others by killing them? If you are fighting against injustice, how do you inflict the injustice of indiscriminate killing on others? If you are fighting for your Faith, how do you kill other members of the same Faith without guilt?

Group dynamics

The management of these contradictions, and of the psychological conflicts that arise out of these, is the principal task of the sub-culture that is created within, and that dominates, terrorist groups.

It is, consequently, the psychological group dynamic that is most significant in understanding terrorist behaviour, rather than the psychology of the individual.

Indeed, extremist and terrorist movements can attract and retain the loyalties of intellectually proficient and deeply idealistic young men and women – caring brothers or sisters, devoted sons and daughter – who engage in millenarian violence to create a ‘better world’, or to impose the ‘will of God’.

The terrorist group provides camaraderie, a sense of purpose and importance, of participating in history, in a noble undertaking. Group membership also creates a sense of power and of what has been described as ‘revolutionary heroism’, compensating for personal insecurities, failures and frustrations.

The secretive, conspiratorial and tightly controlled operational environment of the radical group also helps ‘seal off’ the individual from the compunctions, values and expectations of ‘normal’ society, creating an alternative world within which a coherent ideology and belief system is systematically propagated and internalised, justifying the use of terrorist violence against progressively dehumanised ‘others’.

Collective identity

Gradually, the collective identity of the group completely dominates the individual, reaching a pinnacle in the suicide terrorist, who thinks nothing of destroying himself to secure the group’s purpose. It is often said that it takes a whole village to raise a single child. It similarly takes a large ‘community’ to prepare a single suicide bomber.

Not everyone in a terrorist group is, of course, so completely integrated with this sub-culture. Many ‘cadres’ join for a diversity of motives – a study carried out on Khalistani terrorists in Punjab demonstrated that the motive identified by the largest proportion among them was shauqia, ‘for the fun of it’.

The sense of power, the glamour of the gun, access to the good things in life, and purely criminal motives, also bring many into the terrorist stream.

Even where this is the case, however, a long-term association would eventually bring the individual into progressive integration with the ‘group dynamic’, and such an individual would come, in some measure, to share the values, ideologies and objectives of the group as well.

Understanding and contesting such group dynamics and sub-cultures in their formative stages is necessary if terrorist recruitment is to be inhibited.

Regrettably, the capacities of democratic states to intervene at this stage tend to be limited, and it is only deep into the terrorist mobilisation or operational process that intervention becomes legal. Greater monitoring of subversive institutions and of the processes of subversion is becoming necessary, if democracies are to defend themselves against this modern scourge.

[Published in Deccan Herald, Bangalore, July 8, 2007]





Copyright © 2001 SATP. All rights reserved.