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