Psychology and terrorism
In September 2001 I was living and working in Fiji when the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon occurred. Reporters from the press and television in Fiji got in touch to try and understand what would make people behave in such a barbaric way. This article is part of my attempt to answer their questions.
According to the official FBI definition, terrorism is: "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." The objective of terrorism may be to gain publicity for some cause, or the desire to obtain concessions or bring about social change. As Long (1990) has pointed out, however, there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism.
The word "terrorism" traces its roots in the English language to the French revolution (1789 -1794). The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant used the word in 1798 to describe a pessimistic view of the destiny of mankind. Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) called it "propaganda by deed". Carlos Marighella (circa 1930) wrote the Latin American handbook on terrorism, claiming it required adherence to a "higher morality", and that one man's terrorist is another man's liberator. Countries such as Ireland, Algeria, Tunisia, and Israel might not have become independent republics if not for terrorism.
1. Domestic - in the terrorists' own country against their own people
Another typology is:
1. Political - for ideological and political purposes
Still another typology contains the following categories:
1. Revolutionary - aims to overthrow or replace an existing government (Red Army Faction, PLO, Hizbollah)
None of these are particularly satisfactory, however, characterised as they are by overlapping categories and subjective definitions. It may be as well to accept that no single classification system will satisfy all researchers and for researchers to use the system that best fits the aspect of terrorism that they are studying.
The review that follows is a brief summary of findings and theories of terrorism. It is not intended to be complete, but to introduce some of the main factors and current thoughts about the phenomenon.
It is the psychology of terrorism that causes it to command so much attention compared to other threats to life. To give this some context, the death toll of the September 11th attack in the USA, the most devastating terror attack in US history, was placed at 3,016 by the 15th December 2001. The death toll in that country from murder has been about 16,000 a year in recent years.
There is also a 'perception' aspect to terrorism. In September 2001, shortly after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, a reporter from the Fiji Times newspaper called me and asked, amongst other things, whether I thought that terrorism would ever be a problem in Fiji. I pointed out to her that it already was - that the armed takeover of parliament in Suva and taking the members of parliament hostage at gunpoint as part of an attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government in May 2000, was an act of terror. The reporter could not comprehend this. As far as she was concerned, the hostage-taking was a political act in support of the rights of indigenous Fijians and therefore could not be terrorism.
Among the things we do know is that terrorists have many different reasons or motives for their acts. Many politically motivated terrorists, whether they are of the left or the right, want to bring down an existing government or regime. Many religious terrorists want to attack those that they see as attacking their religion. Others want publicity for their cause. Suicide terrorists have almost always had at least one relative or close friend who has been killed, maimed or abused by an enemy (Kushner, 1996).
There is also no single psychological profile of terrorists. For example most, but not all, suicide terrorists are aged between 16 and 28. Most are male, but 15% are female and that proportion is rising. Most come from poor backgounds and have limited education, but some have university degrees and come from wealthy families (Merari, 1990).
The 2001, 11th September attacks in the USA on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon were probably carried out by Osama bin Ladens organisation, al-Qaeda. In part, bin Laden is motivated by anger against the USA after the Gulf War, in which his country of origin, Saudi Arabia, provided a base for attacks by the USA and its allies against the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. He also sees the USA as an enemy of Islam, particularly through its support of Israel and, despite having been supported by the USA during the cold war, disdains US culture and values. However, not everyone connected with al-Qaeda, which means the base, have the same motives. They often recruit operatives to work for them from amongst young men at mosques who have a powerful urge to defend Islam from perceived attacks world-wide. These attacks may be by Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, by Russians in Chechnya or formerly in Afghanistan, or most often, by the USA and Israel in the middle east. However, these passionate and emotional young men are not usually permitted into the inner organisation of al-Qaeda, where cold, hard pragmatism is more of a feature. The inner group, as opposed to his world-wide intelligence network and operatives network, is extremely careful. They live most of the time in tents and move frequently. They allow no electrical or electronic devices of any kind near them, to prevent monitoring of their activities. There were reports of bin Laden using a satellite phone in December 2001, but since then he is said to communicate with others in the organisation only by written notes.
Merari is one of the few psychologists to interview suicide bombers. He has said of them:
"Culture in general and religion in particular seem to be relatively unimportant in the phenomenon of terrorist suicide. Terrorist suicide, like any other suicide, is basically an individual rather than a group phenomenon: it is done by people who wish to die for personal reasons. The terrorist framework simply offers the excuse (rather than the real drive) for doing it and the legitimation for carrying it out in a violent way." (Merari, ibid, p.206.)
As far as we know, most terrorists feel that they are doing nothing wrong when they kill and injure people, or damage property. Most seem to share a feature of a psychological condition known as anti-social personality disorder or psychopathic personality disorder, which is an absence of empathy for the suffering of others - they dont feel other peoples pain. However, they do not appear unstable or mentally ill. The behaviour of Nezar Hindawi, a freelance Jordanian terrorist is very similar to that of those diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorder. In April 1986 he sent his pregnant Irish girlfriend on an El Al flight to Israel, saying they would be married when he joined her there. She apparently was not aware that Hindawi had hidden a bomb provided by the Abu Nidal Organization in her luggage. Hindawi's willingness to sacrifice his girlfriend and unborn child displays an exceptional lack of empathy.
"It is very rare to find a terrorist who suffers from a clinically defined 'personality disrder' or who could in any other way be regarded as mentally ill or psychologically deviant."
Someone who is mentally ill may want to commit an act of terror, but as most terrorism requires cooperating with others, this makes it less likely that a mentally ill person will actually carry out such an act because of the difficulty they have in working with others. There are exceptions to this, as to most generalisations in this area. The Socialist Patients Collective included mentally ill individuals and it was associated with acts of terror carried out by the Bader-Meinhoff Gang in Germany.
A common, but by no means universal feature of terrorists, is a type of simplistic thinking in which I am good and right. You are bad and wrong. It is a very polarised thinking which allows them to distance themselves from opponents and makes it easier for them to kill people who are connected with their enemies, with apparently little or no sense of remorse or guilt. This is not a lack of intelligence however. Many terrorists are of above average intelligence. It would also be wrong to think that this mode of thought is exclusive to terrorists. It is common among young children and I know psychologists who display the same mode of thinking!
A closed-minded certainty is also a commonly observed feature of much terrorist thinking. A document left behind by Mohamed Atta, one of the 11th September attackers, illustrates this. In it is the following:
Everybody hates death, fears death, but only those, the believers who know the life after death and the reward after death, would be the ones who will be seeking death. Also, Check your weapon, say morning prayer together, and, if you take a taxi to the airport, when you arrive, smile and rest assured, for Allah is with the believers and the angels are protecting you.
Apart from the reference to weapons, similar sentiments were expressed by the members of the Heavens Gate cult, who committed collective suicide in 1997. Again, however, this mode of thinking is not exclusive to terrorists and suicide cults. Many religious people, for example, can be similarly closed to ideas or evidence that contradicts their belief systems.
Terrorists, particularly political terrorists, may come from upper rather than lower class backgrounds, as in the vigilante groups that make up right-wing, pro-government "death squads" in Latin America and Asia. Terrorists are often the products of overly permissive, wealthy families with whom they were in conflict, had inconsistent mothering, or were isolated from (Martin and Romano 1992).
The point above about black and white thinking suggests that a useful avenue for research may be to look at some aspects of terrorist behaviour as reflecting an immature form of thinking or moral reasoning.
Kaplan (1981) assumes that terrorist behaviour is pathological. He differentiates between the reasons and causes of terrorism by proposing that reasons are the social variables that facilitate terrorism or help rationalize terrorist behavior. However, he says that the causes of terrorist behavior must be sought in the psychopathology of the assassin (p. 36). He proposes that terrorists have a pathological need to pursue absolute ends. Kaplan proposed that this is an overreaction to childhood experiences of humiliation at the hands of an aggressor, which results in a sense of failure and lack of self-esteem. Thus, their personality is defective and cannot cope with life stress through socially appropriate means.
Research by Israeli (1997) suggests that suicide bombers often come from broken families and he also proposes that they suffer from low self-esteem.
It is not a coincidence that many terrorists come from places where peace is not the norm; places like the Middle East or Northern Ireland, where all the present generation of young people have known is regular, extreme, well-publicised violence. Violence could be the norm for such young people, whether it is on a wide scale or within a smaller community or family. It may come to be considered the normal response to achieve objectives. Silke (2001) is exemplifying this approach when he describes the process of becoming a terrorist as being primarily an issue of socialisation. He further states that the move from being disaffected to becoming an active terrorist is usually precipitated by a catalyst:
"Normally this is an act of extreme physical violence committed by the police or security forces or other rival group against the individual, family, friends or simply anyone they can identify with. The fatal shooting of a 12-year-old boy by Israeli soldiers in September 2000 at Netzarim acted as such a catalyst event for Palestinians. Captured on television, the shooting of the boy as he cowered with his father behind a water barrel contributed to a dramatic resurgence in terrorist violence in the region."
Some terrorists are following family tradition, as in the case of both Protestant and Catholic fighters in Northern Ireland or some groups of Palestinians in the Middle East, and the social learning model, with its emphasis on imitation and role models, can easily accommodate this.
Fields (1978), in an eight-year longitudinal study, found that exposure to terrorism as a child can produce a tendency to terrorism as an adult. Again, this cannot be the only factor because relatively few children exposed to terrorist violence grow up to become terrorists.
Nationalist-separatist groups, such as ETA in the Basque region of France and Spain, and the IRA in the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom, are embedded in a supportive community of family and friends. However, anarchist groups such as the Bader-Meinhoff Gang and the Red Brigades are usually isolated and alienated from family, friends and other members of society. Group dynamics are much more significant in the latter case. For these people, the group becomes the sole source of support and friendship. Their sense of belonging, sense of purpose, perhaps even their sense of identity, is derived from the relationships within the group. For such people, providing an alternative support structure may be a way of preventing involvement in a terror group.
Social networks are also important in the recruitment of new members into violent Islamic fundamentalist groups, including al Qaeda. Marc Sageman has studied biographical data for over 400 members of such groups (Sageman, 2004). He found that about 70% of terrorists had joined while they were living as expatriates in other countries, looking for jobs and education. Prior to moving they were not strongly religious, but while in their new countries they visited mosques and moved in with other Islamic expatriates. Some of the latter were already members of terror organisations who then recruited them into those organisations. Sageman proposes that the social networks of friends, formed while these young men were uprooted from their home environment, provide the backbone of the violent Islamic groups.
Some terrorists appear to be rebelling against their parents through attacking authority figures and organisations, as with violent Marxist groups that terrorised Europe, particularly Germany and Italy, in the 1970s. Some observers have commented on the lack of a strong father in the upbringing of many of these terrorists.
Most terrorists are heroes to someone and, according to this model, such reinforcement increases the likelihood of terrorist behaviour. We saw the support from some Palestinians and Pakistanis for the 11th September attacks in the USA and, to mention an example from the Pacific region, the support from some parts of Fiji for George Speight and his group of terrorists, to the extent that he was even elected to Fijis parliament and his supporters invited into the political party and government of Prime Minister Qarase. Most, but not all, terrorists want and need that support.
This approach emphasises breaking the connection between terrorist behaviour and the rewards received by the terrorists for carrying it out, as part of the solution. As with the social learning model, most of those who support this model do not assume psychopathology on the part of terrorists.
This is a long-standing model within psychology that has been used to explain aggression or violent behaviour generally. Margolin (1977, pages 273-4) is one researcher who has applied it to terrorist behaviour. He argues that "much terrorist behavior is a response to the frustration of various political, economic, and personal needs or objectives."
Dr Steven Ratuva is a sociologist and Fiji Islander who studies terrorism with an eye to the pacific region. He approaches terrorism through Sociological Pre-emptive Appraisal (SPA). This is a technique which attempts to categorize potential terror targets on a 10-point scale from high risk to low risk. It uses a number of variables in making these appraisals, such as the ideology of a terror group, their logistical capability, the prestige of targets, terrorists' access to resources such as explosives, knowledge and support of the local culture and so on. Terror groups are then ranked on the potential threat they pose and then analyzed in relation to high risk targets. Using this method, Ratuva rates Fiji as a very low risk country (2 out of 10) and the USA as a very high risk country (10 out of 10). Australia is assigned a middle rating as a terror target (6 out of 10). Australian and US American targets within Fiji would have a higher rating than 2, however. The method could also be applied to potential terror groups within Fiji, such as those with links to imprisoned coup leaders.
We also need to bear in mind that some groups choose the terror option because it is relatively inexpensive and yet can have huge effects. It does not require large amounts of money (although some terrorists such as bin Laden are very wealthy). It does not require large numbers of people or equipment. It is the warfare of the poor and disaffected.
This approach emphasises the importance of cutting off the funding of terror groups as part of a solution.
Some researchers have emphasised the part played by physiology in determining who will commit terrorist acts. Hubbard (1983) is typical of this approach. He has studied the part played by the hormones involved in stress reactions to predict those who will respond to stress with violence compared to those who do not.
Silke (2001) implicates the media in the lack of understanding of terrorists and the promotion of what he says are ineffective hardline strategies to deal with them, that are widely accepted by the public and by politicians.
Many terrorists do what they do, at least in part, for the huge amounts of free publicity they get from the media. Some people have described publicity in the media as the oxygen of terrorism. Without it, some (but not all) terror groups would either stop what they are doing, or redirect their efforts into different channels. Many terror groups relay their demands through media organisations, or make the publicising of their cause a condition of releasing hostages, for example. However, the relationship between terror groups and the media can become risky if the group doesnt like the way it is being portrayed, as illustrated by the murder of an Irish reporter in September 2001 by the Protestant terror group that uses the name the Red Hand Defenders (possibly the LVF).
Also, complicating the issue is that terrorism often works. Yesterday's terrorist leaders can become today's statesmen, justifying their past use of terror as a paramilitary instrument to even the odds between the weak and the powerful. You can see this in many countries that now condemn terrorism. Perhaps George Speight will one day achieve this status in Fiji.
At the 2004 conference of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK, Andrew Silke emphasized the role of the media in terrorism when he asserted that terrorists are increasingly motivated by violence they have seen, at first hand or on television. The broadcast media have yet to take seriously their role in promoting terrorism.
However, the last 10 years has seen more active terror groups for whom publicity is less important than killing many people - Aum Shinrikyo, who launched the nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway in March 1995 and al-Qaeda are of this type.
Terrorist violence is more likely to be carried out by men than by women. Womens roles with respect to terror groups used to be more often devoted to support, fund-raising, organising, public relations and political representation. With the rise of feminism, this is changing. The US American group, SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) and more recent all-women, feminist terror groups, such as those in Nepal, provide examples of changes in this area. Women are more likely to be members of left-wing terror groups and to espouse feminist ideology. There have been a higher proportion of women in Latin-American, German and Palestinian terror groups, than elsewhere. Women have been able to exploit their image of non-violence and weakness to escape detection and carry out terrorist activities.
Very few terrorists feel pity or empathy for the people they kill or maim. One or two have, however, and that is something that can be built on by those with an interest in rehabilitation. For example, the man who was imprisoned for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, later expressed remorse for what he had done, saying that he had not realised how many people would be hurt.
However little they feel for the suffering of others, terrorists are usually aware that their supporters or potential supporters need to feel that the killing, injuring or threatening of the victims of terror, is justified. A common way of doing that is to equate the victims with those who are perceived to be attacking them directly. For example, Osama bin Laden, in an interview with Hamid Mir, editor of the Urdu newspaper Ausaf, is quoted as follows:
"The American people should remember that they pay taxes to their government, they elect their president, their government manufactures arms and gives them to Israel and Israel uses them to massacre Palestinians. The American Congress endorses all government measures and this proves that the entire America is responsible for the atrocities perpetrated against Muslims. The entire America because they elect Congress."
For surviving victims themselves, and their friends and families, the reaction to their experiences may be post traumatic stress. To summarise briefly, post traumatic stress involves disturbances of behaviour that occur after a major stressful event. The common symptoms are intrusive thoughts, nightmares and sleeping difficulties, anxiety or fear, alienation from people, jumpiness, emotional numbness and problems with social relationships. They vary in type and scope enormously from person to person though. Some people will need professional help. Others will get by with the support of their families and friends.
Hostages have been known to sympathize with their captors and become emotionally attached - in one case even get married. The name of the syndrome derives from a hostage situation in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1973, four Swedes held in a bank vault for six days during a robbery became emotionally attached to their captors. As far as we know, the abused bond to their abusers as a means to endure the life-threatening stress they are under. The most notorious instance came when US heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and after some months, re-christened herself "Tanya" and joined their ranks. The Stockholm Syndrome is an emotional attachment, between captive and captor that develops 'when someone threatens your life, deliberates, and doesn't kill you' (Symonds, 1980). The relief resulting from the removal of the threat of death generates intense feelings of gratitude and fear that combine to make the captive reluctant to display negative feelings toward the captor or terrorist. In fact, former hostages have visited their captors in jail, recommended defence counsel and even started a defence fund. "The victims' need to survive is stronger than his/her impulse to hate the person who has created the dilemma." (Strentz, 1980) The victim comes to see the captor as a 'good guy', even a saviour. This condition occurs in response to four specific conditions:
A recent phenomenon associated with terrorist attacks is that of trauma tourism. This refers to the appearance of large numbers of people with dubious qualifications and untested or harmful techniques such as Debriefing, offering themselves as trauma counsellors. This form of voyeurism adds complications to those genuinely trying to manage disasters and help those with problems.
Psychologists study terrorism with the aim of identifying those who are or may become terrorists, with a view to aiding in prevention, detection or capture. A better understanding of the circumstances that cause a person to become a terrorist may help us prevent it in the future. It is worth emphasising that understanding something in no way implies justification for it, although not everyone agrees with that. Silke (2001) cites RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan as saying:
"understanding [paramilitary activity] comes dangerously close to authorising, sanctioning and approving."
The lack of a simple terrorist profile or diagnosable mental illness makes it difficult to predict who will become terrorists and, having become a terrorist, to detect them through profiling, for example. The implication is that each group must be studied for its own characteristics and dynamics, which may then be exploited. Terror groups also display particular mindsets (not the same as personality). Supporters and members of the IRA display an anti-British, pro-nationalist mindset, for example. This implies the need for broad information-gathering and communication-monitoring services that co-operate internationally. The mindset of terror groups also indicates something of their methods, who they will communicate with and how, who they will try to recruit, how they will relate to other group members and so on. The lack of a common personality profile does not mean a lack of predictable behaviour.
The need is great. In addition to the horror of the attacks in the USA on September 11th, Janes Intelligence Digest has evidence that Osama bin Ladens group, or people connected to it, have been trying to obtain weapons-grade nuclear materials. 10 kg of such material, enough to make a small nuclear bomb, has gone missing from the loosely guarded stockpiles maintained in Russia. In fact many people consider that the main threat to US national security is the danger that biological or chemical agents, or weapons-grade material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation states. The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that the illegal trade in nuclear materials has doubled since 1996, and the agency counts 370 confirmed cases of smuggling of such materials in the past 8 years. A US State Department study reports that up to 130 terrorist groups worldwide have expressed interest in obtaining nuclear capabilities - among them Osama bin Laden's group. Some experts maintain that with a lump of enriched uranium a bit smaller than a football, some materials available at a retail electrical store, and a competent engineering graduate, a terror group would have a reasonable chance of making a crude, but effective nuclear weapon.
The Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies is at http://www.cteh..ac.il/terror/index.html
Combs, C. (1997) Terrorism in the 21st Century. NJ: Prentice Hall.
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