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Aetiology and Psychology of Terrorism

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Published: Fri, 23 Feb 2018

The purpose here is to examineanalyze scrutinize, evaluate and present synthesize what has been stated in the scientific and professional literature about the etiology of terrorism. This discourse is not intended to propose suggest that the scientific discipline of psychology and psychiatry provides the only, or necessarily the best, logical framework for understanding terrorism. Like all the approaches to understanding or explaining human behaviorbehaviour, these approaches have advantages and limitations. Even though the fundamental problem of defining terrorism has been difficult, but for the purpose of research one should specifically look at the acts of violence, rather than to the threats or intimidation, which are deliberately carried out on civilian non- combatants, with the objective of promoting some ideological political or religious point of view.

A primary Our focus on psychological dimensionsdimensions, will, de-emphasizes analysis of of significant sociologically based explanations, or the so-called ‘root causes’ or macro-level economic and political theories of terrorism..

In the global war on terrorism, it is pertinent to query what is meant by terrorism. The common definition of terrorism is to some extent… ‘the use or threat of violence, by small groups against non-combatants of large groups, for avowed political goals.’1 (McCauley, 2007). Terrorism is the warfare of the feeble, and it is the option for those who are desperate for a cause that cannot be won by fair and square means. It is interesting to note that state terrorism against its own citizens like the one carried out by Mao, Hitler and Stalin, far exceeds the number compared to the anti-state terrorism, where the number of people killed is comparatively insignificant.

The concepts of terrorism have changed over the yearstime and so have the terrorists, their motives, and the causes of terrorism. Hence in approaching this task,task, it is vital to to give a an astute overview of all the relevant literature on the subject one is wary of Walter Laqueur’s incisive conclusion based on more than a quarter century of personal research on the topic is valuable to mention. Laqueur, one of the leading experts on terrorism and international strategic affairs, recounting the history of terrorism and, more importantly, examining the future of terrorist activity worldwide, gives a list of alarming feasible options for terrorists. Chemical and biological weapons are cheap and relatively easy to make or buy. Even nuclear devices are increasingly possible choices . Laqueur traces the chilling trends developing in terrorism perpetrated by groups of oppressed nationalists and radicals seeking political change to small clusters of fanatics bent on vengeance and simple destruction. Coinciding with this trend is the alarming availability of weapons of mass destruction.2 (Laqueur, 2003). As psychiatrist, Jerrold Post,a psychiatrist, emphasizesmakes that caution even more directly applicable to an exploration of the psychological dimension of terrorism. He warns that:

“There is a broad spectrum of terrorist groups and organizations, each of which has a different psychology, motivation and decision-making structure. Indeed, one should not speak of terrorist psychology in the singular, but rather of terrorist psychologies. 3 (Post, 2001).”

The available literature on etiology of terrorism is mostly biased, lopsided and outlandish. For instance, the literature, on psychodynamics of so-called ‘Muslim Terrorism’ is bizarre and far-fetched. To explain the etiology of terrorism the authors used the garb of (Laqueur, 2003)4 existential and Freudian dynamic concepts. The simple facts are convoluted and magnified disproportionately to blame Islam as a religion and responsible globally for terrorism.

Changes in the Concept of Terrorism in the last Quarter Century

There have been significant changes in the concept of terrorism over the last quarter century. Most of the terrorist activities were designed to achieve specific identifiable and mostly achievable political objectives. The transformation has occurred partly because of the changes in the larger international political circumstances. For example, some of the old methods of terrorism were designed more for objectives that could be considered national liberation or self-determination; the kind of situations that have been involved in most of the Palestinian terrorism as well as terrorism in, for instance, Northern Irish groups. While most of those objectives having already been achieved, but not in the case of Palestine. This was also relevant in the case of various former African colonies which after their independence declared their freedom fighters (the so-called terrorist) as heroes. The decolonization of these countries has made it all irrelevant.

A facilitating society is one that sees them as heroes and provides refuge to them. Their belief or ideology is that they are doing the right thing or God’s will. In fact, they cannot succeed without this key ingredient.

At present, clearly the actions for which Nelson Mandela was convicted in 1964 did not constitute terrorism. Thus the confusion between the ends and means has given an adage, that one man’s ‘freedom fighter’ is other man’s ‘terrorist’ such a long life. ‘Whether they are struggling for freedom, to enforce repressive theocracy to suggest freedom fighter, is an alternative to terrorist is to confuse ends and means.'[1]

The Evolution of Terrorism

Terrorism is continually persistently changing. While onat the surface it remains ‘”the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat to inculcate fear…”‘ it is rapidly becoming incresingly the predominant strategic tool of opponents. The twenty-first century has seen the new adaptations in the terrorists’ tactics and strategies according to the developing global socio-political environment. Some of these changes facilitate the abilities of terrorists to operate, procure funding, and develop new capabilities. These global changes are leading to an altered relationship with the world at present . Other changes are gradually moving terrorism into a different relationship with the world at large.

Historically, it is essential to remember that society and governments have changed over the years. As there were no central form of governance, or a single leading political power it was not possible to use terrorism to bring about change. Modern forms of governance and states came into being after 1648 (Treaty of Westphalia). Thus terrorism is a relatively recent phenomena used by anti-state elements to bring about change.

Thus the game of warefare became open and availabl to many more more players ,,due to the absence of a governing central authority . Also, the absence of central authority meant that the game of warfare was open to many more players. Instead of national armies, a variety of non-sovereign landed gentry nobility, armed forces, religious group leaders, or commercial companies participated in warfare. Their involvement in warfare was considered to be perfectlyabsolutely legitimate. This distinguishes the modern period, where nations go to the war, but private involvement is actually against the law.

Psychological approaches to understand violence in the context of terrorism

As psychology is regarded as ‘the science of human behaviorbehaviour’, hence it is a reasonable, and potentially productiveuseful line of inquiry. Before investigating the exploring psychological approaches to the specific particular problem of terrorist violence, at this stage it would be pertinent,it may be helpful first to examine the explainations given bywhether and how psychology and other behaviorbehavioural sciences have resorted to explain violent and agressive behaviorbehaviours in more generallly. An act that deliberately hurts physically or harms another being will fit in the definition of ‘violence’. Violence is generally defined as how harm is caused to others, but it also takes in the form of ‘violence to self’ by means of suicide and self-mutilation. However, several social scientists might not agree and find these parameters to be constricted and limiting to provide any meaningful description of violence. They might argue that threats as well as overt acts be included, that psychological or emotional harm is as relevant as physical harm, and that injury is merely an outcome and not a descriptor of the act. On the other hand, some would contend that ‘intentional harm’ is too restrictive because it would include legitimate behaviorbehaviour in some contact sports or consensual infliction of pain.

Available evidences and observations support that violence is ’caused’ by multiple factors, many of which are strongly related to, and even affect each other. These factors are a a complex interaction of biological, social, contextual, cognitive, and emotional in nature that occur over a period of time. Some of these causes will be more prominent than others for certain individuals and for certain types of violence and aggression.5 (Borum et al, 2004).

A second general observation is that most violence can be usefully viewed as intentional. It is goal-directed and intended to achieve some valued outcome. It is not the product of innate, instinctual drives, nor is it the inevitable consequence of predetermining psychological and social forces. Obviously, many factors influence that decision and the competing options are available, but humans typically are not passive receptacle for involuntary displays of behaviorbehaviour. Indeed there are exceptions. For instance an individual could become aggressive or violent, if there is some emotional disturbance or cerebral dysfunction, as these conditions can generally lead to lack of self- control or dis-inhibition. However this behaviorbehaviour would be inconsistent with the kind of organization and planning necessary to carry out a terrorist attack.

Thus a terrorist action simply, is a calculated well-planned violent act against civilians and military personnel in times of peace, carried out by a group of people who use terrorism to publicize their cause which could be religious or political. ThusAnd/or threatening or pressurizing a government(s) or civilian population into accepting demands on behalf of the cause.

To identify the relevant social science literature the focus will be on locating professional literature published in major books or in peer-reviewed journals. A comprehensive review of scientific and professional literature is fundamental to the holistic approach in order to succinctly to comprehend the underlying understand the causes, motivations and determinants of terrorist behaviorbehaviour.

Earlier literaturey writings on the ‘psychology of terrorism’ were based mostly on psychoanalytic theories (e.g., narcissism, hostility toward parents), but now, the new research data has provided most researchers have since moved on to other explanations,in this context.6 (Borum et al., 2004).

Psychologists have introduced the term ‘psychology of terrorism’ to answer questions like, how and why people become terrorists, and are there any personality traits typical for terrorism.

Psychological theories relating to terrorism:

Frustrating Psycho-social Environment: Frustration due to poverty, marginalization, and unemployment is one of the oldest theories which are the earliest identified is factors significant in sociology related to terrorism. Terrorists usually belong to the above-mentioned categories. They suffer from social alienation and it is these socially disadvantaged people who are reported to be more at risk for getting involved in acts of violence.

Psychopathology and severe mental disorders: The persons who commit acts of extreme violence and destruction, killings and carnage have been regarded as inhuman, fanatical and abnormal. Terrorist organizations are now known to be well-organized and disciplined. It is unlikely that they would induct mentally ill people in the organizations. Possibly there is some casual screening, for serious psychopathology prior to induction in a group for organized terrorism.

Personality disorder: People resorting to terrorism, may have some form of psychopathology such as personality disorders.But The problem is that they are frequentlygenerally recognized as terrorists after a long period of association to a group The so-called narcissistic traits, for example extreme sensitivity to criticism, extreme fluctuations of mood, tendency to divide the world into extreme black and white, rather than understanding that there is a large grey area in life ,which must be comprehended in order to get adjusted to the world., which one needs to get adjusted to. Besides, characteristics like inability to form intimate bonds, insensitivity to others needs and feelings could also be the causes which may result in people to join fundamentalist, fanatical or otherwise terrorist organizations.

Fanaticism: A fanatic is described as a ‘person who is passionately engaged in a religious cause’. For a fanatic the world is divided in two categories: one is of those who are keenly involved in a religious cause; and the other who are not keenly involved in a religious cause. The concept of fanaticism has somecarries some implications of mental illness. The terrorist is branded as fanatic, mainly due to the actions which lead to self-harm in psychological terms., However, Taylor (1988)7 does not categorize fanaticism as a diagnostic entity in mental illness. He believes that the common assumptions about the relationship between fanaticism and mental illness are inappropriate. The fanatic often has fastidious perspective to the world view, which is at the extreme end of a continuum.

Terrorist Strategy

According to Alexanader and Klien (2006)8 the objectives of terrorists vary leading to the following reactions:

‘cCreates mass anxiety, fear, and panic, fostering a sense of helplessness and hopelessness; demonstrating the incompetence of the authorities; destroying a sense of security and safety provoking inappropriate reactions from individuals or the authorities (e.g. repressive and/or incompetent legislation or the excessive use of violence against suspect individuals and organizations). In addition, large-scale terrorist incidents can have adverse effects on world financial markets, travel and tourism, and may trigger xenophobic counter reactions’.

Modern terror organizations devote a lot of time and effort, as well as extensive resources into techniquesmethods of psychological warfare. They meticulously studycarefully observe their target- population which can be exploited. Research studies in terrorism indicate that they target country’s media in order to get their threats across and the media gets into their trap by magnifying the fears of the population and leads them to intensely condemn amplify criticism of the government and its policies. Radical viewsebellious views in the society are skilfully exploited carefully collected and used to create doubts inhallenge the populations’ beliefs in the rightness of its own ways. The terror organizations from the outset, plan that that they will not necessarily achieve their goals purely by means of terror attacks. They recruit the help of its victims themselves in gaining its objectives by inculcating fear. A conquest that would be impossible by military means is thus subtly achieved through a prolonged campaign of psychological warfare that steadily wears down the target-populations will to fight. Hoffman, 1998).9

An important understanding is that becoming caught up in terrorism is a process. No one is born a terrorist. It is neither the question of bad genes, nor does a person suddenly wakes up one morning and makes a decision that he would start planting bombs in public streets.

In the first instance, becoming a terrorist is an matter of socialization. Most of the societies possess some minorities or dissatisfied groups who rightly or wrongly perceive that the world is treating them cruelly. In other cases there could be a genuine and very significant cause for grievance. Individuals who belong to or identify with such disenchanted groups share a sense of injustice and discrimination. It is from such groups of people that individual terrorists emerge. The transition from a disaffected individual to the violent extremist is usually facilitated by a catalyst event. Usually the instigating event is police or security forces’ brutality; or a rival group against the individual, family, or friends; or just anyone they can identify with. The combination of sense of belonging to an under-pressure group combined with the experience of extreme violence against, either oneself or significant number of others, is the impetus for some to engage in terrorism. (Silke, 2003; 11 Shamim, 2009).10

According to McCauley:

” A terrorist group is the apex of a pyramid of supporters and sympathizers. The base of the pyramid is composed primarily those who sympathize with the terrorist cause even though they may disagree with the violent means that the terrorist use. In the present time the instance of Northern Ireland, the base of the pyramid constitutes who agree with ‘Brits Out’. In the Islamic world, the base of the pyramid is all those who agree that the US has been hurting and humiliating Muslims for decades. The pyramid is essential to the terrorists for cover and for recruits. The terrorists hope that a clumsy and over-generalized strike against them will hit some of their own side who are not yet radicalized and mobilized, will enlarge their base of sympathy, will turn the sympathetic but immobilized to action and sacrifice, and will strengthen their own status at the apex of this pyramid. (McCauley, 2007).12″

In 1986, the US attempted to retort to Libyan-supported terrorism by bombing Libya’s leader, Muammar Khaddafi. The bombs missed Khaddafi’s residence but a nearby apartment building was badly damaged, killing several women and children. This blunder was downplayed in the US but it became a public relations success for anti-US groups across North Africa. Interestingly, in 1998, a similar act was committed by the US when it sent cruise missiles against terrorist camps in Afghanistan and against a supposed bomb factory in Khartoum as retaliation to a terrorist attack on US embassy. (It appears now that the ‘bomb factory’ was in fact producing only medical supplies).

Usually a terrorist does not aim for a violent response that is not well – aimed . Terrorists hope for a reaction of stereotyping and prejudice in which the y are seen as typical members of the cause they sa y they are fighting for. Often the terrorists are only a tiny splinter of the group they aim to lead. Their mo st dangerous opposition is mostly from their own side, from moderates who see alternatives other than violence. If the reaction to terrorist attack is to put together all those who sympathize with the cause the terrorists claim to serve, to see a whole ethnic or religious group as dangerous and violent, then the moderates are undermined and the terrorists win.

The hardcore terrorists are usually a tiny splinter of the group. They aim to lead and expect a reaction of stereotyping and prejudice; which enhances their image. Their most dangerous opposition is often from their own side, from the moderates who see alternatives other than violence. If the response to terrorist attack is to lump together all who sympathize with the cause the terrorists claim to serve, to see a whole ethnic or religious group as dangerous and violent, then the moderates are undermined and the terrorists win.

Discrimination in the form of hostility and offensive behavior Rudeness, suspicion and hostility directed toward Arabs and other Muslims in the US and Europe will possibly lead to empathy with the terrorists. The reactions of stereotyping and prejudice observed against them is more likely to become a source of help to the terrorist instead of being a positive force against terrorism. ‘Profiling’ or other infringement of civil rights of Arabs and Muslims by US agencies of state security would help encourage a sense of victimization. Several thousands of Arabs and Muslims who were jailed since 9/11 on suspicion of terrorist activities will be obviously antagonized, leading them to feel aggrieved and violated by the infringement of their rights, when they are finally released.

The US stance of threat and hostility towards Arabs and Muslims, following 9/11 has proven dangerous. ” ‘Join our war against terrorism or else’ has clearly, now risked and undermined the Western leaning governments andof states, where fundamental Muslim forces are contesting government cooperation with the West. If the reaction to terrorism is seen as a crusade against the Muslims, the terrorists will be in a position to lead a jihad in their countries. Anti-terrorist activities in Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq are again seen as pursuance of the same policy. Pakistan at present is bearing the fall-out of this policy and suffering the brunt of the war on terror as the frontline state for terrorist activities. (Ereira & Wallace, 1995).13

Alexander and Klien (2005)14 provided a critical analysis of the western perspective of psychological aspects of terrorism at The Royal Society of Medicine Conference in April 2005.

“We need to view this phenomenon not through a moral prism but through a psychosocial one. This not an easy challenge and mental health specialists are more comfortable dealing with the impact of terrorist activity than with the motives and the psychological makeup of those who perpetrate such incidents.”

This is indeed one of the rare positive points of view of a leading expert in psycho-trauma from the Western World.

The biased use of the term ‘terrorist’ is often useda convenient one to stigmatize the adversaries. It is also understandable why such events, like the destruction of the World Trade Center; the car and suicide bombings in Iraq; the Bali nightclub bombing; and the London suicide bombing of July 2005, provoke public anger and egg on politicians and other prominent figures in civil society to compete with rival each other in their expressions of condemnation denunciation. ‘Howeverr, emotional catharsis of this kind does not add to the efforts to deal with terrorism.’ (Gunaratnam et al. 2003).15

There are several misconceptionsyths about terrorists and ‘suicide’ bombers in particular. The term ‘suicide bomber’ is clearly a misleading misnomer, propergatederpetuated particularlymainly by the media. (Salib, 2003).16 It is not ‘suicide’; it is an act of faith and martyrdom inbued and permeatedsuffused with religious and/or political motives’. According to Pape (2005)17 over 95 per cent of suicide terrorist attacks have resulted as a part of a strategic campaign to compel the withdrawal of foreign military forces from an occupied territory where religious differences exist between the occupier and the occupiedd.

Alexander and Klien identified some of the common realities about the terrorist:

Most terrorists are not mentally ill, and most do not have violent or psychopathic personalities (such individuals would find it very difficult to remain covert as part of a ‘sleeping cell’)

Not all terrorists come from impoverished or disadvantaged backgrounds (e.g. Osama bin Laden and the Badder-Meinhof group). Disadvantaged environments are more likely to produce sympathisers than terrorists

Not all terrorists are religious fanatics, and many belong to secular groups (those who do belong to ex tremist religious groups may be motivated by the prospects of immortality and the rich rewards following their ascendancy)

Terrorists are not typically ‘brain-washed’ or coerced into terrorist activity, although there is often a charismatic and inspira tional leader

There is now a move to involve females. Also, children as young as 12 years have been recruited by the Tamil Tigers of northern Sri Lanka . (A recent survey31 alarmingly confirmed, from a survey of school children in Gaza, that 70% wished to become a shahid in a self sacrificing act of martyrdom)

Regularly found among terrorists are: poor self esteem, a sense of hopelessness, shame, a need for revenge, and a sense of vulnerability . “

Most of the research data does no t support the concept that suicide bombing is primarily a result of T hus, the idea that the cause of suicide bombing is religious fanaticism.There is ample authentic research evidence that suicide bombing ,is also used as a tactic by several secular groups. does not stack up with the data; many groups adopting suicide-bombing tactics, including those in the Middle East, are entirely secular. Specifically, the idea that Islamist belief is the root- cause of suicide bombing is false and misleading; the majority of suicide bombings in the last two decades of the 20th century were conducted by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, from a predominantly Hindu culture (Pape, 2003).17

Equally disingenuous is the portrayal of suicide bombers as typically young single men, disenfranchised, unemployed and uneducated. Suicide bombers can be men or women aged anywhere between early teens to late-forties, religious or secular, unemployed or employed, destitute or privileged, educated or uneducated, married or single, socially isolated or socially integrated (Pape, 2003).17

The other common media explanation is that suicide bombers, particularly the young, are somehow brainwashed or coerced into such attacks. However, virtually all would-be suicide bombers are volunteers. ‘The problem today for groups employing suicide attacks is not recruitment; it is managing the over-supply of volunteers.’ (Hassan, 2001).18 A recent survey of schoolchildren in Gaza found that 70 per cent wished to become a shaheed in a martyr operation. Eyad Sarraj, psychiatrist and director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, concludes:

“If you ask a little child in Gaza today what he wants to be, he doesn’t say doctor or engineer, or businessman. He says he wants to be a martyr. (Hawley, 2002;19 Marsden & Attia, 2005).20”

Theoretical Models

Following are the main psychological theories that have been applied to understanding violence:

Instinct Theory

Psychoanalytic Model: ‘The most widely recognized theory that addresses the roots of all forms of violence is the psychoanalytic model. Despite its influence on writers in the political science, sociology, history, and criminology literature, this model has weak logical, theoretical, and empirical foundations’ (Beck, 2002).21

Freud considered aggression generally as an innate and instinctual human trait, which is generally cultivated in the normal course of human development. A later development in Freud’s theory was that humans had the energy of life force (eros) and death force (thanatos) that required internal balance. Violence was seen as the ‘displacement’ of thanatos from self and onto others. (Corrado, 1981).22 Freud wrote:

“One has, I think, to reckon with the fact that there are present in all men destructive, and therefore anti-social and anti-cultural, trends and that in a great number of people these are strong enough to determine their behaviorbehaviour in human society. (Freud, 1927, p. 7). “

Early writings on psychological dimensions of terrorist behaviorbehaviour were dominated by psychoanalytic formulations, reflecting, in part, the prevailing theoretical orientation in clinical practice at the time. The two themes consistently at the center of these formulations were: (1) that motives for terrorism are largely unconscious and arise from hostility toward one’s parents: and (2) that terrorism is the product of early abuse and maltreatment.

One of the earliest examples of the former was Feuer’s (1969)23 ‘conflict of generations’ theory, ‘which is based on a Freudian interpretation of terrorism as a psychological reaction of sons against fathers, a generational phenomenon rooted in the Oedipus complex and, thus, in maleness’ (Crenshaw, 1986).24 The idea that terrorism is rooted in childhood abuse (often unconscious squealae) is a relatively common theme, and is still held by some contemporary analysts. (McCormick, 2003).25 The premise was that terrorist behaviorbehaviour was rooted in a personality defect that produced a damaged sense of self. The essence of pathological narcissism is an overvaluing of self and a devaluing of others. It is not difficult to see how one might observe these traits among terrorists. In fact, political scientist Richard Pearlstein concluded: ‘the psychoanalytic concept of narcissism is the most complete and thus most intellectually satisfying theory regarding the personal logic of political terrorism.’26

Crayton (1983), for example, posed the ‘psychology of narcissism’ as a framework for understanding terrorist behaviorbehaviour, using Kohut’s concepts to guide his argument. According to Clayton, the two key narcissistic dynamics are a grandiose sense of self and ‘idealized parental imago’ ( ‘If I can’t be perfect, at least I’m in a relationship with something perfect’). With regard to the effect of groups, he argues that narcissistically vulnerable persons are drawn to charismatic leaders and that some groups are held together by a shared grandiose sense of self. As others have posited, he suggested that narcissistic rage is what prompts an aggressive response to perceived injustice.

Indeed ‘narcissistic rage’ has been posed by more than one observer as the primary psychological precipitant of terrorist aggression. In developmental context the way in which this evolves is that as children the budding terrorists are deeply traumatized, suffering chronic physical abuse and emotional humiliation. This creates a profound sense of fear and personal vulnerability that becomes central to their self-concept. To eliminate this fear and create a more tolerable self-image, such individuals feel the need to ‘kill off’ their view of themselves as victims. These viewpoints have obviously evolved from Western school of thought and thus they can be partially applied to the terrorist groups in the Muslim world. There are clearly other significant social, political and religious factors which also contribute to the profile of a terrorist emerging in the Muslim Word.

Ethology: Ethology is defined as ‘the scientific study of animal behaviorbehaviour, especially as it occurs in a natural environment and as the study of human ethos, and its formation.’ (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000).27 According to Konrad Lorenz, cited in Borum et al. (2004):28

“Aggression arises from a very basic biological need —- a ‘fighting instinct’ which has adaptive value, as humans have evolved”.

He proposed that the drive from aggression is innate and that, in humans, only its mode of expression is learned through exposure to, and interaction with the environment.

According to this theory, the instinctual drive for aggression builds up over a period of time, and is fueledfuelled by emotional or psycho-physiological arousal, and it is consequently discharged by a process of release, which presumably decreases drive. Significant differences were observed by social scientists, anthropologists and experimental research, in the nature and level of aggression in different cultures, They argue that aggression can be environmentally manipulated, which is an argument against universality of this human instinct.

Drive Theory

Frustration Aggression (FA): The basic premise of the frustration-aggression (FA) hypothesis is twofold: (1) Aggression is always produced by frustration; and (2) frustration always produces aggression. Thus it is not reasonable to view frustration alone as a necessary and sufficient causal factor. In an important reformulation of the FA hypothesis. Berkowitz (1989)29 hypothesized that it was only


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