The topic under discussion is the formation and radicalization of the Islamic extremist group Al Qaeda and the attack of September 11, 2001 that shook the world and put a nation into mourning. The aim of this essay is to provide a psychological perspective and suggest an explanation as to why individuals resort to radical groups. The exploration of the roots and causes as to why individuals are radicalised, employing social psychological theories to analyse the mechanisms utilised by terrorist and moreover a psychological analysis of the way individuals are influenced to resort to extreme measures by certain social circumstances will be discussed.
There is no single definition that sufficiently explores the many expressions of terrorism that have spread throughout history (Drummond, 2002, Laqueur, 1987) and so remains problematic. Crenshaw (1992, 71) however described terrorism as "a particular style of political violence, involving attacks on a small number of victims in order to influence a wider audience." This is of importance as an influential attack combined with extreme religious ideologies play a vital role, as citizens are radicalised through conflict and war (Isam, 2006 cited in Loza, 2007). The unity of Muslims across the globe and the development of the perception 'them' vs. 'us,' came a strategic effort to indoctrinate Muslims into thinking similarly from this systematic teaching. These extreme religious ideologies led to the attacks in America on September 11, 2001 when four planes were hijacked by 19 Arab Muslims, with two planes successfully crashing into New York City's World Trade Centre and another into The Pentagon military complex near Washington D.C, killing nearly 3000 civilians. The terrorist's were affiliated with a Muslim organization known as Al Qaeda, whose leader Osama Bin Laden advocated that America was part of a Christian-Jewish crusade against Islam (Jacquard, 2002, pg 258-259).
For the formation and radicalisation of a terrorist organization, variables such as the prevailing geo-political, economic and social condition connect with the particular concoction of group processes, structures and characteristics (Post, 2002, pg 74). In essence, this may explain the group dynamics of this entity's formulation and radicalisation, and is of interest to social psychologists and a challenge to psychological theory. Arguably, Moghaddam's staircase model (2005) which uses a narrowing staircase metaphor to explain the radicalisation process of terrorism, may be aptly applied to Al Qaeda's history culminating in the 9/11 attacks.
It was noted by Porta (1995, pg 136) that the moulding of group identity, were due to the radicals' psychological perceiving of external and political conditions, whilst environment and political processes were also a cause of impact. Porta (1995) asserted that the foundation behind the group dynamics of the radicals was central to comprehending the micro and macro levels of political violence. If this is the case, then when the focal point for the analysis is shifted to the atrocity of 9/11 and the radicalisation of those responsible for the attacks, the elements of social psychology shaping the expression of dissonance becomes highly instructive.
Factors such as severe economic problems, external and internal conflicts, wartime, and rapid social changes may increase the likeliness radicalization of individuals to occur. This perspective can be successfully applied to the situations leading up the 9/11 attacks such the violence and conflict involving Muslim populations such as Kashmir, Bosnia and Palestine, in which individuals radicalized are exposed to such teachings.
Staub (1989) stated that for many individuals, crisis could be very unsettling and disoriented, resulting in increase fear, frustration and prejudice as well as confusion regarding personal and social identity. In this particular case, the frustration of the dominating group in the society and the fear of further loss of control, caused by the economic and political breakdown, may have led to the formation of Al Qaeda and the radicalisation of individuals joining this group as due to these past events their motivation for joining a terrorist organization revolved a desire for revenge (Schmid and Jongman, 1988) Within this context, the perception of a strong shared identity and link with the wider Muslim word, known as the umma, has serious consequences when the individual perceives that some Muslim communities are being treated brutally or unfairly. Thus they may feel they are being stigmatized, viewed solely responsible for situations that are not their fault and branded as disgraceful throughout the world.
In terms of the radicalization process, McCauley and Moskalenko (2008) identified steps in this process, the first of which included personal victimisation, where the individual seeks revenge for experiences in which the individual perceives him/herself to be attacked or victimised, political grievance, an individual seeks to revenge or protect a group in response to political trends or events viewed as hurting or threatening that group, joining a radical group - the slippery slope, an individual engages in increasingly radical behaviour as he/she integrates into a radical group or organisation joining a radical group-the power of love, an individual joins a radical group as a result of the pull of romantic or comradely love and participates in the group's activities to sustain those relationships. These steps seem plausible and consonant with observation of such radicalization as mediated to us via the global media.
Moghaddam (2005, pg 70) observes there is little real evidence indicating terrorists can be characterised by high levels of psychopathology, nor are they typically characterised by high levels of unemployment or lack of education. Instead, the psychological development of Al Qaeda started with the "ground floor" of perceived material deprivation (Moghaddam, 2005:70), progressing to a consideration of the "perceived options to fight unfair treatment" (Moghaddam, 2005, pg 72). Displacement of aggression and moral engagement were established with Al Qaeda through the use of "isolation, affiliation, secrecy and fear" (Moghaddam, 2005, pg 74). The fourth floor characterised by Moghaddam as the creation of categorical thinking and giving legitimacy to al Qaeda notes that social categorization was a powerful psychological device to consolidate loyalty and a moral divide between the organization and the establishment (Moghaddam, 2005, pg 74). Furthermore, the avoidance of inhibitory mechanisms is another psychological process that permitted radicalisation within al Qaeda to proceed (Moghaddam, 2005, pg 75). The use of psychological distancing between cells and links in the chain of command allow inhibition factors to be avoided, so that Al Qaeda's unspeakable actions could be enacted.
According to Post (2002, pg 84) the group's ideology, former experiences and leadership style have a huge bearing upon its radicalisation process and trajectory. More basic perhaps, is the rationale for the group's existence in the first place. Its ideology is distinctive and forthright and as events transpire, the alternatives to exertion of political violence become untenable it's the eyes of its leadership and by implication, its members. As Post (2002, pg 84) stated "the group increasingly believes that change is not possible in existing society and that a radical change is necessary." This conviction can explain the radicalization of Al Qaeda's leadership prior to the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001. The ideological beliefs of Al Qaeda leadership which galvanised the organisation were a composite of leveraging Islamic extremism; demonising Judaism and Christianity; and lambasting the western liberal democratic vision as an insidious and destructive threat to the Middle East and its ancient way of life.
Whilst the degree and speed of a terrorist organization being radicalised may be determined by intergroup rivalry (Post, 2002), in the case of al Qaeda it would appear to have been robust in its own ideological position and in the resoluteness of its single minded leader, Osama Bin laden, who was perhaps so disaffected and disenfranchised from all other Middle Eastern radical groups initially, through his former separation from the Saudi Arabian orthodoxy, legitimised violence in the minds of Al Qaeda recruits, by placing a moral and Qur'anic vocation upon the hearts of members to eradicate western imperialism from the globe by weakening its symbolic and actual epicentre, the USA.
Leaders constitute one of the main situational factors that may lead individuals down a path of terror. This can be viewed as an example of attribution theory. Attribution theory has shown that individuals such as those who have converted to terrorism may view their own behaviour as a cause of situational and environmental forces, but see the behaviour of others such as the West as a result of their personality (Quattrone, 1982). Thus influential leaders may attribute to these radical individuals that what they are doing is right as perceived by the 9/11 attacks and that the West are the enemy. The importance of leadership was emphasized by Milgram (1965 cited in McCauley & Moskalenko, 2008), who proved that a greater extent of obedience was placed by the presence of an authority figure, having an immense effect on human behavior.
A closer examination of what psychological studies of leadership of extremist groups has to offer, identifies elements such as socio-pathic tendencies, narcissistic personality traits, paranoid personality types and malignant narcissism (Post, 2002). Some but not all of these can be attributed to Bin Laden.
According to Post (2002), the concept of narcissism in psychological context means that the individual is susceptible to the processing of biased information, overestimating their own strength and underestimating the strength of their enemies. It is debatable whether it can be claimed that Bin Laden has overestimated his opponent's strength given his success at evasion, and the degree of devastation Al Qaeda has exacted under his leadership to date. It is also doubtful how helpful the other indicators of the narcissistic personality are in this particular case, in that Bin Laden's insistence on member compliance is as much a function of the geo-political condition from 1985 to the present in which al Qaeda has flourished, with the replication of cells throughout the Middle East, Europe and Africa reflecting distributive leadership and hierarchical command structures that are extremely difficult to trace. The diffuseness of Al Qaeda's structure means Bin laden acts more as a spiritual figure head who pronounces major terrorist initiatives, but is not directly involved at the operational level in relation to specific attacks. The syndrome known as malignant narcissism best describes Bin Laden, since malignant narcissist's envelope these attributes, but typically exhibit a sense of grandiosity (Post, 2002).
The leader can be often seen as taking advantage of what Tajfel and Turner (1986) acknowledged as the inclination for people to segregate the world into in-groups and out-groups, thus favoring the in-group bias. According to Brewer (1979), when leaders perceive the in-group in a positive light and view the out-group as negative, negative consequences can follow. The example of such practice can be seen via Al Qaeda's propaganda, a glorification of their identity and values, while depicting the west as infidels, and a threat to the Muslim states. Rapopport's (2001, pg 217) cautionary words are relevant, that there is a tendency to impose western models of ego psychology upon Middle Eastern terrorist leaders to account for their motivations and sense of self-image.
Apart from the exploring influence of leaders, it is significant to understand the terrorist's actions and tendencies of followers. A notion of authoritarian personality by Adorno et al (1950) asserted that followers may have certain personality traits that may lead to a developing of a diplomatic mentality, and thus making individuals easy to influence. They search to seek security and stability and show a substantial amount of respect and conformity to the authority they support. Amongst this, they are characterized by an excessive tendency to prejudice and stereotypical thoughts. With many individuals being radicalized by organizations such as Al Qaeda, these factors are clearly present by individuals who feel that their leader is morally justified when fighting for the cause of Islam and for every Muslim state that has come under struggle by the west.
Within the minds of individuals turning towards terrorism is the process of moral disengagement. This is the third floor in Moghaddam (2005) staircase model was proposed by Bandura (1988) specifying the moral justification of aggression against the enemy. Another stride towards moral disengagement is the tendency to blame the victim for the disaster brought upon him, in order to deny own guilt and to maintain a belief in just world (Brock & Buss, 1962) This notion can be adequately illustrated by phrases such as "because you attacked us and continue to attack usâ€¦you attacked us in Palestine" (the guardian, 2002), formulated by Al Qaeda to justify their actions, and moreover make them look morally and rightfully correct.
The most destructive of the underlying processes is known as dehumanization, where groups are attached and perceived as being inferior not only to the dominant group but to human beings in general. This contributes to the process of radicalisation which a group such as al Qaeda undertakes, include not only the demonization of the opponent and target of political violent vitriol and actions, but also the self-proclaimed self-righteousness, and romanticising of mass murder as a sanctified action in a larger and more abstract conflict between their conceptualisation of good and evil. In other words, when recruitment training involves indoctrination in the case of al Qaeda that the opponent is not merely flesh and blood Americans, but the concept of democracy and western freedom itself, the process of dehumanising al Qaeda operatives so that they have no conscience about killing innocent civilians is more achievable in the name of high minded ideology.
In terms of group dynamics and how such a terrorist organisation is structured McCauley (2004, pg 36 in Stout), pointed out that the motivations for terrorist strikes such as 9/11 cannot be dismissed as acts of sociopathic, since sociopaths normally are motivated by self interest, not self sacrifice. McCauley also notes the prospect of frustration, anger and insult as sufficient motivations to explain the instigation of terror in relation to Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks in the USA. McCauley finds that the motivations in this case were the conviction that Al Qaeda must work with God to remove injustice, rather than express human wrath (McCauley in Stout 2004).
In conclusion, an extensive psychological account on the roots, causes and processes involved in the formation and radicalization of a terrorist organization were discussed. Although many psychological theories may be applied to the behavior of why individuals join and radicalize terrorist groups and why the 9/11 attacks may have occurred, much research is still needed in this area, there is a shortage of experienced research, often neglected and overlooked and "conducted in cracks and crevices which lie between the large academic disciplines." (Silke, 2004, pg 1).