The latest terrorist attacks in Paris have generated many comments and discussions about the closing of borders to Syrian refugees, the bombing of ISIS strongholds and the impact of Islam on society. Perhaps the questions we should be asking are: “Who are terrorists and how do they become terrorists?” and “How do we nip terrorism in the bud?”
Brenda’s note about this article: Normally, the Touchy Subjects blog covers topics that deal with health and self healing. The Paris attacks and the terrorism threats around the world have created a lot of fear and uncertainty in many of us. While these are quite normal reactions, fear can cause unhealthy stress and emotional distress. The purpose of this article is to shed some light on why terrorists do what they do so that this knowledge can help to dispel the fear and the myths around them.
The Problem with Defining Terrorists by Country, Religion or Ideology
In past decades, terrorists (both non-state and state-sponsored) have come from many countries and ideologies from Nazi Germany, the Rwanda genocide, the massacres in Bosnia and, most recently, ISIS and other Islamic extremists. In addition, many terrorists originated from places other than the source country: during the Second World War, Nazis had followers from Poland who brutally assaulted their own people and, today, ISIS attracts members from many Middle Eastern countries but also developed nations such as the U.S., France, Belgium and Canada.
To a certain degree, we can define terrorists by their country of origin and/or by their religious beliefs or ideologies but, before long, that definition falls apart. It’s a matter of simple logic, for example: Even if all Islamic terrorists were Syrians and Muslims, not all Syrians and not all Muslims would be terrorists.
John Horgan, an Irish psychologist and expert on terrorism, explains how religion is less important to the recruitment of new members than to the continued engagement of existing members:
I certainly think the role of Islam, and religious ideology more generally, is vastly overstated as a mobilizing agent for involvement in political violence. I believe it is far more relevant in terms of sustaining commitment and continued engagement with a group.
So, if religion or ideology are not the main attractors for those recruited to become terrorists, what is? And once individuals are members of a terrorist group, how does religion or ideology then become a tool to keep them engaged?
According to Horgan, many people who hold radical views will never become terrorists and many terrorists did not have radical views before they became terrorists. Based on existing research, social psychologist Stephen Reicher from the University of St Andrews, UK suggests that any person is capable of committing evil acts given the right (or wrong) context.
Evidence suggests that many terrorists develop their radical views only after they have become involved with a group or with a recruiter for the group. To understand how this happens, we can look at the science behind our very human need to be a part of a group.
Our Need to be Part of a Tribe
Humans evolved in groups or tribes because being part of a group meant surviving. Our intense need to find and to identify with the values and beliefs of our tribe is built into our biology. Horgan says that people are initially attracted to terrorism because of big issues like alienation, shared anger, frustration, disillusionment and a sense of victimization by the action or inaction of others. Consciously or unconsciously, they seek out people who share their feelings and beliefs.
Recruiters for terrorist organizations prey on this need to share feelings and beliefs with someone. They often befriend alienated individuals and feed their anger, frustration or disillusionment. Then, they further lure people with stories of belonging, adventure, camaraderie, honour and becoming a part of something much bigger than themselves. The recruiters will say whatever they need to convince that person to join their group and their “crusade.”
It’s at this point that religion or ideology fills in the gaps. Like good marketers, recruiters and organizations will twist religious statements and beliefs to fit their goals. Young recruits and religious converts are particularly susceptible because they do not have the knowledge to rebut clichéd arguments.
We feel less empathy for people who are outside of our group. In extreme cases, such as joining a terrorist organization, identifying with a group can transform normal people into killers if they feel a duty to protect their group from outsiders. “What is truly toxic,” says Reicher, “is a construction of in-group and out-group which makes genocide an act of virtue and construes the killers as the most noble among us.” Terrorism is the “you’re either with us or against us” mentality on drugs, really bad drugs.
Can bombs help us to fight terrorism?
In regards to ISIS, many people believe that bombing strategic, ISIS-held regions is a good way—maybe even the only way—to deal with them. However, in his blog for Scientific American, John Horgan (the science writer, not the terrorism expert) wrote:
I am not an absolute pacifist. Sometimes violence is required to stop greater violence (…) Will increased U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Syria make a bad situation worse? Recent history suggests that the answer is yes.
(…) Escalating U.S. force in the Mideast—far from taking us closer to world peace—would perpetuate militarism. Whenever the U.S. resorts to bombs and bullets to advance its agenda, it legitimizes the use of lethal force by others, including groups like ISIS.
One of the great ironies in debates about war and peace is that hawks view themselves as hard-headed “realists” and denigrate doves as soft-headed and delusional. The real delusion is thinking that U.S. military force—which over the last decade has exacerbated the terrible violence wracking the Mideast—can now dispel it.
An ”Off-Ramp” for Disillusioned Terrorists
Horgan (the terrorism expert) stated that disillusionment is common within terrorist groups. When the new recruits arrive and the promised adventure and dreams never materialize, disillusionment sets in—but, at that point, what can they do about it?
If they try to leave, they will probably not get far before being caught, either by someone from their group or by authorities—neither of which is a palatable option.
They live in fear that their disillusionment will be detected by the others in their group. It’s possible that some individuals become so scared and desperate that they are even more eager to “prove” their loyalty to their group or that they make radical choices such as volunteering for suicide missions.
According to Horgan, we “need to do a better job of providing ‘off-ramps’ not just for people who are on the road to terrorism in the first place, but also to those who have gotten themselves in a jam and want to get out before it’s too late. (…) We certainly need to do a far better job of showcasing accounts of repentant former terrorists who are in an ideal position to credibly undermine the allure of involvement in the first place.”
Using Group Mentality for Good
Reicher argues that we should use group mentality to our advantage by encouraging a group belief that we are not more virtuous than people outside our group. We can educate people in our group to be wary of black-and-white moral distinctions that create the Us versus Them mentality.
It is possible to resist and to overcome violent groups as a collective. When asked if the world will ever be free of terrorism, Horgan (the terrorism expert) replied that it “depends in part on States holding the moral high ground, formulating responses based on evidence, and not falling into the traps that terrorist groups are so clever at setting for States.”
In other words, let’s not give terrorists what they want: chronic fear, panic, retaliation, in-fighting, the perpetuation of ignorance, hatred of Muslims, revenge. These reactions will only create more fear, more fighting, more war, more terrorism.
As a collective, let’s show our governments that we are prepared to take the higher moral ground. Let’s show the
terrorists that, although we may be afraid (because that is a pretty normal response), we will not allow our fear to thwart our humanity and to guide our decision-making.
I may be afraid but I won’t let fear lead my heart.
 Scientific American blog online. Can Science Solve Terrorism? Q&A with Psychologist John Horgan. By John Horgan, the American science writer (no relation). March 2, 2015. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/can-science-solve-terrorism-q-amp-a-with-psychologist-john-horgan/
 New Scientist online. Is evil a disease? ISIS and the neuroscience of brutality. By Laura Spinney, a writer based in Paris, France. Originally published in print magazine issue 3047, 14 November 2015 as “Roots of Brutality.” https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22830471-000-syndrome-e-can-neuroscience-explain-the-executioners-of-isis/?utm_source=NSNS&utm_medium=SOC&utm_campaign=hoot&cmpid=SOC%7CNSNS%7C2015-GLOBAL-hoot
 Ibid. New Scientist online. Is evil a disease? ISIS and the neuroscience of brutality.
New Scientist online. Is evil a disease? ISIS and the neuroscience of brutality. By Laura Spinney, a writer based in Paris, France. Originally published in print magazine issue 3047, 14 November 2015 as “Roots of Brutality.” Accessed online November 16, 2015. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22830471-000-syndrome-e-can-neuroscience-explain-the-executioners-of-isis/?utm_source=NSNS&utm_medium=SOC&utm_campaign=hoot&cmpid=SOC%7CNSNS%7C2015-GLOBAL-hoot
Scientific American blog online. Can Science Solve Terrorism? Q&A with Psychologist John Horgan. By John Horgan, the American science writer (no relation). Originally published online on March 2, 2015. Republished on November 16, 2015. Accessed November 16, 2015. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/can-science-solve-terrorism-q-amp-a-with-psychologist-john-horgan/
Scientific American blog online. How Should the U.S. Respond to Terror? By John Horgan. Published November 16, 2015. Accessed November 16, 2015. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/how-should-the-u-s-respond-to-terror/