The Making of a Terrorist
John Horgan and Max Taylor
Terrorism exists within societies and communities. As such, it is in the nature of the terrorist's rhetoric to present his actions as representing community interests. An uncomfortable truth in the wake of 11 September is that while in a specific sense hose 'represented communities' tend to reject individual atrocities, they often remain supportive of the terrorist in a general sense. This is particularly evident whenever the role of religion is used by terrorist leaderships as representing the basic justification and methodology of their violence.
The concept of religious terrorism has spread among the public as something frightening and once distant that now threatens to affect everyone, but it does little to explain the motivations of terrorists or to inform policy-makers of suitable responses. In strategic and tactical terms, the 'religious' dimension can be isolated to much more mundane organisational issues that terrorist leaders have to consider: how to employ specific psychological tactics to recruit potential members and promote moral and other justification to the point that not only will such a grouping have people willing to die for it, but they may even have members who will want to die. Religious ideology should, therefore, be seen as a tool, among others, used for the terrorist's purposes.
Academia and policy-making
A popular approach to terrorism by academia has been to attempt to profile terrorists, either in a psychological sense or across socio-political dimensions. The notion of 'profiling' has a strong appeal to law-enforcement and intelligence services, but experience suggests it has little value in the case of terrorists. The consistency of behaviour, and presumed invariant qualities which profiling necessarily assumes, simply does not exist. Terrorism is a diverse and broad phenomenon, and the concept itself is prone to inconsistent use and labelling. Even within specific terrorist groups, there is often a considerable diversity of people, roles, functions and behaviour.
Research aimed at understanding psychological aspects of terrorist behaviour has been perennially preoccupied with establishing differences between terrorists and non-terrorists. An underlying, and essentially flawed, assumption is that there are relatively static personal qualities that can in some sense predict or be identified as essential properties of the terrorist. This has involved a search for specific personality types across various groups. From a conceptual point of view, this practice is pointless. Given the diversity of terrorist behaviour and function, there can be little or no predictive utility in using personality traits to understand terrorists. Even if one could establish that an individual in a terrorist group had a specific trait (say, paranoia), one could not use this for any proactive 'search' for those likely to become terrorists.
Assumptions about what terrorists are 'like' in a psychological sense still largely draw on a research base from the early 1980s which includes, first and foremost, the rather confusing results of assessments of ideological terrorists examined by psychiatrists in prisons. This has distracted attention from a focus on decisional choices that might be made by terrorists, and the social and cultural context to those choices. In fact, what we know of actual terrorists suggests that there is rarely a conscious decision made to 'become' a terrorist. Most involvement in terrorism results from gradual exposure and socialisation towards extreme behaviour. Given these difficulties, a role for personality might be better identified when examining more specific issues in the decision-making processes, for example, in analysing how disaffected youths become influenced by 'perverted' fundamentalist thinking to the point of eventually expressing a willingness to die for a cause. Relevant to this, however, is that a critical distinction needs to be made between why people join terrorist groups in the first place, how they develop into specific roles or functions, why they remain involved and, ultimately, why they leave. An important point is that the factors influencing decision-making for the individual at any of these stages are not necessarily related to one another.
An approach taken by psychologist FM Moghaddam can be used to illustrate how a shift in focus can have very different implications for thinking about terrorist behaviour. It has been shown by psychologists that specific social roles and kinds of behaviour are associated with specific kinds of work. According to Moghaddam, this forms the basis for how we use stereotypes and social categorisation from day to day. For example, in the process of 'becoming' a police officer, new recruits to the profession will learn about the 'appropriateness of different types of behaviour and conform to what is both appropriate for their role and for themselves in that role'. In some very fundamental ways then, through training, socialisation, conformity, compliance and obedience, aspirant police officers shape their own behaviour, attitudes, and perceptions to fit the expectant socialised role or function of 'police officer'. Moghaddam stresses that this is relevant to understanding how people change as a result of adopting specific roles or functions.
Approaching psychological issues from this perspective has implications for the understanding of how terrorist recruits can come to perform extreme acts of violence. There are various types of specialisation frequently found in large terrorist organisations, where the leadership delegates roles and functions to members who display some specific technical, financial or educational acumen. However movement between roles and functions also occurs in terrorist groups for a variety of pragmatic reasons. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), for example, has always been overestimated with respect to its organisational proficiency, where despite a formalised command and functional structure, a number of members have frequently occupied more than one function. There are extremely few 'full-time' terrorists, but members have moved into and out of roles that only sometimes directly contribute to death, injury or other dramatic events that we associate with terrorism. The point here is that very often, the shift to extreme behaviour is gradual and slow even for a member of a relatively formalised terrorist structure, and indeed may only intermittently be expressed.
A fundamental distinction can be made then in analysing the factors at work at the different stages of 'becoming', 'remaining' and 'leaving', or terminating involvement. Rather than thinking about 'what kind of person becomes a terrorist?' it may be much more useful to consider the 'pull' factors that attract people to involvement in extremist groups in the first place. One can then examine the processes by which a person may be encouraged into fulfilling a specific role or function (brainwashing is an inappropriate term because it implies some physical or overt psychological coercion), and what leads to some people remaining in the organisation while others leave (voluntarily or otherwise).
Successful terrorist groups place a psychological premium on membership. Eventual acceptance into a group is not just seen as a significant aspiration and subsequent major milestone in a person's life, but there is a common tendency across terrorist groups for the leadership to want to see some 'return' on their investment. The range of subtle psychological pressures that sustain involvement within a terrorist organisation and sustain a shift towards increasing isolation from mainstream society and towards extreme behaviour are immense. Given this, the behaviour that culminates in the planting of a bomb does not lend itself to explanation in easy, categorical terms. Considering terrorism within a fluid, dynamic group and organisational context leads away from profiling individuals and towards identifying functions, roles and the effects of organisational dynamics on recruitment, sustenance of membership, safeguarding against exit, and so on.
Counterterrorism has been preoccupied with military and law-enforcement responses, often with a focus on simple analysis and technical solutions, rather than generating understanding. We have lacked to date the investment in conceptual understanding of terrorism, and the processes that underpin it.
It is in this sense that comparative studies of terrorist movements would benefit from process approaches, for example comparing the movement into and out of violence, with respect to tactical, strategic and other types of escalation and de-escalation and the types of organisational issues that emerge for the 'followers' as a result. It is only now, for instance, that
we are in a position to be able to assess the psychological consequences of disengagement from Irish Republican terrorism and to generate comparative hypotheses accordingly.