Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Psychology of Terrorism

War, war, war!

That's been on the news for sometime, hasn't it? Today, the world is appalled by the actions of a terrorist organization known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). This eXtremist group have made themselves known by their violent tactics, torture, seXual violence, slavery etc etc etc. They were so violent that Al Qaeda rejected them completely (Define Irony). What's interesting about IS is that they're active on social media. No really, they actually recruit through social media via advertising and a spoonful of bullshit propaganda. IS, unlike other terrorist groups, is made up of A LOT of 'Westerners'. In fact, it is estimated around one in four IS militants have a Western passport. That caught my interest because I wanted to write about what would cause 

a British or American Muslim to leave his/her family and fight and kill for such a violent ideology a long way from their birth home.

Shall we begin?
To start with, what is ISIS? I already mentioned what ISIS stands for. But what really is ISIS? To a lot of people, every terrorist group is the same - using eXtreme measures to achieve their goals which is usually political or religious in nature. However, no two terrorist groups are the same. One group's terrorist is another man's hero. The Lebanese Militia known as Hezballa are considered terrorists outside Lebanon (And in Lebanon by certain sects). But if you want to compare, Hezballa has been protecting Lebanon and fighting off members of Al-Nusra and ISIS in Syria protecting the Lebanese people and providing major back up to the Lebanese Army at the Arsal border.

ISIS started with the United States (Go figure) training militant rebels and arming them in order to take down Bashar l Assad. The plan backfired when those militants went AWOL and declared a Caliphate under Abu Bakr l Baghdadi. Since then, they have committed atrocities I won't even bother mentioning here. I've kept up with multiple British citizens who have left Great Britain in order to go and fight ISIS.

The Theories

The Need to Belong

A  2006 survey and interview with British Muslims (cited by Andrew Silke 2008) uncovered an important finding - people who felt their primary identity was Muslim, rather than British, held more sympathetic views towards the concept of jihad and martyrdom. Indeed, according to Randy Borum (2014) writing in Behavioural Sciences and the Law, a key psychological vulnerability of those drawn to eXtremism is their need to feel they belong. "In radical movements and eXtremist groups, many prospective terrorists find not only a sense of meaning but also a sense of belonging, connectedness and affiliation."

When I got to England, I noticed that many of the Muslims there are more 'religious' in a sense. I see many of them growing beards and dressing up in their Islamic robes. There's nothing wrong in that, of course but I was curious. Why was I curious? Because I've been to Sunni Islamic areas of both Lebanon, UAE and Syria and seeing such a thing is quite rare. In fact, we only see such people who take a strong conservative stance. So why do they identify themselves as Muslims and not British? It's simple - the need to belong. We consciously (And unconsciously) identify with people who are the same as us. It's in man's nature because the ego is always finding ways to defend itself. Besides identifying with a religious sect, people identify with a number of things. The Chelsea football fans stick together, the Goths stick together, the Blacks stick together, the Latinos with their language stick together, etc Music, sports, ideologies, etc. I could go on for hours but you get the point. What makes the UK better than the US is the fact it is eXecuted properly. The U.S almost promotes racism. A lot of Brits may argue against me but I can personally tell you as someone who has been all over, Britain is better off than most. Going back to British Muslims who identify as Muslims and not British. There's a number of reasons. I personally believe the Diaspora Effect. A lot of Muslims, say with a Pakistan origins, have strong desires to 'go back home'. Many left Pakistan in order to have a better life. Some succeeded, some didn't. The parents may talk to their kids about their memories which, for the most part, is during their time in Pakistan. This projection promotes the need to identify with their culture such as food, music, language, belief etc.

Who becomes an eXtremist? 

 In the UK, contrary to popular belief, many of those who left to join ISIS came from Middle Class and High Class families. They were also well educated. Most of them were in their late teens and early twenties. I could go all Psychoanalytical and tell you this is the stage where people hit an 'Identity Crisis' which is why our school or early college days were days we regret the most. We look back at those pictures and see what 'scene' we were part of. We just needed to identify or we thought we identified with this group (Some people are still fiXated at this stage). It's basically the stage where we eXperiment. You know, clubbing every night, doing drugs, adrenaline fueled speeding, etc. It's the same with the common Western Jihadist, just how you could be peer pressured to try drugs, you could be peer pressured to become a terrorist. I'll talk about this momentarily but let me tackle the question in your head saying I'm wasting my time writing this because these people are mentally ill.

Are They Psychologically Ill? 

Contrary to popular belief, a study by Borum (2014) showed that "eXtremists" are not psychologically abnormal. Like I said, many of these Brits and other Europeans come from well educated families. However, I have to disagree slightly. The line between normal and abnormal is way too thin, at least in my books. An eXtremist doesn't have to be abnormal to the point labelled psychotic but that doesn't mean he/she isn't neurotic. Just like how a teenager with their identity crisis can't fit in or can't find the light in the world for a number of reasons, so does the eXtremist. Some of them might pull out of this stage and some might fiXate which is why most Personality Disorders aren't diagnosed before the age of 18. 

The Risky Shift  

 Social Psychology has a theory known as the Risky Shift (Or group polarlisation). You'd be surprised to know (Or not) that many people are introduced to radical theories by a close knit of friends. Remember when I mentioned peer pressure up there? It's basically the same thing. Even the slightest belief of radicalism can be lit up when the entire group opens up. In fact, people who are most vulnerable are the ones who have nothing to lose or simply the ones who have lost everything (Both different and alike in numerous ways) which is why they compensate by numbing the pain through certain 'destructive' behaviors like drug use. That doesn't mean everyone who has tried drugs is compensating for something, please try and understand the psychological profile I'm detailing here. Anyways, back to our eXtremist group meeting, the phenomenon known as Risky Shift occurs - it is best defined as the tendency for groups to arrive at more eXtreme positions than any individual would have come up on his own. When the ego is in danger, seeking meaning, desperate, etc, it would project its own shadow into the world. When in a group, a collective shadow has been created which is just a bag of everyone's different (Or not so different) nightmares all bottled up. In History, the Nazi regime is a good eXample. In Literature, the Lord of the Flies comes to mind when those innocent marooned children became Satan's spawns and committed atrocious acts. It's the same with eXtremists, why stop at one eXtreme point? I would personally put Risky Shift as the Fuel for eXtreminism. 

Marginalisation and Perceived Injustice

Many would-be violent extremists bear grievances, sometimes a sense of humiliation (either personally or on behalf of their in-group) and a desire for revenge. At the same time, they feel that their needs and interests are not recognised by mainstream authorities. It's notable that in the UK and other Western countries, the Muslim population are massively under-represented in national parliaments. A 2009 paper "Patterns of Thinking in Militant EXtremism" analysed the mindset of many eXtremist groups around the world (based on internet and printed material), including the IRA and the Muslim Brotherhood, and two key beliefs were the illegitimacy of the established authorities and that change can only be achieved through eXtreme and unconventional means.That sounds rather unfair but this is the part where any minority group that feels it has been under-represented will start to show muscle. We've seen Sunni sects riot in England with their radical beliefs. When I asked one of the protestors why doesn't he go to a country where Sharia law is implemented, he took offense - then it all made sense. Amazing what anger reveals about a person's psychological mind-frame. When he thought he could show muscle, I told him it's unfair how Sunni minority groups want to implement Sharia law in liberal countries but in countries where Sharia law is the main law, any other minority group would be wiped out -- through radical means.

Dehumanisation of Enemies

As I mentioned, the ego will always protect itself and go on with society's perceived standards. What makes eXtremists dangerous is the fact that they have completely dehumanised their enemies. We all saw how Jihadi John decapitated that poor reporter's head as if he was having a stroll at Hyde Park. If you're not with me, you're against me. Interesting trivia is that this doesn't only apply to eXtremists. Brain response shows we dehumanise people we can't associate with such as street beggars and drugs addicts. Unconsciously, we may not be aware of the words we use such as, 'Pff animals, they should all be killed'. We've dehumanised our enemies but they've also done the same to us. 

EXistential Influences

For many people, eXtremist religious movements offer eXistential comfort. EXtremists and many so-called fundamentalists in all religions, use one of the most basic and often most destructive forms of defense," writes Gibbs (2005) "they repress the anXiety of nonbeing, splitting the self and filling the void with self-protective belief systems and structures ..." Also relevant here is "Terror Management Theory" - this states that we respond to reminders of our mortality by entrenching our beliefs and deepening our cultural allegiances. A 2006 study found that Muslim Iranian students reminded of their own mortality subsequently eXpressed more support for their peers who believed in the legitimacy of suicide attacks against the US. So going back to the point where all humans try and find meaning to their lives, they find comfort in something that fulfills them - usually religion or any ideology they can identify with. Freud talked about the Ego and Death Instinct so that's a good read elucidating this matter in more psychoanalytical detail. The quest for personal significance constitutes a major motivational force that may push individuals toward violent eXtremism," write Arie W. Kruglanski et al in a 2014 paper. Silke (2008) similarly points out that in many communities, "joining a terrorist group increases the standing of a teenager or youth considerably." It's also important to recognise the lure of danger and eXcitement, especially to young disenfranchised men. Silke quotes a former IRA member reminiscing about his time as a terrorist: "I lived each day in a heightened state of alertness. Everything I did, however trivial, could seem meaningful."

Violent Scriptures 

Every religion has a passage that comes off as violent, which is part of human nature. It was hypothesized that such scriptures promote violent behavior and aggression. Luckily, a 2007 study by Bushman put this to test and results showed that students eXposed to violent scriptures did eXhibit more aggression, especially if they were religious believers. It's similar with theories of how growing up to violent video games and movies could cause one to develop violent traits we see in Conduct Disorder and eventually Anti-Social Personality Disorder. However, religion is more internalised, and scriptures that portray violence have a stronger effect than video games. 

In conclusion, I've done my best to list some of the theories that eXplain what goes through the mind of a terrorist. As always, I'll be happy to receive your private questions. 

Stay safe, stay smart.