The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism

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Why do some people decide to stand against society and start a career in a terrorist organization? Is there a terrorist profile or personality? What common characteristics or features do terrorists share? Psychological factors leading to the appearance of terrorist organizations are in the field of special interest in psychology, government officials, and political scientists. They would like to be able to prevent and predict the emergence of terrorist groups or to prevent the realization of terrorist activity. Can we develop a single terrorist profile that could help security to identify potential members of a terrorist group, whether they would be assassins, airplane hijackers, or just suicide bombers? This study concentrates on the individual psychological and sociological features of terrorists from different generations. It attempts to determine the main changes in the casual terrorist profile that have taken place in recent years, and whether they, according to Hudson, have any general sociological attributes (Hudson, 1999).

Terrorism is the result of numerous factors. These factors are not only religious, but also psychological, sociological, political, and economic among others.

Paul Wilkinson considers that the causes of revolution and political violence, in general, are also the causes of terrorism. These include ethnic conflicts, religious and ideological conflicts, poverty, modernization stresses, political inequities, lack of peaceful communications channels, traditions of violence, the existence of a revolutionary group, governmental weakness and ineptness, erosions of confidence in a regime, and deep divisions within governing elites and leadership groups. (Hudson, 1999).

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It is generally believed that terrorists are sick people. They must be suicidal, crazy, or psychopaths without any moral features. For many years, this statement has been quite relevant, but multiple studies have not found differences in personality disorder and psychopathology between terrorists and non-terrorists. Comparisons of terrorists with civil people found similar psychopathology rates for both groups. There is no successful comparative work on the psychology of a terrorist in case of an identical terrorist mindset or detecting a particular psychological type. Yet, it is clear that what we should not undervalue is the engagement of young people in these groups. Many fanatic groups propose convincing motivation to would-be suicide terrorists. Many offers have detailed descriptions of the afterlife and its benefits. In Palestine, for instance, suicide bombers are often seen as heroes and are promised rewards of eternal glory and various other benefits in another world. Their families are praised and usually receive some compensation. According to Weimann & Kaplan (2011), psychology can be very useful in understanding modern terrorists by decoding their motives, strategies, and tactics according to psychological models. The attack on the mind is a psychological tool for modern terrorists. It appears to be the more instrumental component of their strategy.

Most specialists of terrorism consider that personality factors do not influence the terrorist activity, nor do they have any gender significant differences. Thorough researches treat terrorism primarily as a group activity. The solidarity and collective ideological obligation are much more important determinants of terrorist behavior than personal characteristics. After an extensive review of the literature, it was concluded that psychological explanations of terrorism were still immature. The individuals who are predisposed to involvement in terrorism have certain needs that lead them to join various underground groups. “In contrast with political scientists and sociologists, who are interested in the political and social contexts of terrorist groups, the relatively few scientists who studied the phenomenon of terrorism are primarily interested in organizational details of a single terrorist group. “The psychological approach is concerned with the study of terrorists per se, their recruitment and induction into terrorist groups, their personalities, beliefs, attitudes, motivations, and careers as terrorists.” (Hudson, 1999). For example, the developmental processes of youth explained the Weathermen better than individual psychological attributes. Socialization and learning experiences formed the future behavior of terrorists. They also interact with competitor groups and the government they resist. Thus, terrorism is an interactive and dynamic process that effectively promotes a descriptive model that shows group, individual, and societal levels of analysis.

Another framework focuses on personal perceptions of external opportunities presented by the environment. Due to this approach, the crucial step is the choice of the underground. Individuals aspire to the support of the peer group in order to reach self-respect, the sense of belonging, and the sense of shared risk. Research shows that persons with well-established political identities and with prior socialization experience into the use of violence had to be analyzed together in order to reveal their individual motivations and structural conditions. Crenshaw (2000) states that the obligation to terrorism is the result of a progressive process. Particularly, they spread the picture of a violent state and share involvement in semi-legal protest movements.

People who are becoming members of terrorist groups are often unemployed and socially alienated. For example, youths who got low education levels in the Gaza Strip or the Algerian ghettos are joining the terrorist organization because of the will to act and to be in the mainstream. Some individuals are motivated by a wish to perform as profitable as only they can. For example, to apply their bomb-making skills is motivation. Youths that are more educated are trying to get in by performing their authentic religious or political beliefs. The individual who gets in a terrorist organization in the Western world is commonly idealistic and intellectual. Mostly, these disappointed youths, both uneducated and educated ones are involved in accidental protest and revolt. Such terrorist groups often begin with a few enthusiasts. Student activist groups or support prisoner groups are the organizations where potential recruits most often come from. Members range from simple enthusiasts to inactive advocates. Frequently, violence on the part of Special Forces or police causes an already out-of-society individual to get into a terrorist organization. According to Hudson, the fellowship in such an organization is highly controlled to prevent the occurrence of unnecessary people. After some time, a recruit became completely involved in the gradual image towards a full fellowship in a terrorist organization. (Hudson, 1999). Consequently, after all, circumstances change, the person finds himself or herself supported by a friend or a member of his family who has some terrorist relations and is involved in terrorism.

Among various clues, to the understanding of the psychological aspects, one should use the ones that look into how and whether persons in a given environment will engage in the process of becoming a terrorist. These are motives and vulnerability. By definition, the motive is an emotion, physiological need, desire, or impulse that acts as instigation to action, and vulnerability relates to susceptibility or liability to give way, as to belief or seduction.

One’s motivation for getting involved in terrorism is often in line with the ideology of the group. The environment is a reason to join a terrorist group and to enter in the realm of terrorism. The ideology may change over time and vary considerably across different kinds of groups.

There are at least four aspects of motivation to become a terrorist: the struggle for social status, the need to belong, the opportunity for action, and the acquisition of a material reward. People are actually joining terrorists in order to commit acts of terrorism and join terrorist groups as well.

Attempts to understand the weak sides of terrorists, in general, should not be confused with attempts to explore the personality of a single terrorist. The problem of vulnerability is framed in, perhaps, the most clear and useful way in the context of factors that show that some individuals are better opened than others to active actions. Based on the literature consideration, three motivational themes – identity, injustice, and belonging – appear to be known and successive. These features are also related to vulnerability.

Perceived injustice has been for a long time recognized as the major aspect in common understanding of violence commonly and, specifically, understanding of violence as a phenomenon of terrorism. A wish for vengeance is a general response to remediate a wrong of iniquity inflicted on another person. In the middle of the 1970s, it was considered that remediable injustice is the primary motivation for terrorism. It is not hard to figure out that one of the strongest motivational aspects of terrorism is revenge, particularly the will to avenge not one particular person but others. According to Borum (2004), revenge can be diffuse or specific, but it is an intrusive drive that is the main reason for violent actions toward other people, especially those thought to be liable for iniquity.

Perception of iniquity can also be described as a complaint that has been posed as the most important rapid cause of terrorism. Such complaints may be economic, legal, ethnic, political, racial, religious, and social, and they may be goals to individuals, groups, institutions, or another category of people.

One’s psychological identity is a stable sense of self and decided security in one’s primary values, attitudes, and beliefs. Its formation normally occurs in a crisis of young adulthood or adolescence and is emotionally challenging. However, the prosperous development of individual identity is essential to the wholeness and continuity of any personality. An individual’s search for identity may attract a person to an extremist or terrorist group in different ways. One may fall into “identity foreclosure” where a set of ideas and values are accepted without personal and critical consideration. The “black and white” nature of most terrorist ideologies is often alluring to a person tired of the complexity and stress of the trudge of the complicated world.

Another variant of this process is one in which an individual defines self-identity simply through group membership. Essentially, one’s personal identity is connected with a group identity, with no sense of individuality or uniqueness. Membership in a terrorist organization provides a sense of identity or belonging for those individualities whose underlying sense of identity is defected. For these individuals, being related to some terrorist group becomes the most important part of their psychosocial identity.

An analogous mechanism, according to Borum, is the one in which hopeless search for individual meaning pushes a person to an acceptance of some advanced role – a cause with no thoughtful consideration or analysis of its reward. In essence, the person resolves the complicated issue “Who am I?” by a simple determination of himself or herself as a “terrorist” (2004).

In radical terrorist organizations, many involved people find not only the meaning of their life, but also the meaning of their existence, affiliation, and connectedness. Among the potential terrorists, the main psychological motivation or cause for engaging is the great demand for existence. For such alienated individuals, engagement in a terrorist group introduces the first true sense of existence after the rejection during the lifetime, the terrorist group turns out something like a family that they have never had in their life.

This powerful sense of existence has big importance as the main motivating aspect for involvement, a forceful stimulus for acting and a cause for staying. Borum (2004) states that terrorist organizations may provide the family`s security by creating a protective shell that proposes something like a cocoon from a cruel world. The image of strong solidarity and unity among terroristic organizations makes them perform them in a more profitable manner than some pro-social communities – as a way to find their meaning.

Scientists in their research into reasons for terrorism continue to challenge the relationship between terrorism and liberal democracy. It is commonly suggested that a lack of civil liberties, democracy, and the rule of law are a background for many types of terrorism. Typically, the most totalitarian and most democratic countries have the lowest rates of oppositional activity. Weak or failed countries, as well as those with the absence of power cause people to establish control over the territory. This aspect often creates a power emptiness that can be used by terrorist groups to support safe vault and training facilities or work as a reason and base for beginning terrorist actions. However, this aspect should not be considered a simple lack of democracy. Liberal democracies that have stabile traditions of free speech and tolerance have been the goals of both foreign and internal terrorism.

Rapid modernization and urbanization in the form of the fast growth of the economy have also indirectly caused the appearance of ideological terrorism. This is very important in a state where society has changed from a tribal state to civilization in one generation or even in half of it. When some social patterns and traditions fall or seem irrelevant, new radical views that are set up on religion become attractive to some parts of society.

Extremist ideologies of a religious reason are at least an intermediate evoke of terrorism, although individuals usually accept such aggressive ideologies because of more personal or fundamental political reasons. When these visions are accepted and used in order to guide action and explain situations, they may contribute to justify crimes and dehumanize the enemy.

Revolutions, dictatorships, civil wars, or occupation may lead to the fact that the threshold level for acceptance of terrorism and political violence will be much lower, and will prevent the emergence of non-violent traditions among all parts of society. When a youth is socialized into systems of cultural values that honor martyrdom, hate, and revenge to other national or ethnic communities, they get affected by increasing readiness to support violent atrocities in their future life (“Concepts of Terrorism: Analysis of the Rise, Decline, Trends and Risk”, 2008).

Corrupt governments often give rise to the opposition that may turn to terrorists for replacing these regimes with a more reliable legitimate government or a regime, which represents the interests of the opposition movement. Repression by foreign occupation has given rise to a multinational liberation movement that has found an opportunity in terrorist tactics.

Discrimination is the main cause of ethno-nationalist terrorism that is based on religious or ethnic origin. When minorities are permanently neglected of their rights to economic and social opportunities, excluded from political influence or barred from revealing their own cultural identities, this can lead to movements that may turn to terrorism (“Concepts of Terrorism: Analysis of the Rise, Decline, Trends and Risk”, 2008).

Failure by a country to unite dissident groups may result in their alienation from the political system. Some groups are excluded as the result of their views or political traditions considered incompatible with the main values of the state. Highly educated young people with some prospects of careers, as a rule, feel frustrated and alienated. Excluded groups have tried to search for an alternative source through which to promote and express political influence and change. Occasionally terrorism can seem the most effective and attractive means.

The social inequity is the main motivating reason behind social revolutionary terrorism. Relative destitution in income distribution in a society that has been found to correlate with the beginning of the social revolutionary political violence and ideological terrorism.

The decisive factor behind the emergence of a terrorist group is the presence of ideological charismatic leaders capable to turn widespread complaint and disappointment into a political view and use it for violent struggle. (“Concepts of Terrorism: Analysis of the Rise, Decline, Trends and Risk”, 2008).

A leader is an agent of influence. Some leaders count themselves as regular members; others hold positions of legitimate rank and authority. Active leaders must be engaged in the task and mission of the group, as well as to the processes and clarify relationships within it. Borum (2004) constructed a typical psychological portrait of the terrorist leader. The leader shows the fewest signs of self-interest. This individuality is strict, devoted, and highly motivated. Projection is the primary defense mechanism of the commander. The leader is not mentally ill. He or she can see through people and appeal to their needs.

In discussions of leadership in terrorist groups very often authors use rs the notion of the “charismatic leader.” Typically, such a leader is confident, physically active, well educated, experienced, well-spoken and intelligent. The “charisma” gives these leaders an emotional appeal that can stimulate the members to action. On the other side, effective leaders do not necessarily need to be charismatic. Good and effective leaders understand their own weaknesses and strengths and form their environment respectively.

There are several keys leadership tasks, which apply to most terrorist organizations. The leader should be able to clearly articulate the mission and vision of the group, passionately protect its ideology, and keep the group ethos cohesive and stable. In addition, it is necessary for a leader to be able to teach and persuade others on the principles of the belief system.

In the case of recruits come in such groups, leaders try to teach them a certain set of values and to develop organizational routines that make violence easier to carry out. The organization’s leader must take primary responsibility for socializing its members.

As rulers of the collective belief system, leaders must control strategic and operational communication. They characteristically support a “one voice” policy, where disagreement and differences are not admitting in public and not promoting in private. Even if the leader selects not to be a “hub” of communication or even its primary voice, the final mechanism and rules for communication flow must be under his or her control (Borum, 2004).

Independent of their ideological commitment, the goal of the leadership in the formative stage of creation is to develop an effective prompting that is sufficient to attract members. Once involved in the organization, the leader needs to control and modify – the incentives to find if they are still in accordance with the necessities of young members and whether they act adequately enough to maintain cohesion and allegiance among other collective members.

Conflict within terrorist groups is constant and penetrating, that is why a leader should have an arsenal of strategies not only to hold it but also to control its potentially destructive influence. The leader`s major purpose is to redirect the tension and animosity from without the group to within – to mobilize those powers to solve a collective problem and to aim them at the adversary.

According to Borum (2004), leaders must keep the action going, otherwise, they will lose control of their followers. Leaders keep the group alert and careful of how wicked the enemy truly is and how grave a threat they pose, not just to the mission, but also to the group’s very existence. By planning at a constant rate and keeping actions the attention of the group continues to stay focused externally, and it is hard to sustain an environment where disagreement might fester.

Thus, the study of terrorism is very complicated. It is based on much broader information from different databases related to the academic studies on the psychology and sociology of terrorism that were published over the past four decades.

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