‘Terror’ In the Spotlight: What Draws People To Violent Radicalism? Psychologists Confront The Question

With terrorism making major headlines around the world yet again, psychologists continue to grapple with the root causes of emerging violent radicalism around the world.

Within days, from Asia through the Middle East to Europe, terrorist strikes have unleashed a wave of carnage in a series of brutal attacks killing nearly 150 people and wounding hundreds more. Since January, nearly as many people have lost their lives to other terrorism-related incidents around the world. Since the dawn of the 21st century, there has been over a “nine-fold” increase in the total number of deaths from terrorism, rising from 3,329 in 2000 to a staggering 32,685 in 2014, according to the Global Terrorism Index for 2015. Similarly, the largest year-on-year increase in terrorism-related fatalities ever documented was in 2014, rising from 18,111 in 2013 to 32,685 in 2014.

Image: Shutterstock

These figures offer chilling reminders on how terrorism has continued to proliferate across the world, rendering it necessary for experts to examine its underlying causes in order to root it out indefinitely. Singling out some of the many tendencies that draw people toward violent extremism is by no means a simple matter, according to researchers. For instance, an absence of experimental data on terrorist profiles has often led to experts drawing erroneous conclusions about such tendencies. Owing to the compounding complexities of these procedures, experts admit that the psychology of terrorism is often backed by mere theoretical observation than pure scientific research.

While researchers now agree that most people driven to acts of violence are not “pathologically” inclined towards it, they do agree that certain ideas or psychological characteristics do seem to illustrate common affinity between individuals exhibiting a dangerously radical mindset. Some of these might include a feeling of social alienation, resentment, victim-hood, economic disenfranchisement, and possibly an insecure sense of identity among others.

According to University of South Florida author Randy Borum, no single argument has gained primacy as an explanatory model for all forms of violence and there isn’t one all-embracing premise that could provide insights into the fundamental foundations of radicalism. In his work titled “Psychology of Terrorism,” he concludes the following.

“Terrorist violence most often is deliberate (not impulsive), strategic, and instrumental; it is linked to and justified by ideological (e.g., political, religious) objectives and almost always involves a group or multiple actors/supporters. These issues all add complexity to the construction of terrorism as a form of violence and challenge the emergence of a unifying explanatory theory.”

Researchers are quick to admit that studying the psychological make-up of terrorists is an enormously challenging undertaking owing to restricted sample sizes. The fact that and every militant ideology may be driven by its own unique set of narratives, context, and background only compounds the matter for researchers. However, most of them agree that many psychological factors that often lead to people taking up means of violence to further their cause are, in essence, similar.

Historically speaking, the pattern of discourse emerging from the post 9/11 period has often diverged into two radically contrasting standpoints that experts identify with in their respective attempts to offer compelling answers. On the one hand, many argue that the notion of social and economic disempowerment triggers the collective embitterment preceding violent political aggression. On the other hand, many contend that hard-line, extremist, often anti-state ideologies drive politically motivated modern-day violent radicalism. From either perspective, a concerted willingness to appreciate the essence of the problem is a constant.

According to Ömer Ta¸a Professor of National Security Studies at the National War College, fighting radicalism rather than terrorism provides a better paradigm. He argues that radicalism not only describes the ideological elements of the threat with greater precision but also is a key underlying force that drives the militant extremist mindset. Accordingly, addressing collective grievances that foment radicalism in societies is one of the more effective ways of tackling the root causes of terrorism he adds.

“While debate over the root causes of terrorism rages in the West, extremists continue to lure destitute radicals to their cause. Counter-terrorism needs to place the breeding grounds for these impoverished sympathizers at the centre of their efforts. A new strategy and a new method ought to be adopted to prevent radicals from becoming a threat in the form of terrorism. Fighting radicalism with human development specifically social and economic development should emerge as a new public narrative and long-term objective for a smarter effort at strategic counter-terrorism.”

Image: Shutterstock

In more than a decade, research hasn’t convincingly identified the precise precursors that may lead people to develop a radical mindset over the years. On the contrary, studies have gone on to suggest that there is no particular model that may be used to irrefutably identify these tendencies. While some studies have suggested that educated and even extroverted profiles can be drawn to radicalism; others have revealed that less educated and socially withdrawn individuals may be more susceptible.

Despite years of probing the militant-extremist mindset, psychologists, analysts, policy makers, law enforcement experts, and even state-funded institutions are still not tolerably certain about the precise framework for mapping the key challenges as well as the underlying indicators of rationalization.

[Image via Shutterstock]