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Pathways To Terrorism

June 22, 2015 at 4:21 pm | Fawad Kaiser

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Dr DAll had taken strikingly different journeys to violent extremist activity. People follow a pathway into radicalization, terrorism and terrorist organizations. Apparently the first stage involves an awareness of oppression. The second stage marks recognition that the oppression was social and therefore not unavoidable. The third stage is an impetus or realization that it is possible to act against the oppression. Ultimately, some conclude that working through or within the system to reform or improve it is not going to work and that self-help by violence is the only effective means for change.

Based on an analysis of multiple militant extremist groups, there do appear to be some observable markers or stages in the processes that are common to many individuals in extremist groups and zealous adherents of extremist ideologies, both foreign and domestic. The process begins by framing some unsatisfying event or condition as being unjust. The injustice is blamed on a target policy, person, or nation. The responsible party, perceived as a threat, is then vilified – often demonized – which facilitates justification for violence and terrorism. The pathway may be different for different people and can be affected by a wide range of factors. The path to terrorism can be shaped by fortuitous factors as well as by the conjoint influence of personal predilections and social inducements.

There is rarely a conscious decision made to become a terrorist. Most involvement in terrorism results from gradual exposure and socialisation towards extreme behaviour. The transition into becoming a terrorist is rarely sudden and abrupt.

As important as these motivational factors may be, motive cannot be taken in isolation from opportunity. Personal interaction is essential. In most cases, individuals had some vulnerability in their background that made them receptive to extremist ideology and drawn into violent extremist networks. For most, once involved in an extremist network, powerful social psychological processes bind the individual to the group, including the emotional rewards of belonging. Membership in a terrorist group can provide a sense of meaning and purpose. It can lead to enhanced self-esteem, and the individual can feel a sense of control and influence over their lives. Some find psychological security in a belief in future rewards both in paradise and in the collective memory of the movement following suicide operations.

Terrorist groups are remarkably tolerant of individuals with serious criminal histories. The relationship between criminality and radicalisation is complex, with some criminals attracted by the violent aspects of terrorism, while others with a criminal past who have been ostracised from mainstream society find themselves accepted by a radical group. Similarly, while some with a criminal past felt genuine regret for their activities, some appear to have turned to violent extremist groups in the misguided belief that participation in jihad might help atone for previous wrongdoing.

The psychological burden of these complex experiences can be similar — a perception of threat, insecurity, uncertainty or dislocation. These feelings can be triggered by personal or vicarious experiences of inequality, marginalisation, or victimisation. This feeling is heightened by media coverage that perpetuates negative stereotypes of Muslims, including reports of atrocities against Muslims worldwide, and by the extremist groups themselves who spread the message that Muslims are being marginalised, oppressed and persecuted, to the point that the only course of action is to fight back with violence. They follow a general progression from social alienation to boredom, then occasional dissidence and protest before eventually turning to terrorism.

Terrorism is not the product of a single decision but the end result of a dialectical process that gradually pushes an individual toward a commitment to violence over time. The process takes place within a larger political environment involving the state, the terrorist group, and the group’s self-designated political constituency. The interaction of these variables in a group setting is used to explain why individuals turn to violence and can eventually justify terrorist actions.

There is no single pathway to terrorism. There is no easy answer or single motivation to explain why people become terrorists. There do appear to be some common vulnerabilities and perceptions among those who turn to terrorism – perceived injustice, need for identity and need for belonging – though certainly there are persons who share these perceptions who do not become terrorists. What is different about those who ended up involved in terrorism is that they came into contact with existing extremists who recognised their vulnerabilities. The speeches and writings of radical clerics are still important in facilitating radicalisation but more often now, charismatic individuals from local communities and their own peers offer potential recruits guidance and act as role models. The analyses suggest that for radicalised individuals, the terrorist group can become “surrogate kin”, substituting lost ties to family or community.

Although it is popular to assume that people who become terrorists are passively ‘brainwashed’ into extremism, radicalisation programmes in fact make active choices to become and remain in extremist activity. No single measure will reduce radicalisation, but deradicalisation programmes aimed at rehabilitating vulnerable groups could include providing fulfilling jobs for young people, acceptance into the community, effective reintegration of ex-terrorists and the provision of alternatives to the extremist pathway out of “ordinary” criminality. Given the wide diversity in motivation, vulnerability and opportunity for terrorism, there may be no single pathway or general answer that would apply to all types of groups or to all individuals. The question here is how do extremist ideologies develop radicalization and ultimately translate into justifications or imperatives to use terroristic violence?

By Fawad Kaiser

Fawad Kaiser

The writer is a member of the Diplomate American Board of Medical Psychotherapists Dip.Soc Studies, member Int’l Association of Forensic Criminologists, associate professor Psychiatry and consultant Forensic Psychiatrist at the Huntercombe Group United Kingdom. He can be reached at fawad_shifa@yahoo.com