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What Causes Regular People to Become Terrorists?

AP Photo/Sidali Djarboub

Most of the "experts" have it all wrong

The January 7 terrorist attack on the offices of the satirical newspaper “Charlie Hebdo” and the subsequent hostage-takings and murders stunned Europe and prompted the swift arrests of over two dozen suspected Muslim terrorists in Belgium, France, Germany and Greece. Two ISIS-affiliated terrorists were killed in Verviers, Belgium in a raid that thwarted an attack authorities deemed “hours away.” These events prompted media to raise questions you may have asked yourself:  

Why would anyone commit such acts? Could the French government have prevented these 20 deaths by profiling and tracking the Kouachi brothers, Amedy Coulibaly and their accomplices? How do Muslim extremists become radicalized, i.e., how do they go from living normal lives to murdering innocent people in a manner calculated to evoke widespread terror? Why haven’t decades of counterterrorism efforts stopped the escalation and brutality of terrorist attacks, like the one in Paris and the January 3-7 Boko Haram massacre of possibly 2,000 Nigerian men, women and children?

And why, in light of these concerns, would the Obama Administration release five more terrorist detainees from Guantánamo Bay — Yemeni nationals who’d been captured in a raid on an Al Qaeda hideout in Pakistan — claiming that they no longer pose a threat to the West? Is it even possible to take the radical out of the terrorist (or the terrorist out of the radical) through “de-radicalization programs?”

Questions like these have been explored in tens of thousands of articles and books: Amazon lists 34,990 books on terrorism as of January 18. British terrorism expert Andrew Silke, PhD, estimates that a new book on terrorism is being published every six hours, and that’s just the books in English.

So you’d think we’d know everything there is to know about the “typical” terrorist profile, their motivations, their transformation into radicals, their entry into terror groups and the group’s dynamics, and, if they leave terrorism behind, their reasons for disengaging from the group. But unfortunately, most of the “answers” and explanations are either wrong or irrelevant (not “actionable,” i.e., useful for counterterrorism efforts) according to experts like Silke (“Research on Terrorism: Trends, Achievements and Failures”) and John Horgan, PhD (“The Psychology of Terrorism”), a University of Massachusetts (Lowell) professor and director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies.

How can that be? A 1988 assessment of terrorism research by Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman explains:

Much of the writing in the crucial areas of terrorism research … is impressionistic, superficial, and at the same time often also pretentious, venturing far-reaching generalizations on the basis of episodal evidence.

They added: “there are probably few areas in the social science literature on which so much is written on the basis of so little research.” [They estimated that] “as much as 80 percent of the literature is not research-based in any rigorous sense; instead it is too often narrative, condemnatory, and prescriptive” (quoted in Chapter Two of “
Terrorism Informatics: Knowledge Management and Data Mining for Homeland Security,” authored by Dr. Silke).


Silke’s more recent literature review found that 68 percent of the books and articles published in the 1990s were speculative and still not grounded in primary research.

Dr. Horgan agrees that the field of terrorism and radicalization is “still quite haphazard.”

We try to explain things before we understand what we’re looking at. … There are gaps in the field. We have little data but millions of theories. Metaphors abound.

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