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What Causes Regular People to Become Terrorists?

AP Photo/Sidali Djarboub

Susan E. Wills - published on 01/22/15 - updated on 06/07/17

Horgan maintains that counterterrorism efforts have been hampered by the lack of rigorous, quality research, as well as by the tendency of political leaders to act based on a political calculus rather than listening to experts who have produced solid research. Dr. Horgan is on a mission to deepen our understanding of and response to terrorism by improving the quality of the literature through empirical research using primary sources (e.g., interviews with former terrorists), arriving at conclusions based on the evidentiary data, and applying statistical tools to analyze data.

Based on his extensive interviews of 160 to 180 former terrorists, Horgan suggests these answers to the questions posed above:

Why would anyone commit such acts?We don’t know why. Even the terrorists don’t really know what their motivations are. To be honest, we usually don’t know why we do things either. Human decisionmaking is enormously complex. In addition, asking “why” is not helpful because often the terrorists’ reasons can change over time and the interviewer is likely to hear the propaganda version that terrorists learn to parrot from other members of their group. Dr. Horgan believes that the more important question to explore is how they became involved, how they joined up or were recruited by a terrorist group.

Could the French government have prevented 20 deaths by profiling and tracking the Kouachi brothers, Amedy Coulibaly and their accomplices? An NYPD report after 9/11 (“Radicalization in the West”) simplistically characterized radicalization as a straight-line trajectory from being a “normal” adherent of Islam, to becoming a religious radical to joining a terrorist group to engaging in terrorist violence. The FBI and other counterterrorism experts have come to realize that there is no useful “profile” for accurately identifying people who may one day be open to committing acts of terrorism. The factors are too numerous and complex. Looking at the common attitudes and circumstances among terrorists who were open to recruitment,
identified by Horgan, shows why infiltrating mosques and hanging out in hookah bars is a waste of time and resources. These folks tend to —

(a) Feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised.
(b) Believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change.
(c) Identify with perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting.
(d) Feel the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem.
(e) Believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral.
(f) Have friends or family sympathetic to the cause.
(g) Believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity.

How do Islamic 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? 
A May 2013 article in “Rolling Stone” quotes
Horgan as saying —

The idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research. [First], the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in violence. And second, there is increasing evidence that people who engage in terrorism don’t necessarily hold radical beliefs.
Jamie Bartlett, Director of Demos’ Centre for the Analysis of Social Media,
concurs that holding radical beliefs does not predict who will engage in terrorist acts:

I have found that many home-grown al-Qaeda terrorists are not attracted by religion or ideology alone — often their knowledge of Islamist theology is wafer-thin and superficial — but [they are] also [attracted by] the glamour and excitement that al-Qaeda type groups purport to offer.

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Islamist MilitantsSyriaTerrorism
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