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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 believes it is important to recognize that behind the big “social, political and religious reasons people give for becoming involved” — for example, occupation by a foreign nation, drone strikes that kill innocent wedding guests and limit day-to-day activities, the sense that their culture is being annihilated — “there are also hosts of littler reasons — personal fantasy, seeking adventure, camaraderie, purpose, identity” and these “lures can be very powerful, especially when you don’t necessarily have a lot else going on in your life. …”

In the second edition of his book “The Psychology of Terrorism,” Horgan cites a 2013 study by Dyer and Simcox based on interviews of 171 Al Qaeda members. They found five different categories of reasons why people got involved in terrorism. 

But the elusive profile and search for root causes,
Horgan contends, are far less useful to research than looking at the pathways and “routes” to terrorism — how individuals are recruited or join a group, how they are trained, how they tackle the logistical problems of finding a “safe house,” getting cash, weapons and supplies for bombs, how and where they learn to shoot automatic weapons, how they obtain vehicles and how they transition from peripheral roles into directly committing acts of violence. In short, he believes counterterrorism efforts can be better informed and devised if researchers study terrorism as something one does rather than what one is.

Why haven’t decades of counterterrorism efforts stopped the escalation and brutality of terrorist attacks, such as the January 3-7 Boko Haram massacre of possibly 2,000 Nigerian men, women and children?

I can suggest a number of reasons. Political and military leaders have been forced to learn what they can about asymmetrical warfare on the fly, hence, as many commentators have noted, the West seems always to be fighting the “last battle,” not the next. That’s why we’re subjected to intrusive TSA screening at airports
— to regularly test the hands of middle-aged Anglo-Saxon grandmothers for bomb residue, to ferret out shoe bombs, flammable liquids (I hope your girlfriend enjoyed my nearly new bottle of Chanel No. 5, Mr. TSA agent in Hartford, Connecticut), pistols, knives and boxcutters, along with embroidery scissors and crochet hooks.
Historically, state warfare has involved the movements of large armies made up of individuals who value their own lives and the lives of their comrades. Rarely has the West encountered combatants who prefer martyrdom. Only the kamikaze pilots at Pearl Harbor come to mind. And, frankly, we haven’t figured out how to deter such suicide-minded people except by killing them first, not an entirely humane solution.

It’s not easy for Western nations targeted by terrorists to know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Who can know whether an intervention to prevent the slaughter of innocent people will work or backfire? Our intervention in Syria, for example, likely ended up supplying ISIS with U.S. material. 

Some political leaders prefer dialogue and appeasement to taking unpopular military action, while at the same time supporting terrorists by paying millions of dollars in ransom for the return of kidnap victims. Other leaders pursue military action and effectively defeat one group, but the defeat may then serve as a recruitment tool to bring many more aggrieved persons into terrorist groups.

There are countries outside the Middle East and North Africa that support Middle Eastern terrorists by supplying them with weapons and financial aid to gain oil and/or strategic advantage over the West. 

And why, in light of these concerns, would the Obama Administration release five more 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”?

Those related questions will be the subject of the next article: How to Tame the Terrorist Within.

Susan Wills is a senior writer for Aleteia’s English-language edition
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Islamist MilitantsSyriaTerrorism
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