How and why people enter and stay in terrorist organization?

Psychology of Terrorism

Why individuals become a terrorist and engage in terrorism? Implicit in the “Why” question was an assumption that becoming a terrorist involved a discrete choice to change status. However, after observing numerous terrorist and extremist groups, there is suggestion that recruitment and involvement typically do not occur in that way. It means that becoming terrorists may not be a choice of individuals. Horgan and Taylor (2001) have noted: “What we know of actual terrorists suggests that there is rarely a conscious decision made to become a terrorist. Most involvement in terrorism results from gradual exposure and socialization towards extreme behavior.” In order to understand whether, how and which individuals in a given environment will enter the process of becoming a terrorist, this paper is going to explore three factors justice, identities and belonging which have been found often to co-occur in terrorists and to strongly influence decisions to enter terrorist organizations and to engage in terrorist activity.

Injustice is recognized as a central factor in understanding violence generally and terrorism specifically. Hacker (1976) concluded that “remediable injustice is the basic motivation for terrorism”. A desire for revenge or vengeance is a common response to redress or remediate a wrong of injustice inflicted on another. These grievances may be economic, ethnic, racial, legal, political, religious, and/or social, and that they may be targeted to individuals, groups, institutions or categories of people who thought to be responsible for injustices (Crenshaw, 1992). For example, terrorists chose USA as their target because USA may be a symbol for modernization which produces disharmony in society in term of unbalanced economic growth, communication structure, and lack of political opportunity etc. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine that “one of the strongest motivations behind terrorism is vengeance, particularly the desire to avenge not oneself but others (Crenshaw, 1992).

Identity is the answer to the question “who am I really?”. One’s psychological identity is a developed, stable sense of self and resolved security in one’s basic values, attitudes, and beliefs. Some individuals are unable or unwilling to identify with any body or anything intensively or for long period of time. This unsatisfied identity needs may be manifested in many ways; one is that individuals adopt someone’s identity without personal and critical examination. And according to Crenshaw (1986) the absolutist, “black and white” nature of most extremist ideologies is often attractive to those who feel overwhelmed by the complexity and stress of navigating a complicated world. As a result of that, individual may draw him/ her to extremist and terrorist organizations on the way to search for his identity. Under desperate quest for personal meaning, individual may easier to adopt a role. They identify them as “terrorist” or “freedom fighter’ to answer the question “who am I?”. Taylor and Louis (2004,p178) describe a classic set of circumstances for recruitment into a terrorist organization: “These young people find themselves at a time in their life when they are looking to the future with the hope of engaging in meaningful behavior that will be satisfying and get them ahead. Their objective circumstances including opportunities for advancement are virtually nonexistent; they find some direction for their religious collective identity but the desperately disadvantaged state of their community leaves them feeling marginalized and lost without a clearly defined collective identity”. There are some individuals on the way to find an answer for “who am I?” they may define their identity through group membership. Essentially, one’s personal identity is merged with a group identity, with no sense of (or need for) individuality or uniqueness. As Johnson and Feldman (1992) suggest, "membership in a terrorist group provides a sense of identity or belonging for those personalities whose underlying sense of identity is flawed.” For these individuals, “belonging to the terrorist group becomes … the most important component of their psychosocial identity” (Post, 1987).

In radical extremist group, many prospective terrorists find not only the sense of meaning but also the sense of belonging, connectedness. Luckabaugh and colleagues (1997) argue that among potential terrorists “the real cause or psychological motivation for joining is the great need for belonging.” You belong; therefore, you exist (Hacker, 1976). Those individuals have experienced lifetime of rejection; for instance family rejection, social rejection, peer rejection etc, joining terrorist organization give them a new sense of belonging. Terrorist group may become new family for those people (Post, 1984). After observation many extremist groups, Crenshaw (1988) found out that “for the individuals who become active terrorists, the initial attraction is often to the group or community of believers, rather than to an abstract ideology or to violence”. Thus, the image of such strong cohesiveness and solidarity among extremist groups makes them more attractive than some prosocial collectives as a way to find belonging (Johnson & Feldman, 1982).

From what this paper explore above, now it can conclude that injustice, identity and belonging can be seen as strong influence, real causes and psychological motivation for individual joining and staying with terrorist groups.

This paper has just tried to find an answer for question “how and why people enter and stay in terrorist organization?”. Next post, we are going to discuss the pathway to terrorism which is mostly about which opportunities people become terrorists.


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