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Terrorist Psychology: Separating Facts from Fictions

This post originally appeared on the blog of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism. It was written by Professors John Horgan and Max Taylor and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the authors as it is an excellent addition to the scholarly debate on problems with the term 'radicalisation'. If linking or referencing this article please do so to the original here.

Given the unfolding events surrounding the attacks in Boston, it remains both premature and inappropriate to speculate on the backgrounds or motivations of those responsible.

The most basic of facts have yet to emerge on the most pressing questions – who was responsible, and why?

Despite this, an absence of basic facts has not prevented the frenzied speculation and misleading pontification throughout the week. This has been equally prominent in television and print media as it has via social media channels.

Many of those who conduct research on terrorism run a real risk of feeding into this problem.

To begin, we are not terrorism experts. We are terrorism researchers. We do not claim expertise on all aspects of terrorism – how can anyone possibly do this? Given the overwhelming complexity of the problem, and those who take part in it, those who spend time seriously studying this problem come to this realization very quickly.

We have, however, collectively spent 40 years studying terrorism. One of the products of that time has been a tendency to be very cautious about unfolding events. This past week we have seen some of the most widely recognized terrorism experts engage in this same rampant speculation and those who truly have no clue about anything. It would be invidious and petty to point to specific individuals (let’s leave that to the far more obscure academic battleground of journal articles), so we will couch our arguments in such a way as to provide a caution to those in the media and academia alike who approach questions of the psychology of terrorism

We’ve heard two distinct messages this week from psychologists who have spoken to the media about terrorist behavior.

“There is no terrorist profile”. To be honest, we have both often said this ourselves, and continue to repeat that message when asked. It seems so utterly obvious by now that there could never be an overall profile that somehow binds all terrorists from all groups, backgrounds, and grievances – even now, let alone throughout the ages.

But to say “there is no profile” is to provide only half the story. To conclude on that obscures the valuable research that has been done by terrorism researchers in recent years that illuminates the qualities and characteristics of those who engage in terrorism.

There may be no overall profile, but there are meaningful patterns that emerge in particular contexts, groups, and settings. A recent example from Dr. Paul Gill and ICST ( researchers on lone-actor terrorists in the United States reveals that there are meaningful differences between different lone-actor terrorists.

Al-Qaeda-related lone-actor terrorists were younger and more likely to be students, seek legitimization from others, learn through virtual sources, and display command and control links. They were less likely to have previous criminal convictions and less likely to execute their attacks successfully.

Right-wing lone-actor terrorists were more likely to be unemployed. They were less likely to have any university experience, make verbal statements to friends and family about their intent or beliefs, engage in dry-runs, or obtain help in procuring weaponry.

And finally, single-issue lone-actor terrorists were more likely to be married, have criminal convictions, have histories of mental illness, provide specific pre-event warnings and engage in dry-runs. They were less likely to learn through virtual sources or be depicted as socially isolated.

These are not “profiles” per se, but represent analysis of terrorists based on what they did, not what we think “motivates” them.

Analyzing terrorist behavior in this way highlights the different social and behavioral qualities associated with different kinds of terrorists, even within this relatively narrow category of lone-actor terrorists. You can find out more about Dr. Gill and ICST’s research on this area here:

A second major issue this week was the tendency for some to offer simple explanations that in turn providing beguiling answers to the question of “why people become terrorists?”

Answers to this question include claims that terrorists are terrorists because they want to “belong to something bigger than they are” or, even more obscurely, they want to “achieve significance”.

Terrorist motivation is defined by its complexity, and once again, attempts to provide an overall explanation for all terrorists is utterly meaningless. We would not attempt to explain any human behavior like this, let alone engagement in terrorism.

Saying that terrorists want to achieve some kind of personal significance is a good example of what psychologist BF Skinner called an “explanatory fiction”.

Explanatory fictions are such when the cause of something is basically no different than its effect.

Put another way, the effect or outcome of the behavior is basically being explained in the same way as the cause of it.

Consider the following:

Q: Why is Victor a terrorist?

A: Because he wants to be significant

Q: How do we know Victor is significant?

A: Because he is a terrorist

In essence, though the answer might initially seem appealing, we ultimately know little more about the problem than we thought.

Terrorism is a complex phenomenon. Its participants do not fall into neat categories. They become involved in many different ways, and that involvement can have many different outcomes. The objectives they seek to achieve through terror tactics are multiple, both long and short term, and sometime incoherent.

To understand this social problem better, we should continue to base our comments on evidence, not ill informed speculation.

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