Why People Become Terrorists

If you understand a problem you can solve it. I don’t expect this post to be used to train Intelligence service officers, but it was a question I was interested in. NewScientist answered this question in their Collection – 17 MORE Ideas You Need To Understand.

What is a Terrorist?

Marc Sageman, of the CIA, says you can’t reduce terrorism down to ideology, religious motivations or personality disorders. In fact you can’t point to a pattern of actions and say “that’s a terrorist”, the same way you can point to types of serial killer like organised and disorganised killers, there is no terrorist type, just people who commit acts of terror.

From a terrorism prevention point-of-view, this makes things difficult as we can’t categorise potential terrorists.

In a 1981 paper by Martha Crenshaw (Causes of Terrorism), she found that what most terrorists have in common, is they are all really normal. They aren’t the Lex Luthors of the world, they’re the Average Joes.

Terrorism Depends on Whose Side You’re On

People who commit terrorist acts are usually part of a group, like a shared religion or country. This group will fear that another group will kill them or destroy their way of life. This is the same motivation many people have for the leave campaign in Brexit and that doesn’t make them terrorists.

A normal person who feels threatened will eventually lash out. Inside the group, the people who commit terrorist acts are seen good people, who are just providing a warning to the outside group to leave your group alone. They are heroes, protecting their families.

Someone in the west may see these bombers as evil people who just want to cause us harm, but suicide bombers consider themselves the victims to western military power.

Terrorism as PR

The author of the NewScientist article, Peter Byrne, says that for the terrorist, their act of terror is just a military public relations scheme to make a political point. It’s not a day job or an inbuilt ideology. These people don’t wake up a terrorist, go to work a terrorist and go to bed a terrorist. It’s just a tactic to make a point.

People Don’t Always Know Their Motivations

Criminologist Andrew Silke, at the University of East London, has interviewed people who have committed acts of terror and most of them say that they did it for their beliefs. The characters we see on TV shows and the videos that accompany horrific violent acts would back this up.

Silke interviewed terrorists, gathering a detailed history of their lives. These interviews usually reveal family issues, school issues or employment discrimination and wanting revenge for their people’s deaths as coming way before they were drawn into the ideologies of ISIS or the group they joined.

When Silke presented this evidence to Western Governments fighting terror, they chose to believe that terrorist threats were down to Islamic Radicalism, rather than try to understand the complex social and psychological issues that could be preventable.

Blame the Elites

In the “Causes of Terrorism” paper by Crenshaw, she found that the first people to turn to terrorism, who then convert the masses of underprivileged people, are more likely to be members of the upper middle class. The Jihadi leaders are often medical doctors and PhDs.

Before it was commonly believed that terrorist leaders were from underprivileged backgrounds.

Locals Just Want a Job

People living local to terrorist groups often are often very poor due to wars and violence destroying their neighbourhoods.

Terrorist groups offer competitive salaries, health insurance and benefits to keep sending money to your family, should you die in battle. This makes the job quite attractive to someone who is struggling to provide for their family, wives have been known to even encourage it.

It would be shameful to let your family starve when a well-paid job is readily available to you. You don’t have to join because you fully agree with the ideals, you may just want to feed your family.

Availability of good jobs is an economic problem. The kind of problem that can be much more easily solved than defeating terrorism. ISIS could be dealt a real blow, if there were just better job opportunities provided to locals.

You Can’t Fight them On The Beaches

Many experts believe that defeating ISIS in Mosul (a known hub for ISIS) through military action won’t stop the threat of terrorism.

Killing leaders of terrorist groups like Bin Laden and al-Baghdadi doesn’t stop these groups being able to carry on with their mission.Terrorist groups can easily splinter off into new groups, re-organise and carry on committing acts of terror without their previous leader.

Drone strikes that target high profile leaders have been shown to increase the number of terrorist attacks, because the threat of a drone strike gives these terrorists groups fuel for their anti-western propaganda.

How To Actually End Terrorism

Military force not being effective isn’t all doom and gloom. Terrorist groups do disband, they tend to do so because of:

  • Political solutions to the problems they face
  • Grievances that originally angered them being solved or dissipated
  • The group losing support because it displays too much brutality and the insiders don’t approve

The more we know about terrorism the sooner we can stop it. There is much more information in the original article, which doesn’t have a link available yet, but it will be on here soon and you can get a copy in stores.

This was a much more complex and sensitive topic than I usually write about, so please feel free to let me know if I was unclear or wrong below.

2 thoughts on “Why People Become Terrorists

  1. Hi Jack,
    Nice subject, you have summarised it quite clearly.However I kind of not agree with the conclusions.(In the hope that not agree is not the same as disagreeing)
    I think there is also a cultural disposition to violence. I think there are often peaceful ways of solving most problems. But peaceful ways require time, to develop the capacity of people, educate them, and generally takes effort. I think this is one of the reasons why we have terrorism. People have the mindset that violence is an easier route to achieving some objective, they want some result but do not want to do the hard-work.
    A good example is the chap that was killed on London bridge, how can you be so desensitised as a human being, that you so cowardly kill someone that is unarmed, and is trying to be of help. You plunge a knife into them and think you are progressing a political objective.
    Same with the acts of 9/11.Did you spare a thought for the people in the building the families that will be forever be destroyed by your actions? Has 9/11 solved the problems of the middle east? Would Al-Queda’s purpose not have been further achieved and its resources better utilised if it were providing health and education services in Afghanistan, Palestine or where’ve they felt was being undermined by the Americans the west or whoever.
    Of course I believe we should seek to solve political problems peacefully, but I think we should be wary of these actors that so easily resort to violence on the innocent in the name of freedom.

    Like

    1. Yes, I agree that violence is built into the culture, I believe that was the point about using economic solutions like jobs and welfare to stop people turning to terrorism in the first place.

      I don’t know enough about the specifics of the man on London Bridge (it wasn’t in the article) but I imagine he viewed the British people as “other” so he dehumanised them in his mind, this is how the Nazis justified killing so many Jews.

      I do think Al-Queda would have better spent their resources providing services but I don’t think they think that, which is the problem. I don’t know if you meant to target those questions at me or the terrorist, but obviously disagree with 9/11, this article was an attempt to understand why someone would do such a thing, not to justify it.

      Yeah, this whole article is about how to understand such actors, so we can see how to solve things peacefully

      Like

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