No such thing as a typical terrorist
LONDON - The revelations that the chief executioner of foreign hostages for the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group is a British university graduate from west London have raised a pressing question for Western public and policymakers alike: What makes a terrorist?
Western politicians have been engaged in a frenzy of soul-searching, asking why citizens of affluent democracies would be attracted to such a depraved group. One suggestion has been that they must suffer from some kind of pathology, but psychologists say there are no easy answers to the foreign fighter phenomenon.
In Britain, a typical response to the sheer number of individuals who have gone to fight in Syria — some 750 according to the latest estimates –has been to brand them as misfits. Perhaps the most colourful example came from Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who claimed in an interview with the Sun newspaper that intelligence reports showed young jihadists are maladjusted pornography addicts.
But the idea of a psychological profile is unhelpful, said Professor John G. Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism & Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
“Profiling encourages the notion that there is something special or different or abnormal about the individual and misses the fact that this is a very dynamic process,” Horgan said. “We like to use this term ‘loser’. I think it’s as much about us feeling better about it than it is about a characterisation of those involved.”
Radicalisation, argues Horgan, is a “very dynamic, interactive process”. There is no one set of psychological traits that push someone to join a group such as ISIS and there is certainly no kind of disorder associated with terrorism.
“The assumption that mental illness or some sort of specialness drives people into becoming involved in terrorism is just not supported by the research,” he said.
Richard Barrett, senior vice-president at the Soufan Group and a former director of Global Counter Terrorism Operations for Britain’s external intelligence service, MI6, agrees.
He said: “I don’t think you can generalise at all beyond saying that these are people who want to go out and do something. Maybe they are driven by humanitarian issues in Syria … maybe they don’t intend to join ISIS, but they end up with ISIS because it’s still the easiest to join.”
Given there is no typical psychological profile for recruits, ISIS and like-minded groups are engaged in a war of ideas and competing messages and, argues Barrett, Islam plays an important role in this messaging.
“People who are supporting it believe it’s Islamic,” Barrett said. “They may be wrong. Their interpretation may be rejected by the other 1.6 billion Muslims. [But] look at (ISIS magazine) Dabiq. Dabiq is full of quotations about why it’s justified to make Yazidis sex slaves. They take it seriously. It’s not just a joke: ‘Oh, we’d like a sex slave. Let’s find something in the Hadith that would justify that’.”
In this information war, in which ISIS is seeking to promote a “brand” that is attractive to anyone from an engineer to a mother to a reformed drug addict, the group has a formidable propaganda operation. ISIS tries to reach as wide an audience as possible. According to Horgan, the ISIS propaganda machine is “unparalleled in the history of terrorism” with a capability for outreach in more than 20 languages, including sign language.
It is important, argues Barrett, to understand that ISIS sees itself as a state and is trying to attract as broad a range of people as possible to help administer a territory that contains some 6 million people.
“There is a story of a blind guy, I think it was in Belgium, saying: ‘I’m blind, what can I do?’ and they said: ‘No, no, come. We need people of all sorts to help build our state,’” Barrett said.
The sheer size of ISIS’s target audience explains the sometimes seemingly contradictory nature of its propaganda, says Mia Bloom, professor of Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and the author of a number of books on the role of women in terrorism.
“On the one hand you have these high production, glossy videos ‘Come to the caliphate. It’s wonderful. Help the children.’ And then by the same token the organisation is releasing videos of beheadings and these very gruesome, very graphic images. It’s because they are appealing to very different constituents,” she said.
Psychology can help, then, not in identifying individuals that are somehow mentally disturbed but in framing successful counter-messaging that discredits ISIS propaganda.
Good arguments can help prevent people from becoming a problem in the first place or help with disengagement and de-radicalisation. It is a battle that, according to Horgan, the West is a long way from winning.
“They (ISIS) are actually going from strength to strength,” he said. “We are woefully unprepared for disillusioned foreign fighters, let alone foreign fighters that want to come back and do damage.”