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Psychology of terror: Are terrorists born or made?

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By Christina Chanya Lenjou | Updated Thu, June 15th 2017 at 00:00 GMT +3 SHARE THIS ARTICLE Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Britain has yet to recover from two horrific terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists – the explosion at Manchester Stadium, which killed 22 people and left hundreds others injured and the knifing two weeks ago, of weekend revellers by three attackers who first ran over pedestrians by driving their van over a sidewalk leaving in their wake eight people dead. All these attacks - including those that Kenya has had to endure - leave us wondering if terrorists are normal human beings.

What would make a person do irrational acts like blowing himself up in the name of passing a message to governments? What would make a person show no remorse for killing a fellow human being? There is no stable terrorist profile, and this has severely curtailed our ability to understand who amongst us is most likely to become a terrorist. Scientists argue that human behaviour is influenced by genetic inheritance as well as biological factors. Are people born with attributes that predispose them to becoming terrorists? It has been argued that individuals with psychopathic tendencies or antisocial behaviour are more likely to become terrorists due to their aggressive, reckless and manipulative nature.

 But though psychopaths lack empathy, their general personality is inconsistent with the personality of terrorists. Terrorists operate in groups which demand mutual commitment as well as cohesion and obedience. An antisocial person is unlikely to operate successfully in such a setting. How to spot one ALSO READ: Change tack, stop wanton killings of security officers Contrary to what people think, terrorists do not suffer from mental disorder as various life-cycle studies and interviews with active and reformed terrorists have revealed. Most of them are actually normal, intelligent and well-educated individuals from stable and well-to-do families, although a few may come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A common psychological trait among terrorists is total lack of empathy for their victims. They have learnt to disengage from their enemies by demonising and dehumanising them and therefore they suffer no remorse for killing their perceived enemies. It is, however, not clear whether the qualities of terrorists are inherent or are a result of membership in terrorist organisations, going by their engagement in recruitment, strategic planning, fundraising and logistical planning that requires individuals with different capabilities and psychological attributes. There is, therefore a weak link between genetic inheritance and terrorism. On the other hand, some behaviourists believe that at birth, the mind of a human being is a “blank slate” which is filled with information acquired through learning and experience as the child develops from infancy to childhood. Other social scientists believe that aggression – a characteristic of terrorists – is learnt from the environment through observation and imitation.

 Linking this with the behaviour of terrorists, we find that terrorism is a process involving the exchange of ideas and opinions over time, ideas that slowly push an individual towards violence. It does not occur as a single decision made by an individual. Terrorism is also driven more by political and group dynamics than individual behaviour. Socialisation and social interactions in an environment that promotes radical ideas and beliefs play a big role in shaping one’s mental or psychological attributes. In addition, constant interaction with those already in a terror group often results in the internalisation of their beliefs, and the individual develops an affinity for the group. Once the individual joins, he or she is further socialised into the lifestyles and activities of terrorists, until a change of the mindset is achieved. Eventually, the recruits participate in terrorist activities.

 ALSO READ: Living in the shadow of war against jihadists Individuals also interact with other terrorist groups with the aim of strategising on the best way of promoting their agenda. Individuals living in a culture of collectivism, where their lives are dictated by the interests of a larger group, are also more likely to engage in terrorism if radicalisation and religious extremism dominate their interactions. We wonder why a large percentage of terrorists are youthful. This is because young people are quite vulnerable to radicalisation and religious extremism as they seek a sense of identity, belonging and security which they can only get in groups.

 Groups also help in role definition as well as social status which an adolescent might not be able to get elsewhere. Change for the sake of it? To further support the idea that terrorists are made and not born, the individuals most likely to join terror groups suffer from certain vulnerabilities. Such individuals feel angry, marginalised and alienated. Some feel that there are a lot of injustices in society, and they are able to identify with victims of social injustices and humiliations. Some desire to bring political and religious change in society but feel powerless to do so. In the end, they believe that violence is the only way to effect change and is therefore not immoral. Through violence, they hope to attract sympathy, and gain impetus for more attacks until social change occurs. All these observations support the idea that terrorists are largely made through social interaction with like-minded individuals, and it happens over an indeterminate period of time. It is important to note that different pathways to terrorism exist and each individual takes a different route to become a terrorist.

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