The psychological and sociological dynamics of terrorist groups and individuals

Even while there is an increasing attempt to fund and focus research on terror networks, terrorism has mutated indescribably so often that experts are often bewildered at the speed, dexterity and innovativeness that characterise many of their actions. The most striking is the changed global profile of a terrorist who is more likely to be the highly skilled technocratic-happy, well-adjusted, productive, successful and contented looking boy or girl next door rather than angry, cantankerous, poorly educated poverty stricken man on the street.

This integration of terror networks into our neighbouring streets has often left the security apparatus with very little avenue to either identify or discern their intentions. This has led to increasing concern about the emergence of amorphous and largely unknown terrorist individuals and groups operating independently with many of them actively recruiting suicide bombers, female and child terrorists.

Terror rationale

The lack of any concrete finding on known psychological tests could also indicate that we have possibly not been able to determine any difference with our current psychological measures. Terrorists thus as per our current understanding do not demonstrate any unique set of qualities, and are not discernibly different, in psychological terms, or in terms of unique biographical histories, from those who reject terrorism.

While psychopathic or otherwise mentally ill individuals may on occasion engage in acts of terrorism, or be recruited by terrorist groups, these would be exceptions, rather than the rule. Most terrorists are likely to have a high measure of discipline, submission to authority, and capacity for ‘rational’ behaviour – albeit within an alternative rationality which is acceptable in their own sub-culture. This alternate rationality – though morally reprehensible underlies the decision in favour of terrorism.

Terrorists convince themselves that violence targeting non-combatants and innocents is the ‘only means’ to achieve their ‘noble’ objectives under prevailing conditions, and that, consequently, the use of this method is acceptable for the purported ‘greater good’. Nevertheless, the core conflict in this terror rationale, which terrorists have to overcome, is the inherent moral contradiction. If you are fighting for ‘freedom’, faith and injustice, how can you terminate the freedom of others by killing them? How do you inflict the injustice of indiscriminate killing on others? How do you kill other members of the same faith without guilt? The inherent success of each terrorist group crucially lies in their management of these contradictions and psychological conflicts that arise out of these. Further and most crucially the success of any counter terrorist measure, which is long lasting, is to work through the conflicts and dissensions that arise over the fundamental moral contradiction.

Group dynamics

It is thus principally the psychological group dynamic that is most significant in understanding and countering terrorist behaviour, rather than the psychology of the individual. Throughout history, organisations such as the military have harnessed this power of the group to motivate individuals. The terrorist group provides camaraderie, a sense of purpose and importance, of participating in history, in a noble undertaking. Group membership also creates a sense of power and of what has been described as ‘revolutionary heroism’, compensating for personal insecurities, failures and frustrations. The secretive, conspiratorial and tightly controlled operational environment of the radical group also helps ‘seal off’ the individual from the values and expectations of ‘normal’ society, creating an alternative world within which a coherent ideology and belief system is systematically propagated and internalised, justifying the use of terrorist violence for the ‘greater good’. Gradually, the collective identity of the group completely dominates the individual, reaching a pinnacle in the suicide bomber, who thinks nothing of destroying himself to secure the group’s purpose. Most people have begun to believe that terrorism is here to stay. Yet democratic governments and forces need to work out a cohesive and comprehensive counterterrorist policy that should be tailor-made taking into account the historical, cultural, political, and social context, as well as the context of what is known about the psychology of a particular group or its leaders. Rather than retaliate against terrorists with bombs, legal, political, diplomatic, financial, and psychological warfare measures may be more effective.