What turns someone into a terrorist?

Wednesday, 03 July 2013

Roger Griffin Research Forum cover image

Roger Griffin, Professor of Modern History, is coming to be recognised internationally as a major expert on terrorism. Following the recent Boston and Woolwich attacks, Roger has written for the University publication Research Forum on what motivates people into enacting such atrocities. An edited extract of the article is presented here.

A week after the Boston bombing, an Associated Press editorial commented ‘as authorities try to piece together the information, they are touching on a question asked after so many terrorist plots: What turns someone into a terrorist?’

There has inevitably been much press speculation about the radicalisation process undergone by Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar which converted them from secularised Muslims to the militant upholders of a terroristic, Islamist variant of Islam. Why should two outwardly well integrated immigrants who had taken US nationality turn against their host country by killing fun-runners and their supporters?

It should be remembered that another diaspora Muslim, 7/7 bomber Mohammed Khan, was also well integrated into British society on the surface with no obvious reasons in his life to make him carry a rucksack of explosives onto a Circle Line tube train at King’s Cross with the determination to detonate them.

The elaboration of a plausible model of the social psychological process involved in such ‘conversions’ to fanatical violence is the subject of my 2012 book Terrorist’s Creed.

It suggests that individuals who suffer from underlying feelings of personal anomie and futility in their lives combined with a growing sense of outrage, impotence, or oppression directed at a particular feature of society - foreign occupation, abhorrent moral practices, corrupt institutions – may undergo a process of ‘heroic doubling’.

As a result the world is split into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to produce a ‘Manichean’ world-view.

At this point they produce a double of themselves, a syndrome brilliantly dramatised in the films Fight Club, Taxi Driver and Avatar, who undertakes a ‘sacred’ mission to carry out a violent act of retribution, purification, or redemption against the now fully demonised ‘enemy’.

It is a psychodynamic process that weakens their reality principle to the point where they convince themselves that a single act of cathartic violence will somehow further their holy cause (even secular ideologies can generate holy causes), and so change the course of history.

Their new heroic avatar has broken the taboos and moral inhibitions about killing and dying of ‘normal’ life and has spontaneously entered the state of mind which military training of all states tries to induce in raw army recruits on the eve of battle: a spirit of ‘sacrifice’ in which even the enemy dies for a ‘good’ cause.

The countless names on war memorials all over Europe and the eulogies of ‘our’ soldiers who die in Afghanistan should give us pause before we dismiss terrorists as ‘evil psychos’.

At some point at least one of two diaspora Chechens, living in Boston and suffering from acute anomie and identity ‘issues’, became susceptible to the fanatical ranting, in person or in virtual reality, of Islamist fundamentalists.

Their simplified narrative about the sacred duty to carry out the holy mission (‘jihad’) to fight for a sacred spiritual homeland (‘nomos’), a Chechen identity which had now become a global Islamist identity, and which was under attack from inner and outer enemies (Western imperialism, secularisation, consumer driven licentiousness, the US) brought order and purpose to otherwise chaotic and meaningless lives.

Adolf Hitler did something similar for millions of ‘ordinary’ Germans at the height of Weimar’s collapse in 1930 and the NSDAP vote soared from 2.4 per cent to 37.4 per cent in three years.

Perhaps self-styled counter-terrorist experts and politicians should ‘get out more’ and take greater account of a continuous stream of books, films, and documentaries which portray the plight of ethnic communities under siege and diaspora members who have not found a spiritual home in their host countries, however materially secure their lives.

Many are spiritually drowning in what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls the ‘liquefaction’ of reality, and a few may in their desperation cling onto a life-line which allows them to be reeled inexorably into the net of a terrorist creed.

This article is an edited extract taken from the Oxford Brookes publication Research Forum – the latest edition is available to read online now.