Why people join terrorist groups and what we can do about it

Assuming we know the problem

It’s interesting when people air their views on topics that they have little direct experience of – something we are all guilty of at one time or another. Social media increases this natural human tendency.

Take the topic of terrorist attacks in Britain and the world over. I think I know what terrorism is, as do many people. And yet I don’t really understand the problem.

All my research (if I even conduct any) depends on my being able to determine that I correctly understand the problem at hand – religious violence, I might say.

To understand the problem, I have to be confident that my worldview is accurate enough for me to see that given problem clearly. I understand religion, and I understand violence. Therefore I might assume I understand the problem.

Unfortunately, we are all subject to our own biases, which are strongly determined by the world around us – particularly the media. Interpretation becomes truth.

Sometimes, when a topic receives extensive media coverage, we can come to feel as though we have become experts on that topic. We can even read several books about what we think is the topic, and believe we have become very educated about it.

And when emotions are involved – as they always are – we believe we are thinking very rationally.

In reality, our thinking is based on a core feeling of suppressed fear, and we are blind to the fact that we have totally misunderstood the problem. We have begun from a false premise – that we know the problem – and this leads us to some very well-intentioned but terrible conclusions.

We perpetuate the original, still-undiagnosed problem.

Experiencing terrorism


Image source

Though your chance of dying in terrorist attack in Europe is still lower than being struck by lightning, we cannot ignore being personally affected by such events that disproportionately threaten to destroy communities. Terrorism cannot be minimised or ignored.

I experienced the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing last year. It felt completely different to enduring the frenzied media coverage of the attacks in London, where I lived previously.

22 people died, most of them children. Hundreds more were injured or traumatised. The attack was committed by Salman Ramadan Abedi, a 22-year-old local man who lived in Fallowfield, an area just a short walk from my home. It took place in a venue where I had attended an Iron Maiden gig only a week before.

Many businesses were closed and traffic was brought to a standstill. There was an armed police presence in the local shopping centre for days after the attack. Everyone was on hyperalert for another attack in the weeks that followed. There were huge vigils and many people crying.

And yet the responses of the people in the local communities and local government were so kind and considered. They came together to support each other, including those who had suffered and lost loved ones in the attack. The purpose of this response was to help repair a wounded community, and I felt proud to be part of a city where people get bee tattoos to show their solidarity.

I was still terrified after the attack, but the response of the city brought tears of bittersweet happiness to my eyes.

Of course, everything soon returned from this surreal aftermath back to normal once again – as it always does. But an uneasiness remains.

Why do people become radicalised

I can’t pretend to know why people become radicalised and commit terrorist acts. I have no expertise in this field, only a strong interest – so it helps to ask the experts. These are law enforcers, governments, and security services.

So what causes people to become radicalised and join terrorist groups?

The FBI says [emphasis mine]:

No single reason explains why people become violent extremists, but it often happens when someone is trying to fill a deep personal need. For example, a person may feel alone or lack meaning and purpose in life. Those who are emotionally upset after a stressful event also may be vulnerable to recruitment. Some people also become violent extremists because they disagree with government policy, hate certain types of people, don’t feel valued or appreciated by society, or think they have limited chances to succeed.

The British Government published a 2016 report which says [emphasis mine]:

Witnesses agreed that there does not appear to be any clear template for the factors
which might lead to radicalisation. David Anderson described to us two possible
contributory factors—grievances and ideals. The sources of grievances varied extensively but could include poor family relationships, bullying at school or within social groupings, and the UK’s foreign policy. David Anderson explained that, once this negative viewpoint had set in, in some people radical ideology then “battens on to the grievance and makes sense of the grievance and that makes sense of the person’s life”.

These extracts tell me that most terrorism is not about violence and religion – it’s about social isolation, loneliness and emptiness.

Law enforcers, intelligence services and governments who are responsible for tackling terrorism point to predominantly emotional causes – not religious ones. These experts show us that the reasons people join extremist groups have to do with psychological factors.

This renders the disciplines of psychology and sociology responsible for informing us about how people become radicalised, and induced to commit such horrific acts against their own communities. We’ll look into some theories next.

Research into radicalisation

Other than the works cited, I can find very little research online that relates directly to how Islamic terrorists become radicalised – a hot topic of today. Perhaps that is because the threat is currently too strong, and not much research has been done yet.

However, similar research has been done into why people join cults, far right hate groups, and violent gangs.

Sociologist Pete Simi has conducted 17 years of fieldwork with radical-right extremists. He shared his views on why people join hate groups and why they leave, and the answer has nothing to do with any religion.

The answer time and again points to lacking a sense of belonging in their community. These people are alienated and fearful, feeling they have no support. They feel misunderstood and angry, and the world is their enemy.

Read this account of the former follower and then leader of hate group Chicago Area Skin Heads, Christian Picciolini, talking about why he became a white supremacist. I find these types of accounts to be the most enlightening in how we can approach individuals who are prone to joining hateful groups.

Christian Picciolini says [emphasis mine]:

“People gravitate towards extremist movements because they’re searching for identity, community and purpose.”

Nothing justifies violence. The correct consequence for such action is always punishment through the law. But correct law enforcement still doesn’t tackle the root problem of exactly why people are turning to religious extremism in the first place.

Calling these people ‘crazy’ also does nothing to add insight to the problem, and is a common misuse of the word ‘crazy’.

How extremists recruit

It helps to distinguish between the leaders of terrorist groups, and followers who are recruited to the cause. A hate group is nothing without its members, many of whom are the ones who are actually committing the violence – rather than the leaders.

So to understand the problem of radicalisation better, we also have to look at terrorist recruitment. Extremist religious groups recruit their followers indirectly.

Rather than using explicit propaganda materials to recruit terrorists (or even holy scripture), extremists employ a process of grooming and brainwashing vulnerable individuals. The clinical experience of psychologists supports this idea, although little research has been done so far.

At first, the individual is not even aware he or she has been targeted. She believes she has made new friends, maybe online, and is subtly encouraged to abandon her family and friends.

Only when the individual is properly immersed in her new world does the extremist ideology start to become obvious. But because her new friends are so ‘nice’, the individual must resolve her cognitive dissonance through denial, or some other form of psychological rationalisation.

This process of brainwashing happens slowly over time, so victims don’t notice. If the individual starts to ‘wake up’ to what is happening, the group redoubles its efforts to come across as benign and unthreatening, allowing the individual to ‘fall asleep’ again.

The individual is hypnotised repeatedly, and subtly devalued so he or she no longer has the capacity to make discriminating mental judgments. Their sense of self is destroyed, and they are completely compliant to any demands made by the group.

This process is ultimately how many individuals are induced to violence and murder, who would otherwise not commit such atrocities. If you have never experienced this process, you cannot understand how it happens. So read up on it and it will begin to make more sense.

Social isolation and loneliness

People who are vulnerable to brainwashing are already vulnerable, both psychologically and lacking social support. They are not necessarily external to our society.

According to MI5, most terrorist attackers are homegrown extremists. They are often born in this country but could be first-generation immigrants, like the Manchester bomber.

Young men, in particular, seem to suffer from loneliness and isolation more than women – representing 91% of all terrorism-related arrests (Terrorism in Great Britain:
the statistics, House of Commons Library, June 2018).

Socially isolated, angry people are prime targets for grooming. And terrorist grooming doesn’t start out with hardline messages from Isis. People are targeted intentionally by recruiters who pretend to be their friends, and they are offered the sense of belonging, certainty and security they so desperately crave.

Religion versus rationality

I find the argument that religion is responsible for radical extremism overly simplistic.

British intelligence service MI5 says religion is not the main motivator of terrorists and a strong religious identity actually protects against vulnerability to extremism. According to German-American philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, loneliness and a loss of contact with reality fuels recruitment to terrorism.

Religion has no power but what we give to it. Of course, it has been used throughout history to justify violent campaigns and wage wars, as many other things have also been used, like patriotism and tribalism. It’s part of the well-documented in-group/out-group (or social identity) theory.

It’s easy to fear religion in the ‘enlightened West’. And perhaps we may even somehow be better than those who have not had the same access to the education and freedoms that we enjoy.

Perhaps that is partly because ‘the West’ has benefited from the effects of inequality and drained the resources of more so-called ‘primitive’ societies for many hundreds of years now. This ground is well-trodden by academic scholars and only needs a quick google search to find more information.

In the context of terrorist violence, religion is sometimes a tool used by those seeking power to fuel hatred and division. Religion can be used for ‘good’ and ‘evil’ just like anything else – whatever some prominent vocal atheists might have you believe.

The answer is not to attack religion and those who follow scriptures, or even mock them. This will only drive the problem deeper underground, embolden terrorist groups with ‘justification’ for their actions, and make potential recruits less likely to listen. At any rate, it is a hypocritical response from those who claim to promote free thought and open inquiry.

The answer to radical extremism is the very standard but necessary answer: education for everyone. If people are easily subscribing to harmful beliefs, it’s partly because they are not educated enough to discriminate between truth and lies. So we need to improve the education system in the UK – and throughout the world, as many international aid workers risk their lives to do.

We can’t force people to improve their thinking faculties, but only offer them the tools to allow them to make a free choice. We do that by providing better access to a quality education.

Focusing on the human problem

It’s helpful to note that many human problems become difficult (if not impossible) to solve when we cease to view them as human problems. We can blame things that are inanimate or abstract – like technology, religion, education or even society itself. But the answer is humans.

All of these things play a role, but they are not the root cause of the problem because they are things humans have created. And to over-focus on any one aspect of a problem is to reduce our chances of finding a true solution.

We thus miss the core answer – that humans are both the problem and the answer.

Making laws against certain religious beliefs, banning people of certain religiously-affiliated countries from air travel, or banning certain items of religious wear, may seem to offer a quick-fix for the frenzied public. Unfortunately, they ultimately create even more fertile ground for hate-fuelled ideologies to prosper.

People are motivated to commit terrorist acts, and people can be motivated not to commit them.

The drive to belong is one of the strongest drives we have – perhaps stronger than the drive to even personally survive. We must appeal to this drive in vulnerable individuals through inclusive social policies before they can be corrupted by those seeking absolute and destructive power.

Final remarks

The lesson from the Manchester story is that the people of Manchester resisted the very strong temptation to succumb to hate and fear, while not ignoring what happened to their city. This is important, as hatred, fear and ignorance are precisely what fuels terrorist attacks. Love and inclusion is the antidote.

If people are socially isolated and lonely, there is also likely a problem within their family and social networks. While it’s difficult to force individual people to be more socially inclusive, our leaders set the primary example for society.

There is no easy answer to the problem of terrorism, or we would have implemented it no doubt. If we are a more loving and inclusive society overall, and support initiatives that encourage social integration for everyone, then we all win.

This is a very long-term strategy, and it doesn’t mean we should stop enforcing the law and punishing those who commit crimes. But it definitely means we shouldn’t succumb to the fearful black-and-white thinking that fuels hatred, bigotry and violence.

We have to keep doing good in our communities, whatever that means – and Manchester is the perfect example of that.

Photo by yi sk on Unsplash


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