The Mind of the Terrorist: The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to al-Qaeda

The Mind of the Terrorist: The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to al-Qaeda

by Jerrold M. Post

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A psychiatrist examines why terrorists decide to attack

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A psychiatrist examines why terrorists decide to attack

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The Mind of the Terrorist

The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to al-Qaeda

By Jerrold M. Post

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2007 Jerrold M. Post
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-60859-7



When the hijacked American and United Airlines planes struck the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on 9/11 with concussive force, America's perceived shield of invulnerability was irrevocably shattered. No longer would the insular American nation look on at the conflict-ridden world believing itself safe from danger. The searing images of the two hijacked planes striking that symbol of U.S. economic might, the World Trade Center towers, of their collapse, and of smoke billowing out of the symbol of U.S. military might, the Pentagon, would be engraved on international consciousness. When we learned that the fourth hijacked plane, which was brought down in a field outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was bound for Washington, D.C., believed to be targeted against the Capitol or the White House, symbols of American political might, the fear grew further. The scope of the coordinated attacks, on symbols of the three pillars of America's stature as the world's remaining superpower—economic, military, and political—was unprecedented, and breathtakingly audacious. The previous feelings of invulnerability were at once replaced by feelings of vulnerability and fear. Who were the unknown attackers? Why would they hate us so? What would be the next target? Fear gripped the nation and the civilized world.

On September 13, 2001, President George W. Bush addressed the nation. This was, he declared, "the first war of the 21st century." On September 20, he went on to declare "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."

Bold words, valiant words, words of resolve and determination that rallied the nation. But historically inaccurate words. For the history of terrorism is as old as the history of humankind. And the modern era of terrorism is usually dated back to the late 1960s–early 1970s, with the iconic event being the Black September terrorist in a ski mask, patrolling outside of the seized Israeli Olympic village at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Two years earlier, on September 6, 1970, the dramatic coordinated hijacking of four U.S.-bound airliners by Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorists first drew the world's attention to the Palestinian cause. But it was the effrontery of the terrorist event at the Munich Olympics that transfixed the world. It marked the forcible intersection of political terrorism with the information revolution, ushering in what was to be known as the age of terrorism. An estimated international television audience of some 900 million from more than 100 countries looked on, transfixed, as the violent drama played out, culminating with the botched German police team attack. Eleven Israeli Olympic athletes and five Palestinian terroists were killed. The Palestinian cause was squarely on the map, demonstrating the power of the media to propagate the terrorists' violent message to a worldwide audience. It was violence as communication writ large.

This spectacular event emphasizes a feature of terrorism to which Alex Schmid, in his painstaking examination of terrorist definitions, has called attention: the distinction between the target of violence and the targets of attention. The target of violence is the innocent victims or noncombatants: the workers in the World Trade Center, the teenagers in a Tel Aviv disco. There are three targets of attention: the target of terror, the target of demands, and the target of influence. The target of terror refers to the members of the class of the victims of violence. Emphasizing that the goal of terrorism is to terrorize, when Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a spokesman for Osama bin Laden, after 9/11 famously offered advice to "those who reject the unjust U.S. policy" to not live or work in high-rise buildings or travel by plane, because there were "thousands of Muslim youths who are eager to die and that the aircraft storm will not stop, God willing," his target audience was not observant Muslims but the American public, and his goal was to continue to propagate the terror caused by the attacks of 9/11.

The target of demands, sometimes referred to as extortionate terrorism, is well illustrated by the wave of kidnappings and threatened beheadings in Iraq, such as British contractor Kenneth Bigley and U.S. contractors Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley. Displaying a terrified weeping Philippine contractor, Angelo de la Cruz, pleading for his life, the message was conveyed by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, that unless the Philippine government withdrew its troops from Iraq by the end of the month, de la Cruz would be beheaded. The fragile government yielded, and de la Cruz was released.

The target of influence is usually the West or the establishment, calling attention, for example, to the cause of the Palestinian people. But an additional audience is the audience of constituents and potential recruits, demonstrating the ability of the group to strike out powerfully at its enemies. Not everyone who watched the coordinated attacks of 9/11 was horrified; some were exultant at the ability of the powerless to strike a blow at the powerful.

Thus, violence against victims is intended to convey a message to the audiences of attention. And it is the fact that the victims are unarmed and the randomness of the act that could occur to anyone, at any time, anywhere—the extranormality of the act—that so compels horrified attention.

Terrorism then is a particular species of political violence. It is violence or the threat of violence against noncombatants or property in order to gain a political, ideological, or religious goal through fear and intimidation. Usually symbolic in nature, the act is designed to have an impact on an audience that differs from the immediate target of the violence. It will be noted that this definition is value free. It says nothing about the goodness or badness of the cause, in the name of which these acts are being committed. One can strongly favor, for example, an independent Palestinian state but still deplore the taking of innocent life in pursuit of that goal. Thus terrorism is a behavior, a strategy adopted by groups with widely differing goals and constituencies. While the 9/11 terrorist spectacular and its aftermath has tended to focus international attention on radical Islamist terrorism, the spectrum of terrorism is broad and diverse, as illustrated in figure 1.1.

At the top tier, we have the three major divisions of political, criminal, and pathological terrorism or, in the marvelously alliterative title of an early work on terrorism by the psychiatrist Frederick Hacker, Crusaders, Criminals, and Crazies.

There is a widespread assumption in the lay community that groups and individuals who kill innocent victims to accomplish their political goals must be crazed fanatics. Surely no psychologically "normal" individual could perpetrate wanton violence against innocent women and children.

In fact, those of us who have studied terrorist psychology have concluded that most terrorists are "normal" in the sense of not suffering from psychotic disorders. Martha Crenshaw, a prominent international terrorism expert, has observed that "the outstanding common characteristic of terrorists is their normality." McCauley and Segal, in a major review of the social psychology of terrorist groups, found that "the best documented generalization is negative; terrorists do not show any striking psychopathology." In his recent book, The Psychology of Terrorism, John Horgan has emphasized that there are no individual psychological traits that distinguish terrorists from the general population.

A consensus conclusion of the Committee on the Psychological Roots of Terrorism for the Madrid Summit on Terrorism, Security and Democracy, held in Madrid on the first anniversary of the 2004 bombing of the Madrid train station bombing, was that "[e]xplanations at the level of individual psychology are insufficient in trying to understand why people become involved in terrorism. The concepts of abnormality or psychopathology are not useful in understanding terrorism." Rather, we concluded that "[g]roup, organizational and social psychology, with a particular emphasis on 'collective identity,' provides the most constructive framework for understanding terrorist psychology and behavior."

While, to be sure, some emotionally disturbed individuals have carried out acts of violence in the name of a cause, severe psychopathology is incompatible with being a member of a terrorist group. Indeed, terrorist groups regularly screen out individuals who are emotionally unstable. Just as the British Special Air Service (SAS) commandos would not wish to have an emotionally unstable individual in their ranks because they would pose a security risk, for the same reason neither would a terrorist action cell wish to have an emotionally unstable member in its ranks.

"Criminal terrorism" refers to acts of terrorism by a criminal enterprise in order to further its goals. So, when the narco-terrorists in Colombia assassinate a judge, the goal is not merely eliminating a judge who has threatened their enterprise, it is also to intimidate other judges in order to give the terrorists the freedom to operate they desire.

For "political terrorism," the subject of this book, there are two main subdivisions represented in the graphic: the middle tier, the level of the state, and the lower tier, sub-state terrorism. "State terrorism" refers to when the state turns it own resources—the courts, the police, the military—against its own citizens. Argentina during the "dirty wars" is a prime example, when citizens opposed to the state were "disappeared." Another example of terror by the state would be Saddam Hussein using chemical weapons and aerial bombings against his own Kurdish citizens in the al-Anfal campaign in the late 1980s; more than 100,000 Kurdish Iraqi citizens were killed. "State-supported terrorism," a matter of great concern to the United States, refers to the circumstance when a state covertly provides support to a terrorist group or organization to further its own national goals. This guidance and support can be doctrinal, financial, tactical, and logistical, including providing training, and the degree of control and influence by the state will vary. The usual suspects on the annual State Department list of state supporters of terrorism have included: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, North Korea, and Cuba. Iraq has been removed from this list since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, and in return for ceasing its program of developing weapons of mass destruction Libya's name was removed in May 2006.

"Sub-state terrorism" represents terrorism from below. In the beginning of the modern era of terrorism, two types predominated: social revolutionary terrorism and nationalist-separatist terrorism, also known as ethnic-nationalist terrorism. Steeped in Marxist-Leninism, the social revolutionary terrorists, represented by such groups as the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, and the Weather Underground in the United States, seek to overthrow the capitalist order. These groups have significantly declined since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet empire, although Latin American social revolutionary groups, especially the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), remain a significant security threat. The nationalist-separatist terrorists, represented by such groups as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) in Northern Ireland; Fatah, Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and other secular Palestinian groups; and Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA—Basque Fatherland and Liberty), seek to establish a separate nation for their minority group.

In the beginnings of the modern era of terrorism, these groups regularly sought to call public attention to their cause. There were often competing claims of responsibility for their terrorist acts. Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the situation gradually changed; no responsibility was claimed for upward of 40 percent of terrorist acts. These were the acts of religious fundamentalist terrorists. They were not trying to influence the West but to expel the West, with its secular, modernizing values. And they did not need a New York Times headline or a CNN story to claim responsibility, for they were "killing in the name of God," and God already knew. In addition to religious fundamentalist terrorists, the category of religious extremist terrorists also includes millenarian or new religions terrorists, exemplified by the Aum Shinrikyo terrorists responsible for the first major chemical weapons terrorist attack, the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subways in 1995.

With the decline in social revolutionary terrorism at the end of the Cold War, there was a concomitant rise in right-wing terrorist groups pursuing racist, anti-Semitic, and "survivalist" ideologies. The same groups that used to warn against the communist menace that had invaded the United States now turned their venom against what they characterized as the illegitimate federal government. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, responsible for the destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, were right-wing terrorists. It is widely believed by security officials that the wave of anthrax letters in the fall of 2001 was perpetrated by an unknown right-wing extremist.

And finally, single-issue terrorism refers to terrorism in pursuit of causes, such as the environment and animal rights. That groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), would be motivated to commit criminal acts of violence in order to preserve animal life or, as in the case of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), to preserve the environment suggests that the cause is not the cause. Rather it is the justification, the rationale for frustrated, alienated individuals who have had their frustration channeled against a particular group.

Given how different their causes and their perspectives, nationalist-separatist, social revolutionary, religious fundamentalist, right-wing, and single-issue terrorists would be expected to differ markedly in psychology. We can distinguish among terrorist organizations with broad social support, terrorism arising from diaspora/émigré populations, anti-regime terrorism within a society, and the global Salafi jihad. Given the diversity of these causes, there is no reason to believe that there is one terrorist mind-set, one overarching terrorist psychology. Why should we assume that the motivations and attitudes of individuals and groups who are pursuing such diverse causes are the same? Thus, to explain the otherwise mysterious title of this introductory chapter, we should be considering terrorisms—plural—and terrorist psychologies—plural.

As there is a diversity of terrorist causes, the typology of terrorist groups also reflects a diversity of generational provenance. The X in the upper-left-hand cell of figure 1.2 indicates that individuals who are at one with families who are at one with the regime do not become terrorists. Generational issues are particularly prominent for the two types of terrorism that dominated the scene at the onset of the modern era of terrorism: social revolutionary terrorism and nationalist-separatist terrorism.

As reflected in figure 1.2, in many ways the generational dynamics of social revolutionary terrorists and nationalist-separatist terrorists are mirror images. The social revolutionary terrorists, whose generational dynamics are represented in the lower-left cell, are striking out against the generation of their parents that is loyal to the regime. Their acts of terrorism are acts of revenge for hurts, real and imagined. A member of the German terrorist group Red Army Faction declared, "These are the corrupt old men who gave us Auschwitz and Hiroshima." Jillian Becker addresses this dynamic with the German social revolutionary terrorists in her aptly titled book, Hitler's Children.

In contrast, the nationalist-separatist terrorists, represented in the upper-right-hand cell, are loyal to parents and grandparents who are disloyal to the regime because they were damaged by the regime. They are carrying on the mission. Whether in the pubs of Northern Ireland or the coffeehouses in Gaza and the occupied territories, they have heard of the social injustice visited upon their parents and grandparents, they have heard their parents complaining of the lands stolen from them and have been raised on this bitter gruel of victim-hood. It is time to stop talking and start acting.


Excerpted from The Mind of the Terrorist by Jerrold M. Post. Copyright © 2007 Jerrold M. Post. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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