Magazine, Vol. 1: Terrorism
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The Psychology of Terrorism

Photo: Eva-Lotte Hill

“In the light of a certain ideology, terrorists consequently act by all means rationally”


Interview with Prof. Dr Rainer Banse & Michaela Sonnicksen, M. Sc., Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

42: Mrs Sonnicksen, Prof. Dr Banse – how is terrorism defined in the discipline of psychology?

Michaela Sonnicksen: There is no coherent definition, as it is the case in other disciplines. Terrorism is the end product of a process of radicalization. All people who become radicalised are going through this process, but not all of them make it to the end. Many are radical without ever becoming terrorists; they are organised in groups which aim to hurt others physically with their actions. Terrorism, however, aims for the psychological consequences of using force, to spread fear, rather than aiming for physical harm primarily.
Tyrannicide, coups, or guerrilla actions, however, are an exception from the definition as they have a clear goal: To liberate zones from the enemy. Terrorists, on the other hand, aim to spread fear and hatred. What’s also important to realise: One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

42: And why does someone become a terrorist?

MS: Their motivation can be manifold. There are certain factors that terrorists share: In joining a radical organisation they may experience a feeling of belonging, for instance, or they may develop a whole new identity and receive positive feedback. They also often experience their in-group as being at a disadvantage, and they want to change that.

42: You mentioned before that terrorism is the end product of a process of radicalization. How does it proceed?

MS: There are various models, but the bottom line is that each process comprises certain stages. No one becomes a terrorist from one moment to the next. In most case, they also wouldn’t decide to become a terrorist. It starts with this feeling of being disadvantaged, the growing sense that the own in-group has no chance to move away from its current position. The next stage is to blame others for their situation and to develop aggression towards them. Then, they get caught up in radical circles and adapt that black-and-white worldview.

Rainer Banse: Furthermore, their communication with others is prohibited by the organisation and becomes limited to their own circle. Counterarguments – for instance, that all people are humane – are being cut off. This process of radicalization is used strategically until their members are ready to put on the suicide vest and get going. We actually feel aversion towards that; people don’t want to do it. So it doesn’t just happen spontaneously.

MS: Right. When they are ready, and the process is completed, everything that follows from it is an improvement. Martyrdom and heroism bring about positive feelings. Choosing their own death is experienced as altruistic.

42: Are there certain personality traits in favour of that – for instance, highly exaggerated, is there something like a terrorist gene?

MS: No. Studies have shown that terrorists have one thing in common: They are pretty normal. There is no psychological salience or an accumulation of diseases, no personality traits that occur with increased frequency. Substance abuse is also rather uncommon. Usually, they are also far from suicidal, although this is widely expected. As I said, they hold a firm belief that death will bring about some sort of improvement.

42: Via the media, we almost exclusively learn about young men that become radicalised.

MS: That’s right. It is actually true that many radical people are young, between 20 and 30 years old, but that’s not always the case. In some organisations and especially in Islamist terrorist networks, we would predominantly find men, but it’s surely not always this way. The PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey, for instance, also admit women – so the shares of women and men are almost the same. This particular organisation, however, is politically – not religiously – motivated.

42: In the context of terror prevention, it has been widely discussed if radicalization may be prevented with the aid of higher levels of education. There is not consent, though. Does a low level of education play a role, anyways?

MS: No, that’s not the case. In some groups of origin, the levels of education are actually comparatively high.

42: In other words, about anyone could become a terrorist. Are there preventive measures that may prohibit people from becoming radicalised by terrorist networks?

MS: On the one hand we need to know the individual facts that make someone become radicalised. If we don’t, it’s almost impossible to make assumptions. There is no single solution for all the different types of groups, and they still need to work. Prevention may therefore only be accomplished for singular instances.

RB: It’s also important to consider what a terrorist network actually is. The focus is currently set on Islamist terrorism, especially on the networks we know, like al-Qaida, or ISIS. Both groups recruit terrorist trainees, so to speak, systematically and specifically. In this respect, there’s a structure we should address: If we understand how terrorists find potential suicide attackers, how they recruit them and radicalise them afterwards, then there’s a tool for prevention that may be used to for an active intervention.

42: Terrorism has consequences for both, perpetrator and victims. We are all scared of terrorist attacks. We fear that something could happen to us, to our families, to our friends. Can you explain that fear?

RB: Psychologists draw a thin line between the terms “fear” and “fear as anxiety”, depending on their theoretical background. There is a common distinction between a sort of neurotic fear that is ungrounded and irrational, and fear that is real and that should be experienced in order to secure someone’s safety. Freud made this distinction a long time ago. In reality, the boundaries are fluid which is especially relevant for the notion of terrorism. A terrorist’s major goal is to spread both forms of fear. The term “terror” itself carries that connotation. Usually, this goal is achieved pretty well. In killing only a few people, graphically explicit and randomly, terrorism paves the way to spreading fear and terror among entire populations.

42: Which role do the media play in spreading fear by transmitting the message?

RB: A form of symbiosis is apparent – between the media that leap at the chance to sell a story and terrorists who receive the necessary attention in order to function as well as they do. It’s a really unfortunate development in our media industry. They basically support terrorists as they function as an effective tool to spread fear and terror.

42: Would you also say that we help terrorists to attain their goals in consuming media, by giving in to sensation-mongering?

RB: Consumers of the media have a legitimate need to inform themselves. Emotional content is inherently more interesting. Cases of murder are examined extensively by the press, just like personal tragedies. People are interested in that. But especially with regard to terrorism, when spreading fear is the central part of the agenda, the media platforms have to ask themselves how they want to deal with the audience’s legitimate desire of gaining access to information. On the other hand, they have to avoid operating the terrorist’s business indirectly. It’s really a balancing act.

42: Such a reserved attitude of the press is unusual. Were there situations when they did hold back?

RB: Yes. For instance, with Breivik’s attack in Norway in 2011, the press at least attempted to exercise restraint in refraining from keeping the perpetrator on the front pages for weeks. Although that only worked to some extent, it was the first time the media critically reflected on their own role, and also acted upon that. That path should be followed more strongly in the future. It is also up to the consumer to make the choice to read more complex newspapers. That’s a simple purchase decision. I consider it to be rather the media’s responsibility though.

42: Is terrorism as a topic overrepresented in the media?

RB: I’d say so. And it’s strongly emotionalized. That’s also mirrored in our culture of outrage that is prevalent at the moment. Whenever something happens, it’s a scandal, and there’s a need for someone to be blamed. In Berlin, for instance, journalists started to ask why the Christmas market wasn’t shut-off. This machinery of outrage, this demand for someone, or anyone, to blame really is totally exaggerated at the moment. What’s also alarming: Once an attack happens, they broadcast real-time TV news although there’s nothing to report – nobody knows anything. What you see are helpless journalists at the scenery, endlessly explaining that they know nothing – an aberration that by the way has its roots in the Gulf War. In the 1990s, CNN started to report nonstop although there was nothing to report at all. Especially public television plays a rather inglorious role in that context. In attempting real time reporting, they move little more than hot air, and people become nervous. Actually, patience and proper enquiry would be the more reasonable solution.

42: Apart from the noise in media, do you consider the fear of a terrorist attack irrational?

RB: That’s a tough question to answer. The victims in Berlin had reason to be scared. What’s important is to keep a rational balance. The number of people who have been killed in terrorist attacks over the course of the last years is really low. Nonetheless, societies take measures such as total monitoring of the media, the internet, and telephone traffic to minimise the threats. Compared to other natural causes of death, however, the statistical danger to die in a terrorist attack is just really small.

42: If we are not really endangered from a statistical perspective, how can we fight the sense of fear?

RB: If you’re scared of bigger crowds, or if you want to visit a Christmas market after an attack, it’s worthwhile to envision that the chances of becoming the victim of an attack is substantially lower than the likelihood of being run over by a car and killed on the way to a Christmas market. That risk is much higher, and it is necessary to realise that.

42: Really?

RB: There’s a very famous example: After 9/11 many Americans avoided airplanes as they were scared of skyjacking, so they took the car. Thousands were killed in car accidents. The number of victims that died because of the attack on the World Trade Center had a much deeper impact in the aftermath of the attack as people started to behave irrationally: In their attempt to avoid the danger of flying, they undertook much bigger threats.

42: You mentioned that terrorists are “normal” people. We just heard that we act irrationally because we fear terrorist attacks. How about terrorists: Do they, unlike us, in turn, act rationally?

MS: Yes, they actually do. It is astonishingly easy to have people take extreme actions. Another example of this is obedience to authorities. Terrorists have clear goals, which they aim to enforce most effectively – for instance, to cause numerous casualties. In their particular case, that’s what constitutes rational acting.

42: So we just don’t perceive their actions as being rational?

MS: Pretty much. Certain thought patterns develop over the course of radicalisation. The way they see the world, for example, becomes increasingly dichotomous, black and white. Our group is good, the others are evil, and thus needs be combated at any price. In order to be able to kill a higher number of people, there are also certain strategies – for instance, to dehumanise the victims within a mental frame, so their pain won’t be experienced as such. These processes make it possible for terrorists to commit such terrible crimes in the first place.

RB: It’s also important to see that any kind of terrorism has an ideological superstructure, a manner of constructing the world. The RAF saw capitalism as their concept of the enemy, and they made themselves the advocates of the suppressed working-class. However, the view was way too extreme, and the workers didn’t even support them. Once such a worldview has developed everything that follows is rational and legitimate. The process of turning people into terrorists focuses mainly on building up such an ideology which allows for and enables such extreme actions in the first place. This process is deliberately and strategically produced by demagogues. In the light of a certain ideology, provided that it is accepted, terrorist consequently act by all means rationally.

42: Thus, terrorists resemble each other even if they do not have the same ideologies?

MS: That’s an interesting question. Unfortunately, there’s not enough research present for now. What’s interesting to see is that generally, ideologies are being pursued and that all means available are legitimate to attain respective goals. That’s fundamentally the same. On further parallels, only little research has been done at this point.

RB: But that’s exactly what we’re working on: Especially the psychological factors that make people commit terrorist actions. Our research also isn’t limited to Islamist terrorism but looks at the many different varieties of terrorism. Most research on the topic is being done from a sociologist perspective, and therefore looks at the societal framework. To work out the shared psychological characteristics is our goal as research here has only been done to some extent.

42: The philosopher Judith Butler, who has also done lots of research on the question of ethics, demands that every victim’s life should be equally grievable.  

MS: You mean that individual people should mourn all victims?

42: Right. Are we able to accomplish that psychologically?

MS: That would be a great emotional effort.

RB: And it constitutes a very humanistic perspective. I sense that it draws upon the idea to construct all of humanity as a singular in-group in order to rework the common way of thinking of others as “us” and “them”. The attempt is praiseworthy. And yet it contradicts our tendency to take most interest in the people we care for and we’re close to. For anyone we don’t know, we feel less compassion, less empathy. From a rational perspective, however, it would be wonderful if we could perceive all people as being equally worthy.

42: Do you think that’s impossible?

RB: Let’s put it like that: Within their rhetoric, the churches have tried proclaiming that we are all a great family, that we are all brothers and sisters, and ergo, related. It’s an attempt to spread common human impulse to support family members further, or at least within the religious community. If taken to the extreme, and applied to the whole world, it would constitute the end of all racial prejudice, all discrimination, something like a humane reality that doesn’t know artificial differences. I do not say that it’s impossible. But it’s not easy either.

42: If we had this reality, would there still be terrorism?

RB: No. Terrorism without an opposing out-group does not exist.

42: Thank you very much for the interview.

Interview and Translation: Lara von Richthofen


Prof. Dr Rainer Banse
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn






M. Sc. Michaela Sonnicksen
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

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