The Anatomy of a Terrorist
By Dr. Maleeha Aslam
May 14, 2015
How does one become a terrorist? Terrorists may not essentially be bad individuals from the start. Omar Saeed Sheikh, the London School of Economics student who masterminded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s murder is a case in point. Sheikh had received a bravery commendation from London Underground after he jumped on the track to save another commuter from an accident. Sageman shares three versions of Sheikh’s persona. According to family, friends and tutors, Omar was “the kindest, most gentle person you could meet”, “the model of a London public schoolboy, a keen, courteous student heading for university”, “the premier league of students… bright boy, popular with his peers and very personable”, “never being particularly religious, or politically motivated”, “the sort of a boy you would want your sister to marry”. The second and third versions, also narrated by friends, acquaintances and Sheikh himself, point towards a critical nexus between masculinity, militant-jihadist Islamism and terrorism, something that I elaborate in my book Gender based explosions. “When [Sheikh] was eight, he punched a teacher called Mr. Burns and knocked him to the floor. He was a full grown man, and this was an eight year old boy.” Sheikh told Peter Gee about growing up in England facing racism in the playground, with his peers verbally abusing him for being Pakistani. Notwithstanding, racism-terrorism arguments should not be generalized as there are countless immigrants who tolerate racism but do not opt for terrorism. Peter Gee said that Sheikh was not “averse to playing to the gallery. Quite a lot of it with Omar was macho bravado.” Sheikh was known to have a “twin obsession” with “Islam and body-building”. An “arm wrestler”, he was obsessed about his physique and boasted to his English friends that he was a kickboxing champion of Pakistan. Others thought Sheikh had a “fantasy” that he at times narrated. His body weakened once he started training as a militant. Yet he did not give up, and noted in his diary, “I remained adamant and resumed training after a hiatus of 10 days”. Sheikh started out by supporting the Bosnian cause, but ended up becoming a terrorist.
In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, President Bush remarked, “they hate our values” – where “they” implied terrorists acting in the name of Islam. Psychologists who study emotions always distinguish hate from anger as the two invite separate responses. Anger leads to reaction, probably aggression. Hate leads to withdrawal, avoidance and indifference towards the object of hatred. In contrast, an angry man can become blind to his self-interest and proceed to take action. Therefore the issue has to be understood as that of anger rather than of hate. Bush was wrong in stating what he did.
What motivates a terrorist to perpetuate such horrific acts? In this regard Reich’s work on origins of terrorism and Horgan’s analysis of the psychology of terrorism are considered important. Across Europe, the Middle East and South Asia, Horgan collected data from militants, extremists, radicals and former terrorists. He concluded that terrorism is a complex psychosocial process having an impact on the minds of terrorists as they cross through a number of stages, from becoming involved to being involved to finally disengaging but not deradicalizing: the former is a behavioural change and latter a cognitive rerouting.
At times terrorists are assumed to be pathologically or psychiatrically sick individuals who draw pleasure from people’s pain. But accuracy, vigilance and coordinated effort towards an objective are difficult to achieve for a diseased mind – things that terrorists accomplish every other day. Atta Muhammad, had completed his education in Germany and even submitted a well-received thesis on “Architecture of Aleppo”. Can these masterminds be treated as psychiatric patients? Other analyses are about terrorists being underdogs and/or poverty-stricken. Often observed by development professionals, poor people are mostly peaceful; particularly those at the grassroots whose primary occupation is agriculture and livestock. Many terrorists are neither poor nor underachievers; in fact they are educated with average or above-average job prospects.
A recurrent theme appearing in discussions on post-9/11 politics is that religion causes terrorism. I maintain that linkages between religion and terrorism are not as strong as are often projected. One has seen the rise of radical socialist groups with purely secular roots, for example the Red Brigade in Italy, Baader Meinhof in Germany, the Shinning Path in Peru, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and even atheistic communism spreading terrorism (read McCauley, 2007). Notwithstanding, religion has a unique ability to serve people’s identity needs, and therefore those who feel threatened may become defensive about their religion.
A link between “displaced aggression” and terrorism has also been postulated. Individuals joining the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Islamic State are assumed to be the ones testing out possibilities for personal mobility and avenues for exerting power. This however may be true for the young recruits but not necessarily the masterminds of these networks. Youth may use opportunities provided by terrorist networks as side-door entries into politics. Later, individuals may quit when feelings of disillusionment set in or they realize the overall infeasibility of the group’s political agenda.
At times group affiliations and collective honour convinces individuals to adopt militancy that further eases the way towards terrorism. Immortality arises from being part of a group where one upholds norms and contributes to the group in life and death. For the educated terrorist the power of an idea, such as a philosophy or a perspective itself may become more convincing than any group identity. According to theory of social comparison, there is always competition for status in which no one wants to fall behind in supporting the direction favoured by the group (McCauley, 2007). Certain activities are kept optional and, if done, elevate an individual par excellence, among group members. It is almost like becoming a gold medallist, generating in others status envy. In the realms of militant and jihadist Islamism, those who offer themselves for suicide missions usually achieve this status. Their colleagues glorify them by addressing them as al-shahid-al-hai’ (the living martyr) – a lofty status in religious, nationalistic and tribal discourses. As one gains maturity within the group, all exit options diminish.
Recruits are nurtured on principles of isolation, in-group affiliation and fear. Their closest family members remain unaware of their agenda. Group cohesiveness creates “in-group” and “out-group” sentiments where all group members are assumed to have a moral advantage over those outside the group (who for all practical purposes become “the other” even if they are blood relations). Gradually terrorists undergo personal transformation, imagining themselves as heading towards martyrdom. During the process they can kill those they perceive as morally weak.
The good news is that terrorist spaces are essentially shaky and therefore navigable and penetrable. Rival criminal groups subject each other to hijacking activities. The networks are detectable, as they are inextricably linked to social relations and operate through crossing boundaries and even violating national borders. Ultimately through technology it is possible to detect and target terrorists. Our real challenge is to safeguard the global youth from falling prey to terrorist designs.
Dr. Maleeha Aslam is a Fellow of the Cambridge Commonwealth Society and a security, development and gender studies expert.