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Ethical and Cultural Issues Arising from the Psychology of Terrorism

Section 9
The Psychology of Terrorism
By Jonathan R. White

Question 9 | Test | Table of Contents

Definitions of Terrorism
Simple: Violence or threatened violence intended to produce fear and change.
Legal: Criminal violence violating legal codes and punishable by the state.
Analytical: Specific political and social factors behind individual terrorist attacks.
State-Sponsored: Terrorist groups used by small states and the Communist Bloc to attack western interests
State: Power of the government used to terrorize its people into submission

Most definitions of terrorism assume it to have political implications, but when “political” is eliminated from our consideration, it is easy to conceive of instances where local residents are terrorized into not talking about drug dealers in their neighborhood, as a form of criminal terrorism. Pathological terrorism, such as the amoral villain in many horror movies, and the stalking ex-spouse in domestic situations, is another form of terrorism that becomes evident when political considerations are not present. Terrorism is an effort to achieve results in cases of political and criminal terrorism; in pathological terrorism, the terrorism becomes an end in itself. That is not to say that some of the terrorists employed by political or criminal organizations are not independently pathological terrorists. Indeed, given the constraints of modern society, the best suited planners of terrorist acts are pathological terrorists.

Nation states have resorted to terrorism to control their own, conquered populations. The historical dispersion of the Jews by Assyria in the 7th century BC was an example of a deliberate policy of terror intended to subjugate a population. State terrorism is also reflected in the actions of the German State Secret Police (Gestapo), endowed with nearly unlimited powers of arrest and detention; backed up by courts which actively supported their work, the Gestapo routinely used terror to achieve state goals.

Still under the umbrella of State Terrorism is State-Supported terrorism, usually externally directed. States have international goals which they may elect to pursue with extreme and violent means while avoiding the constraints of war. Terrorism, not officially sanctioned by the state, may still exist to support the goals of that state. Several Middle Eastern states have supported terrorists whose target is Israel. These states cannot engage in declared war (or even official attacks) for fear of reprisals or international condemnation but instead support terrorist attacks while denying responsibility for them.

The most common category of terrorism is sub-state, or non-state terrorism. Its perpetrators are not members of an organized or recognized state. The nation in which they live, and the nation in which they hold citizenship has no knowledge of and subsequently is not responsible for their actions. This form of terrorism has five subtypes:
1. Single Issue Terrorism
2. Extremist Political Terrorism
3. Separatist Terrorism
4. Religious Terrorism
5. Pathological Terrorism

Single Issue Terrorism: Some terrorists and terrorist groups tend to focus on one or several related issues such as gun control, abortion, or deforestation. This breed of terrorist employs traditional terrorist tactics such as bombs and explosives in an attempt to achieve a political agenda. Single Issue terrorist attacks have traditionally been small scale attacks but certainly, as in the case of the Atlanta Abortion Clinic bombing, not any less capable of evoking terror.

Extremist Political Terrorism: Although some have divided this category into Right Wing Terrorism and Revolutionary or Left Wing Terrorism, both categories exhibit striking similarities. Those with beliefs at the extreme edges of the political spectrum are, by definition, marginalized in their political power. Their constituency is small; their political power is similarly small. Without a radical change in the political climate, their chance of increasing their power remains correspondingly limited. Terrorism, for them, becomes a means of driving some of the population from participating in governmental elections and other political activities. Typical terrorist-related fear tactics are used to intimidate citizens affiliated with mainstream political parties. Governmental attempts to suppress these intimidation tactics may be viewed by politically neutral citizens as an attempt to limit the scope of their political options and may drive once politically ambiguous citizens into the arms of the extremists.

Separatist Terrorism: The ambition to establish a separate state can be independent of extreme political views. While left wing or right wing ideology may be a component of the dogma of separatists, the overwhelming drive is for the creation of an independent state. Terrorism may be directed internally within the region: at the government, or it may be directed at allies of the government with a goal of creating diplomatic pressure in support of the separatist state. Additional terrorist acts may target the commercial sector in an attempt to exact economic pressure. Separatist terrorism cannot operate successfully in a vacuum: the common strategy is to create a legitimate political organization which pursues separatist goals, and a parallel terrorist organization which can be disavowed.

Religious Terrorism: The two fringes of religion, that is, the conservative fundamentalist and the more radical contemporary spiritual groups, are each capable of embracing terrorism as a means to an end. Though many contemporary religious faiths are perfectly docile and the majority of fundamentalist conservatives are equally peaceful, there still exists the possibility for terrorist activity. Single issue terrorism and religious terrorism often coexist:
Abortion rights extremists have used their faith to justify unspeakable acts of terror. It is in this rationalization, by means of religious doctrine, that we find the defining constraint of religious terrorism. Text, principle, or the words of a charismatic spiritual leader that enable followers to pursue what they perceive to be religious purity through terroristic means is what sets Religious Terrorism apart from other forms of terroristic activity. Though the Bible and many other religious texts include passages that, when isolated, may supply potential terrorists with both direction and motivation, the majority of religious followers are capable of exposure to such passages without resorting to violent, antisocial behavior.

Pathological Terrorism: Terrorism must be executed by individuals: The planners, the trainers, the actual bombers and killers. The German army in World War II found that its soldiers became ineffective after they were ordered to execute 75 civilians with rifle shots; the Holocaust required the establishment of concentration camps and a bureaucratic structure to depersonalize the effort to kill noncombatant human beings for the very reason that most of the soldiers in its army did not have the requisite pathological, disturbed emotional condition that would allow them to engage in the required killing. The Holocaust leaders, those who did direct and participate in gross human rights abuses, were inarguably possessing of some degree of this pathological antisocial condition, however enhanced by culture, background, education, training, or conditioning.

To fly a passenger airplane into a world icon such as the World Trade Center, killing thousands of civilians, unquestionably mandates a pilot-hijacker with a dysfunctional emotional composition. Certainly political and religious factors provided these men with what they perceived to be pragmatic rationalizations for their actions, but it was a pathological terrorism that led this devastating mission to its deadly conclusion. (From Terrorism Factbook, by Marc Miller and Jason File. c. 2001. Bollix Books.)
- White, Jonathan R. PhD, Terrorism: an Introduction. Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, Pacific Grove, 2001.

Psychology of Terrorism

- Borum, R. (2004). Psychology of Terrorism. University of South Florida.

Personal Reflection Exercise #2
The preceding section contained information about different motivations for terrorism. List two case studies regarding the possible applications of these explanations.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Brugh, C. S., Desmarais, S. L., Simons-Rudolph, J., & Zottola, S. A. (2019). Gender in the jihad: Characteristics and outcomes among women and men involved in jihadism-inspired terrorism. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 6(2), 76–92.

Harris-Hogan, S. (2018). Terrorism, 1888–2018: Some change, but mostly the same. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 5(4), 245–247.

Van Der Vegt, I., Marchment, Z., Clemmow, C., & Gill, P. (2019). Learning from the parallel field of terrorism studies. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 6(3-4), 202–209.

What sets Religious Terrorism apart from other forms of terroristic activity? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 10
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