Wednesday, March 2, 2011




Among the key psychological factors in understanding whether, how
and which individuals in a given environment will enter the process of
becoming a terrorist are motive and vulnerability. By definition, motive
is an emotion, desire, physiological need, or similar impulse that acts as
an incitement to action, and vulnerability refers to susceptibility or
liability to succumb, as to persuasion or temptation
One’s motivation for engaging in terrorism is often presumed to be the
“cause” or ideology of the group. However, as Crenshaw (1985)
notes, “the popular image of the terrorist as an individual motivated
exclusively by deep and intransigent political commitment obscures a
more complex reality.” That reality is that motives to join a terrorist
organization and to engage in terrorism vary considerably across
different types of groups, and also within groups – and they may change
over time.
Martha Crenshaw (1985) for example, suggests that there are at least
four categories of motivation among terrorists: (1) the opportunity for
action, (2) the need to belong, (3) the desire for social status, and (4)
the acquisition of material reward. Post (1990) has gone even further
to suggest even that terrorism is an end unto itself, independent of any
stated political or ideological objectives. His argument is that “the cause
is not the cause. The cause, as codified in the group’s ideology,
according to this line of reasoning, becomes the rationale for acts the
terrorists are driven to commit. Indeed, the central argument of this
position is that individuals become terrorists in order to join terrorist
groups and commit acts of terrorism” .
The quest to understand vulnerabilities should not be confused with a
search for the “terrorist personality” (Horgan, 2003). Horgan (in
press) has framed the issue of vulnerability in the perhaps most lucid
and useful way as “factors that point to some people having a greater
openness to increased engagement than others.” Based on a review of
the existing literature three motivational themes - injustice, identity, and
belonging - appear to be prominent and consistent. These themes also
relate to one’s potential openness or vulnerability.

Injustice: Perceived injustice has long been recognized a central factor
in understanding violence generally and terrorism specifically, dating
back to some of the earliest writings. In the mid-1970s, Hacker (1976 )
concluded that “remediable injustice is the basic motivation for
terrorism”. A desire for revenge or vengeance is a common response to
redress or remediate a wrong of injustice inflicted on another. It is not
difficult to imagine that “one of the strongest motivations behind
terrorism is vengeance, particularly the desire to avenge not oneself but
others. Vengeance can be specific or diffuse, but it is an obsessive
drive that is a power people thought to be responsible for injustices” (Crenshaw, 1992 )
Perceptions of injustice may also be viewed as grievances, which Ross (1993)
has posed as the most important precipitant cause of
terrorism. He suggests such grievances may be economic, ethnic,
racial, legal, political, religious, and/or social, and that they may be
targeted to individuals, groups, institutions or categories of people.
Identity: One’s psychological identity is a developed, stable sense of
self and resolved security in one’s basic values, attitudes, and beliefs.
Developmentally, its formation typically occurs in a crisis of adolescence
or young adulthood, and is tumultuous and emotionally challenging.
However, “the successful development of personal identity is essential
to the integrity and continuity of the personality” (Crenshaw, 1986) .
An individual’s search for identity may draw him or her to
extremist or terrorist organizations in a variety of ways. One may fall
into what psychologist Jim Marcia calls “identity foreclosure” where a
role and set of ideas and values (an identity) are adopted without
personal, critical examination. The absolutist, “black and white” nature
of most extremist ideologies is often attractive to those who feel
overwhelmed by the complexity and stress of navigating a complicated
A variant on this process is one in which an individual defines his or her
identity simply through group membership. Essentially, one’s personal
identity is merged with a group identity, with no sense of (or need for)
individuality or uniqueness. As Johnson and Feldman (1992) suggest,
"membership in a terrorist group provides a sense of identity or
belonging for those personalities whose underlying sense of identity is
flawed.” For these individuals, “belonging to the terrorist group becomes
… the most important component of their psychosocial identity” Post

A similar mechanism is one in which a desperate quest for personal
meaning pushes an individual to adopt a role to advance a cause, with
little or no thoughtful analysis or consideration of its merit. In essence,
the individual resolves the difficult question “Who am I?” by simply
defining him or herself as a “terrorist,” a “freedom fighter,” ”shahid” or
similar role (Della Porta, 1992; Knutson, 1981). Taylor and Louis(2004)
describe a classic set of circumstances for recruitment into a
terrorist organization: “These young people find themselves at a time in
their life when they are looking to the future with the hope of engaging in
meaningful behavior that will be satisfying and get them ahead. Their
objective circumstances including opportunities for advancement are
virtually nonexistent; they find some direction for their religious collective
identity but the desperately disadvantaged state of their community
leaves them feeling marginalized and lost without a clearly defined
collective identity” .

Belonging: In radical extremist groups, many prospective terrorists find
not only a sense of meaning, but also a sense of belonging,
connectedness and affiliation. Luckabaugh and colleagues (1997 )
argue that among potential terrorists “the real cause or psychological
motivation for joining is the great need for belonging.” For these
alienated individuals from the margins of society, joining a terrorist
group represented the first real sense of belonging after a lifetime of
rejection, and the terrorist group was to become the family they never
had” . This strong sense of belonging has critical
importance as a motivating factor for joining, a compelling reason for
staying, and a forceful influence for acting Volkan (1997) .. argued” .
that terrorist groups may provide a security of family by subjugating
individuality to the group identity. A protective cocoon is created that
offers shelter from a hostile world” (Marsella, 2003). Observations on
terrorist recruitment show that many people are influenced to join by
seeking solidarity with family, friends or acquaintances (Della Porta,1995)
and that “for the individuals who become active terrorists, the
initial attraction is often to the group, or community of believers, rather
than to an abstract ideology or to violence” (Crenshaw, 1988) .
Indeed, it is the image of such strong cohesiveness and solidarity
among extremist groups that makes them more attractive than some
prosocial collectives as a way to find belonging (Johnson & Feldman,1982)
Conclusion: These three factors - injustice, identity, and belonging –
have been found often to co-occur in terrorists and to strongly influence
decisions to enter terrorist organizations and to engage in terrorist
activity. Some analysts even have suggested that the synergistic effect
of these dynamics forms the real “root cause” of terrorism, regardless of
ideology. Luckabaugh and colleagues (1997), concluded
“the real cause or psychological motivation for joining is the great need
for belonging, a need to consolidate one's identity. A need to belong,
along with an incomplete personal identity, is a common factor that cuts
across the groups.” Jerrold Post (1984) has similarly theorized that
“the need to belong, the need to have a stable identity, to resolve a split
and be at one with oneself and with society- … is an important bridging
concept which helps explain the similarity in behavior of terrorists in
groups of widely different espoused motivations and composition.”

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