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Psychologists Examine What Makes a Person Become a Terrorist - 2002-08-23

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Since the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington last year, scientists have stepped up research into what makes a person become a terrorist, and why some are willing to undertake suicide missions. Terrorism is among the main topics at this year's meeting of the American Psychological Association.

Scientists have various theories as to why some people become terrorists. Some say terrorists are often members of groups who see themselves as oppressed and want to do something about it. But, clinical psychologist Ibrahim Kira of Michigan says the theories do not fully explain why a person would be willing to take his or her own life in pursuit of a certain aim.

"Why do people feel this? Kill themselves? Commit suicide, individually or collectively. Why does this happen. The theory really does not explain this, why terrorism happens," he said.

Some theories have suggested that most suicide terrorists are people of low socioeconomic status, who have little to lose by giving up their own life for a particular cause. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Clark McCauley says that is not always the case.

"So a lot of people were surprised that especially the leadership element on 9/11 were by no means the poorest and least educated and those with the least prospects from amongst the Arab population they came from. They were way above average. They were some of the better off, the better educated and had the best prospects," Mr. McCauley said.

Mr. McCauley and Mr. Kira were among a group of scientists talking to reporters about terrorism, at this year's American Psychological Association meeting in Chicago. Mr. McCauley, and Richard Rubenstein, a professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University in Virginia, say terrorism is usually not the result of one individual's anger or hatred.

"People are not born terrorists. And it does very little good to explain terrorism when it happens as acts of expressive acting out, acts of emotional passion, acts which are essentially irrational," Mr. Rubenstein said.

Mr. Rubenstein says most terrorists identify themselves as members of a group or class of people who have been oppressed and humiliated by an outside power. He says often, the terrorism is the result of a desire to end that perceived oppression, but also a way to give more meaning to their lives.

Mr. McCauley believes this is what motivated the leaders of the September 11 attacks. "They would like to be the apex of a pyramid of a billion Muslims against the West in general and the U.S. in particular and the trouble is, most of the Arabs and Muslims are not interested so how are they going to solve that problem?" Mr. McCauley said.

Mr. McCauley believes the terrorists hoped the United States would respond to the attacks with military force, sparking widespread Muslim anger and violence against the United States. While this backlash has not happened yet, Mr. McCauley believes the al-Qaeda terrorist network is still hopeful of a widespread Muslim uprising against the West if the U.S.-led war against terrorism spreads into other Muslim countries.

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