Though news of terrorist groups and extremist violence dominate our media, most find it difficult to comprehend the thinking of those who support and join such violence. According to BBC statistics, as of September 2015, over 700 people from the UK have left the country to join jihadist organisations in Iraq and Syria. The majority of these are thought to have joined the so-called Islamic State. Speaking to the BBC about how to prevent British jihadists leaving the country, Labour MP Keith Vaz explained, "This must be a relentless battle for hearts and minds, and without a strong counter-narrative, we are in danger of failing to prevent even more departures. We are at the edge of a cliff."
Extremist recruitment and radicalisation are both on the rise, but according to Barry Richards, Professor of Political Psychology at The University of Bournemouth, there is a crucial element that is often ruled out in research and writing about terrorism - ‘individual psychological disturbance’. I caught up with Professor Richards, author of the recently-published chapter The Voices of Extremist Violence: What Can We Hear? (Media, Margins and Civic Agency), to gain his insight into why some people’s psychological states can make them more susceptible to seduction by extremist recruitment and what can be done to address this?
Lucy Slater: You claim that ‘the recruitment of a suicide attacker can mesh with certain kinds of psychological damage’ and that this is happening more frequently. What are the tendencies of someone who may be vulnerable to this?
Barry Richards: This is a very complex area and we should beware of generalisations. There may be no external indicators in behaviour or personality. The need to see the world in very black-and-white terms can be expressed in endless ways in all spheres of life, most of them relatively harmless. When captured by the world-view of a violent fundamentalism, however, it can be a very destructive force. When a ‘split’ way of seeing the world becomes defined in terms of good and evil, and linked with a wish to purge the world of evil, then we have the basic psychological conditions in place for terrorist violence. The evidence suggests that a deep sense of humiliation and victimhood is a major component in driving suicide attacks, as well as other forms of violence. This sense of humiliation is an internal one that does not necessarily derive from any actual experience of humiliation suffered by that individual.
LS: Could you try to explain briefly the psychological process of why someone’s mental state could lead them to, for example, leave their home in the UK to join ISIS in Syria?
BR: Again, complete answers to that question would require knowledge of specific family and personal situations. However, we can suggest that typically a strong inner feeling of victimhood, or of identification with perceived victims, has generated the wish to fight in order to take ‘revenge’ on some people seen to represent the humiliators, or to join in a ‘purification’ process aimed at cleansing the world of evil. Another component here must be a feeling of having to act - others might see the world that way but not be driven to take up arms. This is the ‘moral’ element in terrorism – the perversion of moral judgment that sees violence as an inescapable duty.
LS: Do you think this is happening more frequently due to the global rise in media attention of extremist groups or the rise of extremist recruitment media?
BR: Basically, it must be due to the rise of violent extremist ideologies and movements: media does not create this phenomenon, even though they (both mainstream and extremist media) may be necessary vehicles for its development. One recent review of research by the Quilliam Foundation into online violent jihadism concluded that some offline contact is usually necessary for the process of ‘radicalisation’ to unfold.
LS: The Internet has allowed extremist ideologies to be spread immeasurably further than was once possible. People are now able to access all kinds of information and make contacts without leaving their homes. In what ways are terrorist groups exploiting the media to recruit members?
BR: A major benefit to extremist recruiters appears to lie in the possibility afforded by the web for people to insulate themselves from most points of view except the ones they want to be in contact with. This closed-loop, echo-chamber potential of online networks can provide the space required for a commitment to develop.
LS: What can be done to combat this recruitment and protect those whose psychological states may mean they are susceptible to seduction by such terrorist media ploys?
BR: It is more a matter of trying to minimise the potency of the online echo-chambers by proliferating a range of anti-terrorist materials, and by the creation of climates of opinion nationally and locally in which the appeal of violent extremist propaganda is neutralised – in which the needs for revenge and purification are directly addressed, and the perverted yet strong moral sense of potential recruits is pulled back from attaching itself to violence.
LS: You have stated that ‘in politics the mental health factor demands more attention than it normally gets’. Could addressing this help to limit the likelihood of certain individuals feeling driven to terrorism?
BR: In a few cases at least, yes. The Norwegian terrorist, Anders Breivik, came from a troubled family that had contact with therapeutic services when he was very young. His difficulties were noted then but there was no sustained therapeutic intervention. There’s no knowing whether, if there had been, he would still have carried out the massacre he did, but there is no doubt that his extreme psychological disturbance drove him to kill. Mental health services cannot, however, be expected to do all the necessary preventive work; the core of counter-terrorism has to be in the battle of ideas and emotions in the public sphere, in how potentially toxic deployments of emotion can be contained at community and national levels.
LS: Do you think one of the reasons ‘individual psychological disturbance’ is often ruled out as a major driver of terrorism could be that, despite the best efforts of many people, some still find it difficult to talk openly about mental health and would not know how to approach this?
BR: No, I don’t think so – I think the strange emphasis sometimes given to the implausible idea that terrorists are just ordinary people like anybody else with no particular psychological issues is due to the belief that to introduce psychological insights is to ‘depoliticise’ the issue of terrorism, and so prevent any analysis or consideration of the global politics which may be seen to cause it. This viewpoint doesn’t entertain the idea that we can have binocular vision – that we can think psychologically and societally at once, and hold multiple causes in mind, or see problems at different levels simultaneously.
LS: Do you think people could be worried about linking terrorism or other forms of extremist violence to mental health in this way?
BR: There is, of course, a real problem in making this link, which is that it may trigger adverse attitudes towards people with mental health problems who are service users and already suffering from some of the stigmatisation that still sticks to such problems. It can’t in itself produce hostility from other members of the public but may feed into prejudicial attitudes, especially when some link is made between terrorism and non-ideological ‘rampage’ killing. We must hope that the gradual improvement in public attitudes towards mental health issues will continue to strengthen, and will survive adverse and unjustified interpretations of such a link.
Words: Lucy Slater
Images source: Metropolitan police / Press Association / Channel 4