Hoisted from the comments:
I’m writing on a civics project about political psychology and would be greatful for responce on a couple of questions from a politics blogger’s point of view also (in addition to my interviews with an expert on political science) conserning the topic.
So; Why do you think motivates people to join terrorist groups? Could it have some assosiations with political psychology?/Does it aggree wtih the opinions of people like Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler or B.F. Skinner?? Why?
First a clarification: I am not a political blogger – in the meaning of someone writing from a particular ideological standpoint or in order to promote a particular political agenda – but a political scientist who also happens to blog. I’d like to believe that what I write is somehow coloured by my academic training and experience. On the other hand, I’m not an expert on terrorism research, but both as an academic and a citizen I am of cause interested in terrorism as a political phenomenon.
The first thing to consider is what we mean by "terrorist groups" – as the saying goes, then a government’s "terrorist group" can easily be a population’ s "freedom fighters". The PKK, the PLO or the Tamil Tigers may serve as cases in point. In general, I wouldn’t advise using Wikipeida as a source for an assignment but this is what a search for a definition of terrorism on Wikipedia yields:
Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby — in contrast to assassination — the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organization), (imperilled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience(s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought (Schmid, 1988).
So terrorist groups would be groups who use violence or the threat of violence against random targets (e.g. the passengers on airliners hijacked on 11 September 2001 and the workers in the WTC or the passengers on the London Underground) or selective targets (e.g. the Pentagon, the US Capitol Building) to communicate a message either to a general public or the (perceived) political elite.
We should note that even if suicide bombings and hijackings have been the focus of much recent debate, most terrorists throughout history haven’t been particular suicidal – the PKK, the German Rote Armée Fraktion and the Basque ETA can serve as cases in point – and conversely states have never been afraid of having their soliders killed. (That the US government hides the casualties of the Iraq war from the public is a new phenomenon).
But how can we explain the choice of terrorist attacks or even suicidal terrorist attacks as a political means? Generally, much terrorism has come across as either ineffective or self-defeating. (The PLO’s success in bringing the Palestinian cause to the global political agenda may be quoted as a success – but a success that came with a hefty price: A generally negative view of Arabs in the Western world. 2001 didn’t exactly help in that aspect).
It is perfectly possible that there are more than one answer to that question (or cause behind the effect) and that the relationship between the answers or causes vary, depending on the particular group we are looking at, which makes it difficult to present a simple explanation or view. One way to start would be to distinguish between explanations at the social level, the organisational or group level and at the individual level.
If we look at the individual level first, there is no reason to believe that terrorists are mentally disturbed: All reports that I have heard about have emphasised that terrorists in general are not mentally ill or sociopaths. Mijailo Mijailovic’s assault on Anna Lindh is an interesting borderline case – Mijailovic did not act as a member of a group and the state of his mental health has been the subject of a legal controversy.
How about the social level, then? In the wake of the recent wave of terrorism, politicians have usually called for anti-poverty measures and education as means to counteract terrorism. This may be inspired by the sorry state of Palestine where Hamas and other organisations have gained a large following, but when researchers look at the bigger picture, we see no links between poverty and lack of education on the one hand and support for terrorism on the other: Rather, terrorists seem to be better-educated than the average of the population. The middle-class are a dangerous lot. That terrorists have used poverty as a motivation for their activities is another matter.
Religion? Yes and no: Socialism, fascism and especially nationalism have all formed the basis of terrorist groups. Some kind of ideological framework is necessary for terrorist groups to develop but the present surge of Islamist terrorism and terrorist threats does not point to an inherent violent nature of Islam or Muslim societies.
Finally, there is the organisational or group level. Let me just take a detour over Stockholm and Blekinge (to non-Swedes: I’m referring to two high-profiled murder cases here, one involving a gang of youths assaulting and killing a boy of 16 outside a party in central Stockholm, the other a man shooting two youths, killing one, from a group that had harassed his family and especially the son in the family): Indications are that things really went wrong because of group dynamics – a gang of youths develop their identity outside of the public society in a very closed network, they develop their own norms for behaviour and slowly things take a very bad turn.
Basically, this is the same story we have heard about a lot of terrorist groups: The members may or may not have been socially and politically alienated at the outset but the radicalisation which leads to terrorist actions takes place within the group, possibly inspired by a charismatic leader.
So is it all about bad group dynamics? If it was just that, I think we should expect more terrorism in the world than we do. There are probably good reasons why Swedish youths attack oneanother instead of innocent bystanders or political leaders – some kind of, real or imagined, political or ideological grievance is needed for terrorism to occur.