Named by the media as “the mastermind” of the Paris attacks on the 13th of November 2015, 27 or 28 year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud has been identified as an integral part of the contingent responsible for the violence. In all likelihood, this moniker is probably highly inaccurate: terrorist organisations have incredibly complex hierarchies, and at this stage, it’s unclear where this individual sits in the ranks.
Due to the rapidly-changing nature of these organisations as well as the various, specific roles within them, no standard set of criteria is currently available to define what truly makes a terrorist. Psychologists however, have developed four key theories that attempt to explain the mind of a terrorist and what motivates young people, in particular, to join extremist organisations.
“We fight, therefore we are”: The Identity Theory
The social media-focused activities of the Islamic States have tended to focus on attracting young people. Abaaoud himself is known to have been involved in terrorist activities from as early as 2010, when he was 22 years-old. Naturally, the question emerges: why is this the target demographic for terrorist organisations like ISIS, and why are they are more prone to the recruitment tactics used?
According to the identity theory, the ideal target for recruitment is a young person with three specific traits: (1) they lack self-esteem; (2) feel lonely or abandoned; and (3) are seeking to consolidate their own identity. A specific religion or ideology — all the more attractive for its extreme nature — may provide a sense of misplaced belonging and more critically, power and importance. Charismatic leaders of these groups take the place of parents as influential figures in young lives.
No selfless act: The Narcissism Theory
It’s rather difficult to view the individuals responsible for these atrocities as being emotionally damaged, or in fact, as having any emotions at all. However, the narcissism theory asserts that early childhood damage to self-image can lead to developmental problems in both adult identity and morality, as well as result in a childlike sense of grandiosity.
These individuals have a desire to adopt a cult identity (in this sense, this theory is also linked to identity theory). The instinctive aim is to strive for glory under this new identity, in the guise of selflessness. Much of this manifests as rage and a want to destroy the individual’s perceived enemies.
Us against the world: The Paranoia Theory
Psychological projection is said to be one of the most common features among individual terrorists. Projection, also known as blame shifting, is when people assign certain, often negative characteristics of themselves to another person — and in their minds, fragmenting society into good (themselves) and evil (everyone else).
According to the paranoia theory, terrorists are able to easily justify merciless violent acts — what they perceive as being self-defence — against other people. This theory has strong links with groupthink, which is hypothesised to occur when group pressures result in the deterioration of rational thinking and moral judgment (as well as the dehumanisation of another group). Characteristics of this include the paranoid belief that the group is under constant threat and the rationalisation that their actions are morally justified.
When it’s over: The Apocalyptic Theory
ISIS is, unfortunately, only one example of an extremist group that believes the apocalypse is imminent. They envision that a mass destruction event will replace the corrupt world with a new and “pure” society.
More precisely, ISIS purports that significant battles in Dabiq, Rome and other locations between themselves (where “they” purport to represent Islam) and the West will result in their worldwide domination. According to them, these events will shortly be followed by the end of the world. ISIS relies on this theory — as well as apocalyptic imagery — to drive their recruitment.
Your turn: Aware of any further psychological theories of terrorism? Do you believe resolving personal psychological issues can prevent radicalisation — and what is the evidence for this? Contribute to the discussion here.