Why do they do it? The media and pundits commonly blame lack of economic opportunity and religious ideology as the primary root causes for individuals to radicalize and become terrorists, but that is too broad a brush to be very useful. This informal paper proposes a more nuanced model of motivating factors for individuals radicalizing and choosing to join terrorist groups or organizations:
- Spiritual need
- Ideology, dogma, and doctrine
- Need for structure
- Need for sense of belonging, family, and community
- Aspiration and sense of purpose
- Need for compelling sense of identity
- Justice, to correct for a perceived injustice
- Need for engagement and social and political enfranchisement
- Need for economic enfranchisement
- Need to rebel
- Lust for excitement, thrill, and adventure
- Weak personality, weak sense of self
- Low mental resilience
- Weak mental health, bordering on mental illness
- Mental illness
- Some combination of any or all of the above
This paper will not delve into the actual process of radicalizing and joining a terrorist group or the specifics of the triggering of the radicalization process. The exact steps in the process and their sequencing is certainly of interest but beyond the scope of this paper. The concern here is simply what drives the process. Similarly, it is beyond the scope of this paper to inquire into interventions to prevent or mitigate radicalization. The title of this paper might just as well have been “Drivers of Terrorist Radicalization.”
Religion as a catch-all
Religion (or Islam) per se is not a discrete motivating factor. Rather, religion is an aggregation of factors, with each individual motivated by some aspects of religion more than others:
- Sense of community, belonging, and family
More than basic economic opportunity
It is not basic jobs or money per se that may motivate a terrorist, but sufficient income, employment security, and career paths that may be needed to form a safe, comfortable, and secure household that enables an individual to get married and raise children, including their education and health care, and to have a sense that their children will have a similar opportunity in their own future.
Some individuals are focused on seeking to reach above the earthly, material, and oppressing world. Not strictly religious at all, but a distinctly spiritual need. More of a yearning to be free from oppression. This could include political oppression that harms their spiritual sense of self.
These spiritually-oriented individuals, all too happy to escape from their earthly tribulations are ideal candidates for suicide attacks.
Ideology, dogma, and doctrine
Some individuals approach life from a more intellectual perspective, seeking an intellectual structure, a story, narrative to follow. Religion can fit this bill nicely. They may be motivated by political oppression that conflicts with their ideological beliefs. They may be rebelling against state, community, religion, or family values that conflict with their personal ideology.
Need for structure
Traditional family, community, religion, or state may be too loose, disorganized, or chaotic for the individual’s need for structure.
Western-style freedom may feel antithetical to their sense of order.
Sense of belonging, family, and community
A terrorist group may provide (or offer or at least promise) an alternative to the emotional sense of belonging traditionally provided by family, community, religion, or state.
Terrorism can also offer the appeal of a very intense movement or cause.
A terrorist group, movement, or cell offers a sense of belonging, that the individual may be missing from their family, community, and country.
Their real father may have intimidated or belittled or outright battered them, or their real mother may have been passive or domineering, so that they may have had no sense of belonging or value to others as a child.
They may lack of sense of belonging and affinity for other kids in school and the neighborhood or peers in the community that can also lead to a need for a sense of belonging and family that a terrorist group can offer (or promise, even if unable to deliver on the promise.)
And for immigrants their host country may not be particularly welcoming or provide them with a feeling that they belong.
Aspiration and sense of purpose
People in general have a virtually universal need to yearn for something beyond themselves. To aspire to be more than just themselves. To have a sense of purpose beyond their daily lives.
If the institutions of family, neighborhood, community, school, religion, business, and country fail to tap into and satisfy their aspirations and need for a sense of purpose, individuals may easily fall prey to the siren call of subversive organizations, whether gangs, criminal enterprises, or extremist terrorist organizations, who are all to willing to promise more even if they cannot deliver. And if violence has an appeal to the individual, the the promise of violence may be irresistible and all too easy for the subversive organization to deliver.
Need for compelling sense of identity
People in general have a virtual universal need for a sense of identity.
If the institutions of family, neighborhood, community, school, religion, business, and country fail to offer a deep enough sense of identity, individuals may easily fall prey to the siren call of subversive organizations, whether gangs, criminal enterprises, anarchistic groups, or extremist terrorist organizations, who will offer a compelling sense of identity.
It may be a negative and dysfunctional sense of identity, but it is lack of any substantial sense of identity rather than negative consequences that causes angst in the individual that may finally be relieved by the subversive organization.
Justice, to correct for a perceived injustice
An individual may perceive that an injustice has occurred either to themselves or others for whom they have some affinity. They see themselves as standing up to an injustice of a social or political system that they see as corrupt. They see themselves as being a champion or foot soldier in pursuing justice.
Revenge and retaliation
Revenge and retaliation are really simply emotionally-charged variants of pursuit of justice, to correct a perceived injustice. I wouldn’t break them out as a separate motivator. In fact, the real problem is figuring out whether raw, naked revenge, retaliation, or a more altruistic interest in justice is the true motive. But if it looks like revenge, it should be considered an attempt to correct for a perceived injustice.
As a general proposition, revenge and retaliation would be one-off motivations for specific, narrow grievances, while justice and correcting for perceived injustices will tend to be broader and more comprehensive motivations based more on a pattern of injustice, principles, or general oppression.
Need for engagement and social and political enfranchisement
Traditional social and political structures may not provide the appeal and sense of satisfaction from involvement and participation that some individuals crave.
They may feel disengaged and disenfranchised from traditional social and political structures.
More than just basic jobs, the individual may feel deprived of a sufficient level of economic opportunity that is needed to achieve a normal family life with marriage and raising children. They need to feel that their future is bright. And they need to feel that their children’s futures are equally bright if not even brighter.
Lack of a sense of economic enfranchisement can lead individuals to sever their emotional attachment to state, community, religion, and family, priming them for radicalization.
Economic disenfranchisement will tend to be coupled with a desire to rebel, another major motivation for radicalization.
Granted, terrorism may not provide economic enfranchisement to them either, but the lack of that enfranchisement may leave them angry enough to wish to destroy the system that fails to provide them with that opportunity.
The Islamic State actually was offering individuals a level of enfranchisement that existing western societies were failing to do for so many people, especially immigrants and young people.
Maybe it is less common these days, but it is still very possible for individuals to have a political motivation to radicalize. They may formally be part of a political group or maybe merely have a personal affinity for such a group.
Separatists seeking political independence are one manifestation of this motivation.
Anarchists seeking to bring down an established political order are another.
Need to rebel
The individual may be desperate to escape from perceived oppression, lack of sufficient opportunity, and disenchantment of various sorts. Activism, protest, crime, gangs, cliques, and dysfunctional friends may be enough to separate them from mainstream society, but they may have an intense enough need to rebel that only terrorism can satisfy.
They may rebel against the law, the strictures of family, the community, religion, the political system, or the state.
Lust for excitement, thrill, and adventure
Terrorism may provide an individual with pure thrill, an adrenaline rush from doing the extreme and the forbidden that mainstream society doesn’t offer.
Weak personality, weak sense of self
The individual may have low self-esteem or an otherwise weak personality, which drives them to seek association with stronger personalities to compensate for their own weakness and desire to have a stronger sense of self.
There may be some underlying mental disorder causing this weakness, or maybe not.
Low mental resilience
The individual may not have sufficient strength of will to overcome stress in their lives, such as:
- Home life problems.
- School problems.
- Relationship problems.
- Work problems.
- Financial problems.
- Economic problems.
- Oppressive media messages.
- Oppressive government.
This low mental resilience can render the individual susceptible to domination and extreme manipulation to compensate for their own lack of resilience.
Weak mental health, bordering on mental illness
The individual may not be clinically diagnosable as having a clinical mental disorder, but their mental health may be too weak to resist efforts to dominate and manipulate them.
Some individuals may suffer from a clinical mental illness that prevents them from functioning normally in civilized society, driving them to radicalize as a simple coping mechanism to attempt to escape from their inner demons.
They may or may not be clinically diagnosable. It may be a borderline mental dysfunction that goes undetected or is simply written off as a quirky personality, difficulty with environmental stress, growing pains, or whatever. Undiagnosed mental illness is a very real and significant social problem, even absent terrorism.
Either way, terrorism can provide mentally ill individuals with an escape from their inner demons, in a way that traditional society is failing them.
Terrorism frees them from the restrictions of civilized society, providing them with an escape, a sense of relief, if not more emotionally satisfying adventure. Mental illness can also preclude economic opportunity or normal family relationships.
Their mental health status may or may not qualify for a legal assessment of insanity.
The compelling nature of mental illness should not be underestimated. It may not be as sexy as spiritual, ideological, and political motivations, but the effects can be just as devastating.
There may not be a single motivating factor for radicalization of a particular individual. It may be a combination of some or even all of the factors.
That said, if if there are numerous of many motivating factors at work, it may commonly be true that there is a single dominant factor or maybe just a very few dominating factors for a particular individual or cohort of individuals.
The important thing is to rank the factors for a particular individual or cohort of individuals so that attention can be given to those motivating factors which had the greatest impact.
Factors of minor significant may be more of a distraction, especially when it comes to focusing on intervention.
The human psyche is very complex, very tangled, and can be very complicated to untangle when it comes to motives.
This informal paper tries only to identify motivating factors. How to assess which factors drive a given individual into terrorism is beyond the scope of this paper.
Triggers for radicalization
Any number of the motivating factors identified in this informal paper may be at work in countless social groups and individuals, but somehow they usually fail to rise to the level of triggering the individual to make the leap from law-abiding citizen to radicalized terrorist.
What events or factors actually constitute the trigger are beyond the scope of this informal paper. The focus here is underlying causes, not triggering events per se.
Whether triggering is due to specific, discrete events, a straw that breaks the camel’s back, or some more complex psychological calculus may depend on the particular individual.
Process for radicalization
There may be any number of steps required to initiate and complete the radicalization process. The exact steps and their sequencing is certainly of interest and worthy of research, but is beyond the scope of this focused informal paper.
Joining a terrorist group
Even once an individual has been radicalized, it is still a big leap to join up with a terrorist group or organization. Even to make the bold leap to being a lone-wolf terrorist is a big step. But, the nature of making the leap, while of great interest, is beyond the scope of this limited, focused informal paper.
Interventions to prevent radicalization
It is certainly of high interest to discern methods for intervention to prevent individuals from radicalizing and intervention was certainly a motivation for this paper, but research and discourse in the matter of intervention is well beyond the very limited and focused scope of this informal paper.
It would indeed be helpful to have specific, authoritative citations for the points made in this paper, but lack of citations is a major reason for referring to it as an informal paper. I’ll leave it to more academically-inclined individuals to formalize the informal notions contained herein.
My method is distinctly informal. I make a sincere, diligent, very thoughtful, and very mindful effort, but it remains strictly informal nonetheless. I’ll leave it to more publication-quality academics to attempt to formalize that which I formulate informally.
I see my own speculation as a starting point, a hypothesis to be tested. Personally, I am far less interested in the hands-on nature of testing hypotheses than I am in speculating and formulating hypotheses. In particular, I find the dearth of high-quality, comprehensive, broad, and deep hypotheses to be distinctly disheartening and outright unsettling, especially considering the momentous nature of terrorism.
My method is to study systems as black boxes — you can examine the outside but not see inside the box. As such, I know nothing about what is really going on inside the heads of individual terrorists, radicalized individuals, or within terrorist groups, other than that they are human beings and subject to human nature and the highly variable qualities of the human mind.
That said, we can read a lot of media accounts of their behavior and sometimes even their own words.
My interest is in studying black boxes, examining the external qualities and hypothesizing based on what we know about human behavior, human nature, culture, and history.
My method is also to incrementally collect a large number of relatively small snippets or nuggets of information, which I call puzzle pieces. I may never fully construct and complete the full puzzle, but over time parts of the larger puzzle occasionally come into a little sharper focus.
I read a fair amount, attend a lot of think tank events and congressional hearings, and talk to every expert I can gain access to at these events, all providing me with a wealth of puzzle pieces which help me speculate about the various black boxes that life presents us with.
I don’t seek single, magic bullet answers and solutions, but I do expect that if I am patient enough, that the many black boxes and puzzle pieces will incrementally present me with ever-improved opportunities to discern at least fragments of the ground truth of the matters at hand.
Peering into the abyss
Ultimately, it may not be fully possible to assess what goes on in the mind of a terrorist except by becoming one of them, but I am certainly not one of those people. I’m willing to walk up to the edge of the abyss and peer down into the darkness, but you won’t find me willing to leap directly into the abyss.
Besides, for the most part we can do reasonably well contemplating and speculating about the nature of the abyss from a decent and comfortable distance.
To be clear, I have never personally been anywhere near the edge of the abyss, but we do have enough written accounts of terrorists that we can imagine and feel as if we actually were right there at the edge.
It’s a dicey proposition to even contemplate putting yourself in the shoes of a terrorist, although it may be a little easier to put yourself in the shoes of an individual who might be experiencing the motivations detailed in this paper, imagining what might be running through their heads as they contemplate making the leap to radicalization. Again, I personally haven’t done that in any deep and meaningful way, but we can at least ponder the prospects from a reasonably safe distance.
I have no idea what’s next. Seriously. Right now, I am so focused on getting this one puzzle piece sorted out since it is so important that I don’t want to lose focus from that task yet.
That said, the menu for future work includes:
- Formalizing the motivations.
- Analyzing the process of radicalization.
- Analyzing triggers for radicalization.
- Analyzing the triggering process.
- Identifying opportunities for intervention, both before and after radicalization.
- Identifying personality characteristics at risk for the various motivations for radicalization.