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In the wake of terrorist atrocities communities erupt with questions, polarised debates gain traction on both sides, and in the information age we are more overwhelmed with hearsay, witness accounts and theories than ever before. We may never fully understand the psychology behind radicalisation and actual attacks, but there are numerous practitioners and researchers up for the challenge: our Twitter call quickly revealed several of them.
‘Terrorism today involves men, women and children from all walks of life, all socioeconomic backgrounds and all levels of religiosity and ideological commitment,’ said Professor John G. Horgan (Georgia State University). ‘Surprisingly there is so much we don’t know about terrorist psychology. For too long, psychologists haven’t really tackled the question of terrorism seriously.’
There are many paths into terrorism, Horgan added, but typically it is a gradual process characterised by a very supportive group psychology. Moral outrage is common among those who become terrorists: they will often begin to believe that through their actions they come to represent a broader, victimised community that needs vanguards to stand up for them.
Horgan said it’s important not to overlook the more mundane qualities of involvement, which act as a magnet for recruits. ‘The promise of a better life, a sense of adventure, excitement, camaraderie, identity and purpose. These are the day-to-day motivational factors that help convince new recruits that this is something worth doing. Ideology is also important, but it’s unclear precisely how and when it matters. Some people are ideological to begin with, others become ideological only after joining.’ Motivation shifts the longer a person spends in a group: ‘New recruits eventually learn how to better convince themselves and others why they are doing what they are doing. They learn the ideology, they talk the talk as it were. This is tremendously empowering.’
Professor Coral Dando, a Consultant Forensic Psychologist (University of Westminster), worked for the Metropolitan Police for 13 years before moving into academia. She emphasised the vital importance of communities, and community policing, in helping to halt radicalisation. ‘There are a number of preconditions which motivate potential terrorists, such as racial and religious discrimination, economic exclusion, and social exclusion, all of which happen within communities. Certain triggers, both large and small scale, can lead a person to act on their beliefs, and these things occur in a community environment.’
The evidence shows a reluctance to report suspicious behaviour. The monumental impact of pointing the finger at a neighbour or friend, Dando said, may be just too great. She added: ‘For me as an ex-police officer I wonder if a reduction in community policing may have an impact on someone’s ability or desire to tell. Community policing helps build up rapport with communities, people feel they can come and speak to you. I suspect that people feel socially and economically excluded, and when groups feel marginalised they tend to look inwards rather than outwards.’
How might we improve people’s ability to speak about any suspicions they may have? Dando said we should help to support people to come forward to authorities in a supportive environment, in a way that protects them and emphasises they are doing the right thing. She added: ‘After the recent attacks communities who felt they were being grouped together as being part of that radicalised and terrorist agenda, which of course they aren’t, came out very, very quickly and very verbally, to say “don’t include us in this group”… that’s really useful. As the MP Jo Cox said, there’s far more that unites us than divides us. That’s a very useful thing for us all to bear in mind.’
Recent terrorist attacks in the West have, with some exceptions, been unsophisticated, often a lone actor using knives, cars and guns. Dr Paul Gill (University College London), an expert on lone wolf attacks, said this type of action was originally promoted by right wing groups around 25 years ago. Gill said the biggest reason jihadis were slow to adopt these low-tech attacks ‘was because there was a sense that, in order for them to gain international press coverage, they would need a very sophisticated plan. What helped broker that divide, I feel, was the attack on Fusilier Leigh Rigby in Woolwich. They showed how they could do something that was low-key, hard to detect, but ultimately would create enough theatre that their identities and so on would be out there.’
It emerged soon after the recent attack in London Bridge and Borough Market that only one of the three perpetrators was unknown to UK police and security services, but Gill noted that ‘the UK hasn’t got bad at counter terrorism overnight’, and that they can point to a number of big successes in the last few months. ‘From what we can tell the individuals were reported as displaying signs of radicalisation. That doesn’t fit the threshold that would necessitate an immediate intervention, given the large numbers of individuals who are of concern in the UK at the moment.’
Gill’s own research on lone actors saw that around 60 per cent of people in perpetrators’ social circles knew the specific details of their upcoming attack. Similarly, research by Horgan found an overwhelming majority of at-risk young Somali men in America would not tell authorities if a friend planned to travel to Syria – largely out of a fear of getting their friend or themselves into trouble. Gill added: ‘We’ve done some survey research and sometimes people just don’t know where to come forward with information or what to report. There’s a tricky balancing act for the police and intelligence services… it’s already a case of finding a needle in a haystack, and if they have some really, really risk-averse people reporting all sorts of nonsense that might just be throwing more hay at the problem.’
Theresa May, shortly after the attack on London Bridge and Borough Market, suggested heavier regulation of the internet would help to combat radicalisation and extremism. Gill said while that is a politically-useful factor to target, radicalisation is rarely a fully-online process. ‘If individuals want to carry out a violent act they will find a way to do it whether they have the internet or not. It might be helpful in some investigations, but I think there’s a lot of other factors going on and root cause grievances that aren’t being addressed.’
From a lay perspective it seems likely these low-tech attacks could lead to more copycats (perhaps especially when the perpetrators receive so much media coverage, not always unfavourable). Indeed, Brusthom Ziamani was foiled in his attempt to copy the murder of Lee Rigby, and had even memorised the speech one of the original attackers made following the killing. Gill said: ‘We know there’s diffusion and intuitively, to me, it feels like these attacks cluster in time. I feel there’s an elevated risk in the immediate aftermath of a successful attack. In those instances there are people that are radicalised, have an intent, but haven’t built up the psychological fortitude to go out the door and do something, and seeing others get out over the line builds up their courage to do it.’
The rolling coverage in traditional and social media may also make images of carnage more salient, thus increasing feelings of risk. While it’s difficult to find the true level of threat, it is important to think about attacks in context. Gill said: ‘We’ve had three successfully executed attacks here in a very short space of time. But these are largely amateur, they’re not like the very sophisticated, command and control oriented attacks of the IRA. The UK survived that, so we shouldn’t be cowed and in fear. The reason these guys are turning to vehicles, knives and so on is because of the successes of the counter terrorism services in preventing larger scale bombings and attacks.’
Research Fellow Dr Julia Pearce (Kings College London) has been looking into the public responses to terrorist attacks and how best to communicate risk to the general population. In the immediate aftermath of an attack the public play an important role in warning and protecting others as well as helping those who have been injured. ‘Depending on the scale and nature of an attack, the ability of hospitals to cope with an influx of patients may rely on the cooperation of the public. The speed with which a city can “return to normal” will also be determined by people’s willingness to use public transport and return to affected areas.’
Pearce said her and colleagues’ work had shown that communicating with the public about terrorism doesn’t necessarily increase the perception of risk, but can provide reassurance that security services are well-prepared to respond. She added: ‘Effective advice on what to do in the event of an attack should be targeted at encouraging specific behaviours and should take into account public risk perceptions, as well as their perceptions regarding the efficacy of recommended behaviours and the ease of carrying out these instructions. The emotional costs also need to be considered. For example, instructions to shelter in place may not be followed if this prevents parents from collecting their children from school. Furthermore, the success or failure of risk communication is strongly and consistently mediated by levels of trust in the communicators of the message.’
Other respondents to our Twitter call included Orla Lynch, researching British Muslim youth; Simona Di Folco, exploring perceptions of terrorism through art; Paul Hutchings, researching attitudes to attacks; Laura Kilby, looking at how we talk about terrorism; Ellie Butcher and Dr Ciaran O’Keeffe from Buckinghamshire New University, who are presenting research at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Forensic Psychology on the impact of media reporting on public fear; and Kate Hooper, studying how British Muslims culturally construct terrorism. Just as there has been a huge public response to the latest attacks, it seems there is an ongoing scientific response: talk to us about it @psychmag or by emailing [email protected].
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