Walking Away from Terrorism
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Walking Away from Terrorism

Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements

John G. Horgan

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eBook - ePub

Walking Away from Terrorism

Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements

John G. Horgan

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About This Book

This accessible new book looks at how and why individuals leave terrorist movements, and considers the lessons and implications that emerge from this process.

Focusing on the tipping points for disengagement from groups such as Al Qaeda, the IRA and the UVF, this volume is informed by the dramatic and sometimes extraordinary accounts that the terrorists themselves offered to the author about why they left terrorism behind.

The book examines three major issues:

  • what we currently know about de-radicalisation and disengagement
  • how discussions with terrorists about their experiences of disengagement can show how exit routes come about, and how they then fare as 'ex-terrorists' away from the structures that protected them
  • what the implications of these findings are for law-enforcement officers, policy-makers and civil society on a global scale.

Concluding with a series of thought-provoking yet controversial suggestions for future efforts at controlling terrorist behaviour, Walking Away From Terrorism provides an comprehensive introduction to disengagement and de-radicalisation and offers policymakers a series of considerations for the development of counter-radicalization and de-radicalisation processes.

This book will be essential reading for students of terrorism and political violence, war and conflict studies, security studies and political psychology.

John Horgan is Director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at the Pennsylvania State University. He is one of the world's leading experts on terrorist psychology, and has authored over 50 publications in this field; recent books include the The Psychology of Terrorism (Routledge 2005) and Leaving Terrorism Behind (co-edited, Routledge 2008)

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Qualities are not causes


In this chapter, we examine several issues for understanding the development of the terrorist. We look at how attempts to profile the terrorist have floundered and instead consider involvement in terrorism as a complex process. The difficulties associated with terrorist profiling are not new, yet our thinking about the terrorist is rooted in age-old assumptions which have proven unfounded, impractical and devoid of empirical support. Viewing involvement in terrorism as a process may, ironically, lead to the development of more practical benefits than current attempts to profile terrorists can offer. One of the main arguments of this chapter is that in understanding the terrorist, our focus ought to change from the pursuit of profiles to the mapping of pathways, and from the search for root causes to the identification of route qualities. This chapter presents an alternative to the profiling metaphor and sets the scene for a greater consideration of the model to follow.

From profiles to pathways

On the morning of 7 July 2005, four men travelled from England’s West Yorkshire and Luton to the centre of London. Upon arrival, the men went their separate ways. Within 30 minutes all four were dead along with 52 civilians in the Al Qaeda movement’s first strike on the United Kingdom. The coordinated suicide bombings of that day left a further 700 people seriously injured, wounds ranging from cuts by flying glass, to blindness and dismemberment.1
Though shocked, London’s commuters had little choice in the aftermath of the attacks but to return to their normal routines. In the meantime, details of the four bombers captured public attention across the country. Mohammed Siddique Khan, Shehzad Tanweer, Germaine Lindsay and Hasib Hussain became household names. The media pored over every detail of the men’s lives, from the jobs they held to the breakfast cereal one of them ate the morning of the bombings. And while a slew of terrorism experts offered their opinions on what drove these men to blow themselves up, a House of Commons Report2 into the events of that day concluded:
What we know … shows that there is not a consistent profile to help identify who may be vulnerable to radicalisation. Of the 4 individuals here, 3 were second generation British citizens whose parents were of Pakistani origin and one whose parents were of Jamaican origin; Kamel Bourgass, convicted of the Ricin plot, was an Algerian failed asylum seeker; Richard Reid, the failed shoe bomber, had an English mother and Jamaican father. Others of interest have been white converts. Some have been well-educated, some less so. Some genuinely poor, some less so. Some apparently well integrated in the UK, others not. Most single, but some family men with children. Some previously law-abiding, others with a history of petty crime. In a few cases there is evidence of abuse or other trauma in early life, but in others their upbringing has been stable and loving. (p31)
The report captured the imagination of the public. Its narrative style was an attempt to calm an uneasy British audience by making sense of horror through structure – just like the 9/11 Commission Report, this report presented a beginning, middle and end.3 Logical though that structure was, however, many questions remained unanswered. Implicit throughout was a sense of frustration – frustration that there was no clear profile, no obvious terrorist personality, no easy answers as to what the seemingly endless flow of recruits to Al Qaeda had in common. Though the frustration was understandable, the content and tone of the report hinted at something less obvious – that popular thinking about the terrorist was still rooted in age-old assumptions about terrorist psychology.4 But, and perhaps no less frustrating to many who read the report and other accounts like it, was the fact that after 30 years of research, the social and behavioural sciences had not delivered a meaningful terrorist profile.
The issues that drive the search for the terrorist profile are clear. One issue relates to what terrorists do, and how that shapes the way in which we think about who they are and what they are like. The second issue relates to the fact that there are relatively few people who engage in terrorism.
To address these issues, we need to consider some of the defining qualities of terrorism and political violence. An inescapable feature of terrorism is its ability to shock. To instigate a climate of heightened psychological arousal, terrorists will engage in high-profile activity that results in death or injury to those who least expect it – civilians, passers-by and commuters on their way to work. The dramatic, immediate and longer-term consequences of terrorist activity force us to confront behaviour that both shocks and sickens us. Consequently, we could easily assume there is something special or different about those who perpetrate such vile acts. Bruce Hoffman5 describes the first operation of the Black September organisation when, in November 1971, they shot Jordanian Prime Minister Wasfi al-Tal in the lobby of the Cairo Sheraton Hotel. As the Prime Minister lay on the ground dying, one of the members of Black September knelt down on the ground to lap up al-Tal’s blood. That one image burned indelibly into the public consciousness, forever characterising the terrorist ‘madman’. And such seemingly sadistic tendencies aside, to seek to deliberately kill apparently random strangers (through a car bombing for example) in the name of righteousness suggests delusion or abnormality on the part of those who partake in it: ‘How could any normal person do this?’ is a typical reaction.
A second feature of terrorism is that there are few terrorists. Despite the potentially enormous consequences of terrorism, it remains a disproportionately low-volume activity perpetrated by relatively small numbers of activists. There may be a larger network that contributes in some way to sustaining the terrorist individual, but it remains a low-volume activity. The drama that surrounds terrorism obscures this fact. Much of the social and political commentary in recent years has emphasised the need to consider the ‘root causes’ of terrorism – generally, calls to address the assumed broad social and political conditions that provide a pretext for involvement and engagement in terrorism.6 These include poverty, lack of (or an abundance of) education, humiliation for some perceived wrongs, discrimination or a combination of these. But a difficult question arises: given the level at which these conditions become apparent, i.e. to so many people in society affected equally by such conditions, why do so relatively few people act upon those perceived grievances in this way?
These questions are both complex and challenging. Over the years, attempts to answer them have polarised many, even within the narrow field of long-term terrorism researchers. We know enough by now, at least, to realise that any answer is not going to satisfy everyone. In the past, researchers have tried to answer these questions with reference to micro-level explanations – in particular, psychologists and psychiatrists focused on the individual in an effort to uncover and map the kinds of presumed qualities that may be inherent in terrorists. A frequent temptation was to assume there might be some inherent qualities that characterise terrorists.7 Perhaps, the argument goes, all terrorists are unified by distinct qualities? Or, maybe at least there are grounds to suggest that a terrorist might be different in some way to the rest of us who do not engage in terrorism?
These days, a popular trend in terrorism research is to stress that there is no such thing as a terrorist profile. This argument is often followed with assertions that terrorists are not mad, that they do not suffer from some pathological condition and that they are not abnormal at all. Aside from the fact that these three issues reflect three distinct questions, such claims are actually not entirely accurate. Unless we think about abnormality in a statistical sense (i.e. that terrorist events are rare), what constitutes abnormal is a matter of opinion. These aside, there is a little more agreement on what is meant by both profiling and the argument about whether terrorists are ‘mad’. More problematic is the fact that we do not definitively know if a terrorist profile at some level does not exist. As Ariel Merari argued, it is probably more correct to state that no terrorist profile has been found.8 However, this is not necessarily negative – what if there is no profile to be found?
While it is easy to get bogged down in the complexity of terrorism, we have to anchor our starting points.9 We should never allow the complexity of terrorism to deter us from searching for practical solutions to its management. Max Taylor has observed that efforts to pathologise the terrorist have resulted in simplistic explanations of terrorism that obscure its true complexity.10 As a result, the nature of our responses inevitably echoes that simplicity. Taylor is correct, but a reason we do not know if any terrorist profile does exist is that we lack the necessary data to properly test this hypothesis. There is yet another problem. If we were able to construct data-driven terrorist profiles, we might question the practical contribution of such knowledge. Profiles tend to encourage one-size-fits-all approaches to management and response. It is doubtful that a profile could tell us anything meaningful about why or how someone seeks to become involved in terrorism in the first place. In fact, any terrorist profile would more likely be a reflection of what someone who has become a terrorist has already experienced through the process of violent radicalisation. Hannah Arendt,11 in writing about the ‘new militants’ in On Violence, wrote: ‘Their behavior has been blamed on all kinds of social and psychological factors … A social common denominator seems out of the question, but it is true that psychologically this generation seems everywhere characterised by sheer courage, an astounding will to action, and by no less astounding confidence in the possibility of change. But these qualities are not causes’ (pp15–16, emphasis added).
This argument is not new, yet its implications for terrorism studies are critical. For the most part, profiles tend to be guides for investigators, comprising a checklist of qualities assumed relatively static in perpetrators. The logic of the profile is that they will enable the investigator to predict what the next terrorist (or set of terrorists) is likely to look like. If reliable, this would assist in directing resources at specific persons or communities. However, it can be difficult to reconcile checklist qualities with the rapidly changing silhouette of terrorists as well as the process that characterises increasing radicalisation into a terrorist movement.
Adriana Faranda, a former member of the Italian Red Brigades, once said: ‘When you remove yourself from society, even from the most ordinary things, ordinary ways of relaxing, you no longer share even the most basic emotions. You become abstracted, removed. In the long run you actually begin to feel different. Why? Because you are different.’12 Faranda’s reflection is important. Involvement and engagement in terrorism result in changes to those who join. Being able to withstand stress and being able to keep one’s mouth shut in spite of the glory of membership and sense of mission are some of the abilities that leaders seek of recruits. However, personal accounts of former terrorists suggest that these qualities tend to be acquired and assimilated through involvement and engagement. While it may be possible to develop a set of guidelines to identify what kind of person is likely to be ‘good material’ for involvement, no recruit will be able to predict his or her own personal reactions and experiences from involvement in terrorist activity until they actually start. A good example is the case described in Chapter 7.
The common retort to criticisms of terrorist profiling is that the alternatives to micro-level individual profiles (i.e. macro-level models, often drawing on root cause notions for instance) are often so general and so broad as to be of little use, either in terms of prediction, or as a guide to operational applications. However, this seems unfair: perhaps the most obvious problem inherent in the profiling of terrorists is the abundance of unclear, inconsistent and unrealistic expectations that surround its practice. Profiling could not explain how and why people become involved in terrorism, no more than profiling could explain how and why people become involved in crime. While terrorism studies have witnessed exciting developments in recent times, the profiling of terrorists has become a pseudo-intellectual adventure reminiscent of the early sensationalising of offender profiling in the popular press before it gave way to more productive research in forensic and criminal psychology. Regrettably, terrorist profiling continues behind closed doors. It is sustained by audiences desperate for practical solutions and seduced by the allure of a quick fix. That quick fix is often promised by researchers adept at retreating, whenever necessary,...

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