ATbar Psychological Aspect of Terrorism
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Psychological Aspect of Terrorism

28/12/2014 | by ICT Staff  

The main point of this workshop was to show different situations in which understanding the psychology of terrorists is useful and even indispensable. If terrorists are logical, they also have utility and costs at stakes; it means that deterrence is possible even if a new kind of deterrence that applies to terrorism is still to be found. Moreover, as terrorist organizations attack populations physically and psychologically, understanding these mechanisms is also a source for resilience to terrorism and thus for counter-terrorism in general.

Chair: Prof. Ariel Merari
Research Fellow, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), IDC, Herzliya & Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology, Tel Aviv University, Israel

Dr. Arie Bibi
Senior Certified Clinical Psychologist, Department of Psychology & School of Social Work, Tel Aviv University, Israel

Dr. Yoav Broshi
Senior Certified Clinical Psychologist and Lecturer, Tel Aviv, Israel

Prof. Shuki Cohen
Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Associate Director, Center on Terrorism, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, United States of America

Dr. Ilan Diamant
Senior Certified Clinical Psychologist and Lecturer, Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University, Israel

Dr. Reuvan Gal
Founding Chair, The Association of Civil-Military Studies, Israel

Prof. Aaron Hoffman
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Courtesy Faculty, Department of Psychological Sciences, Purdue University in Indiana, United States of America

Mr. Brian Jenkins
Senior Advisor to the President, RAND Corporation, United States of America


Prof. Ariel Merari
Prof. Ariel Merari explained the three issues that would be represented in the workshop. The first issue was suicide bombers. Are there distinguishing features between terrorists in general and suicide bombers? Prof. Merari believes that most studies on suicide bombers concern men and not women because women choose suicide bombing for different reasons than men do. Most of the men, especially in the Palestinian case, are not social outcasts. They might be marginalized, but they are not socially ostracized like women are. For him, female suicide bombers are tainted in a certain way. The second issue was deterrence. Is it possible to deter terrorists? The last issue was resilience to terror. For Prof. Merari, terrorism is a psycho-political form of warfare, and thus public opinion is the real battlefield. 

Dr. Yoav Broshi
Dr. Yoav Broshi is a clinical psychologist who researches political violence. He presented a study on martyrdom and suicide attacks. For him, the goal is to understand what motivates the attacks. Until this study, answers were based mainly on speculation. He was able to study fifteens subjects committed to perform suicide attacks. This group of suicide bombers was compared with a group of random subjects, and a group of non-suicide bombing subjects involved in the same organizations. Dr. Broshi explained that among the suicide bombers, the average age was 19.8, and all of them were single. They represented the three dominant Palestinian groups (PIJ, Hamas, and Fatah) equally. They weren’t highly educated: only half had a full high school education. Dr. Broshi explains that for this study, he conducted semi-structured interviews to understand the dynamics of each person: how they deal with changes and crisis in their lives. After the semi-structured interviews, he administered a body of psychological tests. This research suggests that suicide bombers have a set of psychological factors in common. The whole Palestinian society has the same culture, but very few are moved to suicide. Dr. Broshi stressed that the group of suicide bombers doesn’t have psychopathology – instead, they have certain distinct characteristics and they can be exploited, manipulated and moved even without prior inclination for suicide.

Dr. Ilan Diamant
Dr. Ilan Diamant explained the main results of this research: a significant number of suicide bombers were very moved by social pressure and influence, and had weak self-esteem and low ego strength. Ego strength refers to a person’s ability to cope with internal and external pressure; the way a person adjusts to stress depends on self-control and a good sense of reality. He also assesses that some suicide bombers present characteristics of depression and suicidal thoughts. They also have an internalizing type of personality, and for this reason they aspire to hurt themselves, and not others. On the contrary, the two other studied groups – organization members and controllers – had an externalizing personality type, which refers to hurting the others rather than yourself. For Dr. Diamant, the main finding is that suicide bombers are very sensitive to social influence, especially social influence by those with the opposite personality type. 

Prof. Shuki Cohen
Prof. Shuki Cohen analyzed the last statements of suicide bombers, comparing them to last statements of non-suicide terrorists. There is a custom in Palestinian terrorism to write a note to family before the suicide mission, and these notes are then published. Prof. Cohen started with a database, and collected 170 suicide bombers’ letters from the Second Intifada. He compared the suicide bombers’ explanations and justifications for their acts with Hamas’ official statements. Prof. Cohen explained that most of the suicide bombers were very concerned by social issues and with reaching paradise, not just for personal gain but also for their families. He found that commitment to politics wasn’t highly represented in the suicide bombers’ letters, even though Hamas officially claimed that these attacks were part of a political conflict. Prof. Cohen found similar language in a large variety of suicide letters: “jihad, effort, paradise.” He also explained that there were major differences between the letters, and there were references to personal and intimate detail about children and family in them. For Prof. Cohen, this demonstrates that the letters really came from the suicide bombers themselves, and were not issued by the organizations.

Mr. Brian Jenkins
Mr. Brian Jenkins explained that the concept of deterrence itself has many origins. If someone commits a crime, he will face a punishment, which creates general deterrence. In the same way, the idea of nuclear deterrence is that if the adversary uses nuclear weapons, there will be retaliation and destruction. International efforts to combat terrorism shifted from using the criminal justice system to employing warfare against terrorist groups. Many believe that it’s not possible to deter terrorists, Mr. Jenkins disagrees; he believes that deterrence is possible because all the people involved in a terrorist organization do not have the same mindset. There are terrorists who care about a territory or a population; they want to succeed as an organization, and for this reason deterrence can work on them. Mr. Jenkins assessed that the concept of deterrence must be broadened because even in terrorism, actors can be deterred. He also hypothesizes that there is a different sort of deterrence for terrorist organizations that control territory, but for him, history shows a mixed record, and it is thus difficult to assess the effectiveness of different forms of deterrence.

Dr. Reuvan Gal
Dr. Reuvan Gal explains that there is a crucial difference between the general definition of resilience, and national or social resilience. He studied the resilience of Israeli society during the Second Intifada. The Al-Aqsa Intifada was characterized by frequent attacks. The total number of deaths during that period was 1100, and most of the casualties in Israeli society were civilians. Dr. Gal found that the first meter of change in the habits of Israeli society during this period was the number of calls to hotlines, which increased steadily. Regarding activities like going to the cinema and the theater, in general, people stayed at home for a few days after an attack, and then went back to their regular patterns. Dr. Gal also conducted surveys in 2003, and found that people still felt the same level of well being even during the intifada. He also asked if people considered leaving Israel; in the beginning, there was a slight decrease in the general willingness to stay, but then this readjusted to the same level as before the intifada. When doing more focused research, he found that teens were more positive than adults, and women were more negative than men. According to Dr. Gal’s research, Israeli public behavior was adaptive and adjusted itself during the Second Intifada. Israelis reacted immediately to any harsh event, but then returned to their life routines. He thinks that some societies can be more resilient than individuals. Many individuals were quite distressed, but society in general acted regularly. He concludes by wondering if the leadership in a state can affect the resilience of the state or society.

Prof. Aaron Hoffman
For Prof. Aaron Hoffman, the basic problem is that fear is a major issue for governments when dealing with terrorism. The consequences of being afraid of terrorism are often worse than the direct effects of terrorism itself. Economically, countries affected by terrorism have major issues with tourism. He assesses that increased exposure to terrorism increases fear. Prof. Hoffman thinks that terrorism is a communication to increase fear: it combines a threat designed to make people afraid with a proposal of how to make them safer, i.e. we will bomb you until you concede territory. It pushes governments into a competition for control of this danger – they need to have a proposal for managing the threat better than the one the terrorists offer. For Prof. Hoffman, governments need to issues danger control proposals that people buy. If the government response is effective, there will be an adaptive response in society. If it’s inefficient, there will be maladaptive behavior. Prof. Hoffman uses the example of a study were people were shown videos of bus bombings in Israel and of an IDF operation. Those who saw the IDF video had their confidence in the Israeli government increase, and they would more likely travel to Israel. It means that governments can manage fear of terror. Prof. Hoffman adds that the IDF’s twitter account is an effective way for the government to communicate with people about security.