Terrorism: How Normal People are Persuaded to Commit Atrocities

February 11, 2018

Unfortunately, terrorist attacks are appearing in the news and in the press much more than we would like them to. In fact, because they happen so often we have become somewhat desensitized to them. The consequences: misinformation and a decrease in interest. However, terrorism is not a phenomenon that the security forces and the leaders of the biggest nations can fight. Terrorism is a daily fight that begins with how we treat our neighbors.

Terrorism: Who is behind it?

Terrorism is a worrying phenomenon. What was once rare has now become common, and common things always seem less serious.

The combination of not enough information together with shocking images has become a phenomenon that in general people consider to be something far removed from the West.

While there are people who have experienced it face to face, many of the people who walk daily through the Western world streets have never thought that it could touch their lives. They never consider it a threat, and it doesn’t scare them. Their only reaction is one of compassion for the “distant victims”.

This supposed remoteness, together with the misinformation of the news, turn terrorism into a phenomenon for the marginalized, poor and immigrants.

Boy spying through hole

But is this really the case? If we take Europe as an example, most terrorists are neither poor, nor socially marginalized, nor immigrants. The majority are middle class people, who have seemingly adapted well to their new countries. They are mostly nationals of the country where they live and where they attack their innocent victims. This can be scary – a terrorist is not so different from us if we analyse them from the outside.

This statement brings us to an important question: how do terrorists get these people to join them? The answer lies in gathering and recruitment. Although on the news we usually hear of people planning and executing attacks on their own, the reality is that behind those people there are others who are manipulating them.

Terrorism – how recruitment takes place

Initially, the terrorist organizations’ captors select the people that seem more likely candidates for recruitment. These people are usually going through a bad time. Some may have ended up in prison, others are living in a strange country. Some may have split from their partner, and others may be suffering the stress of not living up to family expectations. Whatever the case, we’re talking about people who were living normal lives, until something happened to isolate them and that’s when recruitment takes place.

In short, recruiters look for vulnerable people who harbor resentment for the conditions which are guiding their lives at that time.

Recruiters will then approach these people and, at first, will provide support for them. They will delve into their pain and the reasons for it. People who are going through a bad time usually have a lack of control. Stressful events happen without them being able to do anything to avoid them, and so this feeling increases. Recruiters harness that feeling of lack of control, then they give them a way out of their impossible situation.

Terrorism and marginalization

The feeling of being marginalized, along with a lack of control will affect the physical immune and psychological systems of these people. Their defenses on both levels are low, and so the feeling of danger and anguish will be greater every time. The person will feel weak and helpless.

This situation is known as aversion. If a person remains in this situation for a long period of time he will end up suffering physical, cognitive and emotional disorders. These conditions will make the person more susceptible, and they will be more likely to trust the recruiters.

Change of identity

In this situation, it is quite normal for a person loses confidence in themselves on seeing that they cannot control the situation. The other consequence is the loss of personal identity. We are talking about a person who loses contact with reality and isolates themselves socially. They are a person who lacks the motivation to strive towards personal achievements and is, therefore, very easy to persuade.

While these processes are happening, this person will experience strong proactive negative emotions, such as hatred, anger, doubt and aversion. They will also experience other more passive negative emotions such as humiliation, fear, and frustration.

Hands breaking free

In addition to these processes, recruiters give these people something to live for. They will offer them an identity as a member of a group, prestige, and social support. They will give simple and rigid rules to live by. And, at the same time, they will imprint an ideology into them that will justify violence against those who are marginalizing them.

The capture of future terrorists

The picture we have is of an ineffective person with a negative attitude. They aren’t focused, and are frustrated, irritable, and aggressive. The consequence is that we can think that our ills are caused by the social environment that surrounds us, and by the people who are part of it. Recruiters can take advantage of this situation in favor of their mission. The captors and recruiters benefit from bad times that anyone can go through. They exploit this situation to leave the person without any psychological or social resources.

Once they know someone has no way to defend themselves, they offer them a way out of their situation. They give them the chance to take revenge against those who have marginalized them. They offer them a chance to start over again, and they forgive them for all their mistakes.

Prevention, therefore, begins in the immediate environment. As we have seen, having social support and  psychological resources available can avoid major problems in the future.