New State Department Journal Explores Terrorist Psychology

By Howard Cincotta
USINFO Special Correspondent

Washington – The psychological worlds of modern terrorist groups like al-Qaida are complex, and members rarely operate out of a single political motive. Most often, such terrorist organizations seek to instill far-reaching fear and intimidation throughout a society, according to the terrorism experts and analysts whose articles appear in the latest edition of eJournal USA, an online publication series of the State Department.

"It is only by understanding the terrorist mentality that civil societies can hope to counter terrorist tactics effectively," the editors of Countering the Terrorist Mentality conclude.

In an opening interview, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a journalist and documentary film producer, describes the devastating impact of terrorism on Afghan children.

"When a generation grows up under this kind of violence and fear," Obaid-Chinoy observes, "it is deprived of an education and knowledge of its true culture."

In "A Form of Psychological Warfare," terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman points out that all terrorists - left-wing or right-wing, secular or religious in background - seek to inculcate fear and destroy normal daily life by threatening personal safety and unraveling the social fabric of trust on which society relies.

Psychiatrist and author Jerrold Post analyzes the importance of group or collective identity in developing a cult of martyrdom in terrorist organizations.

Mia Bloom, professor of international relations at the University of Georgia, examines the complex, changing role of women as victims of terrorism as well as perpetrators of terrorist acts.

In a brief history of terrorism, noted scholar Walter Laquer points out that terrorism is as old as recorded human history. Acts of targeted political terrorism proliferated in Europe in the 19th century, Laquer writes, but experts date the modern era of indiscriminate terrorism from the 1970s and the advent of extreme left-wing groups like the Red Brigades in Italy.

There is no consistent profile with which to identify potential terrorist recruits, warns John Horgan of St. Andrews University in Scotland, whose book, Walking Away from Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements, will be published in 2008.

Although terrorist acts can have large-scale consequences, according to Horgan, terrorism remains essentially a "low-level, low-volume activity" largely perpetrated by individuals.

In "Mass-Media Theater," Gabriel Weimann, professor of communications at Haifa University in Israel, compares terrorism to a theatrical production in which the terrorists' principal motive is to publicize themselves as well as their grievances and causes.

Weimann and other authors stress the growing importance of the Internet as a medium for terrorists to spread their messages of hate and violence and communicate with each other.

Mohammed M. Hafez, author of Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom, provides a case study of the "narratives" that terrorists create to recruit suicide bombers in Iraq.

Act 1 depicted the humiliation and suffering of Muslims by outsiders, he writes. Act 2 criticizes existing Muslim and Arab governments as failures, and Act 3 claims the inevitability of radical Muslim victory through martyrdom.

David Kilcullen, Australian counterinsurgency adviser to coalition forces in Iraq, calls for a new set of overarching concepts as an essential step in forging a long-term strategy for successfully defeating global terrorism.

The final article, an excerpt from the State Department's 2006 terrorism report, concludes that governments succeed in defeating terrorism when they "cooperate, build trusted networks, seek active informed support from their people, provide responsive, effective, and legitimate governance, and engage closely with the international community."

The journal also offers a video feature, "Terrorism, War Without Borders," along with an extensive bibliography and listing of Internet resources.

The full text of Countering the Terrorist Mentality is now available in English in HTML and PDF (4.0MB) formats. Language versions, including French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian, will be available shortly.