It's hard to grasp what makes people engage in violent terror attacks.
What were the attackers thinking? Why would they go to such extremes?
While reasons and motives behind terrorism may vary and are often a mystery, many extremists who carry out these acts share underlying traits.
“These vulnerabilities apply across the board and are not just linked to Islamic terrorists, but to any kind of violent extremist,” Carol Rollie Flynn, a 30-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and a professor at Georgetown University, told Healthline.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reiterates her sentiment, reporting that the following makes people more prone to radicalization:
- feeling alone or lacking meaning and purpose in life
- being emotionally upset after a stressful event
- disagreeing with government policy
- not feeling valued or appreciated by society
- believing they have limited chances to succeed
- feeling hatred toward certain types of people
“People with these vulnerabilities are taken advantage of by recruiters in a classic intelligence recruitment approach,” Flynn said. “This is the way intelligence services recruit spies. They look for vulnerabilities in the person who needs more money, isn't happy, has a drinking or drug problem, or who is looking for a solution to their problems, a sense of personal significance or meaning in their life, or a connection to a new community.”
For groups like ISIS, Flynn noted that leaders encourage recruits to withdraw from family and friends.
“They counsel them not to be obvious about it, and over time, the group takes the place of their family and friends, and in a sense they become isolated from their community and loved ones,” she explained. “By doing this, the recruited individuals get their information and opinions from the radical group and are no longer in a position to hear the counter arguments to what [the group] is saying.”
The victim card
Many extremist groups thrive on righting what they perceive as a historic wrong.
“If you look at Palestinians, for instance, many feel like the Israelis have given them a bad deal. Or in a more historic example, the IRA in Northern Ireland felt that the U.K. had wronged them. In many cases, such as the IRA, when the historical reason for violent opposition goes away, the terrorist group goes away,” said Flynn.
Victimhood is a core ideology of white supremacists, who believe that “white men built this country,” and their birthright is constantly in the process of being taken away, explained Mitch Berbrier, PhD, dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, & Social Sciences, and professor of sociology at the University of Alabama.
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) most fears that whites are becoming a demographic minority and recruits based on this fear, he said.
“Victimhood is a powerful organizing strategy for all sorts of groups. As a result, a lot of public rhetoric involves what some sociologists have called ‘victim contests,’” Berbrier told Healthline. “However, the Klan’s rhetoric that whites are victims has little basis in empirical reality, and so it is difficult for them to win victim contests. Much of their argument devolves into classic conspiracy theories.”
Still, the victim approach is often successful at using fear to recruit KKK members and justifying their actions.
“Arguments claiming victimhood are designed to instill fear among whites,” Berbrier said. “One of the oldest claims among white supremacists in the USA has been that black crime is rampant, and particularly, black male on white female sex crimes. This is a very different kind of fear than the idea that your whiteness will lead to fewer jobs for you, or that a cabal of Jews is running the world,” Berbrier explained.
A shared sense of victimhood is often what bonds extremists like the KKK.
In fact, Flynn said the most common reason people become radicalized is because someone they know is.
Joining the cause with the known person gives them the sense of community or belonging they crave.
Then there’s the lone wolf
When a person conducts a violent act alone, their motives may be inspired by similar factors or different ones than those carried out by a group of extremists.
In 2016, Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies defined lone wolf terrorism as the following:
“The deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or threat of violence committed by a single actor who pursues political change linked to a formulated ideology, whether his own or that of a larger organization, and who does not receive orders, direction, or material support from outside sources.”
The task force also studied the phenomenon of the lone wolf and discovered the following related to that person’s actions:
- increased targeting of military and law enforcement personnel
- expanded use of social media and the internet for radicalization
- preferred use of firearms because of availability in the United States
- diminished affinity of lone wolf attackers for established terrorist groups
The task force also concluded that profiling is not an effective way to detect the lone wolf.
“If you look at lone wolves, no matter their ideology, it’s very difficult to profile them,” said Flynn. “Most are males in their 20s or 30s. Slight majority are unmarried. Many have had brushes with the law, sometimes minor, sometimes more serious. But the trouble with this profile is that a large percentage of the population fits this, so profiling doesn’t really work or help to identify potential lone wolves.”
Public health model may counter extremism
While the CIA and FBI are constantly working to stop and prevent terrorism, Flynn points to a unique approach for analyzing this problem — the public health model.
The model was originally designed to reduce risks or threats to health, such as heart disease, in the following ways:
Primary prevention aims to prevent disease or injury before it ever occurs through good diet, exercise, etc.
Secondary prevention aims to reduce the impact of a disease or injury that already exists, such as high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure.
Tertiary prevention aims to manage chronic illness or injury that has lasting effects, such as open-heart surgery.
A 2016 report by Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies applied the public health model as an approach to counter violent terrorism in the following ways:
Primary prevention uses education, health services, social engagement, cultural awareness, and personal development programs to address social grievances that can drive populations to violent extremism.
Secondary prevention utilizes intervention, community engagement, and counter messaging to stop radicalization among people identified as at-risk for violent extremism.
Tertiary prevention uses disengagement, de-radicalization, isolation, and redirection of people who are actively planning attacks or recruiting others to partake in violence.
“A big finding is that the underlying causes of violent extremism are very similar to the underlying causes for other social issues, such as drug abuse, alcoholism, gang activity, and criminality,” said Flynn. “The cure is really the same for everything that affects society, which is a good public health system, education, job training, and strong sense of community support.”