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The Psychology of Terrorist Involvement

The principal factor driving people to get involved in terrorism is a strong sense of injustice, both at a personal level and in respect of their society. An accompanying sense of alienation convinces them they’re no longer bound by social and moral norms. The absence of any hope for the future leaves them with a ‘nothing to lose’ mentality. These factors are driven almost totally by poor economic conditions. There can be no doubt that poverty and economic exclusion create a fertile breeding ground for terrorists.

In his work as an economic hit man, John Perkins met a lot of terrorists, but he’s “never met one who wanted to be a terrorist”. He adds: “They all want to be with their families back on the farm. They are driven to terrorism because they have lost the farm. It’s been inundated with water from a hydro-electric project, or with oil from oil derricks; their farm has been destroyed, they can’t make a living for their kids. Or, in the case of the Somali pirates, their fishing waters have been destroyed, and that’s why they have turned to this; it isn’t because they want to be pirates or terrorists.

People like Osama Bin Laden do not get a following unless there is a terrible injustice going on, and people are starving and deprived. Then they will follow these crazy people because they seem to offer an alternative. If we want to do away with terrorism, if we want to have what the United States calls homeland security, we have got to recognize that the whole planet is our homeland.”

Joining a terrorist group as a reaction to economic exclusion is an act of despair taken by people whose lives, in other circumstances, would take a quite different path. As Clark McCauley says, “Terrorism is the warfare of the weak, the recourse of those desperate for a cause that cannot win by conventional means.” Once new recruits commit to the terrorist cause they become part of a group dynamic that goes some way to compensating for what is missing in their lives. They get a sense of belonging, often coming under the spell of a charismatic leader, perhaps one who provides them with structure and protection. They finally find meaning in their lives, but at an unacceptable and entirely avoidable cost.

But if poverty and the prospect of lifelong economic exclusion are major contributory factors in people joining terrorist groups, why isn’t everyone from a poor country heading to training camps in remote parts of Afghanistan? The simple answer is that people react differently when faced with adversity. Some are more likely to embrace violence than others. Personality type is a function of a complex combination of genes and environment. Thankfully, relatively small numbers are driven to involvement in terrorism. But the only way to prevent increasing numbers choosing the wrong path is to improve their life chances. It is economic circumstances that combine with innate tendencies in certain individuals which cause them to choose the path of violence.

-Excerpt from Four Horsemen: The Survival Manual.

Watch Noam Chomsky on terrorism here.

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