What can psychological research tell us about why some people turn to violent extremism?by Michael Bond / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
The question about 7/7 that Shiv Malik’s excellent article fails to answer is this: why did Mohammad Sidique Khan and his three co-conspirators choose the path of the suicide bomber when others, with similarly radical beliefs, have not?
This question troubles many who look into the psychology of extreme acts. One completely unsatisfactory answer is that violent extremists are insane, disturbed or inherently bad. It’s unsatisfactory because the vast majority of suicide bombers, the 7/7 four included, show no sign of mental illness and have no criminal history. They are often better educated than their peers and hold respectable jobs—much has been made of Khan’s work as a youth worker.
There are two other ways of answering the question. The first makes many people uncomfortable. It is to say that the question itself is a distraction since anyone in the same situation would act in the same way. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that given the right set of circumstances, almost everyone, irrespective of personality or background, will behave in a group in ways they never would when alone. In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo famously showed how easy it is to turn ordinary people into monsters. He recruited students to imitate prison guards and inmates, and put them together in a mocked-up prison at Stanford University to observe their behaviour. The experiment was aborted after six days because the “guards” had pushed many of the “prisoners” to emotional breakdown.
Since then, many other experiments and real-life observations have reinforced the conclusion that in a group environment—a football crowd, a battlefield, a rioting mob—a person’s behaviour is dictated far more by what is happening around them than by their own psychological disposition. It seems we have evolved to encourage group cohesion and co-operation. Suicide bombing is a classic—though extreme—example. There is virtually no recorded case of a suicide bomber acting alone. The bomber is always recruited and guided by a group with specific political or ideological aims, and the bombers tend to adopt a brotherhood mentality towards each other, encouraged by their common cause, their loyalty to the group and the secrecy of their mission. To use a battlefield metaphor (and the mentality is not so different), they go over the top together.
In this regard, Khan and the other 7/7 bombers shared many similarities to the “martyrs” of Hamas, the Tamil Tigers and Iraqi resistance groups, the three leading perpetrators worldwide of suicide bombing. They were wedded to a cause, in this case a fundamentalist belief in the use of violence as a way of promoting Islam. Three of them—Khan, Shehzad Tanweer and Hasib Hussain—were close friends or associates (their association with the fourth bomber, Jermaine Lindsay, is less clear, though Khan was apparently in regular contact with him); and they were acting under the influence of an Islamic network that provided at least some of them with training. One of Malik’s most important revelations is the rivalry between the various Muslim movements. In the Palestinian territories and in Sri Lanka, the decision to use suicide bombing is usually a tactical one by a group seeking to outdo its rivals in pursuit of a common cause.
Thus Khan’s radicalisation followed a familiar pattern—although there are plenty of gaps in his story, such as the extent of his attachment to the wider jihadist network that sanctioned his “martyrdom.” And this leads to the other way of answering the question, “why them?”, which is to ask whether someone with a different personality to Khan though similar background and sympathies would have acted the same way. Psychologists such as Zimbardo say we are conditioned to look for answers in an individual’s psychology, when in fact we should see the context as far more important. Yet lately Zimbardo has been researching the “heroes” who he says have managed to pull back from a situation that others would succumb to (such as the American army reservist who raised the alarm over Abu Ghraib). There is no scientific evidence so far that certain sorts of individuals may be more easily persuaded into extreme action than others, though some experts have implied as much. Ariel Merari at Tel Aviv University, perhaps the foremost expert on the psychology of suicide bombers, suggests that bombers may be more open to influence by social forces and fearful of alienation. Rohan Gunaratna, who has interviewed many “failed” bombers, says such people are easy to interrogate because they have a narrow mindset; when they see that their worldview does not hold up to scrutiny, they easily break.
This is why the conflict of identity that Malik identifies among second-generation British Muslims—am I Pakistani, am I British, what kind of Muslim am I?—should be taken seriously. You can see how suggestible young men struggling to fit into mainstream society might find it on the extreme fringe. The difficulty is that suggestibility often makes for other highly admirable personality traits, such as empathy and kindness. It is hard to get our heads around the idea that someone who is great with children might, given the right (or wrong) situation, be more easily persuaded by extremists into killing (and being killed) for a cause. But that is the extraordinary lesson that we must take on board about the 7/7 bombers: that they were ordinary.