Inside the mind of a terrorist
September 29, 2004
By Professor Raj Persaud, BBC News

Terrorism cannot be dismissed as the work of psychotic individuals, says Professor Raj Persaud. Here, in a personal point of view which forms the basis of a free public lecture, the clinical psychiatrist says we need to understand the mind-control tactics which can lead people to commit vile acts.

While we await the fate of Ken Bigley, held hostage by gunmen in Iraq, we wrestle with the nature of death visited on his two American fellow hostages, each of whom was beheaded.

These horrors seem inconceivable to us - what kind of people commit such acts of barbarity?

The aim of terrorists is to cause widespread fear in order to oppose an enemy which is usually stronger militarily.

One obvious theory to explain the kind of behaviour committed against the American hostages is that it is the product of a non-rational, disturbed or psychotic mind.

This theory receives some support when you look into the psychology of people like Timothy McVeigh who blew up the Government Building in Oklahoma in 1995 killing almost 200 people.

McVeigh, who bombed the building in revenge for the FBI's Waco raid, thought the army had implanted a computer chip in his buttock to track his movements, according to reports.

There is little doubt McVeigh was suffering from such a severe disturbance of mind he might well be labelled mentally ill.

Yet McVeigh is the exception that proves the rule - such attacks are mostly planned by a group beforehand and McVeigh acted practically alone.

Large scale terror acts, such as that on September 11th, are mostly a group activity and therefore ideas and forms of thinking are shared between group members, which normally precludes the kind of mental illness that McVeigh probably suffered from.

Most severely mentally ill people become isolated precisely because their beliefs are so strange, caused as they probably are by disturbed brain biochemistry, that no-one else can comprehend them or talk to them.

Yet the influence of violent militants can garner sympathy and support among those in ordinary, hardworking communities.

So terrorism cannot simply be legitimately ascribed as arising out of individual, abnormal experience or psychology.

To explain terrorism you have to explain why millions of people endorse this extraordinary use of violence against unarmed combatants.

Many years ago in a letter to Freud, Einstein asked: "Why war?"

Freud responded in a 30-page letter which may be boiled down to his belief that human beings are endowed by nature with hostile, violent feelings that build up over time.

Although initially blocked by the restraints of civilization, the hostility eventually breaks through, leading to a grand catharsis, namely war.

According to the theory, equilibrium is then restored and the individual and society as a whole can continue to function.

War protest
Freud saw this catharsis as a good thing because he assumed it was necessary for the human race to have a periodic bloodbath to maintain its sanity.

Against the Freudian view that we are all deep down homicidal maniacs just waiting to be stoked up and let loose to cause wanton destruction is the opposing evidence that actually the vast majority of us suffer from strong compunctions against violence.

For example it was discovered in the 1950s that many American soldiers were not firing their guns during the Korean War.

In response, the American military conditioned recruits in the Vietnam war to kill by training them to shoot repeatedly at targets of the enemy.

They went through many exercises of shooting these targets until it became second nature, like a reflex.

The repeated practice bypassed their natural inhibitions against killing.

The frightening point here is that many ordinary people in the right circumstances can be surprisingly influenced, given the right conditions and techniques, into violence, though they may not have been violent to begin with.

At the heart of terrorism is the motivation to terrorise or induce fear into a population and by this means achieve the aims of opposing an enemy of often superior conventional military force.

The cold blooded way in which terrorists go about their aims suggests they are not mad, but instead extremely cold and calculating.

In dismissing them as "psychotic" there is a danger we underestimate the intelligence of the enemy.

Suicide 'taught'
Much psychological research reveals the ease with which ordinary people can be recruited to engage in harmful acts against others.

In one classic study by Stanley Milgram, the majority of ordinary American citizens who participated in it blindly obeyed an authority figure and administered what they believed were painful, even lethal shocks to a stranger.

We know that a cult leader, Jim Jones, reverend of San Francisco's People's Temple, was able to "program" his followers to commit suicide, or to kill one another on his command; more than 900 American citizens did so in the jungles of Guyana.

Research by John Steiner (an Auschwitz survivor) indicates that most Nazi concentration camp guards were "ordinary men" before and following their years of perpetrating evil.

Many more examples could be culled to illustrate reasons why we should not see terrorists as an alien breed.

The sources of frustration and anger which drive people to do this need to be acknowledged.

But we should focus on a better understanding of the mind-control tactics and strategies that might make even good people engage in evil deeds at some time in their lives, and that might recruit new generations of impoverished young people into lives of terrorism.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospitals and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry.