Speaking of Psychology: Getting into a terrorist’s mind
Figuring out what makes a terrorist tick is not easy, but law enforcement and counterterrorism officials have been turning to psychologists to try to do just that. Psychologist John Horgan, PhD, has spoken face-to-face with former members of violent extremist organizations in an effort to understand how and why people become involved in terrorism as well as why some eventually turn away from such extremism.
About the expert: John Horgan, PhD
Audrey Hamilton: Figuring out what makes a terrorist tick is not easy and law enforcement and counterterrorism officials have been turning more and more to psychologists to try to do just that. In this episode, we talk with a psychologist who has spoken face-to-face with former members of violent extremist organizations in an effort to understand how and why people become involved in terrorism as well as why some choose to walk away.
John Horgan is professor of security studies at the school of criminology and justice studies at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, where he is also the director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies. His research focuses on terrorist behavior. He has more than 70 publications on terrorism and political violence. He’s interviewed hundreds of terrorists around the world. Welcome, Dr. Horgan.
John Horgan: Thank you for having me.
Audrey Hamilton: I guess the most common question is, are there certain characteristics or a profile of the type of person who is most likely to become a terrorist?
John Horgan: No, is the short answer. It hasn’t stopped us from looking for such a profile, but four decades of psychological research on who becomes a terrorist and why hasn’t yet produced any profile.
Audrey Hamilton: If there is no simple way to profile who might be a terrorist, how do you begin to understand and study terrorist behavior?
John Horgan: Very slowly and with a great deal of patience. We’ve discovered in recent years that it is possible for us to reach out to and identify individuals who have disengaged from terrorism. So, we can actually ask questions to people who were once involved in high profile terrorist activity. So we can conduct research. We can conduct research systematically and we can try to answer questions about who becomes involved in terrorism and why. I think it’s fair to say that we are at the very, very early stages in terms of developing a science of terrorist behavior. Psychology, as a discipline, hasn’t yet contributed very, very much to the study of terrorism. So, we’ve got a long, long way to go.
Audrey Hamilton: In the case of the Boston marathon bombings, was there anything about that attack that you thought was unique in terms of the psychological impact or the response? You know, just about the attackers themselves?
John Horgan: I think it’s fair to say that there are still quite a number of unanswered questions surrounding the Boston marathon bombings. Questions around the perpetrators; their likely motivations. I think what struck me as being particularly concerning in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings was the fact that our resilience seems to have taken a quite a substantial hit. This idea, that for example, that this kind of threat essentially posed an existential challenge to security, international security, in the United States, I think really contributed to the idea that this is very, very much something that was overblown, really. So, I think there are some pretty serious questions we’re going to have to ask about our ability to bounce back from these kinds of attacks. The more we learn about the nature of the attack, the more we learn about the preparations for it, the more we’re finding out that this attack, in all likelihood, couldn’t possibly have been prevented. And there was very, very little leakage. Very, very little initial signals that could have alerted people to what these individuals were all about. And that is a certain, it indicates at least to me a certain level of risk that we’re going to have to live with.
Audrey Hamilton: You’ve interviewed hundreds of terrorists. How forthcoming do you think they are in these interviews?
John Horgan: Surprisingly, they are forthcoming. I’ve interviewed about 150 terrorists since about 1995 and we know that approaches can be made. They tend to be cooperative. They tend to be facilitative. But, only in so far as they see us as academics as a possibly a tool for propaganda. There’s very often an agenda. Sometimes they want to use us to push a message out there. In some cases where we’ve been very, very fortunate to speak to disengaged terrorists, they are very willing to talk about their experiences because they want to say how they’ve changed. They want to say that – they want to be able to talk to us about why the dangers exist for young people becoming involved in terrorism nowadays. So, they want to talk to us.
Audrey Hamilton: How difficult, and you mentioned this, disengaging – how difficult is it for terrorists to disengage so to speak? Are there programs? How do they go about that?
John Horgan: Well, when we started this research a number of years ago, we began with the assumption that once a terrorist, always a terrorist. That once you’re in, you’re in. There really is no way out except in the words of one former terrorist “feet first.” That’s now not the case. We know that just as there is a steady stream of people who become involved in terrorism, there’s also a fairly steady and regular stream of people who disengage. It’s not as difficult as we would have once imagined for people to actually leave. And people leave for a gamut of reasons. There’s a variety of push and pull factors that contribute to that and this is what our current research is trying to uncover. We found, in particular, we found that disillusionment plays a very, very significant role in individuals’ decision, decisions rather, to want to leave behind terrorism.
Audrey Hamilton: Are there de-radicalization programs out there?
John Horgan: There certainly are many de-radicalization programs out there. We’ve started to see the emergence of these programs round about 2003-04 and now they’ve really proliferated. I spent a lot of time in Pakistan this year. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of time looking into these de-radicalization programs. Some are more effective than others. Some of the work we’re doing in Pakistan right now is about understanding how individuals who have been detained for terrorist offenses can effectively be rehabilitated and reintegrated back into the communities that they once claimed to act on behalf of.
Audrey Hamilton: Is there a way to identify potential terrorists and to prevent them from engaging in terrorism?
John Horgan: I think it’s becoming very, very difficult to identify potential terrorists. In recent years, we’ve had a very, a very emotional and a very, I suppose, engaging conversation about who becomes a terrorist and why. And that discussion has been rooted in this concept of radicalization. And one of the assumptions in that has been that people become radicalized, they get exposed to certain kinds of thoughts, certain kinds of ideas and that then somehow puts them at greater risk for involvement in terrorism. The more evidence we’re finding, particularly from first-hand interviews with former terrorists, is that logic may not necessarily hold in very, very many cases, as intuitive as it might seem. So, we’re finding right now that the initial concept of radicalization isn’t as helpful as we once thought and certainly, we need to go back to basics with respect to much of the research here. And this is where I implore more and more psychologists to step up and engage with the kinds of theories, the kinds of methodological frameworks that we have at our disposal to really cut beyond a lot of the otherwise very wooly thinking in this area.
Audrey Hamilton: Well, thank you Dr. Horgan. This has been very interesting. Thanks for joining us.
John Horgan: It’s my pleasure.
For more information and links to Horgan’s work with the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at UMass-Lowell, please visit our
website . Thank you for joining us. I’m Audrey Hamilton with the American Psychological Association’s “Speaking of Psychology. “
Episode 3: Getting into a terrorist’s mind
Save the MP3 file linked above to listen to it on your computer or mobile device.
Speaking of Psychology
Speaking of Psychology is an audio podcast series highlighting some of the latest, most important and relevant psychological research being conducted today.
Produced by the American Psychological Association, these podcasts will help listeners apply the science of psychology to their everyday lives.
Subscribe and download via iTunes
Subscribe via FeedBurner
Use FeedBurner to subscribe to this podcast series via email or through other Web-based services.
About the host: Audrey Hamilton
Audrey Hamilton has worked in APA's Office of Public Affairs since 2008. A former broadcast news reporter, she writes and produces "Speaking of Psychology." In addition, she handles media requests and writes press releases on research published in APA's scholarly journals as well as about the work APA does for its members and the discipline of psychology. She lives in Northern Virginia with her journalist husband and two young children.