The last two decades have seen a terrifying rise of terrorism, that have inevitably and irreversibly threatened our collective peace of mind. Even before the most recent Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels attacks, fears of domestic attacks by Islamic extremists have spiked. They are up by 38 percentage points since 2011 in France, 21 points in the U.K. and 17 points in the U.S., according to a survey released by the Pew Research Center last summer.
Faced with such unexplainable cruelty, many people are left to wonder what can possibly be going through a terrorist’s mind while planning and carrying out an attack. So what can psychology tell us about the mind of a suicide bomber? What makes someone a fanatic in the first place? Several psychologists share valuable insight into this matter from recent studies, classical research and professional experience.
Social psychologists Stephen D. Reicher and S. Alexander Haslam make the case that most terrorists are not psychopaths or sadists, much as they are often portrayed so by the media. The majority of them in fact are ordinary people, driven by group dynamics to do harm in the name of a cause they find noble and just. Reicher and Haslam explain that the same group dynamics involve all of us: our overreaction and fear, can beget greater extremism, thereby fueling a cycle other scholars have termed “co-radicalization.”
French anthropologist Dounia Bouzar describes what she has learned from “deprogramming” hundreds of young people caught up in this cycle. She notes that only the pull of emotion, not reason, can bring teens back from the call to jihad. She also emphasizes that parents should talk to their children about the shadow world on the Internet — a massive recruitment arena in both Western Europe and the U.S.
Finally, social psychologists Kevin Dutton and Dominic Abrams consider how we can all help break the cycle of co-radicalization. They suggest repairing the mutual distrust by celebrating broader social identities — much as President Barack Obama did so powerfully in his address to Muslim Americans at a mosque this past February. Instead of listening to “polemical pundits and belligerent blowhards,” Dutton and Abrams write, we all need a brain check: keep calm and “tune in to the quieter, more discerning notes emanating from some of our laboratories.”