Understanding the Psychology of Terrorism
By Mary Friedberg
Professor of Psychology Clark R. McCauley is working on a book that will challenge many of the common assumptions people have about terrorism.
For openers, McCauley believes that bioterrorism is not as dire a threat as some governments think. He also cites research showing that most terrorists are neither crazy nor suicidal. And he claims that the way nations respond to terrorism may be more dangerous than the threats posed by extremists.
McCauley, an acknowledged expert on terrorist psychology, is taking a sabbatical in June to write the book, which will integrate his previous publications on terrorism, along with updated research. The book, Jujitsu Politics: Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism, is aimed at policymakers, journalists and the public and will tackle some of the most pressing questions about terrorism — why people become terrorists, what terrorists want and how governments should respond to terrorism.
McCauley began studying the psychology of terrorism in the 1980s, while he was a consultant for the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, N.Y., which sponsors scholarly research on problems of violence and aggression.
“I thought the psychological side of the grant proposals was very underdeveloped, and the psychiatric side very overdeveloped,” McCauley says. “Much of the research in those days focused on finding character defects or flaws that made it possible for individuals to do the terrible things that terrorists do.”
Since then, research has found that terrorists are neither crazy nor suicidal. “The vast majority — 90-plus percent — of all terrorists are perfectly normal, psychologically speaking,” McCauley says.
Normal people may be recruited to terrorism when they perceive a threat to a group they deeply care about, McCauley says. Terrorists are willing to hurt or even kill innocent people because they believe their cause justifies violence — and because they become caught up in intense small-group dynamics, in which their fear of letting down their comrades is greater than their fear of dying, he adds.
What Terrorists Want
The motivations and behavior of terrorists and the state’s response to extremism are “a dynamic system that can only be understood by looking at both together,” McCauley says.
To explain this perspective, McCauley describes a terrorist group as the apex of a pyramid. The pyramid’s base is composed of everyone who agrees with the terrorists’ goals, even those who disagree with the violent means advocated by extremists. In between are smaller numbers of supporters with increasing levels of commitment to the cause. The terrorist group depends on the pyramid to provide cover, support and recruits.
By committing acts of violence, terrorists hope to provoke a violent response from the state against some of those the terrorists claim to represent, thereby expanding the terrorists’ support base, increasing the number of recruits and building sympathy for their cause. McCauley calls this strategy “jujitsu politics” because it uses the state’s superior strength against itself.
Although some policymakers believe that bioterrorism is a major international threat, McCauley disagrees. “Terrorists don’t have the technical capacity for sophisticated bioweapons. For them, bioweapons are new, untested and could easily go wrong.” Extremist groups usually favor low-tech tactics, such as bomb and gun attacks. “It’s the very opposite of what governments tell us — that we ought to be worried about weapons of mass destruction. Terrorists tend to prefer straightforward, known and reliable kinds of techniques and technology.”
How to Respond
The best way for states to deal with terrorism is by nonviolent means — a “no-response response,” McCauley says. “States should prosecute terrorism in the criminal court system, and avoid confronting terrorists with military force. What terrorists cannot stand is to see that they have made no impact.”
A nonviolent state response should reduce the flow of new sympathizers and extremists, cutting terrorists off from their base of support. Without supporters, the terrorist group will become less of a threat and eventually disband, McCauley maintains.
In his book, McCauley plans to focus on two cases in which extremist groups — the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) and the Egyptian Islamic Group — gave up terrorism when their pyramid of supporters and sympathizers turned against them.
ASALA, a militant Marxist-Leninist terrorist group, was formed in 1975 to force the Turkish government to acknowledge its role in the Armenian genocide of 1915. The group conducted several terrorist attacks, including the 1983 bombing of the Turkish airline counter at Orly Airport, Paris, killing eight people and wounding 55. Following the Orly attack, internal disputes over terrorist tactics contributed to ASALA’s decline.
The Egyptian Islamic Group launched a terrorism campaign in 1992, in an attempt to overthrow the Egyptian government and establish an Islamic republic. In 1997, group members killed 58 tourists and injured 20 at an ancient temple in Luxor, in southern Egypt. Public outrage eroded popular support for the group, which halted terrorist operations in 1999.
“What we need to know is how to make that happen,” McCauley says. While the scourge of terrorism is unlikely to be eradicated — it has been used as a weapon in the struggle of the weak against the strong for thousands of years — it can be effectively contained. “Terrorism is a tactic that cannot be eliminated; the appropriate response to terrorism should be seen as a coping strategy, not a cure.”
McCauley brings a broad perspective to his work. After a peripatetic boyhood as an “Army brat” son of an officer father, McCauley earned a B.S. degree in biology from Providence College, R.I., and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. He joined Bryn Mawr in 1970. Since 1998, McCauley has been co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Penn. He currently chairs a subcommittee on ethnopolitical violence of the International Association of Applied Psychology and is co-authoring a book on genocide.
In addition to his work on terrorism, McCauley is evaluating peace education interventions and researching the role that emotions play in intergroup conflict and violence. He also assists his wife, Lisa Marie Beck ’86, a social psychologist who is studying the relationship between people and pets.
Mary Friedberg writes on science and technology as well as business topics for a variety of publications. She is former business editor of The Kentucky Post.