An article on What makes a terrorist? written by Mr. Faiz Sobhan, Research Director, BEI was published in The Daily Star on 22 August 2016


What drives a young person, who is well-educated and from an affluent family, to become a terrorist, or what terrorism experts refer to as the ‘flash-to-bang’ cycle? The answer to such a question is the Holy Grail for academics, psychologists, experts and counter-terrorism officials worldwide.

What made Nibras Islam, one of the terrorists of the Holey Artisan Café attack, turn into a bloodthirsty violent extremist? What made Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, a well-educated Chemistry major graduate, forgo the comforts of a first world city such as Windsor, Ontario, and decide to join the ranks of a terrorist group? The answers to such questions are neither simple nor easy to comprehend.

Psychologists and researchers of violent extremism and terrorism have been wrestling for years with the question of identifying the triggering factors which lead to the radicalisation of thousands of young men and women.

For many years, it was assumed that the main causes of radicalisation were political marginalisation, economic disadvantage or religious indoctrination. However, these theories have proved untrue. Rather, radicalisation can be explained more as a sociological event that pushes individuals to search for an identity and attachment to a particular group.

Young men and women often feel uncertain about their identity, or at least parts of it. In the transition period from adolescence to adulthood, young people often feel confused about their identity and their relationship to their place in society and the world at large. Such individuals are often drawn to identify with a particular group – one that aids bonding through shared attitudes, feelings, and behaviour and gives them a sense of belonging.

Researchers who have had the opportunity to speak to terrorists have helped to answer, at least partially, the reasons that people join terrorist groups.

According to John Horgan, Professor at the Global Studies Institute and Department of Psychology, at Georgia State University, among the reasons people are more open to terrorist radicalisation are feelings of anger, alienation or disenfranchisement, or the belief that joining a terrorist group offers adventure, camaraderie and a sense of identity.

Arie Kruglanski, a well-known psychology professor, explained that thousands of young people join a group like the Islamic State because it appeals to two powerful human needs: the desire for certainty, structure, and coherence, along with the need to attain meaning and significance in one’s life.

On the other hand, anthropologist Scott Atran, believes ordinary people whose involvement in terrorism can be attributed to peer pressure and a desire to be part of an “in group”.

A number of research studies, therefore, point to the fact that the process of becoming involved with terrorism is very much a socially-centred phenomenon, which includes comradeship, a sense of belonging and rallying around a common cause.

Ultimately, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States, a number of explanations have been offered as causes of global terrorism. This stems from the fact that that academics and researchers want to find some clarity in their discipline: orientalists want it to be about Islam, economists want terrorism to be about poverty, while political scientists want it to be about autocratic regimes.

In essence, the motivating factor for terrorism, and in particular Islamist terrorism, has to be deduced from top-quality research that applies rigorous methodology and produces more solid empirical data. A good example of such research was undertaken by Quantum Communications, based in Lebanon, in 2015.

Quantum’s report analysed the personal testimonies of 49 ISIS members and categorised them into 9 types of “seekers”:

1. Status seekers: Intent on improving “their social standing” these people are driven primarily by money “and a certain recognition by others around them.”

2. Identity seekers: Prone to feeling isolated or alienated, these individuals “often feel like outsiders in their initial unfamiliar/unintelligible environment and seek to identify with another group.” Islam, for many of these provides “a pre-packaged transnational identity.”

3. Revenge seekers: They consider themselves part of a group that is being repressed by the West or someone else.

4. Redemption seekers: They joined ISIS because they believe it vindicates them, or ameliorates previous sinfulness.

5. Responsibility seekers: Basically, people who have joined or support ISIS because it provides some material or financial support for their family.

6. Thrill seekers: Joined ISIS for adventure.

7. Ideology seekers: These want to impose their view of Islam on others.

8. Justice seekers: They respond to what they perceive as injustice. “The justice seekers’ ‘raison d’être’ ceases to exist once the perceived injustice stops,” the report says.

9. Death seekers: These people “have most probably suffered from a significant trauma/loss in their lives and consider death as the only way out with a reputation of martyr instead of someone who has committed suicide.”

If we look at the Holey Artisan Café’s attackers, it can be argued that they were a combination of ideology, identity and justice seekers. Possibly some of them had personal grievances and were dissatisfied with the political system. According to one of the café’s hostages on the night of the attack, Nibras Islam railed against democracy and was quoted as saying, “You never cast vote in any election. This is haram.” Shazad Rouf Orko, one of the extremists killed in the Kallyanpur raid by police, said, “You support democracy… that is why I am happy to call my family all murtads… all kafirs [atheists].”

The process of radicalisation is certainly complex but as more scholarly research is undertaken, more light will be shed on those core factors, whether ideological, social, economic or psychological, which drives someone to become a terrorist. Understanding such motivations is crucial in helping everyone from sociologists to counter-terrorism officials to prevent the process of radicalisation leading to violent extremism.