Are Terrorists, By Definition, Psychotic?

Ronald W. Pies, MD


December 16, 2015

An Existential Big Mac

What about young Westerners who make their way into the fold of ISIS? Although there is little systematic research on the psychological make-up of these young people, a recent piece in Psychiatric Times[3] sheds some light. Dr Omar Sultan Haque and colleagues pose the question: "What could possibly compel otherwise financially stable young Westerners (non-Muslim as well as Muslim) to leave their families, friends, and home culture, and take up an uncertain future by joining a terrorist organization like ISIS?"

These authors discount poverty and religion as major factors, noting that the vast majority of the West's 50 million Muslims do not join terrorist groups. Indeed, they write, "Even among those with radical Islamic beliefs, only a very few act on those beliefs and join a terrorist organization." No—the problem is psychological, though not one of mental illness. Haque and colleagues[3] conclude that, "ISIS provides existential fast food, and for some of the most spiritually hungry young Westerners, ISIS is like a Big Mac amidst a barren wasteland of an existence...Who actually joins ISIS? Not psychopaths or the brainwashed, but rather everyday young people in social transition, on the margins of society, or amidst a crisis of identity."

To be clear: Understanding the mentality of these young people in no way excuses or condones their outrageous behavior. But understanding their mindset opens up avenues for preventive intervention—at least in theory. If we could identify such spiritually dispossessed young people early on, before they are actively targeted and recruited by radical groups, we might be able to alter the path of their behavior. Unfortunately, as a recent Washington Post piece[4] by Greg Miller and Souad Mekhennet explained, the so-called Islamic State runs a formidable and effective "propaganda machine" that has proved difficult to counteract. Miller and Mekhennet describe a "whole army of media personnel" who produce seductively toxic videos that reach a global audience. So far, a US State Department program to counteract the ISIS propaganda has apparently had very limited success—perhaps because it has used the sort of violent images ISIS itself has mastered.

Nonetheless, if the United States and its allies are to stem the flow of vulnerable young people into the arms of ISIS, we will need to do more than launch police raids or drone attacks. The West will need to find ways of challenging and countering the belief system of those who are drawn to religiously rationalized extremism. In addition, parents, teachers, and community leaders must then intervene with young Westerners who are showing early signs of radicalization.

Recently, Alex P. Schmid—a research fellow at the International Counter-Terrorism Centre in the Hague—has developed a detailed "counternarrative" to that of ISIS and other violent extremists.[5] Schmid identifies a dozen narrative themes of ISIS and offers a counterargument to each one; for example, Schmid invokes the orthodox Islamic belief that "it is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent." I believe that Western authorities need to embrace such a countermessage and ensure that it is disseminated as widely as possible, using all available technologies. Moreover, as Schmid notes, "It is vital that Muslim scholars are involved in all phases of developing such counternarratives" and that the countermessages are tested out with appropriate audiences. Only through such educational efforts do we stand a chance of reaching the spiritually starving young people who now look to ISIS for "fast food."


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