Profiling A Terrorist: Defining How We Look At Terrorism

January 9, 2013

People that live in the West have created stereotypes for terrorists. While profiling those who could become a terrorist can be beneficial and even save lives, creating iconic clichés can lead to misinformation and dangerous assumptions.

Rome Burning

Misinformation about terrorism has become popular, in part, because people crave a simple answer for the reasons why a heinous crime has been committed. The truth is that terrorism has been used by many groups and organizations throughout history as a tactic to influence populations. Terrorism has never been an isolated problem, and it has never been limited to a single religion or ideology.

Talal Asad, Robert Pape, Alan Krueger, and Mark Juergensmeyer are just some of the academics that have been theorizing about terrorism post 9-11. Their work and the work of others like them is incredibly important if we are going to correctly comprehend the motives and actions of terrorist groups. 

Terrorists have to commit themselves to a cause in order to be galvanized into action, and individuals associated with terrorism tend to experience a progressive radicalization.Terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda have a command structure of well educated operatives who often take a complicated worldview for their causes, and al-Qaeda is not the only group like this.

If one looks systematically across a number of terrorist organizations and at various incidents of terrorism, patterns begin to emerge. It can be argued that those who become involved in terrorist organizations are often from middle class backgrounds with a high amount of education relative to the society that they come from. The vast majority of Palestinian suicide bombers have been college students, for example.

Education can be an important mechanism for radicalization as it is an amplifier for the adoption of views, and for a confidence in the assuredness of those views. Furthermore, research has found that terrorist organizations typically send better educated individuals on the more important missions, because the better educated tend to have better odds at succeeding to carry out an attack. The most common occupation for a terrorist in an engineer. 

There are many instances where groups like the Taliban have recruited uneducated youths and indoctrinated them with an extreme ideology (religio-political) to incite and encourage them; however, data on failed terrorist attacks show that often terrorists are extremely educated people who are just as likely to cite nationalistic, economic, and civil inducements as they are to espouse religious ones.

Terrorists who do identify primarily as religious tend to coalesce their religious beliefs with existing socio-cultural views influenced by their economic status, national identity, and political reality. Religious terrorists may seek out extreme religious ideologies because they are in line with their pre-existing socio-cultural worldview. This would indicate that religious extremism is not a catalyst in creating a terrorist as much as it is an approbation.

As I have said in past posts, a better understanding of what role religious extremism may play (and may not play) in terrorist actions could save future lives. However, it is important to not sensationalize religion’s influence on acts of terrorism.

So, who believes in a cause so zealously that they are willing to give up their lives for it? Terrorism is a political tactic that is used to spread fear, but, more importantly, it is intended to inflict harm on a random group of people in order to reach and influence a much wider audience. Terrorism often targets a country’s foreign policy.

What countries do terrorists come from, and what countries do they target with their attacks?

Countries that have a suppression of civil liberties (such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen) tend to be a producer of terrorists. However, Islamic countries are no more likely to produce a terrorist than non-Islamic countries. By and large, the most common signifier for a terrorist producing country is chronic political instability and widespread suppression.

Terrorist organizations tend to target wealthier countries. Globalism has interconnected the international system like never before, and wealthier countries have more influence and power in the international system because of their ability for unilateral decision making. Terrorist attacks are commonly perpetrated by groups that wish to force states into a multilateral decision making process.

failed-female-suicide-bomber-speaks-out

The phenomenon of suicide bombings is one of the terrorist acts most reported by the media (even though those kinds of attacks only make up around 5% of terrorist attacks overall). These are people that are willing to kill themselves in order to kill other people. Experts have been studying Suicidology in an effort to prevent suicides for the last thirty years, but it is an incredibly difficult challenge. Are there better ways of identifying people who are radicalized or may have mental instability, and, if so, could policies be implemented that could reduce the frequency of suicide attacks?

One of the consistent factors in suicide bombings is that the bombing itself is an act of contesting authority.

We face risk every day going about our regular lives. We are at risk for getting in a car crash, falling down a flight of stairs, and getting assaulted by someone on the street. We adequately cope with that level of risk, and it is important that we keep the risk of a terrorist attack in perspective.

Terrorism can only effect us if we let it. We cannot let past terrorist acts rule our lives or direct our policymaking. We need to think about the ways that we can reduce acts of terrorism, and then we need to continue on with our lives.

2 Responses to “Profiling A Terrorist: Defining How We Look At Terrorism”

  1. Brant Flickinger said

    I agree with suppression being a predominate factor, but it brings to mind other countries like North Korea. Is there a large terrorist issue in North Korea or China? They are suppressed and can even be fanatical in their ideology, but I am unaware of terrorist activity. Am I comparing apples to oranges?

  2. Tim Tufuga said

    A very informative blog on the raison de tre of certain triggers for recruiting potential terrorist actuals. I am more concerned about what is not included in your article such as home-grown terrorism in westernised societies such as the United Kingdom, ie, the 2005 London Bombings. Or even the influences of nascent xenophobic neo-fascism, with ultra right extremism, by marginalised groups and or lone wolves, ie, Norway’s Brevik. Whom are not necessarily are compelled by socio-economically oppression or even are suppressed per se, however, their motivations for violent action is considered highly stimulated by a perceived socio-political environment which is considered inimical and hostile to their idealistic worldview, in thus, they perceive a pessimistic dystopia future triggering, in them, a need to take violent actions, in the aim of striking fear, throughout their respective community. More to so so as to ram their message home.

    As for religiosity appeal for recruiting disaffected teenagers and angry young men in Leeds, UK, etc, in this westernised context of home grown terrorism, via, sleeper cells, may be subsumed, in the context, of the more inimical socio-cultural marginalisation of certain individuals/groups, motivated by the notoriety appeal and anger of Islamist Jihadism, and may feel a compunction to act upon their own sense of purportedly disempowerment.

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