Terrorists – could they just be nuts?

illustration of are terrorists nuts
At Sci&Fi, we seldom comment on current affairs, mostly because it is not our place to do so. However, sometimes research can enlighten and inform wider, and often political, debates. In a recent article, two psychiatrists asked: is it possible that the terrorists, notably from ISIS (a.k.a Daech), are just pathologically ill people? And we felt that a more psychiatric examination of terrorist actions and behaviours, would bring some light into debates that have been raging over social media.

They broadly classify terrorists in two categories: the lone wolves and the organised ones. But before going any further, it must be reminded what terrorism is. As per the psychiatrists’ words, it is a word of French origin and means “regime of terror”. It is a form of violent action designed to strike fear that is ideologically guided (whether politically or religiously) with the final goal of altering how a society functions or is governed.  In more classic psychiatry, the profile of the lone wolf is quite well known.  Indeed, these people have a higher tendency of having mental disorders that can be medically proven, such as schizophrenia. CAREFUL: as usual in science, correlation is not causation, hence not all people suffering from schizophrenia (between 0.3 and 0.7% of the human population according to Wikipedia’s stat) are potential lone-wolf-type terrorists! Lone wolves, as suggested by the name, tend to act on their own, sometimes with the help of one or two accomplices that would facilitate their quest. A lone wolf, on the other hand, should also be differentiated from a lunatic assassin. The latter might be using similar means to a lone wolf (bombs and so on) but its aim is not to modify the socio-political landscape but rather to eliminate a single person or a single organisation it has decided to harm.

The Jihadists
The problem with the kind of attacks committed twice in Paris in 2015 is that they are perpetrated by vastly different people. These belong to the organised terrorist class. One can only ponder at how someone could act like this with motives beyond understanding and very little regard for self-preservation? Could they just be mad?

Citing other studies, the psychiatrists note that the Jihadists are not exactly who we might imagine. Indeed, for instance they tend to come from Middle Class backgrounds and were not school rejects or failures. It has also been noted that they do notcome  from a place where they were socially excluded. Frustratingly, there doesn’t exist a typical profile for terrorists. There is no way of predicting that a certain social or family situation or even a certain type of individual will eventually create a terrorist. However, they certainly share a paranoid vision of the world (us versus them), a belief that only they detain the “absolute Truth”, lack of remorse or guilt, hatred against those who are of a different opinion among other things. We see that terrorists possess some extreme personality traits but psychologically speaking they do not fit a particular type of illness.

Terrorists are not clinically ill and yet they have radical beliefs . It is now vital to understand what pushes these individuals to embrace such extreme ideologies and slowly climb the steps of the radicalisation pyramid (image below). There seem to exist favourable conditions in which an individual can adhere to such principles: feeling of injustice or oppression, identification with a rigorous and extremist religious discourse. But it seems that the individual response to these phenomena, more than anything else, that will eventually radicalise them.

For now at least, it seems that there is no scientific explanation, logical causal relationship, that would allow us to comprehend how a person end up joining terrorist groups and accept to go on suicide missions, taking hundred of other lives on their paths.

Simplified radicalisation process

Simplified version of the classic model of radicalisation leading to violence (adapted and translated from Bénézech and Estano, 2016)

Let’s explore the past, interrogate the present and dream the future.
Sci&Fi, over and out…

Bénézech, M. and Estano, N. (2016) À la recherche d’une âme : psychopathologie de la radicalisation et du terrorisme. Annales Médico-psychologiques.

Visual credits:
Funnel icon from Revicon.
Bomb with burning fuse from Freepik.
Figure 1 from the article, redrawn and translated by Sci&Fi.

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