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Opinion | Wiping out terrorism calls for a radically different approach

Terrorism cannot be stopped by attacking terror camps; it requires a deeper understanding of vulnerable social groups

The ghastly terrorist attack in Pulwama has once again brought terrorism to the forefront of national discussion. The Indian Air Force’s attack on terrorist camps in Pakistan is being celebrated by many.

Most of the discussions on this tragedy are from the point of view of the victims. From this angle, the attack on the terrorist camps is fully justified. It was more like equalling both sides of a mathematical equation. These types of solutions go a long way in creating an impression that the authorities are taking decisive action to stamp out terrorism. Upon closer inspection, one can realize that these surgical strikes might work as a short-term strategy to counter terrorism, but in the long term, the effects might in fact be counterproductive.

Developing effective interventions to reduce future terrorist attacks requires one to start looking at the problem of terrorism from the eyes of the perpetrator, the terrorist. In the animal kingdom, internecine killing—killing one’s own—is not the norm. So it is not actually human nature to kill another human being. It is also not human nature to seek pain or death. Humans tend to avoid pain and death at all costs. If so, what motivates a young person to indulge in an act that not only kills innocent people, but even themselves? In the answer to this question is the key to solving the terrorism problem.

Terrorism is not an isolated event, it is a long-drawn process. According to Fathali M. Moghaddam (professor of psychology at Georgetown University), terrorism has different stages, much like a building having various floors. The largest number of people are on the ground floor. This large number of people occupy the “foundational" ground floor of terrorism, because they have significant issues with the unfair, unjust treatment they have been receiving at the hands of their tormentors. The individuals who move to the second floor are those who have experienced graver injustice and thus, are rather angry and frustrated. They are influenced by leaders to direct their aggression onto an ‘enemy’. Individuals who are more prone to physically direct their aggression onto enemies climb further up the staircase.

Those who reach the third floor gradually start engaging with terrorist organizations at a peripheral level. These individuals now begin to see terrorism as a justified strategy. With more frequent interactions with the terrorist organizations, few of the individuals move to the fourth floor where they see a terrorist organization as a legitimate entity by itself. At this stage, they are ready to be recruited as active terrorists. On the last floor—the fifth—specific individuals are selected and trained to sidestep inhibitory mechanisms that could prevent them from injuring and killing both others and themselves. This is done by creating a strong categorization between the in-group, those who support the terrorists’ cause, and out-group, those including ordinary citizens who do not actively support their cause. They are also made to believe that the real rewards of this life are in their life after death. They are now ready to carry out terrorist acts.

Terrorist acts do not usually emanate from the frustrations of one single individual. The potential terrorist often represents the concerns of a large group of people. Nation states, organized religion, cadre-based parties have always exulted the death of a person who died for a large social cause. The veneration that these martyrs receive from the larger society is surely a motivating factor for future terrorists.

Religious beliefs are an underlying factor in many terrorist movements. Terrorist movements—whether in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka or in Kashmir—are based on clear religious divides. Religious beliefs are deep-rooted. It is difficult, if not impossible, to erase the differences that get formed due to religious beliefs. This makes religious divide a useful tool for creating strong in-group and out-group categorization: a fertile ground for terrorism.

Surgical strikes for killing terrorists are popularly considered to be the best way of dealing with terrorism. But deeper understanding reveals that this strategy might actually encourage more youngsters to join terrorism. Once a youngster has reached the fifth stage of radicalization, his goal is to die for his cause and become a martyr. By shooting down a terrorist, we are actually fulfilling his ultimate goal. The death of a terrorist is always used as source of motivation to attract more youngsters to the terrorist cause.

But by not allowing him to die and by incarcerating him instead, we deny him the opportunity to achieve his ultimate goal. The book Evil Men by James Dawes focuses on the Japanese soldiers who committed atrocities during the Second World War. Years later, in the loneliness of prison, all these soldiers felt a sense of emptiness about their past years. The sense of emptiness that incarcerated terrorists feel about their past can act as an important deterrent for potential terrorists.

Terrorism is not a problem that can be solved by eliminating a few individuals in terrorist camps. Terrorism is a complex social behavioural problem. The decision of becoming a terrorist is rarely a conscious, rational one. It results from the interplay of contexts and influences of narratives sold to these sensitive social groups at the bottom of the pyramid, which gradually converts an otherwise normal person into a destructive one.

Thus, it is important to understand the reward mechanisms in a conflict-ridden society and the psychological journey of the attackers. Such investigations must be used to design appropriate interventions that work bottom-up in influencing the behaviour of the large number of people that populate the lower floors of terrorism. And this will ultimately cut off the peak.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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