(ISIS photo)

Are All Terrorists Really Driven by or Committed to Ideology?

  • Ideology appears as the common thread of contemporary terrorism
  • But many terrorists have little actual knowledge of the religion or ideology they claim to promote
  • The real story is how an ideology shapes a community and its beliefs

Ideology clearly plays a role in terrorism, but exactly how? Extreme ideology is disseminated widely, but in reality few individuals act upon it, and those who do often seem to posess only shallow knowledge.

This vital question has been looked at by Donald Holbrook, an international terrorism expert advising the UK government’s Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, and Professor John Horgan of Georgia State University, and their findings were recently published.

Ideology is frequently cited as the main driving force of extremist terrorism and is often promoted as such by both the perpetrators or the sponsoring organizations, and by reacting governments.

Yet much research in recent years has often shown that individual terrorist actors have apparently little knowledge of or commitment to detailed ideologies. They quote the examples of Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Bastille Day murderer in Nice, France, in 2016, who had very little to do with religion until the last few days before he acted. There are the cases of some who traveled to join the fighting in Syria who ordered “The Koran for Dummies” and “Islam for Dummies” from Amazon not very long before their departures – hardly the acts of deeply devout followers.

The authors argue that rather than being a direct, intellectual and theoretical basis for a terrorist’s commitment, ideology paints a bigger picture. It creates a climate and feeds a narrative where social and personal issues can be harnessed, such as anger at some perceived injustice, a sense of identification with a group – real or fantasy – and a belief that a particular organization can deliver results or salvation – political, collective, or personal.

“Collective action is thus more likely when people have ‘shared interests, feel relatively deprived, are angry, believe they can make a difference, and strongly identify with relevant social groups,’” Holbrook and Horgan wrote, citing expert researchers who studied the growth of the Arab Spring.

It is also important to note that ‘ideology’ can encompass many aspects of life and help to create a sense of community identity. Often this sense of being a separate, isolated group with a victim mentality binds members – it can be seen in the names of the some of the terrorist groups, such as Al-Muhajiroun, which after being banned in the United Kingdom reappeared under names such as ‘The Strangers’ and  the ‘Saved Sect.’

The key thing is that it is not necessary to achieve any level of expertise in the ideology or indeed the religion involved. Ideological does not necessarily mean intellectual, the authors note, citing Mark Youngman, a Ph.D. student who studied the role of ideology in terrorism. It is possible to react emotionally to the simple narrative, the songs and videos, and from this some who are angry enough and driven enough may ultimately become terrorists.

The overall finding of Holbrook and Horgan is that ideology is not something that an individual either “has” or not. But it does underpin and shape the forces, motivations and views that are what will drive an individual into terrorism. This more nuanced understanding of what ideology is and the role it plays give us a fuller understanding of how, and why, ideology and terrorism are connected.

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Phil Price is a multilingual writer and translator based in London, UK. A graduate of Oxford University, Phil went on to hold senior management positions in several major British and German companies, and spent time living and working in Germany and Poland as well the UK. For HSToday, Phil reviews the latest findings from academic research and international studies into all aspects of international terrorism and presents the key trends and insights.

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