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Monday, January 30, 2023

Talking to Terrorists: Challenges to Understanding Their Motivations

  • Talking to terrorists is challenging but can reveal their motivations
  • Extreme actions do not mean the individuals are irrational
  • In the case of jihadis, understanding their religious motivation is key

Finding out why terrorists do what they do is important if we are to understand and ultimately defeat them, and one critical way to find out is to speak to those directly involved, according to a new report by Canadian terrorism expert and sociology professor Lorne L. Dawson.

This kind of research presents challenges: Would a former terrorist tell the truth? Would they deliberately or subconsciously seek to place the responsibility of blame elsewhere, such as on their circumstances or on other people? Are they just saying what they believe will get them a shorter sentence or an earlier release from custody? Are they mentally unsound in some way and unsuited to rational analysis?

And then there are moral reservations. Is the researcher who speaks objectively to a former terrorist in some way legitimizing them? Most research is done as part of society’s wider efforts to defeat terrorism. It can be uncomfortable – and sometimes physically dangerous – to engage objectively with some of those responsible for these crimes.

Dawson believes that such research is nevertheless crucial. Terrorists will often attempt to lay the responsibility for their actions on external factors or other forces – a group they identify with was being oppressed, or was under attack, and they had ‘no choice’ but to respond and join the fight, he notes. They can be very articulate at expressing such views. Sometimes this is because they have been trained – or even ‘brainwashed’ – to do so by the movement they joined. They may be less good at recognizing and articulating the social factors that motivated them, such as their own socio-economic problems in their prior life, and the sense of belonging and purpose that joining a radical movement gave them.

“Terrorists are inclined to justify their actions as having been provoked by the deeds of others, asserting that under the circumstances, they had no choice but to come to the defense of some victimized group or community with which they identify,” Dawson writes. “It was their duty to take up arms, and external circumstances forced this duty upon them. The role of more amorphous personal factors or the benefits of joining, such as a lack of social status or sense of identity, or increased power and thrills, are rarely articulated as well, or at all.”

But even if the story they tell about themselves and their motivation is only part of the picture, it can be valuable. It may not persuade many others, but it persuaded them and may continue to the basis of their commitment, especially as they may now be cut off from many alternative stories or viewpoints.

“Parallels exist with the witnessing function that sociologists of religion associate with the efforts made by sects and cults to recruit and convert others,” Dawson states. “The success rates of these efforts are normally dismal, yet the groups persist… because the activity serves to reinforce the commitment of the members assigned the task.”

Dawson regards these challenges as navigable, but there is one key area that is prominent and especially difficult: understanding religious motivation. In part this is because most academics approach the study from a secular basis, and often fail to appreciate and understand the religious aspect or see it as just a proxy for other underlying issues.

The report recommends three keys to understanding terrorist behavior:

  1. Individuals involved in exceptional violence of this nature are not “significantly different from the rest of us.” It is possible to explore and understand their motivations and direct research with them can produce meaningful data and results. However counterintuitive it may be, it is not the case, research shows, that they are necessarily “abnormal” or impenetrable.
  2. However, they will not necessarily feel guilt about their actions, or feel about them the same way that society does. Sometimes it is necessary to strip away self-serving explanations of past violence that terrorists may give to improve the image of their movement or gain personal benefits with their captors. There will be individuals who genuinely feel no remorse, because they now see things differently. Dawson describes it as “reminiscent of religious conversions.”
  3. It is crucial to seek to understand religious motivation properly. There is a tendency for researchers, especially from a secular background, to see religion as a secondary factor compared to social, economic and psychological conditions.

We are used to seeing religion as something to be respected or at least allowed for, and we would not recognition of the role of religion in terrorism to become a source of any kind of legitimacy. “We can offer more accurate explanations of why people become involved in jihadi terrorism, by recognizing their religious motivations (the ones the jihadists themselves fervently espouse) in conjunction with other social, psychological, and political ones, without legitimating the religious terrorists,” Dawson writes. “We need to differentiate between recognizing their religiosity and the legitimacy of their beliefs. Accepting the former need not entail, in this case, accepting the latter.”

People’s views of the world and their values can undergo total transformations; sometimes contemporary society actively encourages it, such as when seeking to rehabilitate criminals or addicts, or when promoting change to a cultural norm such as gender equality or democracy.

Just because the terrorist’s worldview has moved in a profoundly disagreeable hostile direction does not mean that we cannot recognize or understand the process. This makes such research potentially very valuable in the fight against the spread of terrorism.


Phil Price
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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