What the HELL is going on in the mind of a terrorist?

“They want to find something meaningful for their life,” says John Horgan, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. While terrorism seems incomprehensible, that’s probably something we’ve all experienced. Recruits to organisations like ISIS are usually young, and like most people their age are in search of an identity, to belong to a group. At a time when most find music or football, a few are led to something darker.

This idea of a collective identity seems to hold weight. A study by Arie Kruglanski, co-director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, found that sympathetic feelings towardsterrorism were most common among those with a collective mentality as opposed to an individualist one. Kruglanski says, “Being part of a collectivist cause has always been a hallmark of people willing to undergo personal sacrifices”.

Terrorists are also characterised by a fear of death, which may not seem unusual in itself. Yet this manifests as a desire in their mind to leave a legacy – of wanting to be remembered. The propaganda of terrorism provides them with the hope of a romanticised adventure in which they can change the world, even if this means they will die. It holds a perverse appeal.

But what really sets terrorists apart from the rest of us is an ability to switch off their sense of empathy in order to serve a set of beliefs. These beliefs are usually naive – most ISIS recruits share a poor knowledge of the religion they claim to serve and are generally new to the faith – but an ignorant mind is a fertile place in which dangerous influences can grow.

While it may seem tempting to believe terrorists to be inherently evil or pathological, it isn’t accurate. It also clouds our ability to understand the root issues. Because only by understanding what causes seemingly normal people to become radicalised can we hope to deter the next generation of terrorists.

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