Western Radicalization: Rethinking the Psychology of Terrorism

– Executive Summary –

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and began shooting. During the attack, Mateen paused to call a local television station, make a call to 911, and pledge allegiance to ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) on social media. During the calls, he referred to himself as a Mujahed, an “Islamic soldier,” and claimed the attack was in response to a drone strike. Before being killed by officers hours later, he killed forty-nine people and injured fifty-three.

Intuitively, there seems something inextricably malignant—something readily identifiable—in a mass murderer of civilians who pauses from the carnage to check and post to a social media account. Mateen, like firefighter-turned-serial-arsonist John Orr, obsessed over significance conferred by others through praise and adulation. Eerily similar, Orr and Mateen were both rejected as police officers yet pretended otherwise. The two men experienced rejection from friends and family and were destined to lead lives of insignificance. Both acted on a malignant narrative that conferred significance at the expense of the lives of others. Both seemed willing to rationalize murder to be admired by others.

Still, the prevalent school of academic thought, which has informed professionals tasked with detecting radicalized persons, maintains that any individual is susceptible to radicalization. As Clark McCauley describes, “The psychology behind terrorist violence is normal psychology, abnormal only in the intensity of the group dynamics that link cause with comrades.”[1] Under this theory, terrorists are rational actors acting in support of a group and in response to a grievance. According to psychology Professor Fathali Moghaddam, we must maintain our opposition to terrorism but reposition our worldview to “better understand why terrorists behave the way they do.”[2] In other words, we as Westerners must avoid creating the many reasons why terrorists hate us. Although the West has sought to mitigate such perceived grievances by reducing the number of service members in the lands of the historical caliphate and releasing prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, radicalization has increased.[3]

The consensus view on countering violent extremism, which dismisses psychoanalytical or psychological approaches, must be reevaluated. This view on the psychology of terrorism lacks the healthy skepticism employed within the study of narrative criminology. In other words, to understand the behavior, it is incredibly important to interview the offender and analyze his or her claimed reasoning, but not to conflate the offender’s narrative with reality.[4] For instance, John Orr described an idyllic childhood akin to Ozzie and Harriet even though his mother had abandoned him as a teenager.[5] Anders Breivik, the right-wing terrorist who murdered seventy-seven and injured 319, claimed to be popular and outgoing when in reality he was a shy loner.[6] Omar Mateen was obsessed with becoming a police officer and proudly displayed his New York Police Department t-shirts on social media, yet he was repeatedly rejected from law enforcement employment.[7]

This thesis attempted to take the known root causes of arson by firefighter—when a firefighter deliberately sets and then extinguishes a fire to appear heroic—and apply them to the unknown root causes of Westerner radicalization. Both firefighter arsonists and Westerner terrorists similarly radicalize in pursuit of fulfilling a narrative of belonging and significance—if only in the hereafter. To know and understand the Islamic State, the United States and its allies need to do more than simply interview captured adherents for their accounts; instead, they must closely analyze the individuals’ actions and terrorist methodologies used to recruit and inspire Westerners.

The real question in both phenomena is: What differentiates that tiny fraction who become firefighter arsonists or radicals from everyone else? Contrary to prior theory, this thesis finds that typical firefighter arsonists are not pyromaniacs or “arsonists turned firefighters.”[8] Instead, the arson-by-firefighter epidemic was caused in large part by the hero complex.[9] In other words, firefighter arsonists set fires to seek heroic status by being the first on scene or to save a life. Moreover, the research suggests they possess something more than the simple desire to appear heroic; instead, this drive serves as a mechanism to establish a social identity within a culturally admirable group.

Offender profiles developed by the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and separately by researchers from South Carolina provide significant clues to understanding what separates that small number of arsonist firefighters from every other young firefighter. Typically, the offenders studied had dysfunctional childhoods and unstable relationships as young adults, with the associated lack of social and interpersonal skills. They also possessed poor occupational histories, which often involved frequently changing menial, low-wage jobs. Many of the offenders experienced stressors such as isolation, alcoholism, depression, or other psychosocial disorders.[10] Cumulatively, the profiles depict persons who were shunned by family and society. They were unable to conform to what society expected of them and sought to change their social identities—to reinvent themselves through heroic acts, even if manufactured. However, there exists something inherently malignant in these narratives; the offenders willingly risked the lives of others to portray themselves as selfless and heroic.

Within a distinct but nonetheless parallel narrative, terrorist leaders and recruiters provide a mechanism to establish meaning and significance to the insignificant. ISIS employed the Internet to cast an immensely wide net with a message targeted at the socially isolated, disaffected, and otherwise vulnerable few seeking meaning. This strategy tailors efforts toward social misfits and outsiders who are not religious by providing a narrative that can establish a social identity.[11] In this regard, ISIS’s recruitment strategy strives to answer the quest for significance if not in life, then in the hereafter.[12] It begins with a connection, followed by increasing attention and establishment of a relationship, followed by instilled importance and the opportunity to appear significant or heroic. Significant battlefield successes and the declaration of the caliphate legitimized the narrative, which seemingly corresponded with the sudden dramatic increase in recruitment and inspiration.

Training for analysts or officers whose job is to detect radicalized persons or those with a potential for violence should include familiarization with the characteristics found in arsonist firefighters as well as those targeted by ISIS. Similarly, training should incorporate research into the dark triad, the personality traits of narcissism, psychopathology, and Machiavellianism.[13] While the existence of one or more of these characteristics alone is not dispositive, it is relevant. When these factors exist at a level that suggests mental illness, however—coupled with indications of embracing the ISIS narrative, such as the possession of beheading videos—it should be cause for great concern. It is critically important for those suspected of radicalization not to be categorized solely as either terrorists or mental health patients; they may, indeed, be both. Collaboration between mental health professionals and joint terrorism task forces should be considered.

[1] Bruce Bonger et al., Psychology of Terrorism (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007), 20.

[2] Fathali Moghaddam, From the Terrorist’ Point of View: What They Experience and Why They Come to Destroy (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006), 2.

[3] Peter Bergin et al., “Terrorism in America after 9/11,” New America, accessed March 13, 2017, http://securitydata.newamerica.net/extremists/analysis.html.

[4] Lois Pressor, “Criminology and the Narrative Turn,” Crime Media Culture 12, no. 2 (2016): 137–151; Sveinung Sandberg, “Are Self-narratives Unified or Fragmented, Strategic or Determined? Reading Breivik’s Manifesto in Light of Narrative Criminology,” Acta Sociologica 56, no. 1 (2013): 69–83.

[5] Joseph Wambaugh, Firelover (New York: Harper Collins, 2002).

[6] Sandberg, “Self-narratives.”

[7] Skyler Swisher, “Omar Mateen Failed Multiple Times to Start Career in Law Enforcement, State Records Show,” Sun Sentinel, June 16, 2016, http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/florida/fl-omar-mateen-fdle-records-20160616-story.html.

[8] Matt Hinds-Aldrich, “Firesetting Firefighters: Reconsidering a Persistent Problem,” International Fire Service Journal of Leadership and Management 5, no. 1 (2011): 33–46.

[9] U.S. Fire Administration, Special Report: Firefighter Arson (USFA-TR-141) (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, 2003), https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/tr-141.pdf; Ken Cabe, “Firefighter Arson: Local Alarm,” Fire Management Notes 56, no. 1 (1996).

[10] U.S. Fire Administration, Firefighter Arson.

[11] “Case by Case: ISIS Prosecutions in the United States,” Center on National Security at Fordham Law, July 2016, 2–3, http://www.centeronnationalsecurity.org/research/.

[12] Mark Lilla, “The Politics of God,” New York Times Magazine, August 19, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/19/magazine/19Religion-t.html.

[13] Delroy Paulhus, and Kevin Williams, “The Dark Triad of Personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy,” Journal of Research in Personality 36, no. 6 (December 2002): 556–563.

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