Academic Essay for the University of York
The Psychology of violent extremism:
What drives individuals to join extremist organisations?
After a continuum of terrorist attacks in the past decade: violent extremism has not only become an area of particular interest amongst governments and policy makers in the western world, but also with ordinary citizens. The rapid emergence of the extremist group known as the Islamic State has diffused terror amongst the general public exerting pressure on governments to take a stand. With the recent Paris attacks last November, never has it been more important to understand the minds of the individuals who join these violent extremist groups and what motivates them to participate in such violence. Exploring the psychology of violent extremists can provide positive implications and aid methods of intervention and prevention. This report reviews the extant literature, focusing on six main sources concerning the engagement of participants in militant extremist groups. Nearly all articles focuses on the rise of ISIS and the violent extremism in Islam, however it is important to take into account that violent extremism is not a new concept and is embedded in all aspects of history, from the IRA to Nazi Germany.
When discussing the issue of violent extremism, the lexicon of the topic can have different connotations and thus can be interpreted in various ways. For example the term terrorist immediately results in negative judgement, where as a freedom fighter connotes heroic and chivalrous behaviour (Ginges, Atran, Sachdeva & Medin, 2011). Violent extremism and terrorism are interchangeable as both are defined as politically motivated acts of violence or terror (Littman & Paluck, 2015). This literature review focuses on the radicalisation of individuals, however even the term radicalisation portrays the individual as a passive participant and almost elevates the blame from them (Borum, 2014).
Violent extremist behaviour is not caused by mental illness; [; by abnormal psychology (Ruby, 2002). A common trend among the majority of the sources reviewed is the emphasis on the notion that mental illness and terrorism are independent events. This is important to address as misperceptions of violent extremism can lead to ineffective responses (Ruby, 2002). Borum disputes that knowledge of mental illness offers little to those with operational responsibilities for preventing terrorism (Jarrett, 2014). On the contrary, Kaplan states that terrorists have a pathological need to pursue absolute ends. This statement although bold, fails to provide evidence that reveals a high incidence of psychopathology among terrorist groups (Ruby, 2002). Borum proposes a more reasonable and perhaps more acceptable explanation among psychologists that individuals may pose a vulnerability, which leads them to be more receptive to extremist ideologies (Borum, 2014).
Profile of violent extremists