The psychology of violent extremism

Posted on October 30, 2014

Today the UK and its allies are at war with an extremist group based in Syria and Iraq that calls itself the Islamic State (IS; a name rejected by mainstream Muslim organisations). The group declared a caliphate in June this year and is seeking to expand its territory.

Amnesty International has accused IS of war crimes including ethnic cleansing, torture, abductions, sexual violence and the indiscriminate killing of civilians.

Many of the fighters of the Islamic State are Western citizens. Indeed, this week there were reports that a fourth jihadist from Portsmouth, England, has died fighting for the Islamic State.

Never has it been more urgent that we understand why people are drawn to extremist beliefs and to violent extremist organisations. Here is a brief overview of the psychological research and theories that help explain the lure of extremism.

1. The Need to Belong
In radical movements and extremist groups, many prospective terrorists find not only a sense of meaning, but also a sense of belonging, connectedness and affiliation. A related idea is that extremist groups and their ideologies help people cope with uncertainty about themselves and the world.

2. Marginalisation and Perceived Injustice
Many would-be violent extremists bear grievances, sometimes a sense of humiliation (either personally or on behalf of their in-group) and a desire for revenge. At the same time, they feel that their needs and interests are not recognised by mainstream authorities.

3. Dehumanisation of Enemies
A shocking feature of the behaviour of many violent extremists is their total disregard for the value of other human lives. A relevant concept here is the way that people are able to "dehumanise" their enemies or those they see as unimportant - that is, to see them as somehow less than human.

4. Excitement, Danger and the Search for Meaning
The quest for personal significance constitutes a major motivational force that may push individuals toward violent extremism. In many communities, joining a terrorist group increases the standing of a teenager or youth considerably. It's also important to recognise the lure of danger and excitement, especially to young disenfranchised men.

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Source material from British Psychological Society