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Psychological Research Gets Inside the Minds of the Boston Terrorists

22/04/2013 12:18 BST | Updated 21/06/2013 10:12 BST
AP

Dr Anne Speckhard, an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, USA, and author of a new book entitled Talking to Terrorists, includes in that account of a decade of interviewing terrorists, some research also undertaken between herself and Dr. Khapta Akhmedova, professor of psychology at Chechen State University.

Based on in-depth interviews of the close family and friends of over half of 118 Chechen suicide bombers as well as with their hostages from other terrorist outrages such as the 2002 Moscow Theatre and 2004 Beslan School hostage crises, they found drawing world attention and concern to Chechnya was a key impetus for such terrorism.

"Forty Chechen suicide terrorists - half of them women with bombs strapped on to their black cloaked bodies held 800 hostages for three days while stringing bombs around the theatre, claiming they came to die - unless Russia withdrew from Chechnya. That certainly riveted worldwide attention", Speckhard states. "And they again gained global attention when they later took over the Beslan school holding 1200, mostly women and children, as hostages.

Speckhard comments, "On the individual level we found the strongest drivers have been trauma and revenge coupled with being exposed to a terrorists ideology. The Russians had a very heavy handed approach in Chechnya and all of the terrorists we studied turned to fanaticism after losing a family member to the conflict".

Speckhard argues, "Witnessing the trauma of another person is often enough to create post-traumatic effects in the witness as well, especially if that person is still young and impressionable. Al Qaeda related terrorists groups understand this and frequently use graphic images of traumas in conflict zones to engage recruits in non-conflict zones to action. They use a kind of secondary traumatization - creating empathy and sparking an identification with victims elsewhere, and then seduce them into a violent movement to strike out at anyone they perceive as the enemies of Islam".

"This is likely what happened in the case of the Chechen boys in Boston - they already had some exposure to the Chechen conflict and this was a portal to create empathy and identification for victims elsewhere. Their Internet records show interest in the Syrian uprising which is being sadistically crushed and it seems they were emotionally pulled into a wider conflict far bigger than just the Chechen one. Once they were identified with the militant jihadi narrative of Islam under attack, this allowed them to name the U.S. as their enemy - when in fact the US has nothing to do with the Chechens", Speckhard states.

Speckhard and Akhmedova report an interview with a 15-year-old Chechen boy who carried in his passport a picture of Osama bin Laden - an act that in itself is suicidal for someone who frequently must cross Russian checkpoints where his documents would be checked. When asked if he was afraid when the soldiers checked his passport, he answered, "No. Let them look. Bin Laden is a hero. Even America is afraid of him. Let the Russians know that he will reach to them too".

This young boy explained a trauma that he frequently recalled, "Once in the morning Russian soldiers brought two Chechen guys. Their hands were in handcuffs behind their backs and grenades had been taped to their legs. The soldiers exploded them. Their bodies were scattered into pieces."

When asked what is most important to him now, this boy answered, "Jihad. To be killed in war is high happiness, because you will be in paradise". Asked if he was afraid of death he answered, "No, I'm not. I already saw the face of death". This boy, according to Speckhard had seen his father humiliated and powerless to protect him - so he looked to the terrorists as his role models. "Some reports say the Boston bombers' father had been tortured by the Russians and he was not with them but stayed behind in Dagestan, perhaps leaving an additional vulnerability as in this boy's life", Speckhard comments.

The two Boston bombers did not grow up in Chechnya and did not face these kinds of trauma personally. They were brought up largely in the USA - how could they find themselves so alienated from a culture in which they appeared immersed?

Speckhard and Akhmedova report a common observation among radicalized immigrant Muslims. It is of falling away from the faith and then rejoining it with a violent fervor, later choosing an ideology that preaches the need to destroy the corrupted West.

Speckhard and Akhmedova contend that a Muslim growing up in a conservative culture may not find as many opportunities as he would in the West to drink alcohol and chase women. His parents do not have to build internal constraints into him to handle these challenges to his religious beliefs because an Islamic society will help in preventing him from facing them at all. By not selling alcohol for example.

But in the West, an immigrant first or second generation Muslim has only poorly built internal constraints to keep him within his moral comfort zone. These may fail him later causing a crisis of guilt, grief and need to come to terms with what he regards as inner corruption. The older brother of the Boston bombers recounted on his Internet records that he had forsaken alcohol and smoking as he returned again to a stricter version of Islam. Friends of the younger brother are reported to have commented that he smoked a little cannabis in the past.

Speckhard and Akhmedova argue that in such a case he may blame society for corrupting him, and in his discomfort with this corruption wish to disavow his "bad" self - and want to punish or destroy the community that he sees as responsible for his corruption.

Speckhard and Akhmedova believe those who feel guilty about behaviors such as having lived a dissipated life avoid facing their guilt by engaging in a psychological defense called 'splitting' in which they split off (or disavow) their behavior.

For a Muslim young man from a conservative background who has come to or grown up in the West and chased women, done drugs, drank too much but who is uncomfortable to face this 'bad boy' side of himself, splitting occurs when he blames the corrupt West for it, rather than taking the responsibility himself.

A person using this defense of splitting will be vulnerable and possibly even seek out a group that has as its central mission, restoring him to the true Islam. At the same time, he could destroy the corrupted West - which may have become for him the symbol of his corrupted self, that he now wishes to disown.

We still have to learn how the two Boston bombers were radicalized, but from the interviews of hundreds of terrorists worldwide Speckhard states there is a usual pattern. "The older brother traveled in Russia and also visited extremist internet sites where he found the call to rise up on behalf of what he believed were downtrodden Muslims like his own ethnic group, and there he found support and the perverted ideology that in his mind justified attacking here. Tragically whatever pain inside these two boys, and their passion to help others, was cynically manipulated and badly misdirected by those whose hands they fell into", Speckhard argues.

From her decade of interviewing terrorists, she comments that we need to better understand underlying motivation and the experiences which ignite terrorism, in order to more effectively engage them back into a legitimate political process.

This neglected approach might be what will ultimately produce a safer world.