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Causes of Terrorism

Psychological and Historical Elements in Terrorism

As ghastly as terrorists have been and still are, we will err in our strategy against them if we do not account for their humanity and how they develop their inhumanity. Books detailed enough to understand something of the psychology of practicing terrorists are all too few. Much of what follows is from one of the rare exceptions: Confessions of a Thug, Philip Meadows Taylor, (First published in 1839; World Classic 1916, Oxford paperback 1986.)

40,000 killings per year were being accomplished by Thugs when they finally came under systematic attack by the government. The thugs are worthy of study, not only by students of terror, but also by citizens and statesmen alike. The British stomped the Thugs out of existence in 1838 by attacking them at their roots: their "Thug society," and their families.

Below, we extract some passages from Taylor's revealing book that put the Authoritarian aspect of the terrorist in full reliefa feature that helps drive terrorists today. Taylor's book is a must read by those who want to learn more about the inner workings of the terrorist mind as well as the net works of terrorist societies.

Authoritarians exhibit two distinctive behavior patterns--submissiveness and aggressiveness. On the surface, these two behaviors seem to be at odds, but in fact they usually do coexist in the same individual.

Authoritarians want to fit into a chain of command and to be told what to do while commanding those in the hierarchy below in like manner. While they may treat their families in a kindly manner, Authoritarians act aggressively toward others, especially those considered to be lesser in some way, of a different faith or ethnicity, or a different species. In the extreme, our concern here, they are aggressive, destructive, and usually fundamental in religious outlook if not in practice. They are often at odds with the realities of history and may even be at odds with the society of their origin.

Ameer Ali, the most famous Thug, fit this mold and was among the last to be run down and captured. Offered a plea bargain for his life, he betrayed his cohorts. Free of the gallows, he told his life story with candor, even relish, to his captors. Taylor narrates Ali's story as a compelling novel in first person. (Ali's basic story line is believed to have inspired later writers of horror mysteries.)

Coming together after a week-long break in Ali's confessional interview, Taylor asked Ali to wait while he recorded his physical appearance on paper. Ali was suspicious and when Taylor had finished, asked Taylor what had written. Taylor read aloud his description. He had captured Ali's exact appearance in simple but dramatic words. Ali was "... small but powerful and striking in appearance..." these added up to a significant physical aura and presence.

Ali responded with immense pride in Taylor's artful description. Taylor chided Ali that his appearance, while prepossessing, was not what he feared. It was his heart that he feared. Ali responded:

    "You think I my heart bad then Sahib?"

    "Certainly I do."

    "'But it is not so,' he continued. 'Have I not ever been a kind husband and a faithful friend? Did I not love my children and wife while He who is above spared them to me? And do I not even now bitterly mourn their deaths? Where is the man existing who can say a word against Ameer Ali's honour, which ever has been and ever will remain pure and unsullied? Have I ever broken a social tie? Ever been unfaithful or unkind to a comrade? Ever failed in my duty or in my trust? Ever neglected a rite of ceremony of my religion? I tell you Sahib, the man breathes not who could point his finger on any one of these points. And if you think on them, they are those which, if rigidly kept, gain for a man esteem and honour to the world.'

Denial (self delusion) is operative here. Ali was not at all psychotic, despite his self deception. He was not born a Thug; he was brought up to be one, see Ameer Ali. Ali was "radicalized" early on as a teen-ager. Taylor's narrative continues:

    "But the seven hundred murders, Ameer Aliwhat can you say of them? They make a fearful imbalance against you on the other scale.

    "'Ah! those are a different matter,' said the Thug laughing,'quite a different matter. I can never persuade you that I was fully authorized to commit them, and only a humble instrument in the hands of Alla. Did I kill one of those persons? No it was He. Had my roomal been a thousand times thrown about their necks and the strength of an elephant in my arms, could I have done aught, would they have diedwithout it was his will? I tell you Sahib, they would not, they could not; but as I shall never be able to persuade you to think otherwise and it is not respectful in me to bandy words with my lord, I think it is time for me to recommence my tale, if he is ready to listen, for I have much to relate.'"

Ameer Ali compartmentalized his feelings and thoughts in the extreme. As well as being in denial, he rationalized his actions as being the will of Allah. Otherwise he could not have lived with himself. These are hallmarks of the Authoritarian personality. See chapter 25 of Taylor's book for the above quote.

Psychological mechanisms such as denial and rationalization have the effect of protecting their owners from fear or guilt feelings related to fear. Ali's defenses kept the basic contradiction of his murderous being out of his conscious mind. By this means, Ameer Ali could feel good about himself while never feeling remorseuntil he landed in prison.

In Taylor's chapter 27, Ali describes 'another day at the office' -- Ali is speaking:

    "'You probed that rascal deeply by what you said,' said Peter Khan [a cohort] as we walked along; 'it is the very practice by which he gets his money; the fellow is as rich as a sahoukar by this means, and never omits to levy a contribution on every gang [of Thugs] which passes Saugor.

    "'Then,' said I, 'my mind is made up as to his fate. Such a wretch is not fit to live--a personal rascal, who sits at his ease, runs no risk, undergoes no fatigue, and yet gets the largest share of anyone. He ought to die. What say you to putting him to death?'...

    "The body was taken away and buried...

    "Now did not that villain deserve his fate, Sahib? To my perception, his cold-blooded work was far worse than our legitimate proceedings; and as for his treachery, he paid the forfeit of it."

Ali's primary method of operation was to befriend his victims then strangle them at the first opportune moment. But he did not view that as treachery. In addition to rationalization and denial, something else was operative here: reaction formation.

In reaction formation, a person plays a role opposite to what they really are, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or the police chief who tenaciously pursues prostitutes or drug lords publicly while privately enjoying their favors or rewards. Well-known preachers, caught consorting with prostitutes in recent years, are similar examples.

Ali's reaction formation mechanism was on display whenever he justified killing those he despisedbecause they were like himself. See Taylor's chapter 27 in particular, but this theme appears again and again throughout his book.

Ali really was all those good things he thought he was; he was also the cold-blooded and heartless participant in the killing of hundreds. His tales of ceremonies, worship, omens, travels, murderous exploits, and encounters with women and children all have the ring of truth.

Ali repeatedly recounted his revulsion for those victims he knew to be as deviant as he was. At the same time he could exult in bringing down a great warrior and robbing those he or his gang killed. Only toward women and children did he ever mention any heart or regret, even as he was involved in their killing. In one such instance he was plagued by nightmares for days afterwards (Chapter 31). One of history's most efficient killers was only human.

For Ameer Ali, and bin Laden alike, society's laws are transcended by those of Allah as interpreted by the Mullahs in true Authoritarian spirit. See also Muslim Mind. (Christian or Jewish fundamentalists employ the same hierarchy.) Ali prayed to Allah daily according to his Muslim faith while obeying the rituals of Kali (Hindu Goddess of destruction) in detail in his profession. He learned to look for omens from Kali before every "adventure."

Bin Laden uses a parallel approach; he pays attention to omens, but finds no need for Kali. Like Ameer Ali, bin Laden is a devout family man and terrorist all at once. Islam sees one side; we see the other. As for Bin Laden's ethics, the following would be included:

    Hadith: Volume 4, Book 52, Number 28
    "Free the captives, feed the hungry, and pay a visit to the sick." This is according to Sahih Bukhari, editor of the English version.

Bin Laden channels money to the poor and disadvantaged. He does so for good reasons even as it provides him with a bevy of loyal supporters for his terrorist activities.

On a more global scale, in Pakistan, the Mullahs established their own schools by the hundreds as the economy and state controls collapsed in the latter half of the 20th century. In a very real sense the fundamentalist Mullahs were caring for their flock when the secular authorities could not or would not. Bin Laden's ethic is what Islamic fundamentalists see.

The Mullahs have a lot of material to work with in the Qur'an. For example:

    Qur'an 25:52 "So do not follow the unbelievers, and strive against them a mighty striving with it."

    Qur'an 61:11 "You shall believe in Allah and His Apostle, and struggle hard in Allah's way with your property and your lives; that is better for you, did you but know!"

    Qur'an 66:9 "O Prophet! strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and be hard against them; and their abode is hell; and evil is the resort."

In further examples see references dealing with fighting in:

    The Cause of Allah:
    Qur'an 2:190-193, 216-218, 244-246
    Qur'an 3:142 146
    Qur'an 4:71-77, 95-96, 104
    Qur'an 5:54
    Qur'an 8:72
    Qur'an 9:12-14, 19-20, 24-26, 29, 36, 38-39, 41-47, 73, 81, 86, 88, 111, 120-123
    Qur'an 16:110
    Qur'an 22:39-40, 78
    Qur'an 47:4, 20
    Qur'an 48:15-17
    Qur'an 57:10
    Qur'an 61:4
    Qur'an 73:20

    Qur'an 8:15-16, 45-47, 57-58, 60-61, 65, 70-72
    Qur'an 9:5-6
    Qur'an 49:9
    Qur'an 59:5

    Qur'an 17:19 "And whoever desires the hereafter and strives for it as he ought to strive and he is a believer; (as for) these, their striving shall surely be accepted."
    Qur'an 21:24
    Qur'an 29:5-6, 69
    Qur'an 47:31
    Qur'an 53:39-41
    Qur'an 76:22
    Qur'an 88:9
    Qur'an 92:4

Fundamentalists also see how well bin Laden adheres to these passages--like Ali adhered to Allah and Kali, even if superficially. Islam is all about behavior, not personal creed. Many other terrorists of our times seem to share the hang-ups and illusions so evident in Ali's confessions.

It is very important to realize that to the extreme Muslim mind, these statements are rational and justified.

This rationalization is as important as the concept of the Authoritarian personality itself; it permeates all societies. For example, a scientifically chosen group of people were tested for their willingness to follow orders issued by an "authority figure." The result? sixty-five percent were unexpectedly willing to knowingly inflict extreme pain on an unknown person. See Milgram for details. Subsequent studies affirmed Milgram's discovery.

Islamic Fundamentalism is a culture similar in several ways to that of the Thugs. Similarities include:

  • each preaches Allah is supreme; all is Allah's will;
  • each exploits the need each person has for love and approval from his/her group; consistent behavior and loyalty result.
  • each actively uses rituals; this enhances and maintains the bond individuals feel for the group;
  • each captures the impressionable young; extremist attitudes and behaviors develop.

Islamic Fundamentalism instills hatred of non-Muslims; it requires "surrender to Allah" and encourages Muslim parents to set that example. The hierarchy that is Islam essentially demands authoritarian behavior.

Lack of secular education makes people particularly susceptible to the influence of fundamentalism. Wahhabism and Deobandi are leading examples of Islamic fundamentalism in our times.

A Reformation of Islam may be the world's best hope for a "Pax Futura." Nevertheless, the rest of the world needs to reform apace in order to accommodate a new order and cure some of its own ills. On all sides, these can only come slowly, over two or more generations perhaps.

The lightning bolts of Afghanistan and Iraq may be the third and fourth step up the long ladders of history for both East and West.

For the East, it is writing on the wall. For the West, times are even more dangerous. We make things worse by pursuing red herrings in Iraq while announced nuclear powers flex their totalitarian muscles. See Nuclear Terrorism and links.


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