How Terrorists Are Made: 1 – Personal Grievance

friction1Not every book I discuss here I would recommend but I am about to post on chapters in Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko and this one I do recommend. It is a quick yet grounded introduction to a range of factors that turn people towards radical action against state powers, extremist violence and terrorism. Each chapter looks at one of twelve contributing factors through biographical case studies accompanied by descriptions of scientific research into the relevant human behaviour.

Some of the mechanisms for radicalization operate at an individual level; others involve the dynamics of small group and mass social psychology.

Not only do we read about “them” but we also learn what motivates “us” to fully support our governments to launch campaigns of state terrorism — war, torture, extra-judicial murder.

Sometimes it appears just one factor is enough to propel people to extremist violence; more often several factors come into play. Friction concludes with a look at the life of Osama bin Laden to demonstrate how a range of triggers and conditions coalesced in one person to lead to 9/11.

The message conveyed is that there is rarely a single simple explanation for why people become involved in extremist violence and terrorism.

Over the next several weeks/months I hope to address each of the twelve dynamics covered by McCauley and Moskalenko. The table below lists the topics to be covered.

Type of mechanism Mechanism Case studies
Individual Personal Grievance Andrei Zhelyabov
Fadela Amara
Individual Group Grievance Vera Zazulich
Theodore Kaczynski (Unabomber)
John Allen Muhammad (Washington sniper)
Clayton Waagner (abortion providers)
Ayman Al-Zawahiri
Bin Laden
Individual Slippery Slope Adrian Michailov
Omar Hammami (Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki)
Bin Laden
Individual Love Sophia (Sonia) Perovskaya & Andrei Zhelyabov
Amrozi bin Nurhasyim (smiling terrorist)
Bin Laden
Individual Risk and Status Alexander Barannikov
Leon Mirsky
Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal (Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi)
Bin Laden
Individual Unfreezing Sophia Andreevna Ivanova (Vanechka)
Muhammad Bouyeri
Group Group Polarization
Group Group Competition
Group Group Isolation
Mass Jutitsu Politics
Mass Hatred
Mass Martyrdom

Personal Grievance

Andei Zhelyabov

Andrei Zhelyabov (link is to Wikipedia article where the political careers of each person can be read. I won’t repeat the details here.)

Zhelyabov wanted revenge against the landowner who had raped his aunt; later, when local landowners blocked the case against the rapist, he wanted revenge against landowners as a class. His life as a terrorist can be understood as motivated by a powerful confluence of personal revenge with abstract ideas of justice for serfs that were held by many university students.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 368-371). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Fadela Amara

Fadela Amara (not a terrorist but a radicalized Muslim — showing that personal grievance leading to political radicalization does not have to lead to violence)

Amara, [a Muslim] reacts first to victimization of her mother, but soon the target of her hostility is expanded from racist policemen to anyone—including immigrant men—who disrespects immigrant women, and her identification with her mother expanded to identification with the welfare of all Muslim immigrant women.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 674-676). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Zhelyabov (nineteenth century Russia) and Amara (twentieth/twenty first century France) turned personal grievances into broader political action. The former faced government repression and turned to terrorist tactics. The latter engaged in illegal activity but without state repression she was able to transition her radical opposition into a successful political career. Radicalization does not necessarily lead to violence.

Why do some people turn their personal grievance into a political cause against an entire group on behalf of another group?

Contrast, for example, the 9/11 terrorists with Joseph Stack.

In contrast, there are occasions in which a personal grievance stays personal, and the victim acts for revenge against a particular perpetrator. In February 2010, Joseph Stack, a 53-year-old software engineer, flew his Piper Cherokee into an IRS office building in Austin, Texas. He left behind a manifesto detailing his anger against the IRS . .  There was no obvious positive identification with a group of similar victims, and the personal did not become political as it had for Zhelyabov and Amara.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 433-434). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Mass radicalization from personal grievance:

The experience is not limited to individuals. Nineteen Arab Muslims caused many of us to turn in anger against all Arabs and Muslims.

A Western democracy, proud of its tradition of personal freedoms and human rights, has a history of international interventions to restore peace and stop atrocities. One day ethnic fanatics attack the country’s largest city, killing or injuring thousands. Shock and disbelief evolve into grief and outrage. Hundreds of ethnic immigrants are rounded up on suspicion of being related to the attack, and are detained without access to the legal system. To get information from individuals suspected of militant activities, the government issues a secret mandate to torture them. The government’s violations of internationally recognized standards of human rights are exposed by the media. Nevertheless, the government is reelected by a majority of its citizens.

This transition took place in the United States after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Americans embraced the unthinkable in search of retribution and security. We were radicalized: our feelings, beliefs, and behaviors all moved toward increased support for violence against perceived enemies, including sometimes Arab and Muslim Americans. We idealized American values, gave increased power to American leaders, and became more ready to punish anyone seen as challenging patriotic norms. More generally, radicalization is the development of beliefs, feelings, and actions in support of any group or cause in conflict.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 146-156). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

To understand why some people turn a personal grievance against one or a few persons into a hostility against an entire class of people on behalf or another class of people

we need a theory that describe when and how individual events are interpreted in terms of social conflict between groups. 

Moreover, emotional heat is transitory, as psychologists know. Political action on behalf of “abstract categories of people”, on the other hand, can be undertaken over many years. So how can short term emotions over personal grievance explain long-term actions against classes of people for the benefit of other classes?

The psychological mechanisms that change some people’s outrage over a personal offence into political action for a wider interest are explored in the next chapter of Friction dealing with group grievance.




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