Book Review: Addressing the Psychosocial Paradigms of Terrorism

14 Feb, 2013    ·   3815

Dr. Ashok Bhan reviews Countering Terrorism - Psychosocial Strategies edited by Updesh Kumar and Manas K. Mandal

Ashok Bhan
Ashok Bhan
Distinguished Fellow

Countering Terrorism: Psychosocial Strategies
Updesh Kumar and Manas K. Mandal (Eds.)
New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 2012
Pp: 472

Amidst the plethora of literature written across the globe on terrorism and counterterrorism, what difference does the present volume offer? Two things immediately come to mind - the treatment of the subject from perspectives other than the military and the wide canvas of theatres around the globe, which form the basis of research to understand terrorism and devise psychosocial strategies to counter and prevent it. The diverse geographic and cultural affiliations of the authors are the biggest strength of the text as it adds force to the arguments and content. The end product, thus, gives a balanced worldview and not a partisan subjective opinion of an individual researcher.

The difference in treatment begins with an attempt to distinguish between terrorism and other forms of political violence based on their impact on society. While there is a broad consensus that terrorism (except for State sponsored attacks) is a deliberately undertaken act of violence for political goals, primarily aimed at unarmed civilians with the immediate motive to create fear; it is the psychological effect of terror that distinguishes it from war and guerrilla warfare. Acts of terrorism are dramatic and meant to attract publicity and create an atmosphere of alarm. Thus, there is a distinction between the small number of actual victims and the much larger target audience that could be spread over a vast area. The unprecedented rate of psychological causalities, even outside the contamination zone that bio-terrorism can cause, buttresses this difference.

Terrorism has aptly been described as a tool of psychological warfare, whereby violence or the threat of violence is used as a means to bring about social, political, or religious change. To achieve this, the role played by the media voluntarily or through “programming” by terrorist outfits is discussed at length. The use of cyberspace by terrorists for information warfare, cyber planning and cyber terrorism, and the enormous potential of this tool in bypassing formal media in achieving publicity constitute an interesting part of the volume.

The authors have brought out how diverse and intricate the phenomenon of terrorism is and have ascribed its root causes as issue-, situation-, and time- specific. The volume also helps understand differing psychosocial motivations and dynamics that operate in varying kinds of terrorist activities like supporting terror without self-engagement, non-suicidal acts and suicide terrorism. Despite the non-availability of first hand information to the researchers, the chapter on the behavioural profile of a terrorist helps understand some common characteristics amongst all terrorists. Similarly, the demise of terrorism and its re-emergence have been identified as areas needing more understanding through research. Counterterrorism can best be understood, argue the authors, by looking at specificities rather than generalising counterterrorism strategies. Combatting a wave of politically motivated international terrorism inspired by religious extremism and to a lesser extent by ultra-nationalist ideologies will, therefore, involve a battle of ideas, as well as deep seated political, economic, social, and cultural transformations of countries and regions afflicted by terrorism. A case is forcefully made out against the excessive use of military instruments alone, as it will always be found insufficient to deal with terrorism. That the book is edited by two eminent psychologists from India’s Defence Institute of Psychological Research in itself is evidence of the growing realisation among defence analysts of the futility of long drawn stand-alone military operations to end terrorism in any particular theatre.

Two concepts in particular, among scores cited in the volume, will interest the readers in understanding why one takes recourse to violence. It is the situational and individual input variables that build the personality of an individual. The situational input variables may include provocation and frustration, whereas individual input variables are related to personality and biology. According to the social learning theory, an act of violence may seem personally and socially acceptable when considered serving a moral principle. Acts of violence and aggression will be readily learnt when a motivated-to-learn person observes others doing them. What is dangerous is that the recourse to violence, according to this, is taken not only by terrorists but also by those involved in planning and conducting counterterrorism strategies. They may change the moral value of killing to make it immune from self-censuring restraint. The “rogue” elements among the security forces may be victims of the theory as they find social acceptability for their immoral acts. This paradox, according to the authors, cannot possibly be solved even through giving socially tolerable labels such as “war on terror”, and will remain a challenge for democratic societies and countries that are expected to justify counter-violence, resulting in what is commonly referred to as human rights violations.

The other is the assumption of the terror management theory, which stipulates that people are motivated by their latent fear of death and desire to transcend their inevitable demise. One way that allows people to deny their morality is by attaching the self to something larger than oneself, which will continue to exist long after their death. Thus, aggrieved people are able to find solidarity and hope for a better future in an organisation, often directed by a charismatic leader that uses a compelling ideology to elevate the struggle against the perceived oppressor to a “sacred” level that construes the killing of innocents as justified and even necessary. The example cited in this case, is the message of Osama bin Laden that America had ruthlessly belittled the Ummah and therefore, hostility towards America was a religious duty. The ideology used can be religious, secular and even atheistic but becomes increasingly sacred - and thus beyond question or rational debate. Groups advocating suicide killings portray the action as self-sacrifice to win Allah’s favour and liberation from sins. However, the authors have been emphatic in asserting that religion is seldom the problem or a cause of terrorism. It is the religious fervour and dogma, which are often used to legitimise acts of terror.

After elucidating on psychosocial issues, the second half of the compilation focuses on psychosocial avenues to counter terrorism. The most common counterterrorism strategy in vogue today is the withholding of political concessions, granting political concessions, or providing peaceful outlets for political change. This “strategic model” presupposes that terrorists are rational actors who attack civilians to achieve political ends, and is based on antiquated views of the classical model of organisational theory that members participate in an organisation to merely achieve its goals. It has been argued on the basis of theoretical and empirical evidences that terrorists are rational people and in conformity with the “natural systems model”, join organisations to achieve social solidarity and not their official political agenda. Therefore, terrorist organisations seek to prolong their existence even when doing so impedes its official goal. If terrorists attach utmost importance to the social benefits of using terrorism, a strong case has been made for a re-look at the current counter strategies based on reducing terrorism’s political utility.

For devising a counter strategy, the study of choice of targets by terrorists has been highlighted. This will not only allow hardening the targets according to their vulnerability, but also helps anticipate how terrorists will respond to situational interventions thus continually facilitating the renewal of counterterrorism agencies’ defences. A sound suggestion emanates regarding the use of the Internet to counter terrorism propaganda through scholars and nongovernmental organisations. Strong legal measures towards cyber security, as laid out in the ITU’s Global Strategic Report of 2008, have been recommended. The importance of ethical professional interrogation of terrorists as a sound counter terrorism strategy has been discussed at length.

Seeking to attack the underlying ideology and the conditions that sustain violent Islamist terrorism in Indonesia through educating people is the theme of one particular chapter. The pesantren, largely rural based centres of exclusively Islamic education, have started teaching secular subjects and provide vocational training up to university level thanks to the 1989 Indonesian Education Law that equates madrasas and pesantren to “secular schools” who must employ the national curricula issued by the Ministries of National Education and Religious Affairs. The recent breakdown of order in states like Libya, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen has created breeding grounds for terrorist groups to increase their influence. The Muslim Ummah is increasingly disturbed and politically radicalised, not so much by Al Qaeda-like groups but by socio-political movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. The Indonesian example should serve as a model to prevent youth falling prey to extremism and violence. Recruitments by Islamist extremists will have to be checked, images of leaders reduced to obscurity, their narratives publicly falsified and citizens reached out to creatively communicate a positive narrative favouring progress, cooperation, and justice.

The centre-stage spirituality needs to occupy, as an upholder of peace and non-violence, has been flagged in a number of papers. Most religions share core values of love and compassion. People have to be reminded of their religious compassionate teachings to reduce perceived hostility. The voice of hatred has to be muted. It has rightly been argued that spirituality will have to play a great constructive role in once again leading human history towards a new age of progress.

The compendium is a must read for those entrusted with the task of formulating policies to prevent terrorism and to devise counterterrorism strategies. It will be equally useful for those involved in counterterrorism operations. The military option is easy to launch, but its deleterious effects are well recognised. Therefore, societies will have to choose the right mix of instruments, including psychosocial prescriptions, if spiralling violence initiated by acts of terror followed by counterterror violence by the state is to be checked. It is the psychosocial effects that make terrorism “tick” and therefore, the key challenge lies in understanding and counteracting these psychosocial consequences.

Readers unfamiliar with psychosocial theories and terminology may struggle slightly in understanding certain concepts enumerated in the volume. However, due credit must be given to the authors for relating various concepts to field examples, making the narrative easy to understand and an extremely useful addition to the literature available on countering terrorism.