Terrorism, Psychology and Countering Violent Extremism

Jan 12, 2019 | Studies & Reports

An Interview with Dr. John Horgan – Terrorism, Psychology, and Major Issues in the Field

By John Horgan ,European Eye on Radicalization

John Horgan is a Psychology Professor with the Global Studies Institute of Georgia State University. His research focuses on psychological issues in terrorism and political violence. He is especially interested in understanding the processes through which people become involved in (and disengage from) terrorism, as well as the psychological mechanisms through which people transfer guilt and conceal disillusionment as coping mechanisms for sustained commitment to violent extremist groups.

EER: You are the world’s most distinguished expert in the psychology of terrorism. If you had to describe the contribution of psychology to research on terrorism in a few lines, what would you say?

JH: Psychology is the scientific study of human behavior. Terrorism is just another kind of behavior, albeit complex. Psychology is rich with valuable theory and methods.

Contemporary psychology values rigorous, data-driven evidence and this, fundamentally, is what makes it especially suited to research on terrorism.

EER: Some of your current projects involve the evaluation of programs aimed at Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Which programs are you evaluating and how do you evaluate them?

JH: In 2016, supported by funding from the US Department of Justice, we concluded an independent evaluation of the CVE efforts undertaken by an NGO, the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE), based in Montgomery County, Maryland. We used a mixed-methods design (drawing on grounded theory, focus groups, surveys and experiments) to better understand how this program recruited and retained participants, how they conceived of risk factors for violent extremism, as well as identifying critical barriers to reporting concerns even among those people deemed to be centrally involved in such programming. One of the really exciting results from our research was to develop customizable instruments that anyone can adopt in evaluating other programs worldwide.

EER: Usually, the Western programs aimed at Countering Violent Extremism and the prevention and rehabilitation programs run in other regions of the world are investigated separately. What do you think about this trend? Are there any lessons that the Western CVE programs could learn from other experiences and initiatives, for instance the well-known Saudi program, the old Yemen program, the de-radicalization programs in South-East Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore), or the activities of Hedayah in the UAE?

JH: In recognizing the global scourge of terrorism, we might have lost some critical perspective and focus. Terrorism is international by its nature and impact, but it is often born out of local conditions and dynamics. It’s important to pay attention to the lessons learned from programs around the world, yet unrealistic to expect the approaches, methods and findings from a program in say, Saudi Arabia, to apply to an initiative in Germany.

The goal might be the same, in this case, to reduce the risk of re-engagement in terrorism, but the local dynamics, politics, social structures (and perhaps the standards associated with evaluation) weigh heavily on the development of such programs will differ.

One thing that many of these programs have in common, however, is their resistance to evaluation. I am in favor of innovative and evidence-led CVE programming, but programs that shy away from evaluation offer little more than smoke and mirrors. Evaluation needs to happen early and often. For the most part, it remains an afterthought. A CVE program without an evaluation component is, in my view, worthless.

EER: Another issue you have been working on is the over-representation of religious converts in terrorist plots. Is this characteristic common to all Western countries? What is your explanation for this phenomenon?

JH: We’re actually still working on that project and finding some interesting results.

A common view is that Muslim converts are ideologically naïve and that’s what makes them vulnerable to the messages of recruiters. On the contrary, converts tend to be very knowledgeable about their new-found religion.

However, some converts have a hard time navigating the social dynamics associated with conversion. Imagine the stress of moving away from one community, including your friends, family, co-workers, while simultaneously not being fully accepted by a second community. It’s a tricky spot to be in, and is a heavy burden to carry. That can result in some considerable pressure to prove oneself to a new group, and it’s that dynamic that terrorist recruiters will exploit. We’re going to have a lot of research come out on this topic really soon, so stay tuned.

EER: In conclusion, a few questions on the release of Anjem Choudary, the former leader of al-Muhajiroun in the United Kingdom. The radical preacher was sentenced in 2016 to five and a half years in prison but has served less than half of his sentence and will complete the rest under strict supervision.

On a number of occasions, Choudary was offered opportunities to speak to mainstream religious leaders and other experts who have successfully interacted with other radicals, but he has always refused.

Freedom comes with a number of conditions he must obey, including a ban from preaching at or attending certain mosques. In addition, he will only be allowed to associate with people who have been approved by the authorities; he will be allowed just one phone and is banned from using an internet-enabled device without permission; his use of the internet will be supervised; he cannot travel outside Greater London’s M25; and he will not be able to leave the UK without permission.

As an expert of radicalization, what consequences might Choudary’s release bring about? 

JH: I don’t know. Clearly, a close eye will be kept on him. He remains a persuasive figure, and much like his mentor, Omar Bakri Mohammed, draws his strength from being seen to be ‘silenced’ as a kind of soft martyrdom.

Much has been said about whether a deradicalization program would be effective with someone like Choudary. Never say never, but for leadership figures, they have so much invested in maintaining their role that the very idea of engaging in such an initiative is unlikely.

Deradicalization seems to work for those who want to be deradicalized. That’s not a criticism of those who work in prisons with the task of engaging with violent extremist prisoners. However, it’s about recognizing that deradicalization programs are not a panacea. They won’t work for everyone, and that might be reflected in the roles that individual actors have. A sound hypothesis is that leadership figures might be tougher to bring back to the fold than, say, your average rank-and-file member. It makes sense.