Frontiers of Terrorist Sociology

by Rob Tiller

Why do individuals agree to strap on a bomb and blow themselves and others up?   The rhetoric of the “War on Terror” suggests that individual terrorists are soldiers, but such calculated self-destruction is not typical military behavior.  Indeed, it is so far outside the norms of any behavior I’ve encountered that it seems completely insane.  Yet it also seems increasingly commonplace.  A piece by Sarah Kershaw in today’s NY Times takes a quick survey of the state of research on this question.

No matter how much hatred an individual feels, it is difficult to explain the decision to kill unknown strangers and oneself.  The most intriguing perspective, I thought, was thinking of the terrorist less as an individual and more as part of a radical group.  The group’s self isolation allows for increasing radicalization.  The individual feels social pressure to conform to the group consensus.  Being part of the group allays feelings of loneliness and worthlessness.  A prospective bomber gains status once the decision made.  At the same time, the prospect of loss of face discourages changing one’s mind.

It was encouraging to learn that some radical terrorist recruits leave their organizations when they find the reality of  life in the groups is harsh and boring.  What can we do to stop creating more terrorists and get more of them to leave?