We try to analyze ISIS, we look at global politics, argue over who finances Al-Qaeda and have different theories on how states contribute to terrorism. But we often overlook the simplest of facts: terrorists were, at some point, someone’s children. Only a few years before they blew themselves up and killed dozens along the way their mothers used to wake them up for school, they probably played soccer during lunch breaks and they argued over Ahly and Zamalek.
Before they became suicide bombers, before they master planned attacks against innocent souls, they were children asking their parents’ permission to go to their friend’s house. Somewhere along the way—however early or late that may have been in their lives—they became names we fear and dread. We can argue about nature versus nurture, but in most cases, terrorists aren’t born to extremist families. Societies and home environments contribute a large part to youth becoming killers and fanatics. It might have been an absent mother, an abusive father, a sexual assault, too much time on their hands, too little freedom to explore their identities, no communication with their parents or simply lack of knowledge of their religion. Somewhere along the line parents contributed, be it a small or large part, to the formation of an extremist who may later become a terrorist.
Back to basics
On a more macro level, terrorists are formed when societies fail to modernize religious discourse. Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington Daniel Chirot argues that in the late 19th century and early 20th century many Muslim thinkers, including Jamal El Din Al-Afghany’s disciple Muhammad Abdu, attempted to reform Islam the same way Western Europe “had overcome the religious rigidity of both Catholic and Protestant conservatives.” Chirot, who is an expert on political extremism, ethnic and religious conflict and tyrannical governments, adds that the reform was bypassed by secular modernizers leading anti-colonial nationalist, mostly socialist, movements in the 20th century, including Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. While trying to repress and limit religious influence, Nasser and leaders with like strategies also failed to adequately modernize countries and “turned into brutal and repressive dictatorships.” This gave rise to alternative ideologies like that of Sayyid Qutb who became an influence on many Islamist groups.
“There seems to be no solution as long as a more secular, moderate form of modernizing ideology does not start growing again,” says Chirot. “That will take a very long time. Meanwhile, the number of angry young people grows and because the secular left—communism, Nassserism, the Ba’ath—no longer have any appeal, they turn to ever more extreme forms of religion.
Another factor is social changes that lead to a rise in unemployment, including farmers abandoning their lands and moving to cities. “If they cannot find jobs, they suffer and their youth are more likely to join extremist movements,” Chirot explains, drawing parallels between his research on how Western societies transform and the social changes in Egypt and other similar Arab countries. “Handling the discontent is only possible with rapid economic growth that can accommodate those displaced by modernization,” says Chirot, citing examples like the French and Russian revolutions as societies that underwent violence due to failure to adjust quickly enough. Chirot describes the lack of economic growth to match the social change as “prescription for future disaster” not only in Arab and Muslim countries, but also in Europe where Muslims feel left out of the prosperity they see around them and so turn to violence.
With the lack of an alternative ideology for youth to adhere to and the rise of poverty and unemployment, a repressive society paves the way for extremism. “The more repressive a society, the more extreme its opponents become,” Chirot argues, adding that with the lack of moderate religion and its failure to promote its ideas well, “the field is left to the violent extremists who can appeal to and alienate young people.”
Who becomes a terrorist?
Experts agree on one thing: when it comes to terrorists, there’s no mold that fits all. They come from rich and poor backgrounds, strict and liberal families and all ends of the spectrum. But research gives some insight on common aspects in a terrorist’s profile.
Mia Blooom, professor of communication at Georgia State University and leading expert on terrorism studies, has conducted intensive research on child soldiers, how Islamist groups recruit children and suicide bombing. In a joint research project with expert on terrorism psychology and terrorists John Horgan, Bloom came to the conclusion that there is a wide variation among countries and within societies. When we look at Palestine, for instance, “Children are facing occupation so they are involved politically at a very young age, at the beginning they’re throwing stones against Israeli soldiers coming into their villages,” Bloom explains. They then grow up watching media that propagates martyrdom, and are indulged in a culture where martyrdom “is held to a lofty goal and is the best thing you can do to your society,” Bloom argues, adding that the streets and parks are named after martyrs, they see graffiti encouraging it, violence is always surrounding them, so they are raised to view martyrdom as the ultimate goal.
On the other hand, children in Pakistan, for instance, are kidnapped from their families if the families do not pay the extortion money terrorists demand. In Sinai, for instance, ISIS is recruiting teenagers convincing them that they can do far more in death than they can do in life.
“Horgan and I argue, however that at such a young age of 9 or 10, children can’t possibly understand what a shahid [martyr] is, and this is where the brainwashing comes in,” explains Bloom. “Psychology is everything; from mild coercion where the community expects everyone to contribute to the ultimate goal, independence or shaking off the occupation or whatever it may be.”
Living a hedonistic lifestyle, indulging in sex, drugs and generally ignoring religion altogether, means that the switch to religion can be easily manipulated. “If you keep hearing you’re going to hell because you did this, imagine how they can manipulate you,” Bloom argues. If the person can’t communicate with someone they trust about worries like those, they soon become desperate enough to do anything, including killing others and suicide bombings, to atone for their sins.
Based on research and interviews with 60 terrorists, Horgan and Bloom came to the conclusion that, although we can’t generalize a terrorist profile, we can see some common traits in terrorists; they feel angry, alienated, victimized or disenfranchised and believe they don’t have the power to effect real change through political involvement. They also identify with perceived victims of social injustice they are fighting and feel the need to take action rather than talk about the problem. They believe that violence against the state is not immoral and that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards like adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity. Finally, they have friends or family sympathetic to the cause.
Other leading experts have come to similar conclusions. Professor of Psychiatry, Political Psychology and International Affairs at George Washington University Jerrold Post argues that the recipe for terror includes a combination of a strong sense of victimization, fear of group extinction and a feeling of higher moral condition, while forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman of the University of Pennsylvania, after examining the records of 400 terrorists, concluded they are neither brainwashed nor socially isolated as 90 percent of them came from caring, intact families and 63 percent went to college.
How not to raise a terrorist
Although society, friends, culture and the media play a big role in shaping a terrorist’s mind, there are some things families can do to ensure a child isn’t lured into terrorism.
Bloom sees the lack of religious knowledge as key in making people more vulnerable and susceptible to brainwashing. “If someone cites the verse in Tawba saying ‘kill them wherever you find them,’ and you don’t know the Quran or that this verse is talking about a particular tribe not all Christians and Jews, then you can be easily manipulated,” argues Bloom. She adds that although profiles of terrorists vary widely, “the lack of knowledge of faith is common across the board,” making converts, for instance, very vulnerable to ISIS recruitment. With the lack of knowledge and the language skills to read and understand Quran, Bloom argues, converts and Muslims who can’t speak Arabic remain prone to misinterpretations of the religion. “Having knowledge of Islam is defense against extremism. They can manipulate you if you’re a blind slate,” she argues. The more you teach your children about moderate Islam, the less likely they are to fall prey to extremist interpretations.
Chirot argues that tyranny at home is a strong contributor to extremism. “Growing up in an authoritarian culture which allows little scope for individual rights makes the rise of extremism all the more likely.” Award-winning journalist and professor of practice at Middlesex University in London Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has on several occasions spoke out against how many Muslims raise their children in an ultra-collectivist environment with little regards to their unique identities or autonomy. “The inner life of a young person is often left unattended so they seek other networks to be understood and get rid of their pains,” Alibhai-Brown tells us. “The ‘I’ is always submerged into the ‘we.’”
“The politics makes us angry, the situation in Israel, the Iraqi situation, what’s happening in Muslim countries; that’s one source of their [the youth] anger, but the other source is living an unfree life in a very free world,” Alibhai-Brown argues.
Associate Professor of Psychology and Chair of SAPE Department at the American University in Cairo Hani Henry agrees with Chirot, adding that authoritarian parents who are “extremely structured” and use harsh discipline methods can lead to an oppressed child who grows up to identify with his parents’ aggression and then channel it toward society, “especially toward those who are weaker and less privileged.”
Bloom agrees that being too strict can backfire, but believes that being too liberal can be just as bad. She cites the case of 27 youngsters from Minnesota who disappeared to become suicide bombers. “One of those kids was about to have the best life; he was going to Harvard on a scholarship,” she explains. “But in those cases, a lot of it was that these children were left by themselves for long periods of time with access to the internet and social media without supervision.”
Being involved in sports, Bloom advises, is a good defense against extremist behavior in general. “There is supervision, it is an outlet for energy, children don’t have too much time on their hands to spend on the internet unsupervised.”
On a more macro level, Chirot argues that better and fairer economic growth, education on history and science and leaders having enough courage to stop feeding self-serving propaganda to their people are key in countering terrorism.
Bloom sees that ISIS, for instance, plays on the psychology of Egyptian men by promising them jobs, houses, wives and even sex slaves in a society where, due to economic conditions, men don’t get married until their 30s. With the lack of premarital sex, this means that the idea of marriage to an 18-year-old and having multiple women is alluring given the fact that it could be 12 years before he is able to afford a wife.
This is why Bloom argues that it is crucial to communicate with children and make them feel comfortable enough to come forward with anything they may have done without feeling ashamed. This also includes not feeling ashamed if they are sexually assaulted and being able to speak with their parents without feeling they violated the family’s honor; something that all too often has led to abused children treading extremist courses.
Henry identifies the lack of emotional coaching as one of the main factors contributing to building an extremist personality, arguing that repressing emotions will eventually lead to exploding. “Sometimes parents fail to talk with their children about their emotions and prevent them from expressing and experiencing them,” he says. “As a result, some of these children end up repressing their emotions only to explode later only in the form of toxic rage that we often see manifested among members of extremist groups.”
Bloom also stresses on always being aware of what a child is doing online and having the computer where kids are not alone in the room using it to be able to monitor their activities online.
“Spend time with the children, have a conversation with them, if they’re on the internet, ask them what they are checking, let them feel comfortable enough to ask you, instead of the internet, for whatever. The more information the child has the less someone can manipulate them,” advises Bloom. “The same thing that would get the kids off drugs would keep them from getting involved in terrorism; a family meal a few times a week without phones or tablets where the family is talking together and can see what’s going on with the kids and spot early signs to get early intervention.”
Spotting early signs of extremism
Early signs of extremism vary, but they are easy to recognize. One surefire way to spot an extremist is to look at his or her social circle; “People tend to radicalize in groups, so you will see clusters of people from same neighborhoods and schools radicalizing together,” says Bloom.
Henry agrees that there is no answer to who becomes an extremist and argues extremists aren’t born that way, but flags a few warning signs parents should look out for that may indicate the child’s readiness to adopt an extremist position. These signs include anti-social behavior, including callousness, truancy and even possibly torturing animals. “As they become adults, this disorder may turn into anti-social personality disorder,” said Henry.
Marginalization and isolation, Henry adds, are also key to developing an extremist personality. “They may fall prey to extremist groups who help them develop a new identity and a cause [as well as] give them the social support they always lacked,” he explains. The need to fit into a group resonates with Bloom’s argument that people radicalize in groups and there’s always peer pressure involved in the process.
Embracing religion, in general, is not an alarming sign and is a sign that parents often welcome, given that the alternative is getting involved in drugs and gangs. “So the initial switch to becoming more religious is a good thing and parents don’t normally question it or monitor what the message [their sons and daughters are subject to] is,” argues Bloom. Henry agrees, “For many parents, it is always great to have a child who is disciplined, spiritual and God-fearing.”
But when embracing religion is extreme and sudden, parents should begin to worry. “They go from zero to 100 overnight,” Bloom cautions. They then stop being friends with many of their former colleagues, they change their social circle completely, they change at school and then start distancing themselves from their families. “The son may, for instance, give the mother a hard time because she’s not wearing a veil,” Bloom says. “These are the telltale signs.” Henry similarly advises parents to be vigilant about the source of religious teaching their children receive and the message being conveyed to them.
Because people are at their most vulnerable undergoing psychological distress, Henry argues that it can be channeled into a form of anger, including terrorism. “Sometimes anger is directed to society in the form of extremist behaviors and ideology,” he adds.
If you spot any of these signs, make sure you resort to course correction straight away. “The person who has the most credibility [for the child] would be a legitimate sheikh [scholar] who can also be an advisor,” Bloom says. She adds that any non-religious figure will not be influential over someone who’s becoming religiously extreme because they will immediately be deemed as secular and so not in a position to give them advice. This means that a psychologist might not be the first line of defense in course correction.
“Children who are emotionally or sexually abused will always be vulnerable,” says Bloom. “They need to have someone at home, school or the mosque they can go to with a problem, any problem.”