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Fundamentalism, Radicalization and Terrorism. Part 1: terrorism as dissolution in a complex system



In the first of two papers in this Special Issue, Lord Alderdice draws on his personal experience of living and working in Northern Ireland and other countries that have suffered from terrorism, and describes from a psychoanalytic and systemic perspective the history of national, cultural and political conflicts which form the backdrop to the struggles against fundamentalism, radicalization and terrorism in current times. By examining and understanding the group dynamics and collective experiences of minority populations that have suffered generations of subjugation, humiliation and injustice at the hands of others, Lord Alderdice demonstrates how terrorism is not an individual but a group phenomenon and that any successful intervention aimed at reducing fundamentalism, radicalization and terrorism needs to identify and take into account the complex relational processes and experiences in all parties involved in the current global conflict.
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Fundamentalism, Radicalization and Terrorism.
Part 1: terrorism as dissolution in a complex
John Lord Alderdice
To cite this article: John Lord Alderdice (2017) Fundamentalism, Radicalization and Terrorism.
Part 1: terrorism as dissolution in a complex system, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 31:3, 285-300,
DOI: 10.1080/02668734.2017.1368692
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Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 2017
Vol. 31, No. 3, 285–300,
© 2017 The Association for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy in the NHS
Fundamentalism, Radicalization and Terrorism. Part 1:
terrorism as dissolution in a complex system
John, Lord Alderdice *
Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conict, Harris Manchester College, University
of Oxford, Oxford, UK; bDepartment of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, University of
Maryland, Baltimore, MD, USA
(Received 2 August 2017; accepted 14 August 2017)
In the rst of two papers in this Special Issue, Lord Alderdice draws on his
personal experience of living and working in Northern Ireland and other
countries that have suffered from terrorism, and describes from a psychoan-
alytic and systemic perspective the history of national, cultural and political
conicts which form the backdrop to the struggles against fundamentalism,
radicalization and terrorism in current times. By examining and understand-
ing the group dynamics and collective experiences of minority populations
that have suffered generations of subjugation, humiliation and injustice at the
hands of others, Lord Alderdice demonstrates how terrorism is not an indi-
vidual but a group phenomenon and that any successful intervention aimed
at reducing fundamentalism, radicalization and terrorism needs to identify
and take into account the complex relational processes and experiences in all
parties involved in the current global conict.
Keywords: terrorism; radicalization; complexity; complex system; funda-
When many people, including policy-makers and political leaders, in the United
States of America were suddenly confronted with terrorism in a new way, they
found it difcult to know how to react to the four co-ordinated and catastrophic
terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda in the US on the morning of Tuesday 11 September
2001. There was naturally profound shock and anger at the rst major attack on
American soil since Pearl Harbour, and it was regarded as a declaration of war
and an unjustied and evil assault. It also punctured the sense of security of those
who over many generations had come to the United States eeing wars, revo-
lutions, pogroms and persecution. Now they felt vulnerable in a way that they
had not experienced since they or their forebears had arrived. This vulnerability
was accompanied by something new. It was not just the fundamentalist way of
thinking of these Islamist attackers that seemed so alien to Americans, and indeed
to most Europeans too, but also the feelings of hate that were so strong that they
drove people not only to kill others but to sacrice their own lives for a politi-
co-religious purpose, and to feel justied in engaging in terrorist actions that were
in contravention of any normal rule of law. In those parts of the world that regard
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286 J. Lord Alderdice
themselves as progressive and secular, at least in the public sphere, where the
focus is on improving the individual social and economic well-being of oneself
and one’s family, where the rule of law is the perceived set of rules for societal
behaviour, and where the advancements in science, technology, medicine and
communications seem to demonstrate the success of Western thinking, it seemed
hard to understand the fundamentalist religious thinking, the radical anti-western
impulses and the murderous actions of these terrorist attackers who wanted to
wreck and destroy rather than emulate democratic progress.
In such circumstances, in addition to the natural wish to hit back with a hard
physical response, people search for a way of making sense of what is happening.
It was quickly assumed that there was a linear path connecting these three phe-
nomena. It was described to me by an ofcial in the FBI.
These people were persuaded of an extreme way of thinking, a distortion of Muslim
teachings which we call Islamic fundamentalism. They then became radicalized,
probably by some kind of indoctrination by extremists who were anti-West and an-
ti-American, and then they were persuaded to get involved in terrorism.
The outcome of this analysis of a linear trajectory from religious fundamentalism
through radicalization to terrorism, was that the authorities believed that if they
were going to stop terrorism, in addition to a hard security response, it was nec-
essary to turn this ‘extreme thinking’ into a more moderate form of religion that
stayed safely in the private sphere and contented itself with peaceable relations
and thinking more of another world, rather than acting violently in this one. This
general analysis has persisted through the various phases of the ‘War on Terror’,
‘Combating Violent Extremism’, and now ‘Countering or Preventing Extremism’.
As the evidence mounted that each phase of this approach was not working and in
addition was alienating many moderate Muslims, the tactics changed but they were
still informed by the same linear analysis despite it being known that the vast major-
ity of those who hold to their religious faith and practice in a fundamentalist way,
do not support the politically motivated violence of Islamist terrorists. The strategy
of terrorism, which has been spelt out clearly in written documents from the time
of Bakunin and the Russian anarchists through to modern Islamist terrorism is to
provoke the state to an overreaction which will split and alienate the community
(Naji, 2004). However the response of governments since 9/11 has fallen into this
trap and as a result the world is now spinning deeper into a new global conict.
The Irish Peace Process
Having grown up in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s there was something
familiar about this mistaken approach to terrorism. When my home community
broke down again into violence at that time the natural, and in many ways appro-
priate, response of the Government was to treat the street violence and the subse-
quent terrorist and paramilitary activity as subversion and a challenge to law and
order that needed to be put down with vigorous police and military interventions.
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Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
However the outcome was not a resolution of the problem but an escalation of it.
In the same way, the military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and else-
where have not resolved the problem of terrorism. Instead the whole of the wider
Middle East and North Africa has descended into chaotic violence and massive
social destruction, and international relations in the rest of the world are now
worse than at any time since the Second World War.
It is well known that in Northern Ireland, after decades of communal violence,
and the failure of many political interventions, a peace process was developed that
led to a cessation of violence and the creation of new political institutions, and
although these structures are not working as well as they should, no-one expects
a return to the campaigns of terrorist violence. We have still substantial political
disagreements, but at least we have found a way of disagreeing without killing
each other. A good deal has been written about this Irish Peace Process, most of
it focusing on the particular history, politics, economics, and religious divisions
in Ireland, as well as the new constitutional and institutional arrangements of the
1998 Good Friday Agreement and the work that was done since then on resolving
the problems of policing and the administration of justice. These observations
tend to point to the particularities of the Irish experience and lead many observ-
ers to assume, or even insist, that while it is interesting, it has little relevance
for the very different challenges presented by the global Islamist jihadists. There
are indeed profound differences in the two contexts, however all such situations
involve communities of human beings that cannot get along together. As groups
they think, feel and behave in ways that seem impenetrable to outsiders from
peaceful stable societies and these disturbances of large group relationships have
resulted in apparently intractable violence.
One of the key reasons for the relative success of the Irish Peace Process was
that instead of focusing only on the long-lasting divisions of religion and politics
and the historic abuses and discrimination, we found new ways of thinking and
understanding our problems. This was made possible by changes in the wider
context as well as by creativity in the thinking of some of the political leaders. It
had become clear that the use of the police, the military and the administration
of justice could contain, but not resolve the situation. The Irish Republican Army
(IRA) also realized that while they would not be defeated, they could not defeat
the British authorities. This led all sides to rethinking at a fundamental level.
The law generally operates at the level of the individual rather than the group.
If a crime has been committed the approach of law is to try to identify who was
responsible and to take that person through due process to conviction and appro-
priate sanctions. If the rule of law was not working, could this be because the
problem was not essentially one of individuals who broke the law, but was instead
a group phenomenon? When we are confronted with lung cancer we do not try to
identify why a particular cell has become uncontrollably mitotic rather than any
other cell. Instead we deal with the problem at a different systemic level with sur-
gery, radio- and chemo-therapy, and most importantly persuading the population
not to smoke. To use another analogy, we cannot understand the operation of an
ant colony simply by analysing how each individual ant functions because as a
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288 J. Lord Alderdice
large group new ‘emergent’ phenomena appear that can only be observed at that
‘large group’ level. In a similar way, while still implementing the law, we moved
away from asking why any particular individual became a terrorist and began to
see our troubles as the results of historic disturbed relationships between commu-
nities of people. Instead of looking for blame we began to analyse the key sets
of disturbed relationships between Protestants and Catholics within Northern
Ireland; between the people of Ireland, North and South; and between Britain and
Ireland. The whole of the Irish Peace Process was then built on this analysis, with
three strands of talks addressing the three key sets of relationships, involving only
those political representatives in each strand of negotiations that were relevant
to that set of relationships, and focusing on those issues that related to that set of
relationships. This language of relationships was a central feature of the public
discourse about the process at that time, though it has tended to be overlooked
since. The language of ‘relationships’ mirrored the systemic ideas that were devel-
oping in some approaches to family therapy at that time, but the way that I have
found easiest to convey this to people who are not familiar with systems theory
or the complexity of large group processes is to tell stories about relationships,
because everyone has a sense that this is something they understand, even though
in reality there is great complexity involved.
As we had increasing success in this approach to thinking about violent polit-
ical conict in the Irish Peace Process, I also explored its application to intracta-
ble conict in other places and worked with colleagues who conducted scientic
research by gathering evidence directly from people involved in conict in var-
ious trouble spots (Atran, 2016; Whitehouse et al., 2017). A new paradigm has
begun to develop from this work and experience that makes sense of fundamen-
talism, radicalization and terrorism in terms of what might be called large group
What makes a terrorist?
Let us go back to that rst question people ask when terrorism explodes into their
community – ‘Why are these people attacking us with this horrible violence?’
The usual answers given in public discourse are that they are either psycho-
logically disturbed, or that they are evil people. However, direct engagement and
explorations as a psychiatrist and politician, both inside and outside the thera-
peutic context in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, has demonstrated to me that
most of the people who become involved in terrorism have no prior neurotic or
psychotic disorder. Some people develop PTSD and other reactions as a result of
their experiences of violence but that is a different matter. Many have grown up
in communities where over time the tradition of using physical force to address
political problems had developed and their fathers and grandfathers were hon-
oured for their participation in a historic struggle. As a result their involvement in
terrorism was an identication with these signicant gures. It was ego-syntonic
and not an expression of internal conict. They often described experiences of
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major trauma where friends or family members were killed or badly injured in
bombings, shootings and other violence episodes, and felt that the ofcial institu-
tions – the police, the army and the justice system – gave them and their commu-
nity inadequate protection or were indeed the instigators of the violence. Others
who did not come from parts of the community with a family history of political
violence may nevertheless have experienced the same kinds of trauma and found
themselves reacting by joining a terrorist or paramilitary organization. This was
consciously seen both as a way of joining with others to protect their community
and also of satisfying the wish for revenge for their own hurt or the death or injury
of their loved one.
These two groups – those who were following a signicant tradition (identi-
cation with an admired person), and those who joined in a violent response to
loss and injury (identication with the aggressor) – often despised another group
who appeared to have joined primarily to benet from the culture of organized
crime through which terrorist organizations survive and exert control in their own
communities. The largely criminal element seeks to gain personally from extor-
tion, racketeering, drugs and illegal businesses such as the sale of stolen tobacco,
alcohol or laundered fuel. These activities are needed by a terrorist organization to
raise the substantial funds necessary to conduct an illegal campaign, but the more
committed terrorist has a political cause for which they gave up family and nan-
cial security and risked their lives. They did not seek personal nancial benet
through these illegal activities and resent their political cause being used as a ag
of convenience by those whose agenda is crude personal material gain.
After years of active terrorist activity, some of the leaders of the major ter-
rorist organization called the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) became
elected politicians and even ministers in government, and others became commu-
nity leaders and activists. They acted appropriately, showing care and sensitivity
to the needs of the community, and sometimes even of the ‘other community
and its leaders. In short, the evidence from the work of those who have actually
engaged with people and groups engaged in terrorism is clear. There is no eviden-
tial basis for the view that either mental or emotional disturbance or a particular
or malign personality type can provide an explanation for why these particular
individuals became involved in terrorism.
The political roots of Irish terrorism: a group phenomenon
What then is terrorism, and how and when does it appear? Terrorism usually
only breaks out after a lengthy gestation, but once released has its own terri-
ble dynamic as communities begin to think in different ways than when they
live in stable peaceful prosperous societies. In Ireland there was a long history
of colonial government by Britain, and this not only involved socio-economic
disadvantage for Irish people and oppressive political control, but also religious
and cultural conicts. The Anglo-Saxon culture of Britain, and its approach to
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290 J. Lord Alderdice
state and church governance diverged historically from that of Celtic Catholic
Ireland which identied more with continental Europe. In the United Kingdom
there has recently been a referendum in which England and Wales voted to leave
the European Union and Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the
EU. It is worth recalling that this is something of a historic repetition of Henry
VIII’s decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church, risking not just serious eco-
nomic consequences, as is the case now, but eternal damnation. The British state
survived, as did Anglicanism, but Scotland retained its history of the ‘auld alli-
ance’ with France, its different legal system and its Presbyterianism, all of which
linked it with continental Europe. Ireland as a whole also maintained a more pro-
European culture. Ulster identied more with Scotland in its Presbyterianism,
which traced its origins to the Low Countries and Switzerland, rather than with
England and Anglicanism, and while their loyalty to Britain was intense, it was
premised on fact that the same person who wore the Scottish crown also wore the
English crown. The Ulster Scots Presbyterians were discriminated against and
persecuted by the Anglicans, but the long history of violence in the period of the
reformation and counter-reformation and the later merging of Irish Nationalism
and Irish Catholicism left Ulster Protestants feeling that there would be greater
tolerance for their beliefs and way of life if they remained in the United Kingdom
than if they joined in an independent Catholic Ireland.
We know that with individuals we are dealing with personalities that have
a persistent way of being-in-the-world. This is not just a set of beliefs about the
world, or memories of good or bad experiences. It is a way of perceiving reality
and living in relationships. Culture is a large group equivalent of personality. It
is the persistent way of ‘being-in-the-world’ of a large group. It expresses how
that community experiences reality and engages in relationships with other large
groups. It does not change easily in the face of new experiences and often results
in responses to current events that do not make much sense in terms of the ‘here-
and-now’ and are not really appropriate to it. If terrorism is a group phenomenon
rather than one of separate individuals how is it similar to and different from the
psychology of individuals?
The struggle in Ireland against English hegemony was characterized from at
least the eighteenth century on by the adoption and renement of the tactic of
terrorism and by the early part of the twentieth century it enabled the twenty-six
southern counties of Ireland to defeat British rule in that part of Ireland and secede
from the United Kingdom. Predictably the economic consequences for the Ireland
as a whole were not good over the next few generations up until Ireland joined
the European Community in 1973, but this never produced any regret about the
move to independence. There are some things that cannot be measured in socio-
economic terms, and when people engage in terrorism they know that they are not
personally likely to be better off, but they are driven by different values, so-called
‘sacred values’, and believe that their community will benet by having control
of its own affairs and a better sense of esteem. This is why my colleague, Scott
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Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
Atran calls them ‘devoted actors’ who operate on the basis of sacred values in
contrast to the so-called ‘rational actors’ of ‘realpolitik’ who operate on the basis
of socio-economic and power benets.
While the term ‘terror’ is used to describe how some authoritarian regimes
of both the left and right have tried to control their own people, the term ‘ter-
rorism’ is usually and most appropriately applied today to the triangular tactic
used by those who are less militarily powerful as they struggle against a pow-
erful establishment. Unable to engage in open warfare they attack victims who
are entirely innocent, though they may have symbolic signicance, because the
more powerful government is seen as responsible for their welfare and defence.
It is not the victims who are their target, therefore, but rather the responsible gov-
ernment, who the terrorists can show as being unable to defend their own people.
The government is then provoked to attack back and often to over-react, both
losing their own moral authority and also alienating further the community from
which the terrorists have emerged. The power of this tactic may be seen in Ireland
where Britain had emerged victorious from the First World War in 1918, but was
driven from most of the neighbouring island of Ireland less than four years later,
by the IRA led by the utterly committed and tactically shrewd Michael Collins.
When he and his colleagues accepted the partition of Ireland as a step towards full
independence for the whole island, the anger of those who refused to accept the
compromise with Britain resulted in a bitter civil war, and in the newly created
entity of Northern Ireland the Catholic nationalists who remained as a permanent
minority felt a deep sense of betrayal by their southern co-religionists. They felt
no loyalty to the Northern state and the government of Northern Ireland in turn
was suspicious of them with the result that the Catholic nationalist community did
not integrate and there was discrimination in housing and jobs and unfair treat-
ment of that section of the community.
In the late 1960s when the civil rights marches in the USA offered a new
model for effecting change, Northern Irish Catholics came out on to the streets
to demand civil rights, and were joined by Protestant liberals and socialists, but
there was a violent reaction from the Protestant unionist majority who saw this
not just as a demand for civil rights but as an attempt to bring down the North-
ern Ireland state and force the re-unication of Ireland. This reaction to the civil
rights marches blocked the route for potentially peaceful change and opened the
path of regression into street riots which quickly deteriorated into vigilantism and
then to terrorism with the reappearance and reinvigoration of the IRA which had
been dormant since the end of their last unsuccessful terrorist campaign in the late
On the Protestant unionist side militias quickly established themselves as
defenders of the constitutional status quo, The two largest were known as the
Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and
by the early 1970s there was widespread bombing of buildings, and huge num-
bers of fatal shootings by the PIRA, and the UDA and UVF, while the British
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292 J. Lord Alderdice
Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the Northern Ireland police force) were
tasked with maintaining law and order and defeating the terrorist campaigns. The
IRA’s bombing and shooting campaign was followed in the 1980s with the hun-
ger strikes, the ‘armalite and ballot paper’ strategy, which combined terrorism
with an entry into elected politics, and then came more targeted assassinations
and car bombings. By the 1990s there had been a widening of the range of those
people who were regarded as ‘legitimate targets’ for killings, and the strategy of
bombing mainland Britain developed. There was deep hatred and division in the
community and Northern Ireland politics became ever more polarized. The failure
of all of these destructive tactics to bring about a resolution eventually led to the
development of a Peace Process involving negotiations amongst all the parties.
After the Belfast Agreement in 1998 attacks on security forces and the ‘other’ side
of the community were replaced by attacks on elements in their own side of the
community as a way of maintaining control. This too settled as the new agreed
political arrangements were gradually put in place and a new way of structuring
the community evolved.
How had the rest of the community and the responsible sovereign govern-
ment in London responded to the regression into terrorist and reactive violence?
In the early years of breakdown into gross chaos and mayhem the gruesome and
relatively random attacks created widespread acute terror. In the areas of actual
street violence the levels of suicide and depression went down, but in the penum-
bra – the areas around the scenes of violence, which heard the news, and feared
what could happen anxiety mounted and the prescription of benzodiazepines
and other psychotropic medication rose considerably. There were demands for a
robust security response, resulting in executive detention without trial and vig-
orous army activity alongside the police. The number of prisoners, soldiers and
policemen grew exponentially. Soon there was trouble inside as well as outside
the growing prison estate. The prisoners inside, like the community outside,
became ever more divided along religious lines and there were major movements
of population reecting this. The communal divisions extended beyond the tra-
ditional apartheid in schools and sports activities. People increasingly tended to
live, work and socialize only with co-religionists. The territory controlled by each
group was clearly marked out by ags and sectarian murals painted on the gable
walls of houses. The kerb stones at the edge of pavements were painted red, white
and blue in Protestant Unionist areas, and green, white and orange in Catholic
Nationalist areas.
This acute phase was gradually replaced by a period of chronic disturbance.
The community had regressed from a myriad of individual differences maintained
in a broad mosaic of relationships, to a narrower frame of reference where the
single difference between Protestant unionist and Catholic nationalist assumed
pre-eminence, and was reected in control of territory. This was physically main-
tained by attacks on those who crossed the community divide in their personal
life, and by regular marches by partisan community groups which marked out the
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Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
geographical boundaries of the two sections of the community. Only after about
thirty years did the many attempts at an exploratory healing process begin to make
signicant advances towards peace when the British Government came together
with the Irish Government and all the parties including Sinn Fein, the political
wing of Irish Republicanism (the PIRA being the ‘military wing’).
From the individual to the group
It will not be difcult to discern in these references to the process of acute dis-
solution and regression, emergence of primitive phenomena, chronicity, contain-
ment (with security containment measures rather than medication or in-patient
care) and a slow resistance-bedevilled healing process, something analogous to
the breakdown and repair of mental health in an individual. While the way large
groups function is not simply a direct read-across from the psychology of the
individual, I began to explore how far it was possible to translate the evolution-
ary or developmental psychoanalytical approach beyond the arena of individual
intra-psychic conict and mental illness into the eld of intra- and inter-commu-
nal conict.
While I was doing this from my perspective as a psychoanalytical psychia-
trist, some others were using different language to express the same thing. John
Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, a largely Catholic
nationalist party which was fervently against the use of violence for political ends,
had closely observed the process of European integration after the Second World
War, and understood that while social and economic cooperation were the tools of
the European project its purpose was to ensure peace in Europe after the terrible
experiences of repeated and devastating wars. He also appreciated that the ques-
tion was not whether individual people had good relationships, but whether the
large groups to which they belonged had good relationships with each other. The
violence was therefore seen by us and people like us as a disturbance of relation-
ships between these large groups and that these disturbed relationships needed to
be understood and addressed.
The notion that we should try to achieve some understanding of people and
groups involved in politically motivated violence is a challenge to the simple law
and order approach. The immediate emotional response to a terrorist campaign
of splitting the community into bad (the terrorists who are outside the pale) and
good (law-abiding citizens who need protected from them) was clearly observable
in Northern Ireland where it deepened divisions between Protestants and Catho-
lics, less over the acceptability of terrorism than about whether the government
attempts to deal with it were justied, proportionate and appropriate. Similarly
in the global ‘War on Terror’ after 9/11, while the terrorists were partially iso-
lated, those who proclaimed the war against them also increasingly experienced
antagonism from erstwhile allies because of their military reaction to the terrorist
campaign. The result was that instead of being seen as successful defenders of
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294 J. Lord Alderdice
their people from the evils of terrorism most of the political leaders of the ‘War
on Terror’ departed the political scene with the mark of failure and with their
reputations for moral leadership damaged and permanently stained. Meanwhile
those terrorist leaders who have not been killed are unmoved in their determina-
tion, and the strength and depth of the hatred involved on all sides continues to
overcome any rational appreciation of the damage of the constantly expanding
war which is self-evidently not in the interests of either individuals or society.
Rational argument is a weak lever in the face of profound violence and hate, and
in any case splitting into good and bad and making the struggle into a moral one
of good against evil is the exercise of a psychological defence mechanism against
profound anxiety rather than a result of rational psychologically-informed anal-
ysis. It is also a very particular way of thinking which does not engage with the
complexity involved.
Another kind of ‘good/bad split’ that has been adopted by some analysts pro-
poses that terrorism is a result of inequality and post-colonial poverty. Of course
there is a moral imperative to address the painful inequalities of education, health
and economic well-being in the world, however it is generally not when socie-
ties are at their poorest that they fall victim to the tactic of terrorism. Northern
Ireland began to experience terrorism as Catholic grievances were actually being
addressed by a more progressive Protestant unionist government in the late 1960s.
The Middle East became more unstable after oil was discovered there. Mr Osama
bin Laden was not a poor man, indeed he came from an element in the more
wealthy Saudi elite. What he did demonstrate in his personal life was much of the
experience of humiliation and disrespect which I have found to be the emotional
driving forces in the group dynamic behind the involvement in terrorism (Robin-
son, 2001). That it is not in the depths of deprivation, but at the point of improve-
ment that things become most vulnerable to breakdown suggests that the link
with socio-economic disadvantage and emotional reaction comes from a sense
that the relative disadvantage is experienced as unfair. This is not just a reaction to
current experiences, but may be a sustained and historic sense of injustice which
survives long after the actual period of traumatic unfairness is past and the context
has completely changed. As we found out in Northern Ireland, simply improving
current socio-economic conditions does not resolve the problem. Where people
believe that their relative disadvantage is the result of poor education or social
or cultural differences they may even accept these as unhappy but justiable
causes of their disadvantage. When their educational opportunities improve and
they feel as capable as the next person, they begin to see their disadvantage more
in terms of historic cultural, racial or political discrimination. The next step is
to try to change this by peaceful political means, but when non-violent options
are exhausted the use of physical force comes on to the agenda. This relatively
rational explanation for the emergence of violence as a last resort could be seen
as a ‘realpolitik’ of the left.
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Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
Those on the right who espouse what is more commonly referred to as ‘real-
politik’ attempt to give a rational analysis of what national leaders or their coun-
tries perceive to be in their own best interests, and propose responses of a simple
behavioural kind, giving economic and political favours as encouragement, and
embarking on punitive operations and war to discourage negative behaviour. The
approach of the Bush administration to the wider Middle East, and Israeli attacks
on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank could be seen as being characterized
by this approach to the problem. This will not work as an explanation nor have the
actions that have owed from it been successful in putting down the violent threat,
and this should not be surprising to us since we know from our clinical experience
that individuals and groups often act against their own best interests, especially
when their emotions are high.
Disrespect, humiliation and injustice
As I came to develop personal relationships with those who represented the dif-
ferent strands of group life in the politics of Ireland, North and South I was struck
by how the strength of their feelings was associated with powerful communal
memories of times when their group, or they as representative individuals of their
group, had been disrespected or humiliated. These experiences provoked deep
anger and created a capacity for responses at least as violent as those that had been
experienced. When these problems of institutionalized humiliation and unfairness
were not able to be resolved by democratic politics because of the inbuilt majority
of Protestant unionists and when the civil rights marches of the 1960s failed to
make the necessary changes, there was a breakdown again into terrorism.
Subsequently I have explored whether this triad of the sense of unfairness/
injustice, humiliation/disrespect and the failure of peaceful democratic attempts to
right the perceived wrongs, was only related to the outbreak of terrorism in North-
ern Ireland, or whether there are similar underlying patterns in other countries that
have experienced violent insurgencies. Let me briey give a few examples.
In Peru there is a historic and, despite recent elections, a current failure by the
descendants of the Spanish conquistadors to integrate the majority native popu-
lation into the mainstream of establishment life. They remain generally poor, but
also disrespected and excluded from positions of power. This was borne in on me
some years ago as I participated in a ceremony when the remains of seven of the
tens of thousands of those ‘disappeared’ during the Sendero Luminosa (Shining
Path, Maoist) terrorist insurgency were returned to their families. As I walked
with the families through the streets of Ayacucho following the cofns, few peo-
ple paid any attention. They just went about their business ignoring this multiple
funeral. These grieving people and their dead relatives seemed to be of no import;
they were split off and disregarded. It is worth noting that despite the defeat of
Sendero Luminso, the politics of Peru remain disturbed.
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296 J. Lord Alderdice
In Nepal – the last Hindu kingdom – the upper castes in power excluded the
lower castes from positions of respect, and split the community into ‘good’ and
‘bad’, with the same toxic humiliation I had identied previously. When the lim-
ited moves to democracy were abandoned the representatives of the ordinary
people then espoused a violent Maoist strategy, but only after any democratic
prospect was removed. They subsequently engaged in a peace process which
brought an end to the monarchy and Prachandra the leader of the Maoists became
Prime Minister of the new republic.
One thing that is striking about Nepal, Peru and Northern Ireland is that despite
their angry, violent promotion of the cause of the oppressed, the terrorist treatment
and abuse of their own people during the struggle was appalling. Their lack of
humanity in the treatment of those in whose cause they fought, powerfully points
up that it is not merely a rational, sympathetic response to the socio-economic
plight of the poor. I had been very much aware of this at home where the Roman
Catholic nationalist community suffered more from the PIRA campaign than did
the Protestant unionist community, and when I became involved in the Arab/Israel
conict and especially with the problems for Palestinians, I found all the same
things. Here was a community that felt humiliated and unfairly treated, and that
came to believe that there was no peaceful way of resolving their problems. The
result of them turning to violence certainly inconvenienced their Israeli enemies,
but the people who suffered most from their violent struggle were their own peo-
ple. I should say that it was also very clear to me that Jewish Israelis also carried
with them a profound sense of historic humiliation, disrespect and unjust and pro-
foundly unfair treatment and a belief that only the use of force could protect them
in the future, so this triad can affect more than one community in any conict.
Although the situations in Northern Ireland, Peru, Nepal and Israel/Palestine
are widely divergent when assessed on economic, historical and political grounds,
all experienced violent terrorist campaigns which had emerged in the context of
a long-standing sense of injustice and humiliation felt by a signicant section of
the population. There was also a deep feeling of shame connected to a sense of
the failure to protect, repair or resolve the injustice and unfairness of their circum-
stances. These feelings were personal but also communal, and experienced as a
loss of power or agency, with the terrible feeling of being wiped out. However,
adopting the tactic of terrorism can hardly been seen as a simple rational choice
of strategy since it has been tried in many parts of the world and while it has only
been successful in a few situations, it has inevitably been much more destructive
of the community from which it emanates that of the community that they see as
the enemy. A rational individual reaction model is much less helpful in explaining
this self-damaging outcome than one which would take account of the processes
of evolution and dissolution in the group and the power of emotions in the causa-
tion of political terrorism.
Is it the case that young people have espoused Islamist terrorism because they
have adopted extreme religious ideas that provoke them to engage in terrorism?
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Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
Research interviews conducted by my colleagues with young people in the Mid-
dle East and North Africa show that they had little intellectual understanding of
Islamic theology, and much of what they did know they had absorbed after their
involvement in terrorist groups, or even after their imprisonment for terrorist
offences. This suggests that their engagement was not a result of a primary cogni-
tive commitment to a religious-political programme. Indeed for many it was not
so much recruitment by the godfathers of terrorism but, as Sageman (2004) and
Atran (2006) have shown, voluntary enlistment with friends with whom they may
have played football or had family connections.
Analysts of terrorism have often attempted to differentiate between the kind
of terrorist insurgencies associated with nationalistic struggles and the conict
between Islamists and the West which is seen as more irrational, fundamentalist
and not open to engagement. However in my own experience of meeting and
talking extensively with leading gures in Hamas and Hezbollah in the Middle
East over a number of years it has been clear that as far as they are concerned
the same key problems are present – severe relative deprivation, a deep sense of
injustice especially (but not only) on the question of land, experiences of humili-
ation and disrespect and a belief that all non-violent options have been exhausted.
In that sense those movements in Palestine, Lebanon and the surrounding region
are movements whose purpose is to right perceived wrongs on behalf of their
own people. In so far as they have turned to co-religionists for help it is in the
service of this primary purpose rather than their being primarily instruments of
a wider malign conspiracy or a result of their fundamentalist theology. However
the more they see no peaceful route to resolving the historic as well as the current
hurt and grievance of their people and instead experience sanctions and exclusion,
the more their people regress into destructive and self-destructive thinking and
actions and see their difculties as being not only a problem of their own local
community but as they fuse with the wider Muslim world they see their problems
as a local version of a global humiliation and injustice against Muslims.
In the early days of my engaging with Hamas and Hezbollah it seemed possi-
ble that if an alternative route could be opened up, an evolution towards a peaceful
outcome could slowly be found, as had been the case in South Africa and Ireland.
However all attempts to achieve this were frustrated by other forces and now I
am not optimistic that there is any intention of opening up a route for the peace-
ful resolution of this conict. What is certain is that the mere passage of time,
attempts to destroy the extremist ideology of such groups, and the killing of indi-
vidual leaders have not been successful and will not be successful in expunging
their feelings of humiliation and injustice. The reasons behind the adoption of the
tactic of terrorism are the failure to deal with the disturbed historic relationships
between groups of people, as well as the resultant feelings and memories that are
passed from generation to generation and the power differentials that ensure that
more open confrontation is not viable. This suggests that terrorism is not a result
of extremist thinking but a reaction to extreme emotions, specically the feelings
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298 J. Lord Alderdice
association with humiliation and profound unfairness, and the obstruction of their
resolution through peaceful democratic engagement.
The continuation of the complex I have described will lead to deepening
regression. As Khaled Mashal, the leader of Hamas at the time, put it to me, ‘Israel
and the West does not have to engage with us, but they should understand that we
are prepared to work the system and to stand for elections. If we are unsuccessful
we will be in opposition and if we are elected to government we will govern. You
may not like how we will govern, but it will be the way approved democratically
by our people. If the US and Israel do not engage with us there are others coming
after us who do not want to work the system; they want to burn the system’. This
was the rst clear indication to me of the rise of ISIS and others of that kind, and
the subsequent course of events proved him right. Failure to engage with the con-
cerns of the Palestinian people, led to the rise of the PLO. Failure to create real
progress with the PLO led to the rise of Hamas. Failure to engage with Hamas
leads to the rise of other more extreme and regressed manifestations.
Group processes and globalization: the current picture
This leads us to the large group psychological processes at work in the emergence
of the global jihadist networks of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and others. At one
level one could observe that a combination of the collapse of the Soviet Union and
the ‘stable instability’ of the Cold War led to regression, with the re-appearance
of old nationalisms and religious divisions that had been kept under wraps for
many years. In particular, the long-standing resentments of the Muslim world at
the defeat and destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the ending of the Caliphate
in the early years of the twentieth century had been simmering for decades and
all attempts to build more progressive democratic structures had been frustrated
by Western interventions and support for authoritarian regimes in the region. In
addition, since humanity has not yet found a way of living without an enemy, the
collapse of ‘the familiar enemy’, the Soviet Union, led to the emergence of Isla-
mism not only sui generis, but also, one could argue, as an unconscious result of
the need of the West for a new enemy.
Added to these challenges, globalization, consequent on technological devel-
opments in communication, travel, and weapons of mass effect has produced pro-
found group anxiety and a regression in societal thinking towards religious and
non-religious fundamentalism and culturally to old societal themes and structures
that appeared to provide people with some reassurance of certainty. The reaction
is complex because of the deep ambivalence to the West where, mixed with antip-
athy towards its dominance and intrusion, there is a wish to possess some of the
benets of education, healthcare and economic prosperity represented by Europe
and more especially its offspring, the United States of America. There is also
the haunting puzzle of why their Islamic society which was once fertile in ideas
and innovation has suffered such reversals and humiliation. Part of the political
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Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
answer given by Islamists is that it is not just western imperialism, but what they
see as Muslim betrayal in the form of the Arab royal families and the regimes in
Egypt and elsewhere holding on to and enjoying the oil wealth and power from
their alliance with the West rather than sharing these resources with their own
people. The hypocrisy, as it is seen, of Western powers proclaiming an attachment
to democracy and human rights while allying themselves with undemocratic gov-
ernments and disregarding the results of free and fair elections, adds to the sense
of shame, humiliation, injustice and deep anger and the dangerous possibility of
a regression beyond the split between Islam and the West into the communal split
and sectarian bitterness of Shiite against Sunni.
It is important to note that the regression into fundamentalism, and the sense
of humiliation and injustice are also present in Europe and the United States of
America. Some of the same angry feelings are felt in their populations too, and
fundamentalism on the right and the left is also an increasing characteristic of
thinking in those regions. A key difference is that in the West democracy gives
an opportunity to express those frustrations by changing the government and
shape of the polity, as evidenced by Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald
Trump as President in the USA. As much as these events provoke extremes of
outrage, jubilation and adulation, such emotive responses, albeit involving sig-
nicant proportions of the population, have not degenerated into the large group
regressive processes that result in violence. In less contained parts of the world,
where populations differentiated by ethnicity, religion or ideology are marginal-
ized or persecuted, and change through peaceful democratic means is blocked and
frustrated, violent conict becomes the only language that is heard, and is often
more a communication of angry despair, than a considered strategy for change.
It is only through attempts to understand and address their collective history of
traumas, injustices, humiliations and grievances that continue to be so strongly
felt, that another language of more peaceful engagement may emerge and prevent
the ongoing intergenerational transmission of fundamentalism, radicalization and
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author.
John, Lord Alderdice
Atran, S. (2006, April 28). Global network terrorism, brieng to National Security Coun-
cil, White House. Retrieved fromles/atran_
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300 J. Lord Alderdice
Atran, S. (2016, June). The devoted actor: Unconditional commitment and intractable con-
ict across cultures. Current Anthropology, 57, S192–S203. doi: 10.1086/685495
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which the Umma will pass. (W. McCants (2006), Trans.). Cambridge, MA: John M
Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University.
Robinson, A. (2001). Bin Laden - Behind the mask of the terrorist. Edinburgh: Mainstream
Sageman, M. (2004). Understanding terror networks. Philadelphia: University of Penn-
sylvania Press.
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... By creating a collective basis for people's feelings of humiliation and honor violation at the hands of illegitimate outgroups (Leidner, Sheikh, & Ginges, 2012;Lord Alderdice, 2017;McCauley, 2017;Swann et al., 2012;, this narrative limited the availability and desirability of actions that could re-establish ingroup honor and perceived superiority. Given Daesh's sacred values (their belief in their intellectual superiority, the need for ideological purity, and the Prophetic method, the manhaj; Ingram, 2019), their collectivized grievances could only be satisfied by jihad (Atran & Ginges, 2012). ...
Full-text available
The past decade has witnessed burgeoning efforts among governments to prevent people from developing a commitment to violent extremism (conceived of as a process of radicalization). These interventions acknowledge the importance of group processes yet in practice primarily focus on the idiosyncratic personal vulnerabilities that lead people to engage in violence. This conceptualization is problematic because it disconnects the individual from the group and fails to adequately address the role of group processes in radicalization. To address this shortcoming, we propose a genuinely social psychological account of radicalization as an alternative. We draw on recent developments in theory and research in psychological science to suggest that radicalization is fundamentally a group socialization process through which people develop identification with a set of norms—that may be violent or nonviolent—through situated social interactions that leverage their shared perceptions and experiences. Our alternative provides a way of understanding shifts toward violent extremism that are caused by both the content (focal topics) and process of social interactions. This means that people’s radicalization to violence is inseparable from the social context in which their social interactions take place.
... That understanding is after all why we are together today in Rome. We are hoping that some new understanding will emerge (Alderdice, 2017a(Alderdice, , 2017b. ...
The changes associated with the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment moved the seat of authority from princes and bishops to the individual and made the application of rationality the measure of believability. This paper argues that the current period of socio-political and moral upheaval, triggered by disruptive technology, anger about corruption and distrust of intellectual elites, is resulting in a move beyond linear and reductionist thinking to an approach characterised by complexity, and from rationalism to relational thinking. Some implications for public morality are identified and discussed.
This paper argues that the United Nations (UN) Security Council counterterrorism policies have largely failed because they did not address many of the conditions that make certain parts of the world a fertile ground for the emergence of terrorism, including the historical antecedents that lead to violence; the lingering and pervasive influence and hegemony of UN Security Council Members; the UN Security Council members' self‐serving and morally inconsistent exercise of their power of veto or in condemning violent acts perpetrated by Member States; and the double standard in the implementation of its policies (Barnett & Finnemore, 1999; Farer, 2002; Glennon, 2003). Utilizing a critical geopolitical perspective, as well as the conceptualizations of the “normative unconscious” (Layton, 2002, 2006) and the “absent referent” (Adams, 1990) of and Benjamin's framework of witnessing and the “moral third” (Benjamin, 2018). The paper further argues that much of what is taken as the status quo in United Nations Security Council counterterrorism policies is derived from ideological principles that were ultimately created in the service of the state apparatuses (and their signature exploitative practices) that governments unconsciously feel compelled to sustain. By making explicit these proclivities, and exposing terrorists as the absent referent of the United Nations Security Council's discussions, the paper offers a psychoanalytic framework to explain the logic behind such counterterrorism policies. Further, following Benjamin, the paper suggests that by moving away from Eurocentric, zero‐sum, and colonial logic, there may be a way to organically recognize populations that are aggrieved by these state apparatuses in a way that could obviate the use of political violence and, inter alia, terrorism.
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Willingness to lay down one’s life for a group of non-kin, well documented historically and ethnographically, represents an evolutionary puzzle. Building on research in social psychology, we develop a mathematical model showing how conditioning cooperation on previous shared experience can allow individually costly pro-group behavior to evolve. The model generates a series of predictions that we then test empirically in a range of special sample populations (including military veterans, college fraternity/sorority members, football fans, martial arts practitioners, and twins). Our empirical results show that sharing painful experiences produces “identity fusion” – a visceral sense of oneness – which in turn can motivate self-sacrifice, including willingness to fight and die for the group. Practically, our account of how shared dysphoric experiences produce identity fusion helps us better understand such pressing social issues as suicide terrorism, holy wars, sectarian violence, gang-related violence, and other forms of intergroup conflict.
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Uncompromising wars, revolution, rights movements, and today’s global terrorism are in part driven by “devoted actors” who adhere to sacred, transcendent values that generate actions dissociated fromrationally expected risks and rewards. Studies in real-world conflicts show ways that devoted actors, who are unconditionally committed to sacred causes and whose personal identities are fused within a unique collective identity, willingly make costly sacrifices. This enables low-power groups to endure and often prevail against materially stronger foes. Explaining how devoted actors come to sacrifice for cause and comrades not only is a scientific goal but a practical imperative to address intergroup disputes that can spiral out of control in a rapidly interconnecting world of collapsing and conflicting cultural traditions. From the recent massive media-driven global political awakening, horizontal peer-to-peer transcultural niches, geographically disconnected, are emerging to replace vertical generation-to-generation territorial traditions. Devoted actors of the global jihadi archipelago militate within such a novel transcultural niche, which is socially tight, ideationally narrow, and globe spanning. Nevertheless, its evolutionarymaintenance depends on costly commitments to transcendental values, rituals and sacrifices, and parochial altruism, which may have deep roots even in the earliest and most traditional human societies. Fieldwork results from the Kurdish battlefront with the Islamic State are highlighted. © 2016 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved.
For decades, a new type of terrorism has been quietly gathering ranks in the world. America's ability to remain oblivious to these new movements ended on September 11, 2001. The Islamist fanatics in the global Salafi jihad (the violent, revivalist social movement of which al Qaeda is a part) target the West, but their operations mercilessly slaughter thousands of people of all races and religions throughout the world. Marc Sageman challenges conventional wisdom about terrorism, observing that the key to mounting an effective defense against future attacks is a thorough understanding of the networks that allow these new terrorists to proliferate. Based on intensive study of biographical data on 172 participants in the jihad, Understanding Terror Networks gives us the first social explanation of the global wave of activity. Sageman traces its roots in Egypt, gestation in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war, exile in the Sudan, and growth of branches worldwide, including detailed accounts of life within the Hamburg and Montreal cells that planned attacks on the United States. U.S. government strategies to combat the jihad are based on the traditional reasons an individual was thought to turn to terrorism: poverty, trauma, madness, and ignorance. Sageman refutes all these notions, showing that, for the vast majority of the mujahedin, social bonds predated ideological commitment, and it was these social networks that inspired alienated young Muslims to join the jihad. These men, isolated from the rest of society, were transformed into fanatics yearning for martyrdom and eager to kill. The tight bonds of family and friendship, paradoxically enhanced by the tenuous links between the cell groups (making it difficult for authorities to trace connections), contributed to the jihad movement's flexibility and longevity. And although Sageman's systematic analysis highlights the crucial role the networks played in the terrorists' success, he states unequivocally that the level of commitment and choice to embrace violence were entirely their own. Understanding Terror Networks combines Sageman's scrutiny of sources, personal acquaintance with Islamic fundamentalists, deep appreciation of history, and effective application of network theory, modeling, and forensic psychology. Sageman's unique research allows him to go beyond available academic studies, which are light on facts, and journalistic narratives, which are devoid of theory. The result is a profound contribution to our understanding of the perpetrators of 9/11 that has practical implications for the war on terror. Copyright
Bin Laden -Behind the mask of the terrorist
  • A Robinson
Robinson, A. (2001). Bin Laden -Behind the mask of the terrorist. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing.
Global network terrorism, briefing to National Security Council, White House
  • S Atran
Atran, S. (2006, April 28). Global network terrorism, briefing to National Security Council, White House. Retrieved from nsc_042806.pdf; pdf