Examining the Psychology of Terrorists

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“Terrorism is a disease that’s like a cancer spreading everywhere,” said former Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, T. Hamid Al-Bayati, Ph.D. “But just like cancer, if you don’t diagnose the problem, you can’t give the right treatment—and it’s always best to diagnose the problem early on.”

Al-Bayati made the remarks on Aug. 1 at a public forum at Fordham titled “Counterterrorism: What Works?” The event capped off a summertime course, United Nations and Political Leadership, that the ambassador taught at the Lincoln Center campus in July. The forum was hosted by the Organizational Leadership Program in the School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

Al-Bayati is no stranger to terrorism; during the reign of Saddam Hussein, he was imprisoned and tortured, and his brother was killed.

His response to fighting counterterrorism is outlined as a 12-step strategy in his new book, A New Counter Terrorism Strategy (Praeger Security International, 2017), and it takes a compassionate approach.

“The human family is one family, according to all holy books,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if there’s an attack in Florida or London or Germany, we have to care about all our brothers and sisters.”

Al-Bayati said that he understands the roots of extremism because he was born in an area where such thinking was fostered, and because he has faced terrorism himself. In order to diagnose the problem, leaders need to understand the mentality of the perpetrators and “how to deal with their views of violence.”

Joining the ambassador was Karen Lynne Kennedy Mahmoud of the U.N. Secretariat. Kennedy Mahmoud outlined some results of the war between the Iraqi government and ISIS. She described the malnutrition of infants, the existence of some 100,000 orphans, and an education system in such shambles that some children haven’t been to school in years.

“As they return to their homes, children, some of whom have not been in a classroom for three years, will need to restart formal education—or we risk losing an entire generation,” said Kennedy Mahmoud.

It’s within these depleted environments that terrorists find safe haven, said Al-Bayati.

Other speakers at the event touched on more intangible ways to address distress in Iraq and other areas devastated by war, terror, and natural disasters: Working toward emotional and psychological well-being.

Psychologist Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D., adjunct professor at Columbia University Teachers College, who provided psychological first aid after bombings in Jerusalem, the tsunami in Asia, and after the attacks on September 11, said well-being in one’s life can be a counter to choosing terrorism.

“There are certainly psychological dynamics as to why someone wants to be [an]extremist,” said Kuriansky, who singled out the need for happiness. “We need to understand the importance of psychology.”

Harold Takooshian, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Organizational Leadership program, said that it is unfortunate that the American Psychological Association does not allow psychologists to “even be in the same room as terrorists,” but he credited behavioral scientists for continuing research into what causes people to become terrorists.

“On one level, policies can help reduce terrorism,” he said. “But on another level we can prevent terrorism in the first place by understanding why people turn their backs on their nation.”

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