- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Jerrold Post’s “The Mind of the Terrorist: The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to Al-Qaeda” provides a framework for understanding modern-day terrorism’s psychological mindset. Such an approach is crucial, Dr. Post argues, because in order to deter terrorists in a way that is effective and durable one must understand their psychology and motivations. Dr. Post’s framework is applied to more than 15 terrorist groups, some of whom began their operations in the late 1960s.

Dr. Post, a psychiatrist and veteran terrorism analyst, is currently professor of psychiatry and political psychology at George Washington University. Earlier, he had a 21-year career at the CIA, serving as director of the Center for Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior.

Readers will find Dr. Post’s book especially valuable for its capsulated histories and profiles of the world’s terrorist groups and their leaders. Some leaders, such as the Peruvian Shining Path’s Abimael Guzman and the Sri Lankan LTTE’s Vellupillai Prabhakaran are charismatic “consummate narcissists” who consider their groups to be extensions of themselves.

The PLO’s Yasser Arafat, Dr. Post argues, may have been driven by his troubled relationship with his father to become the “father” of the Palestinian nation.

While the Arafat scenario is plausible, one may disagree with Dr. Post’s characterization of Osama bin Laden as a leader of a dispersed organization who delegates responsibilities to subordinates. To the contrary, published reports show bin Laden — at least through Sept. 11, 2001, to be a micro-manager who forbade his subordinates from changing direction. He may not be able to do that today because U.S. pressure has forced al Qaeda to decentralize its operations, but it is doubtful that his “personality” has changed.

It’s disappointing that Dr. Post’s profiles of Hezbollah’s Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas’ Ismail Haniya receive little psychological treatment, except for brief accounts of their careers.

Some of Dr. Post’s assumptions about today’s terrorists are out of date. The most glaring is his reliance on a typology of terrorism (developed by Alex Schmid in 1983, but which even he doesn’t use anymore), which has little contemporary relevance. Its categorization of the “new religious terrorism,” for example, may have represented a new development in 1983, but today is commonplace.

Similarly, Dr. Post’s generational pathways to terrorism matrix, which he developed in 1984 also is not applicable to contemporary times. It postulates that loyalty or disloyalty to one’s parents and the parents’ relationship to the regime are important determinants of whether a terrorist becomes a nationalist-separatist or social revolutionary.

Today’s most dangerous terrorists are religiously fundamentalist, but his matrix does not account for their psychological origins. Moreover, an individual’s family disposition does not necessarily play a role in that person’s decision to become a terrorist. No one doubts that parental relations shape one’s upbringing, but other factors play more crucial roles in an individual’s decision to become a terrorist. Today’s terrorists are driven by a radicalization process that has little to do with their parental relations. In some cases, terrorist groups recruit operatives directly, while in others, such as al Qaeda, recruitment is through friends and family members, with many recruits radicalized over the Internet.

How can modern-day terrorism be defeated? Dr. Post formulates a psychological warfare program based on four elements: Inhibiting potential terrorists from joining terrorist groups by de-romanticizing terrorism and providing members with alternate pathways for redressing grievances; promoting dissension, mistrust and organizational paralysis within a group; facilitating exit from the group by creating amnesty programs; and reducing support for the group and its leaders by de-legitimizing its leaders and marginalizing the group’s appeal.

Dr. Post concludes that the plague of terrorism will decline when its reservoir of recruits is decreased. “Hope is the antidote to despair. It is only when youth begin to be hopeful about their future and fully participate in their societies that we will see the plague of terrorism decline. And that will take a comprehensive program sustained over decades to alter these deep-seated attitudes, for when hatred is bred in the bone, it does not easily yield.”

“The Mind of the Terrorist” is a useful overview of modern-day terrorism and a credible starting point for serious counterterrorism efforts.

Joshua Sinai is a program manager for counterterrorism studies with the Analysis Corp.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide