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Senior Editor Daniel Jang reviews a paper on the psychology of those who join extremist groups

Updated: Feb 11, 2020

The Neuroscience of Terrorism

Daniel Jang, Senior Editor

In his paper “The Neuroscience of Terrorism: The Psychology and Neuroscience behind Joining Extremist Groups,” Devoe Arnold explains how fighters in such terrorist groups as ISIS willingly partake in acts of extreme violence that are utterly abhorrent and inexplicable to most of us. By invoking and combining several key theories and principles in psychology and neuroscience, Arnold finds that feelings of intense uncertainty compel and enable once-ordinary citizens to join terrorist groups.

To begin, applying methods in psychology to analyze terrorism and mass-killing is not entirely novel or innovative. Readers who are familiar with the literature in social psychology will be aware of seminal publications such as Hannah Arendt’s work on the banality of evil and James Waller’s book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Given this challenge, Arnold does a superb work of outlining how his paper differs from the existing body of literature to contribute meaningfully to the ongoing discourse. While scholars have devised several well-corroborated models of radicalization that include such factors as political grievance and unfreezing, Arnold claims that they neglected a key variable, namely the feeling of uncertainty.

The author proceeds to clarify in detail the guiding concepts before considering the particular case of ISIS, thereby creating a compelling narrative structure that minimizes confusion due to esoteric terminology. According to Arnold, uncertainty as a concept can be divided into several notable categories: Identity uncertainty, existential uncertainty, and significance quest uncertainty. The first type of uncertainty arises from the perceived homelessness of one’s self, which compels people to join groups and acquire a collective identity in place of missing self-identity. Existential uncertainty stems from a more universal human fear of death and the uncertainty of afterlife. To alleviate this uncertainty, individuals derive a heightened sense of strength and endurance from their membership to groups that offer a sense of collective security. Finally, the last type of uncertainty impels individuals to devote their lives to a significant cause so that they do not phase out in vain upon death.

Having established a tripod-like model of uncertainty, Arnold proceeds to his largely qualitative case study of ISIS. Arnold analyzes available manuscripts of interviews that convey the narratives of former ISIS recruits and their families. The underlying commonality between the narratives is that all fighters in retrospect exhibited a pressing sense of uncertainty prior to entering the boot camps in the Levant. A mother of an ISIS recruit reflects that his son was drenched in humiliation as an unemployed dropout before terrorist recruiters approached him with an alternative way of life. In another interview, an ISIS fighter recollects that he was drawn to the group due to a generous paycheck. Overall, most fighters suffered from significance quest uncertainty, and therefore deemed that their membership in ISIS—a group that spuriously advertised itself as a welfare state—would give them a new significance in life.

In general, the paper succeeds in suggesting a tentative link between the psychology of uncertainty and the decision-making behind joining a terrorist group. It is also keen to foresee and address significant controversies that may follow, namely that the findings may vindicate the fighters by portraying them as innocent victims of human nature. At the same time, one of the major shortcomings of this paper is that analysis is often shallow and neglects subtle yet important nuances in each case. For example, in discussing personal identity uncertainty, Arnold considers only one example without considering further implications of the testimony. If indeed one’s uncertainty as a Sunni Muslim makes ISIS more attractive, why is it that the majority of Sunni Muslims severely disapproves of ISIS? In this particular case, Arnold perhaps could have considered several different strands within the misleadingly monolithic Sunni Islam. As Arnold acknowledges in the early phases of his paper, one’s feeling of uncertainty—which everyone experiences at some point—is not enough to make ISIS attractive. Despite acknowledging the importance of environmental factors, Arnold does not adequately discuss those factors. These factors could have been addressed at length in place of the section on neuroscience, which does not seem to directly support the thesis in merely confirming the biological workings of an uncertain mind.

All in all, while the paper is a compelling introduction to the psychological analysis of terrorists, a fuller and more persuasive argument would achieve what Alexander Hinton does in his book Why did they Kill? In this book that deals with a similar topic, Hinton argues that certain cultures are more prone to genocides, but only when certain environmental conditions (e.g. a strong dictatorship) are met. Why is it that only a small fraction of people who experience uncertainty go on to become terrorists? This is a key question that is acknowledged yet unanswered in this paper.

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