love is blindness

love is blindness

John Horgan has argued for ‘pathways’ and not ‘profiles’, ‘routes’ and not ‘roots’ (Horgan 2008) when asking how individuals come to involve themselves in violence. The key pillars of this approach are that an individual’s movement to involve themselves in terrorism is complex, dynamic, context-specific as opposed to  something explicable by a simple single factor, that is static and  is generalisable.

Complexity is understood to mean that there are no single factor explanations, that multiple factors (for example experience, ideology, social networks) are work at different levels (micro, meso and macro) interacting and producing specific time-space impacts.

Dynamic means that entry into violence activity is not linear or uni-directional but rather an individual can move backwards and forwards in their willingness to engage in violence, further the reaction of others for example the state and its agents to the violence will influence if an individual continues to engage in violence. For example, the arrest and incarceration of a person may temporarily limit access to the terrorist group or network. Horgan argues that the type of role an individual plays can change and is not static. He has suggested that there is movement between roles in an organisation and therefore levels of engagement and perhaps even of belonging to the organisation or group (Horgan 2006, 2008). This assertion is demonstrated in the recent arrest in Mali of four individuals for their involvement in a kidnap for ransom that has been claimed by al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (Ahmed, 2011, December 14). The article states that the four were arrested for their involvement in the kidnap operation and then gives some basic biographical information about them. It does not seem that these individuals were actively and in an on-going manner associated with one of the two AQIM ‘katiba’ (brigade) in the region. They appear to have taken part in an operation, perhaps in return for payment, perhaps due to kinship or social obligations (Ahmed, 2011, December 14) and then returned to their normal lives. It should also be noted that terrorism studies has yet to conceive of a way to conceptualise levels of involvement beyond simple typologies of ‘member’ or ‘supporter’. How should someone whose involvement is only temporary or punctual be perceived and analysed?

Similar to Rasch’s argument that the left-wing terrorism in West Germany was bound to a time and place that was the late 60s and early 70s in West Germany, context-specific means that what is observed in one country in a period of time is not generalisable to another time and place. Even within a country, different groups with similar ideologies or beliefs may have very different dynamics, for example the members of the North African and Pakistani communities in the United Kingdom who have participated in terrorist activity in the United Kingdom did so for different reasons.

An example of the difference between a profiling and a process approach can be seen in the uses made of data recovered in Sinjar, Iraq concerning among others Moroccan and Libyan nationals. In October 2007, United States military personnel recovered a significant cache of Islamic State of Iraq administrative documents including the biographic data on some 600 foreign nationals who had traveled to fight in Iraq (Fishman, 2007). This data which was analysed and released publicly in a report in late 2007 show the limits of profiling. The origin by country and town was listed, the average age as well as the occupational status 156 of the individuals, and the role they would perform for the ISI. The data suggested that the majority of foreign nationals entering Iraq between 2006 and 2007 were young Saudi males, many of whom were students although per capita there were a significant number of Libyans (Fishman 2007, 7-17). Finally, a majority (56%) of those crossing the border wanted to be a suicide bomber (Fishman 2007, 18). This data and its analysis give little insight into how these individuals came to be fighting in Iraq.

In separate accounts Atran (2007, 2008) and Elliott (2007) examined the same data and then traveled separately to Tetaoun, Morocco to look at how the Moroccans on the Sinjar listing came to be in Iraq. These accounts, one academic and the other an extended newspaper report, come to similar conclusions that group dynamics played an important role in how 5 young men from the same neighbourhood traveled to Iraq through Syria where at least one died in a suicide operation.

Elliott writes of a mixture of personal motives, one individual could not marry his sweet heart, grievances common to the group about the US role in Iraq and the general sense in Tetaoun that fighting in Iraq was justified and legitimate.

Atran (2008, 7-8) writes that all 5 attended the same primary school, 4 were in the same mathematics class in high school, they played football together, prayed at the same Mosque and frequented the same cafe.  One of them was related to one of the Madrid bombers through marriage and they had all attended the same Mosque where one of the Madrid bombers had preached. The 5 were not members of an al-Qa’ida cell, they were not recruited, they became convinced that they should do something about the situation in Iraq and they sought out through their local contacts a way to travel to Iraq. The involvement of the 5 in violent activity appears as a combination of factors; a grievance or perceived injustice that bound the group together, a willingness to do something together, and a sense of adventure. The relative weight of each factor is impossible to determine.

Horgan and Taylor’s (2006, 591) process model can be seen to have more explanatory power in this setting than the descriptive statistics in the Fishman report. Horgan and Taylor suggest that there are ‘setting events’, ‘social/political/organisational context’ and ‘personal factors’. In some senses these are similar to della Porta’s, ‘micro, meso and macro’ levels of analysis commonly used in the Social Movement Theory (della Porta 2009). An example of a ‘personal factor’ was one of the individuals was unable to marry his sweetheart but instead married by his family to the sister of his brother’s wife. A ‘setting event’ was that some of the Madrid bombers were also from Tetaoun and linked through marriage to one member of the group. The bombing and the subsequent police investigations in Tetaoun appear to have set members of the group looking at the legitimacy of the Madrid attacks. The ‘social/organisational/context’ is the general sense in Tetaoun that the United States presence in Iraq was illegitimate and that fighting against them was legitimate (social context). The group also seems to have benefited from the ability of someone in Tetaoun to help them connect to al-Qaeda (organizational context).

Bartlett and Miller (2012, 13-14) in examining who engages in violence and who does not have identified four potential areas that may differentiate the ‘violent radicals’ from the ‘radicals’. They suggest that ‘emotional pull’, ‘thrill, excitement, coolness’, ‘status and internal code of honour’ and finally ‘peer pressure’ may all contribute to the turn to violence. In the case of the group from Tetaoun these factors can be seen in Atran’s and Elliotts’ accounts. Elliott writes that a 6th individual close to the group did not go to Iraq but told her that if he had been asked it would have been difficult to say no.

Similar to the Atran and Elliot accounts of Tetouan in Morocco, Peraino (2008) traveled to Darnah in Libya to undertake to try and understand why nearly half of the Libyan foreign fighters – 52 out of 112 –  had come from one town. He initially speculates about a combination of factors; joblessness, a local environment where resistance was venerated, and the Abu-Gharib scandal. He concludes somewhat simplistically by writing that the answer to why these individuals traveled to Iraq to fight was “an explosive mix of desperation, pride and religious fervour” before then stating that, “these factors, present individually in many parts of the Islamic world, are found collectively here, on the shores of northern Libya” (Peraino, 2008). Peraino’s account lacks the nuance and rigour of those of Atran and Elliott, he seems to be looking for an overarching explanation when in all probability there are 52 different explanations.  Ironically, the article’s most insightful comment is a quote from Fishman, author of the initial Sinjar report, who states, “The dynamics are very, very, local”.

The Atran and Elliot accounts when compared to the Fishman analysis and the Peraino’s report reinforce the notion that ‘thick’ description and on-the-ground data-collection will always generate insight and eventually conclusions about why people may choose violence as opposed to thin secondary analysis or searches for a single explanation. These ‘thick’ accounts also reinforce the complexity and dynamic nature of pathways into and through terrorist activity, indicating that there is no one simple explanation.


Ahmed, B. (2011, December 14). “Mali : comment les auteurs présumés du rapt de Verdon et Lazarevic ont été arêtes.” Jeune Afrique.

Atran, S. (2006). “The Moral Logic and Growth of Suicide Terrorism”. The Washington Quarterly 29(2): 127-147.

Atran, S. (2007). “Terrorism and Radicalization: What Not to Do, What to Do.” Briefing for U.S. State Dept and House of Lords: 1–50.

Bartlett, J. & Miller, C. (2012). “The Edge of Violence: Towards Telling the Difference Between Violent and Non-Violent Radicalization.” Terrorism and Political Violence 24(1): 1–21. Or the longer Demos report here

Elliott, A. (2007, November 25). “Where Boys Grow Up to Be Jihadis.The New York Times. 

Fishman, B. (2007). “Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records.” Harmony Project, Combating Terrorism Center, Department of Social Sciences US Military Academy West Point, New York.

Horgan, J. (2003). “The Search for the Terrorist Personality” in Silke, A. (ed) Terrorists, Victims and Society: Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and its Consequences. Wiley: Chichester. pp.3-25

Horgan, J. (2005). The Psychology of Terrorism. Routledge: London and New York

Horgan, J. (2008). “From profiles to pathways and roots to routes: perspectives from psychology on radicalization into terrorism.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 618(1): 80–94.

Horgan, J. (2009). Walking Away from Terrorism. Routledge: London and New York.

Peraino, K. (2008, April 19). “Destination Martyrdom.” Newsweek. 

Porta, della, D. (2009). “Social Movement Studies And Political Violence.” Centre for Studies in Islamism and Radicalisation.

Rasch, W. (1979). “Psychological dimensions of political terrorism in the Federal Republic of Germany.” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 2(1): 79–85.

Taylor, M., & Horgan, J. (2006). “A Conceptual Framework for Addressing Psychological Process in the Development of the Terrorist.” Terrorism and Political Violence 18(4): 585–601.