A trichotomy of terrorists

There are terrorists who are totally incomprehensible. I classify these as insane and sick individuals. Jared Lee Loughner would fall into this category. I think John Hinckley Jr. would as well.

Then there are those individuals who are sane, in that their motives and logic are coherent, but who are decoupled somehow from normal human psychology. You can classify these individuals as sociopaths or psychopaths. They are self-aware and in touch with the outside world so that they can muster up a great deal of rationality. But they lack many of the emotional qualities of a normal human. Anders Breiwik may fall into this category.

Finally, there are the larger class of terrorists who I would classify as sane and mentally normal. These are the people who are motivated by ideology or identity toward a stance of dehumanization of the civilian targets. I recall that many of the 9/11 bombers supposedly referred to the people who were going to die with them as “animals” in their personal correspondence. Many of the individuals involved in Leftist and nationalist terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s went on to lead relatively normal lives if they survived and transitioned back to the civilian world. Their actions were justified in broader political or ethical context. “The ends justified the means.” This does not necessarily change the outcomes for their victims, but the difference between these individuals and you or I is more quantitative, of degree, than qualitative. The Irish Republican Army were terrorists, but many Irish Americans could sympathize with their ultimate aims and the rationale for their actions, even if they did not agree with their methods.

I believe conflating and confusing these different varieties of terrorist actors causes problems. Of course the division is not as stark as I present them, these are simply three archetypes which occupy the margins of the character space.

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22 Responses to A trichotomy of terrorists

  1. I bet that if Breivik had corresponded with others on his plans, there’s a good chance he’d have “referred to the people who were going to [be killed by him] as ‘animals'” and otherwise built up a stance of dehumanizing the targets.

    He was a loner; put him with a bunch of co-conspirators who are all trying to find their way and he’ll look more like the 9/11 bombers or IRA. But he was a loner for strategic reasons (so as not to get caught), not because he was sick.

    He may have had less empathy than the odd IRA member (they sometimes deliberately tried to spare lives), but I don’t see any evidence he had less empathy than 9/11 bombers.

    Is the sick/not sick dimension just a measure of how much empathy you have?

  2. Maciano says:

    I tend to agree with the analysis above. Although, it might be better to extend the ‘sane, but sick’ category to ‘personality disorder’ — not merely sociopathy. It would include narcissists and Borderline sufferers in that box also. People with such disorders can function in society, though they will have many difficulties dealing with other people. (Simon Baron-Cohen’s book on (lack of) empathy is somewhat informative on these disorders.)

    Breivik, it seems to me, with all his grandiosity, self-love and self-important illusions of world-historical importance, is a textbook narcissist. True, he’s clearly antisocial as well, as his actions tragically prove, but overall I’d pin him down on narcissism. I doubt psychopaths would be much bothered with the future of their cultures, they’re predators who live in the here and now.

  3. David Hume says:

    Is the sick/not sick dimension just a measure of how much empathy you have?

    i think schizo people can have empathy. in fact, when medicated they’re quite normal. so no, not necessarily that. from what i have read of leftist and nationalist terrorists they’re somewhat different from the norm, but “lone wolf” types are almost always super weird. so i’m moderately skeptical that anders was as able to function in groups, but i don’t know his bio that well.

  4. Susan says:

    This trichotomy works for criminals in general, as well. Guys who knock over banks and armored cars do it because–as they themselves have said–they think people who work for a living are chumps. They’re certainly not legally insane, and probably not even medically insane. Serial killers, on the other hand, may be medically insane, but very often aren’t legally insane.

    I don’t know if I’d classify Hinckley, Jr. as a terrorist.

  5. Sean says:

    Breivik was a loner, but not in his ideas, as evidenced by his manifesto, which is filled with quotes from those who (he believes) share his views. I agree that he remained alone for strategic, rather than personality-based reasons. He certainly appears to think himself part of a larger movement, and has sought the company of those who share his view (he went to meetings with other readers of one anti-Islam website, document.no). He even posted a YouTube video six hours before the attack, exhorting conservatives to “embrace martyrdom.” Whatever else you can say about him, “lone gunman” doesn’t fit.

    A also disagree with the inclusion of Hinckley on a list of terrorists. Terrorism is the use of intimidation and violence to achieve a political goal. Hickley’s target was political, but his intention seemed to have been to impress an actress. He was a criminal, and clearly some variety of insane, but no terrorist.

  6. David Hume says:

    good points about hinckley.

    Whatever else you can say about him, “lone gunman” doesn’t fit.

    i don’t know, you make some good points, but so what that he posted a youtube? ted kaczynski had his bizarre manifesto. i’m sure he’d have a ghetto myspace in our day and age.

  7. Sean says:

    I meant to say something about the ease with which people can *act* alone while still being part of a wider network in the digital age. Ted Kaczynski might have had a following, or found fellow-travelers, if he hadn’t been constrained by the technology of his day. A quick google tells me that he didn’t appear to work with anybody, but he did mail out copies of his manifesto, so he wanted to be heard.

    Breivik made real efforts to connect with others who have similar views, and saw himself expressly as part of a larger movement. I hope he’s bluffing about the other “cells,” but that bluff reveals at least his perception of participation in a wider “crusade” against Islam, “cultural Marxism” and other bogeymen. I think that puts him squarely in the political terrorist camp, but he certainly used lone gunman tactics to achieve his ends.

    Perhaps we’re in an age in which people who would have been lone gunmen earlier can now choose to ally themselves with a wider movement, if that suits them. Breivik went out of his way to quote the work of others, which looks like the action of someone who sees himself as part of something larger, not a determined loner. He might have developed his own reasons for killing someone, somewhere without that influence, but his choice of target and rationale are clearly within the range of political terrorism.

  8. Though I think the trichotomy is useful, I think it’s a little premature to armchair psychologize about Briewick. At the risk of echoing Sean, I don’t think it’s clear yet whether or not he fits in the sociopath or neurotypical political terrorist corner yet. The ideas of his manifesto seem to be situated within an identifiable political community, and it strikes me (as an admitted layman to psychology) odd that a sociopath would go to such lengths to justify his actions within the context of a politlcal narrative.

  9. Susan says:

    The formation of a terrorist movement isn’t dependent on current technology. The Weather Underground and the IRA were able to coordinate actions without email, IMs, and cell phones.

    As for individual sociopaths, an essential part of being one is not needing to justify one’s actions to the outside world. To a sociopath, the mere fact that he or she wants something is its own justification. It’s really an acute form of narcissism or solipsism: “Everything that exists, exists to serve me and my desires.”

  10. David Hume says:

    re: sociopath and loners. thinking about it the two don’t necessarily overlap. i’ve read that “sociopathy” is found a lot among political and business leaders. you need a certain level of amoral and selfish narcissism to climb to the top of these institutions.

  11. Susan says:

    No, they don’t overlap. What’s interesting to me is the way in which sociopathy manifests itself. Is it a function of one’s circumstances, or of one’s desires and ambitions, or a combination of both? I think it’s the latter of the three: a combination of circumstance, desire, and ambition.

  12. Sean says:

    “Many of the individuals involved in Leftist and nationalist terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s went on to lead relatively normal lives if they survived and transitioned back to the civilian world.”

    I worked in Human Intelligence in Iraq for three years, and was directly involved in tailoring military intelligence training to the particular conditions in Afhganistan, Iraq and the wider Muslim world afterward, so this is a topic with which I have some direct experience.

    I’ve spent a lot of time with terrorists of the third variety (I’ll accept your taxonomy for the purpose of discussion) and one of the few constants I’ve noticed is age. Roughly, if you reach your 25th birthday, you’ll be progressively less likely to do something so drastic as kill for an abstract cause as time goes on. (Also, terrorism attracts very few women.)

    My first instinct is to look at brain development and changing social structures (by 25, most Iraqi men are married with at least two kids, which was the norm here not too long ago), but you’re the expert on brains, so I leave this as an observation.

  13. Sean says:

    “I think it’s the latter of the three: a combination of circumstance, desire, and ambition.”

    Agreed, but I’ll leave a bit of empty space for chemical imbalance and genetic influences.

  14. RandyB says:

    Sean, since you have a background in at least one arena of Islamic social conditions:

    One feminist-secularist blogger I read suggests that polygamy empowers the creation of suicide bombers, by denying men a female partner on earth while 72 are promised in heaven. (Muslims take heaven seriously.)

    Do you know if suicide bombers are more common from societies in which polygamy is widely practiced? And if their age distribution suggests they missed their matrimonial window? Thanks if you can provide any insights.

  15. Mike H says:

    I think that if you buy into that typology, it needs to be understood that at least two of those types if not all three could be found within the confines of a militant organization. There isn’t “the” Islamic militant or “the” IRA man. Doubtlessly such organizations can provide the structure in which a sociopath can ply his “trade”. Maybe in a devil’s advocate fashion one could argue that almost certainly every armed force in the world engaged in conflict attracted a number of sociopaths.

    Breivik didn’t have the “luxury” of having an army or even a militant group sharing his commitment to violent escalation. In fact his political ideology seems to be at home mostly in a notably bourgeois environment – where few would consider political violence or other illegal political activities. Breivik tried his luck in the local liberal-conservative/nationalist party and it wasn’t the thing for him. Those guys clearly were more about trying to win elections than blowing up stuff.

    If this is Belfast 1970, he’s a committed nationalist and surrounded by a society in which the language of violence and a willingness to sacrifice innocent life for the sake of a cause is widespread, he may have just become another IRA man, sociopath or not.

  16. Sean says:

    @RandyB: First, there is no clear statement in the Qur’an regarding the “72 Virgins” that you will receive in heaven if you martyr yourself. That claim originates in one of the lesser Hadiths, and is not accepted by all Muslim scholars, but has been used in this country to make Muslims seem crazy and/or stupid. It is at best a minority belief that has been successfully used to recruit foot soldiers, but that recruitment is multi-tiered.

    I’d say there’s a correlation, but I’d hesitate to ascribe causation to polygamy in particular, due to confounding factors. Polygamy is much more common in rural, agricultural areas, which are also very, very poor. The closer you get to Baghdad, Riyadh, etc., the wealthier and more cosmopolitan the population becomes, and behavior begins to align more closely to Western standards.

    The fact is that suicide bombers are recruited mostly with economic incentives, because they tend to come from fantastically impoverished and hopeless circumstances. The families of suicide bombers are rewarded with economic security after their “martyrdom,” and the process of preparing the suicide bomber is a months-long process of social isolation, indoctrination, and drugs (hashish and opium to ease their worries toward the beginning, amphetamines or methamphetamines to fortify their courage and sense of righteousness when it comes time to do the deed, and at various other times in the training–it’s an old trick of cult leaders to control their followers by spinning their emotions up and down). No doubt the virgins in paradise are part of the indoctrination process, but there is so much else going on, it’s hard to separate it out.

    Also, most of them are in prime, or just heading into prime, marrying age. Boys that age are more willing to die/kill themselves for a cause in every culture, I suspect.

    On the other hand, I recall a recruitment poster for Zarqawi’s network that was found in Syria, touting Iraq as a land where the men have all been killed, leaving lonely women behind. But those enticements weren’t to kill yourself (the recruitment flyers never are), rather to simply go and fight.

  17. Sean says:

    Incidentally, I’ve spoken with well over 100 men who are married to more than one woman, and children of those family arrangements. Being the person I am, I never failed to ask “what’s it like?”

    I found that in about half the households, the wives manipulate the husband in a constant battle for supremacy over each other, while in the other half the wives conspire against the husband in a battle to dominate him together. Or the situation fluctuates between those two extremes. (In principle, there’s a strict hierarchy of wives but in practice, people are people.)

    I only heard a positive review of polygamy from two men, one of whom was wealthy, so he could keep his wives in different houses, and one of whom was a dwarf with a major Napoleon Complex. Make of that what you will.

  18. RandyB says:

    Sean, thank you for a well-thought answer.

    I agree there are probably too many complicating factors unless it was completely clear (which you say it isn’t) that the sub-societies where polygamy is most common were also the ones where martyrs were recruited.

  19. Nandalal Rasiah says:

    it’s interesting that ‘sociopathy” is not in the DSM IV, the symptoms assigned to sociopaths are described by a combination of “antisocial personality disorder” and “narcissistic personality disorder” in the DSM.

    Prabhakaran, of the LTTE, was inspired by John Wayne and westerns in general, (to take with violence what he thought was owed and do so with no remorse) but dressed and acted much as a middle-class brown accountant in the East End of london would.

  20. Miguel Madeira says:

    re: re: sociopath and loners. thinking about it the two don’t necessarily overlap. i’ve read that “sociopathy” is found a lot among political and business leaders. you need a certain level of amoral and selfish narcissism to climb to the top of these institutions.

    Not only a “sociopath” is not necessarly a loner, but also I doubt that a sociopath will be willing to die for a cause (sociopath is simply “selfishness” in steroids).

    I suspect that this kind of behaviour (logical reasoning but combined with very strange moral beliefs) is more tipical of “Cluster A Personality Disorders”.

  21. The Mark Who Was Here First says:

    Is this blog dead–not a post in over 10 days, notwithstanding the London riots and the crazies finally getting control of the GOP?

  22. I would not classify sociopaths as sick. Genes probably make them the way they are and those genes were probably selected for.

    Mental impairments take different forms too. Not sure if schizophrenics become terrorists. If so, in any substantial numbers? Are they capable of functioning well enough to carry out a terrorist act?

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