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Psychology of Terrorism

As Boston recovers from a week of terror, the questions remain: Why did this happen? What could have motivated the suspects, 19-year-old Dzhokar Tsarnaev and his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan, to terrorize a city, creating the kind of warlike turmoil that led their family to move to the United States?

While the investigation unfolds, there are several themes present that are familiar to those who study the psychology of terrorists.

One aspect of terror is that it is often perpetrated on foreign soil. An eerie fact of 9/11 was that all 19 hijackers were recruited into al-Qaeda outside their country of origin. The Tsarnaev family fled Chechnya, a brutal, war-torn part of the world, as political refugees who hoped to settle into a quiet life in the United States. Several accounts indicate that Tamerlan became disillusioned with his new home and struggled to fit in. The telling statement, “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them,” is attributed to Tamerlan, who was a permanent resident of the United States. Dzhokar, who became a U.S. citizen, appeared to make better strides assimilating, captaining his high school wrestling team and taking classes at a local university.

Alienation is common among those who engage in terror “abroad,” as they often feel isolated from society and removed from their culture, family, and friends. A feeling of frustration while living abroad, which then leads to action, is common among terrorists.

Cells are often developed either through friendships formed in childhood or at cultural or religious institutions. For example, the four London bombers became friends at a local cultural center. In 2005, they killed 52 people in the London Underground and on a double-decker bus. The Fort Dix Six were friends inspired by al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. In 2007, they were plotting to attack U.S. military personnel in New Jersey before FBI agents arrested them.

In the Boston bombing, the motivation of the suspects could have been strengthened by their loyalty and bond to each other. It appears that the older brother became more and more radicalized, and he may have been the mastermind behind the attacks. Having social authority and emotional influence over his younger brother, a simple request may have been all that was necessary to turn ideology into action. In combat situations, brothers are often prepared to die for one another.

Friends, family, and acquaintances of the Tsarnaev brothers expressed disbelief that the two could have been involved in a terror campaign. The two men were supposedly nice, friendly, and quiet. They are the kind of guys you’d never look at twice if you passed them on the street.

But such after-the-fact descriptions are the norm among terrorism suspects. Cell members are typically not psychiatrically disturbed and do not have extensive criminal backgrounds. The most common characteristic of such suspects is their “normality.” This allows them to slip through airport security or blend into society. It’s the reason that former Nazi concentration camp guards, as well as modern “sleeper-cell” terrorists, can live in the United States or other countries for prolonged periods of time and remain undetected.

Nothing is more disturbing than reports of explosives being set off at a public gathering, such as a discotheque in Israel, a wedding in Jordan, a subway station in London, or, now, at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Such events are even more upsetting when they unfold in real time and are captured on video that shows children, men, and women injured, mutilated, or dead.

Friday night, we saw rejoicing at the end of a week of brutal terror, but some brutal psychological lessons remain. We learned, for example, that the threshold for terror acts is much lower than commonly expected. We saw that terrorism on a large scale has become increasingly possible due to the availability of explosive materials. And it was clearly demonstrated that it doesn’t take much to create chaos.

Finally, should the stories prove true, we’ll have relearned the lesson of how frustration and isolation can nurture a ticking time bomb that can turn alienation into terror.

Eric A. Zillmer is the Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, where he writes and teaches about the psychology of terrorists.

This opinion piece originally ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 24. To read it, click here.

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