A Q&A with Dr Anne Speckhard ph.D.
Job Title : Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry
Company : Georgetown University School of Medicine and Research Psychologist
1. What is it like to talk to terrorists? Can you describe some of your experiences?
It’s both frightening and fascinating. I felt very privileged that so many terrorist leaders and cadres agreed to talk to me and opened up about their inner thoughts and feelings. The truth is that they started out as ordinary people just like you and me so on some level we were a lot alike. I wanted to understand what takes a normal person and puts them on the terrorist trajectory, what keeps them on it and what can motivate them to believe that killing innocent civilians for any cause is ever a good thing. I overcame my fear via my fascination with their descriptions of the experiences that drove them into terrorism. In conflict zones such as Chechnya, Palestine and Iraq many of the traumatic experiences they described were heartbreaking and I could understand (but never endorse) how they became drawn to groups that promised them the possibility of revenge and also empowered them after feeling totally overwhelmed by the violence of another. I recall sitting in the prisons in Iraq and watching a prisoner fall apart recalling his arrest by a Shia militia and worry over his mother having no protector and nothing to eat, or sitting late at night with a Palestinian girl who wanted to take a rifle and end her life killing Israelis because she was in such despair over her close friends who had been killed in skirmishes with the Israelis. Her bedroom walls were covered with their “martyr” posters. It’s hard to put words to such experiences but I struggled to do so in my book Talking to Terrorists.
It was always really useful to go as far as possible into the actual context of the terrorists I was studying. As I journeyed through the West Bank and Gaza I received invitations to avoid the checkpoints and do far more interviews by staying overnight in the homes of actual terrorists. I was terrified at first but decided to accept their hospitable offers and as a result, I learned so much more. I found them interacting with their families and me totally normally—yet one of their family members had gone to bomb themselves among innocent civilians! They endorsed the killing of innocents yet on many other levels they preserved normal family and community values.
I understood that for terrorists they view themselves as part of a movement and as soldiers for their cause. They don’t see their actions as anymore wrong than our soldiers judge their killing actions in combat as wrong. Of course there is a huge difference and there is never any true justification for terrorism of any type—there is no cause anywhere in the world that justifies targeting and terrorizing innocent civilians in its behalf. But of course terrorists don’t see it that way.
They claim that due to the imbalances in military might they must engage in attacking civilians, that civilians are not innocent because they voted in the government whose military or officials are acting against them, or that the civilians themselves are militarized. I was most enlightened by entering the context of those I interviewed. When I could see and feel and experience what they live with on a daily basis and meet them personally they became so much more understandable. I also learned a lot talking to parents of so-called “martyrs”. In the celebrations of their child’s actions these parents often state that they are glad their son or daughter “martyred” themselves. But in private interviews I learned that is a lot like the parent of a soldier being interviewed—they are likely to say something patriotic but in private the parents of terrorists are often angry at the group that sent their child and in deep and enduring traumatic grief. They celebrate in public, but privately they are devastated.
3. What are some of the common factors that motivate terrorists to embrace terrorism?
In conflict zones I found it was very related to trauma and revenge. Young people especially who have lost family members, know about, or have close associates or family members who have experienced rapes, torture or loss of land and resources are angry and want to strike back. They also experience frustrated aspirations and seeing their parents totally disempowered and unable to protect them may gravitate to terrorist leaders who promise to empower them and show a way to strike back. Of course if there were no terrorist group or ideology these victims in conflict zones would simply remain traumatized individuals but when a group and an ideology become involved and if there is wide social support for it—then we see the “lethal cocktail” of terrorism activating.
If the group’s ideology promises immediate entry into another much better life for a suicide actor and the promise of immediate afterlife for the family members as well some who are highly traumatized may resonate to this as a type of short-term psychological first aide for posttraumatic stress disorder. In a constant emotionally painful state of hyperarousal and traumatic bereavement and unable to find relief, the ecstasy of contemplating entrance through death into the next life may be very appealing to them—especially if by doing so they will be considered heroic by their society, strike a blow for their side and if they receive a great deal of social support for joining a terrorist movement.
In nonconflict zones the motivations are more about marginalization, discrimination, alienation and failing somehow and relate to a search for identity, meaningfulness, heroism and belonging. Terrorist recruiters in nonconflict zones often bring graphic videos and pictures of conflict zones to induce a type of secondary trauma in their viewers and convince the viewers that the victims are their “fictive kin” and that to act in their behalf is heroic. Those seeking life meaning, social status, belonging, action and adventure may resonate to the call especially if they are passionate and sensitive to the suffering of others and it touches some suffering inside that they too have experienced.
4. Is it possible to rehabilitate and deradicalise terrorists?
Yes, of course. People can always reverse courses, drop an ideology, give up the use of violence if they receive good treatment and help in reorienting themselves to a more healthy response to their internal and external needs. Just like we have programs for alcoholism there can be treatment programs that can work for some of those who go through it. But just as we don’t have perfect success rates for addictions, not everyone who goes through an deradicalication program will rehabilitate. In Iraq I told General Stone we should rely on the success statistics of alcohol treatment programs which have been far more developed than any terrorism rehab programs: one third would likely be rehabilitated, one third would with some future disturbing encounter in the ongoing conflict likely return to terrorism, and one third might immediately upon discharge return to terrorism. The best hopes we have for rehabilitation in my view (similar to the best treatments for other disorders) is to get to the roots of the where the terrorist ideology has hooked the inner workings of the individual—where it resonates with his or her individual needs and vulnerabilities. Then it’s possible to address those individual issues and redirect the person into perhaps equally passionate but nonviolent responses. We also usually have to disengage the person from the terrorist group, talk them out of the ideology, and separate them somehow from the social support they receive engaging with the group and its ideology. If the group is all they have in terms of social support and they are drawing all their identity from it and the ideology that will take considerable work—but it is possible to do.
5.The media is reporting that the war in Syria is turning Western youth into radicals and idealists. As many return to Australia shores, how do they pose a security threat or can this be avoided?
In my view it’s always good to have idealists in our society and people passionate enough to want to help others in need. Events in Syria are highly disturbing and that Muslims and even non Muslims in Australia would want to help free the oppressed people of Syria is a good thing. The important questions are who do they work with when they arrive in Syria and while there do they take on an al Qaeda related ideology that teaches that western powers are the enemy—and have they been trained in terrorism techniques? If the returnees have simply fought alongside the Free Syrian Army they may return with significant posttraumatic stress issues but not radicalized into anything dangerous. If they fought with al Qaeda groups and took on their ideology and training they may return as enemies of the west including enemies of Australia. The best thing is a very in-depth and good debrief upon return and likely some good surveillance for a long enough time period to learn what the returnees are up to. And if they have been drawn into the militant jihadi terrorist ideology they will need help disengaging from it. Of course it’s also very important that they return to an active and meaningful place in society—otherwise taking part in terrorist groups and activities may continue to appear attractive to them and in the future the target may not be Assad in Syria but government officials or innocent civilians in Australia—which would be a great pity.
We have our own experience of Tamerlan Tsarnaev becoming radicalized enough in Boston to seemingly have decided to go off to Dagestan to join the rebel/terrorist fighters there—with Russia as their enemy. He failed in his bid to join, as his contacts were killed before he was accepted in—but he evidently absorbed enough further radicalization there to have decided that the U.S. as well as Russia was his enemy so he returned continuing to engage with the worldwide militant jihadi movement to build bombs that he used to attack Americans. Let’s hope the people of Syria do get free and there is no similar scenario with the returnees from the Syrian conflict in either of our countries!