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The Psychology of Terrorism

“In the light of a certain ideology, terrorists consequently act by all means rationally.”

Prof. Dr Rainer Banse & Michaela Sonnicksen, M. Sc., Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn


42: Mrs Sonnicksen, Prof. Dr Banse – how is terrorism defined in the discipline of psychology?

Michaela Sonnicksen: There is no coherent definition, as it is the case in other disciplines. Terrorism is the end product of a process of radicalization. All people who become radicalised are going through this process, but not all of them make it to the end. Many are radical without ever becoming terrorists; they are organised in groups which aim to hurt others physically with their actions. Terrorism, however, aims for the psychological consequences of using force, to spread fear, rather than aiming for physical harm primarily.

Terrorism in History

“As historians, we want to understand why people in certain historical moments regard terrorist actions as legitimate.”

Dr Sebastian Gehrig, University of Oxford

42: Dr Gehrig – how would you, as a historian, define terrorism?

Sebastian Gehrig: That is a difficult question. There are different conceptions. For me, a more recent explanation goes in the right direction which categorises terrorism as a form of political violence and political language. Communication research specialists have been intensively studying how terrorist groups, whether of an ethnic-, left-wing terrorism- or Islamic terrorist nature make use of violence to communicate certain political claims or statements. This depends on which types of attacks are chosen by terrorist groups and how these are prepared and executed.

Terrorism and Islamic Studies

“Fundamentally, the issue revolves around today’s interpretation and application of respective passages in the Koran.”

Prof. Dr Christine Schirrmacher, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn 42: Prof. Dr Schirrmacher, what is the relationship between terrorism and Islam? Christine Schirrmacher: In this context, terrorism means an execution of violence against dissidents justified by a misappropriation of Islamic scripture. Ironically, the violence is directed against Muslims in particular: on a global scale, they – and not as one might assume, non-Muslims, are most often the victims of Islamic terrorism. In addition, I would label the condemnation of Muslims as non-believers by other (extremist) Muslims – the so-called takfir – a form of psychological terrorism. This psychological terrorism results in hatred, contempt, and conflicts, and in extreme cases leads to the killing of those deemed inferior and less religious than oneself. This is exemplified by the activists of the so-called “Islamic State”. 42: Throughout Europe, Islam has become a dominant theme of discussion, especially in the aftermath of terrorist attacks and crimes, Islam frequently becomes the focus of discussion – for

Terrorism and Security Studies

“The question, whether ‘the war on terror’ can be won, must be answered with a definite no.”

Prof. Dr Julian Wucherpfennig, Hertie School of Governance

42: Prof. Dr Wucherpfennig, when talking about terrorism nowadays, on the basis of terrorist attacks of the past months, we think about Islamist terrorism. From a scientific perspective, is that proportional to the actual extent of the threat?

Julian Wucherpfennig: No, this perception bears no relation to the actual threat. In two respects: First, the objective threat emanated from the terror in Western Europe is minimal. It is far more likely to drown in one’s own bathtub, to be struck by lightning or to be killed from furniture falling over, than to be killed in a terrorist attack. Secondly, the threat is in no way greater than in the past. Terrorism in a greater extent has existed in Western Europe since the 1960s and 70s, for example through the RAF in German, the ETA in Spain, or the IRA in Ireland. The assumption that there has been more or a new type of terrorism is fundamentally wrong.

Terrorism and Social Networks

“The most important thing is to coordinate a digital solution on a global level.”

Kyle Matthews, Concordia University

42: Mr Matthews, why is the jihadist propaganda via Social Media so successful?

KM: Nations no longer have a monopoly on violence, and the media have lost the monopoly on information. Extremist messages, like the one ISIS propagates, are easily spread via the internet: „We are fulfilling the prophecy – We are founding a caliphate“.

The Language of Terrorism

“Our knowledge about weeds, cancer, and evil is mentally transferred onto terrorism.”

Prof. Dr Daniela Pirazzini, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

42: How would you, as a linguist, define terrorism?

Daniela Pirazzini: The term, terrorism’ is derived from the Latin verb terrere which translates to, to frighten’, to scare’, to terrify.’ The term terrorism is nowadays commonly used to designate the committing of violent acts, spreading fear and dread. From a linguistic and discourse analytical point of view, we are only able to define the meaning of the term systematically. Examining how the term is used in a specific time in written and spoken texts of a specific language and culture community – for example the Terreur referring to the terror reign during the French Revolution which claimed thousands of lives. The different aspects of the meaning of a word are always constituted within a verbal discourse based on the conjunction with other words of the text.

Terrorism and the ‘Western’ World

“We need a milieu movement that can reinforce and give strength to each other’s views.”

Prof. Dr Frank Furedi, University of Kent

42: As a sociologist, would you define terrorism differently after 9/11?

Frank Furedi: I wouldn’t. I think defining terrorism is always problematic because it is difficult to distinguish it from other forms of political violence. I deny that 9/11 was a major singular event, but it has had its impacts on the global environment. We feel insecure. But essentially speaking, the key element of terrorism is to inflict terror – not only on the people you target to kill but also on the population as well, and this distinction is very important. Secondly, it’s about provoking a reaction of the population. That is much more important than the act of terror itself. People should recognise that. But those factors and elements are just as important today as they were in any other historic moment – not just since 9/11.

Terrorism, Gender Studies and Popular Culture

“Just because you weren’t there, the trauma still carries on and becomes a part of your identity.”

Don Varn Lowman, MA, MBA, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

42: Don Varn Lowman – How does queer theory approach the issue of terrorism?

Don Varn Lowman: First of all, we look at identity. We can also look at the othering of people, where one person or the actions of one person defines the actions of everyone. Othering is a significant theme in queer studies. Within queer studies, we challenge the idea that there is only one identity with the notion that identity is fluid and changing. This goes into what Judith Butler would say – that gender is socially constructed. With regard to terrorism, I would also agree that the identity, or maybe the idea behind certain religions, is socially constructed. If we look at terrorism, it has now become associated with Islam. Of more than a billion Muslims in the world, somewhere around 0.0001% are terrorists or support terrorist actions. The actions of that 0.0001% now define all of Islam. And this has happened repeatedly throughout history.