From a behavioral health perspective: How homegrown terrorists are made - Sovereign Health Group
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03-08-16 Category: Mental Health, Trauma


Americans have been particularly sensitive to the threat of terrorism since the attacks on September 11, 2001. Recent shootings like the one in San Bernardino, California, have raised fears about domestic and homegrown terrorism amid struggles to make sense of how such things can happen.

From a behavioral sciences perspective, terrorism is a “complex interplay of historical, geopolitical, anthropological and psychosocial factors and forces.” While that definition may be true, it doesn’t really help to reconcile what Americans are currently enduring. More specific insights were given at a conference organized in Mainz on Nov. 18-19, 2015, by the German Federal Criminal Police Office explaining current research.

What’s behind terrorism?

First of all, religious motives are not actually behind terrorist acts. The majority of terrorists have no Islamic or other religious affiliation, according to Olivier Roy, who specializes in political Islam and the Middle East at Italy’s European University Institute near Florence. While religious agendas might be used as a reason for their actions, the true motivation appears to be otherwise.

Apparently, terrorism is driven by a small number of wealthy entrepreneurs who have organized a transnational web of terrorism, according to Petter Nesser, a terrorist researcher at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Kjeller. He explained that these entrepreneurs recruit and indoctrinate the disaffected to use their resentment to further their agendas. These recruits then do all of their dirty work.

In his review of terrorism science published in the December 2015 issue of Nature, Declan Butler describes characteristics of the recruits as basically marginalized youth whose families have suffered some harm by tyrannical regimes. These vulnerable youth are easily bribed and brainwashed into becoming cannon fodder for the entrepreneurs in the form of extremist groups throughout Europe and armed groups in conflict zones.

Similarities to bullying

The recruitment and indoctrination processes are organized and fully functional worldwide, partly due to Internet networking. Yet, as complex as the whole mess may be, some clear similarities can be drawn between terrorists and bullies on the playground. Both obviously have a strong need for power and control, lack empathy and exhibit predatory behavior. Perhaps by understanding bullies, we can better understand terrorists.

Out of a primal instinct to dominate: “The bigger, stronger kids create a social hierarchy and appoint themselves as leaders. The bullies are clearly in charge, gaining power and status that translate to a bigtime ego boost,” according to Jaana Juvonen, Ph.D., a professor of developmental psychology at UCLA. She describes how victims withdraw from the attacks, making themselves submissive and more vulnerable. Victims suffer psychological and social distress in addition to the physical threat from bullying and suicide.

Juvonen’s research has shown that bullies don’t always have to be bullies and victims don’t always have to be victims; their roles can change. She suggests giving bullies other ways to feel power and control other than bullying, but first to stop the behavior. Victims need to stop blaming themselves and feel empowered to build friendships. Children should be encouraged to help each other avoid joining the bullies out of fear and helplessness.

Perhaps Americans might treat terrorists like playground bullies and simply not tolerate their behavior. Americans need not blame themselves for terrorist acts or fall victim to fear. Rather, working together can prevent coercion to join their groups and help build stronger, more cohesive communities.

About us

Sovereign Health of California treats individuals with substance abuse, mental health problems and dual diagnosis. We use state-of-the-art diagnostic assessment and treatment to provide optimal long-term outcomes. Comprehensive treatment and ongoing aftercare provide the support patients need to recover from addiction and all of its consequences. To find out more about specialized programs at Sovereign Health, please call us at our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at


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