The Psychology of Terrorism, by John Horgan.

Image resultPeople have very high expectations of what psychology can tell us about terrorists. Politicians and security forces want us to identify a “terrorist personality”, so we can identify those who might be attracted to terrorism before they become active. In fact terrorists come in all psychological shapes and sizes. Just like there are musicians with different personalities, and police officers with different personalities, and shopkeepers with different personalities, so there are terrorists with many different personalities, and it is impossible to predict from a personality assessment whether or not someone is likely to become involved in terrorism.

One of the problems of research into terrorism is sampling. Terrorists do not typically volunteer for psychological investigations. Those that do tend to be in custody, and have long ago disengaged from terrorist behaviour.

Horgan argues that the psychology of terrorism is in fact pre-paradigmatic, and that psychologist should focus for the time being on accurate and precise descriptions of terrorist behaviour, rather than attempts at explanation.

This is a hard book, which is definitely aimed at an undergraduate level or above. It will reward those who want to persevere with some advanced reading. That said, there are some highly readable bits and pieces. The snippets of transcriptions of interview with terrorists are fascinating.

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Extremism’s False Trail, by Kamaldeep Bhui.

What are the warning signs that young people are becoming radicalised? Kamaldeep Bhui at Queen Mary University, London, applies a public health approach to this question, and attempts to find risk and resilience factors.

Radicalisation seems to be unrelated to poverty, political engagement, frequency of religious worship, or experience of discrimination or adversity. However there was a correlation between being born outside the UK, general ill health, and the experience of depression.

Bhui recommends that vulnerable young people are exposed to healthy sources of self-esteem, authentic religious teaching, and social support. These factors are known to protect young people from joining gangs; it is likely that they will also inoculate young people against the temptation to become radicalised.

New Scientist No. 3016, 11th April 2015, p24 – 25.