Is “radicalization” an accurate description of the process by which individuals are “recruited” to join terrorist groups? The fact is, terrorist groups appeal to people who already are criminals.

An article in the August 20, 2016, edition of The Washington Post, is titled “Few ISIS recruits grasped Islam.”  The Post quoted security consultant Patrick Skinner as stating, “Religion is an afterthought.”   In other words, religion is an after-the-fact justification for criminality. In an article in Gender and Violence (Vol. 1, No. 4), FBI special agents Thomas Neer and Mary Ellen O’Toole point out that people are attracted to extremist groups “not so much for ideological reasons, but in search of ways to fulfill their respective psychological needs.”

Let’s talk about the “psychological needs” that are fulfilled through different forms of terrorism.

In the context of a one-on-one personal relationship, perpetrators of domestic violence are terrorists.  A chronically abusive spouse subjugates his partner, keeping her in a perpetual state of fear through threats, psychological abuse, and physical violence.

Most ruthless dictators were criminals long before they attained positions of absolute authority and terrorized an entire populace. In his 1977 book The Psychopathic God, Robert Waite provides evidence that, from childhood, Adolf Hitler manifested thinking and behavior patterns common to criminals.  He reported that the youthful Hitler “demanded of his fellow pupils their unqualified subservience, fancying himself in the role of leader.”  Waite cites Hitler’s statement (as an adult) to an associate, “Do I intend to eradicate whole races? Of course I do…Cruelty and brute strength….The masses want it. They need the thrill of terror to make them shudderingly submissive.”

Notorious jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a criminal before he joined any cause. A bully as a teenager, he eventually served a prison sentence and, upon his release, was more intent on mayhem and slaughter than on advancing a particular religion or ideology. Time magazine (6/19/06) stated that for al-Zarqawi “slaughtering fellow Arabs who followed different forms of Islam was as important as killing Westerners.”  Psychologist Aubrey Immelman found Osama bin Laden to have “a blend of narcissistic and antisocial personality patterns” (scientific paper presented to the Internal Society of Political Psychology, 7/02).  She described him as “adept at exploiting Islamic fundamentalism in the service of his own ambition and personal dreams of glory.”

Homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 resulting in the deaths of 168 people.  From the age of thirteen, he had been fascinated by guns and wielded them to impress his peers. Having dropped out of college, he exploded homemade bombs.  Described by The Washington Post (7/2/95) as exploding with “volcanic anger,” he was characterized as “an ordinary boy with extraordinary rage.”  Before the Oklahoma bombing, he was targeting a number of government officials for possible assassination.

Perpetrators of domestic violence, Hitler, al-Zarqawi, bin Laden, and McVeigh all are terrorists. Although they operate in very different arenas, all have features of a criminal personality.  They were not persuaded, enticed, or forced to commit horrific acts of terrorism.  They were seeking power and control, building themselves up by subjugating or destroying others whether they were terrorizing one person (a spouse), consolidating their authority over an entire populace, or annihilating others with whom they had differences, religious or otherwise.

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