12.15.2011

DID SOMEONE SAY MIND CONTROL?: HOW THE TERRORIST MIND IS MOLDED

Palestinian lynched for collaborating with Israel
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Palestinian Lynching for Collaboration with the Israelis

EGO STRENGTH-FRUSTRATION TENDENCIES (ES-FT): TOWARD A MODEL OF PREDICTING MILITANT MARTYRDOM BY EXAMINING THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT (Article Three)

DID SOMEONE SAY MIND CONTROL?: HOW THE TERRORIST MIND IS MOLDED
According to Hudson (1999), terrorist groups, including those that endorse militant martyrdom, have similarities with religious cults:
They require total commitment by members; they often prohibit relations with outsiders, although this may not be the case with ethnic or separatist terrorist groups whose members are well integrated into the community; they regulate and sometimes ban sexual relations; they impose conformity; they seek cohesiveness through interdependence and mutual trust; and they attempt to brainwash individual members with their particular ideology. (p. 35)

Leaders of terrorist organizations, secular and religious alike, much like those of religious cults, are typically charismatic, enigmatic, authoritarian figures, possibly with psychosis and/or a clinically paranoid personality disorder (Hamilton-Hart, 2005; Lester et al, 2004; Lester, et al, 2004). These figures exhibit strong influential abilities.
Walsh (2001) outlines the trade techniques used by many cults to control their members. One technique Walsh discusses is milieu control in which communications to and from the outside world are controlled by the group leader. Mystical manipulation, another tool used by cult leaders, involves the leader using "extensive personal manipulation" to elicit desired behaviors, including dependency (p. 122). Indeed, some research suggests that suicide attackers are often chosen because of the ease in which they submit to religious indoctrination (Coney, 2003). Prime candidates reportedly consist of immature and troubled youth with few social connections and an absence of meaning in life (Crenshaw, 1988; Laqueur, 1987; Lester, et al, 2004; Stern, 2003). Plous and Zimbardo (2004) further claim that groups attempt to screen out those that do not prove susceptible to the propaganda and manipulation of the group leaders. Demand for purity, another control technique, divides the world into good and evil as defined by the group itself. In this vain, Islamic teachings seek to instill at a very early age the unquestioning obedience to Allah and the calls for purity by religious authority (Post, 2005). A somewhat related technique is the dispensing of existence, in which a line is drawn determining who has a right to live and who does not (Post, 2005; Walsh, 2001). Additional techniques include the sacred science where members are taught that deeper understanding comes from extensive training and unquestioning of group doctrine and loading the language where new meanings of terminology are established to suit the goals of the group (Walsh, 2001). An example of loading the language can be seen in the modification of the Islamic word jihad by the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders (Knapp, 2003). Another example is the substitution of “martyrdom” for “suicide” (Post, 2005).
Other factors contributing to a culture of martyrdom that may or may not be similar to cults are conformity, wish fulfillment, and deception (Hudson, 1999; Tomar, 2003). Conformity involves the changing of personal beliefs to agree with the group. The role of ritual and ceremony is key to this attempt to influence and control. Hafez (2006) writes:
Ritual and ceremony are not simply by-products of violent conflict, but constitutive aspects of it. Ritual and ceremony are cultural performances, symbolic behaviors, or proscribed procedures that are dramatic, socially standardized, and repetitive. Their aim is to communicate and declare identity, arouse emotions, deepen commitments, and inculcate the values of collective ethos. (p. 169)

A consequence of this is groupthink. Groupthink can lead to "illusions of invulnerability leading to excessive optimism and excessive risk taking, presumptions of the group's morality, one-dimensional perceptions of the enemy as evil, and intolerance of challenges by a group member to shared key beliefs" (Hudson, 1999, p. 35). Wish fulfillment refers to the human tendency to want to believe in things that are seen as beneficial (Tomar, 2003). Tomar offers the example of an individual growing up in an area ravaged by violence. She argues that such individuals, as a result of wish fulfillment, are likely to believe in stories of a paradise awaiting them should they become martyrs. Hafez (2006) echoes a similar characterization of how terror group leaders are able to use religious texts, traditions, and public rituals to sell militant martyrdom acts as “opportunities for unparalleled heroism, religious devotion, and personal redemption.” Additional research provides support for these claims (Berko & Erez, 2005; Hafez, 2004; Hassan, 2003; Israeli, 2002; Merari, 2004; Oliver & Steinberg, 2005). Post (2005) notes that conclusions drawn from psychological autopsies of 93 Palestinian militant martyrs indicate that
[The attacks] were for the most carried out by young men between the ages of 17 and 22, [who were] unmarried, uneducated, and unemployed. They were unformed youth, who, when they volunteered or were recruited, were told by the recruiters that their life prospects were bleak, that they could do something significant with their lives, that they would be enrolled in the hall of martyrs, and that their parents would be proud of them and would gain financial rewards. From the moment they entered the safe house, they were never alone: someone slept in the same room with them the night before the action to ensure that they did not backslide, and they were physically escorted to the pizza parlor, disco, or shopping mall to carry out their act of suicide terrorism. (p. 630)

Finally, the use of cultic tactics by charismatic leaders to control followers, with its use of intentional manipulation, deception, isolation, propaganda tools, etc. can be equated to psychological abuse by placing unrealistic demands on the individual to serve the motives of the group or group leader, at the personal and psychological expense of the individual (Atran, 2006).
The impact of the media in influencing behavior cannot be ignored. Pfefferbaum et al. (2003, 2004) confirm the potential psychological consequences of exposure to media reports of traumatic events. They note that repeated exposure to media reports can result in posttraumatic stress and peri-traumatic symptoms. If repeated media exposure can impact one’s emotional state, can it not also be used to influence behavior? Dermody and Scullion (2003), in a study of awareness of election advertising campaigns in Britain, concluded that advertising is noticed by young people and processed psychologically. However, they were unable to conclude what role, if any, this awareness of advertising campaigns had on getting young people to respond. On the other hand, Baines and Worcester (2005), in their study on changing public opinion regarding the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, concluded that:

Contrary to the commonly held notion that politicians follow public opinion, this study has shown how a UK Prime Minister managed to persuade, through various rhetorical devices and a complicit media, an initially skeptical electorate that a war with Iraq, in conjunction with the USA, was in the country’s best interests. (p.16)

Ignoring the obvious political subtext included in this statement, there is useful information here regarding the abilities of leaders to influence others in a particular direction, using the means at hand. One such rhetorical device referred to was that of repetition of certain messages in communications (Baines & Worcester, 2005). McGoldrick (2005) echoed this point referring to the Bush Administration, stating the Administration excels at using pre-arranged positioning and word repetition to drive home its message. Additional evidence of the persuasive powers of repeated intentional propaganda can be found in the outcome of the Palestinian Authority’s 2001 martyrdom propaganda campaign as discussed below (Timmerman, 2002).
Further evidence of the ability to influence behavior can be found by looking at priming and framing. Priming is the ability to cue or bring forward certain topics in the minds of individuals or groups (Druckman, Jacobs, & Ostermeier, 2004). There is ample research to support the use of priming in political arenas (Druckman, 2004; Druckman, et al., 2004; Li and Brewer, 2004). Druckman, et al., further demonstrates that group leaders tailor their priming strategies to correspond with public opinion and the opportunities offered by current political conditions. The result is a somewhat circular or reciprocal influence, but an influence nonetheless.
Framing effects, likewise, play a significant role in influencing attitudes and behavior. Framing is the conceptualization or characterization of an idea, event, person, etc., in a way that influences another’s opinion about it (Bar-Tal, 2005). Bar-Tal describes the role of the media and framing by Israeli leaders in the decline in support for peace initiatives with Palestine. Boettcher (2004) demonstrates from a prospect theory orientation how framing can lead to preference and choice reversal in international relations. Kanner (2004), in his application of prospect theory, makes the case that through the use of framing, a weaker negotiator can still achieve a desirable outcome, attesting to its power of influence. Jerit (2004) argues that group leaders (especially those associated with martyrdom groups) have strong incentive to frame messages in ways that evoke fear, anxiety, and anger because it allows them to motivate their base while also converting the uncommitted. Gross and D'Ambrosio (2004), in their study on framing emotional responses, conclude that framing does indeed affect emotional responses, but asserted that the extent to which emotions are influenced depends on the person’s original predisposition. This author argues that systemic psychological victimization accounts for this original predisposition. In an interesting study, Cohen-Hattab (2004) shows that even tourism can be framed to make political statements, wage wars, and influence the populace as, he argues, was the case in pre-Israel Palestine where Jewish political-propaganda led to the creation of the state of Israel. The ability of framing effects to influence behavior is undeniable and is a powerful tool used by militant martyrdom groups.
The argument may be made that those who engage in acts of militant martyrdom need little convincing or persuasion to follow through with their intentions. As if in anticipation to this argument, Hafez (2006) asks why martyrdom groups are so diligent and work so painstakingly to establish and maintain a culture of martyrdom if there is not a need to persuade the broader public of the utility of militant martyrdom. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that such groups go to great lengths to instill, support, and maintain a culture of militant martyrdom. The combination of the aforementioned factors with the psychological abuse perpetrated on Palestinians, as will be discussed below, makes the conditions ripe for cult-like/terrorist groups. These groups fill their membership by seeking out those who have been victimized, offering a means of recourse for the victimization, and inflicting their own form of victimization by manipulation and other abusive tactics, as outline above. This combined impact creates a culture of militant martyrdom that was previously non-existent in the Palestinian Territories (Hafez, 2006). Here one finds the explanation for why a culture of martyrdom did not exist within Palestine prior to 1989 when the first suicide attack was carried out.
This article is authored by Jerry D. Smith Jr., Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist and CEO at Breakthrough Psychological Solutions, PLLC.
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