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Violent extremismWhy do some with radical views become terrorists – but others do not?

Published 11 April 2017

Since most people who hold radical views do not become terrorists, what are the factors that drive some to violent extremism? Is there a connection between mental illness and terrorist involvement? And why do some interrogators resort to torture when the body of evidence shows building rapport with suspects is more effective? These questions and others are addressed in a special issue of American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association.

Result of "homegrown" terrorist attack in Brussels in 2016 // Source: theconversation.com

Since most people who hold radical views do not become terrorists, what are the factors that drive some to violent extremism? Is there a connection between mental illness and terrorist involvement? And why do some interrogators resort to torture when the body of evidence shows building rapport with suspects is more effective?

These questions and others are addressed in a special issue of American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association. The APA says that the articles look at such topics as how individuals become radicalized; how to predict who will become a terrorist; the progression from nonviolence to radicalization to terrorism; and the role of community resilience in preventing youth from embracing violent extremism.

“Terrorism is one of the most complex social problems of our time,” said John G. Horgan, guest editor of the issue and a psychology professor at Georgia State University. “Efforts to understand terrorism abound in every academic discipline but many questions regarding how to predict and prevent it remain unanswered. There has never been a more pressing need for greater engagement from psychology.”

Among the articles in the special issue:

— “Understanding Political Radicalization: The Two-Pyramids Model” by Clark McCauleyand Sophia Moskalenko of Bryn Mawr College
In this article, the authors propose that radicalization to extremist opinions is a different psychological phenomenon than is radicalization to extremist action. They describe an “opinion pyramid,” consisting of people who share accelerating levels of extremist ideas, and an “action pyramid” with levels ranging from passivity to legal activism to political violence and terrorism. “The warrant for the two-pyramids model is the observation that 99 percent of those with radical ideas never act,” they write. “Conversely, many join in radical action without radical ideas.” Programs for countering violent extremism that do not distinguish extreme ideas from extremist actions will needlessly multiply the terrorist threat, they suggest.