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The Role of Psychiatrists in Countering Violent Extremism

The Role of Psychiatrists in Countering Violent Extremism


In February 2015, President Barack Obama hosted a White House summit on countering violent extremism (terrorism), mobilizing stakeholders from over 60 countries across civil society, the private sector, government, and international organizations against the violence posed by non-state militants such as Al Qaeda, the Islamic state, and the Taliban. The government’s attempts at a unified policy response have culminated in a 2016 report published by the US Department of State and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) that defines violent extremism as follows:

Violent extremism refers to proactive actions to counter efforts by violent extremists to radicalize, recruit, and mobilize followers to violence and to address specific factors that facilitate violent extremist recruitment and radicalization to violence. This includes both disrupting the tactics used by violent extremists to attract new recruits to violence and building specific alternatives, narratives, capabilities, and resiliencies in target communities and populations to reduce the risk of radicalization and recruitment to violence.1

This official definition may promote a singular agenda for research and practice. The report acknowledges the critical role of psychological factors in this process: “The nature and range of possible drivers of violent extremism can vary significantly from individual psychological factors to community and sectarian divisions and conflicts.” However, the process through which violent extremist attitudes and actions arise is not yet fully understood. Although the report mentions psychological factors, it does not specify exact mechanisms or roles for mental health professionals.

The evidence for mental health is also mixed. Most research on violent extremism —defined here as the threat of real or perceived violence against civilians —has been conducted in relation to conflict zones and in the fields of political science and international relations to examine violence against social, political, and economic variables. No study has reported the prevalence of terrorist thoughts or behaviors, or isolated the relationship between mental disorders and terrorism, in the general population. Hence, epidemiological statistics are unavailable. In fact, it would be difficult to conduct such studies, since respondents would risk self-incrimination.

Still, terrorism poses sufficient danger to public safety that psychiatrists would benefit from an awareness of general issues, especially because initiatives to counter violent extremism are increasingly calling on mental health professionals to participate. Indeed, the initiatives touch upon subjects of abiding interest in psychiatry such as the delineation of normal versus abnormal thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and violence risk assessments.

Furthermore, literature reviews of medical databases demonstrate that publications from psychiatrists or psychologists on factors inciting individuals toward terrorism tend to engage in personal speculation, syntheses of theoretical models, or forensic case studies that apply psychological theories with hindsight to explain violence, not research with suspected or actual terrorists whose findings could inform clinical practice. Hence, psychiatrists interested in contributing to initiatives to counter violent extremism need a foundation in what has been studied and how violent extremist beliefs and actions evolve to inform preventive initiatives.

Terrorism research: the dynamic interplay between individual and group factors

A pioneering body of research has contended that group-level factors, not individual-level psychopathologies, lead people to become terrorists by committing to political violence for a group cause. In an early study, the forensic psychiatrist and former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Marc Sageman analyzed the biographies of 172 militants committed to violent jihad to show that the social bonds between families and friends, not psychiatric disorders, compelled people to join terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.2 Jerrold Post, a psychiatrist also formerly employed at the CIA, analyzed the biographies of militants through psychological profiling and found that terrorist groups prevent mentally unstable individuals from joining, since they can sabotage social cohesion and commitment to the mission.3 Other studies have differentiated individual mechanisms of personal victimization and political grievances from group mechanisms such as group membership, identifying with the group’s task of waging violence, and subordinating individual identity to a militarized group identity.4-7 We know little about how individual- and group-level mechanisms interact and whether such mechanisms are the same or different across terrorist groups.

More recent studies suggest that individual psychological states can disclose who is susceptible to violent extremism. No specific mental illness has been directly linked to terrorist behaviors.8 Researchers have questioned this tenet by highlighting flaws in earlier studies: for example, terrorists are treated equally without considering role specialization (ie, bomb makers are assumed to act the same as financiers), mental disorders are assumed to be present or absent without testing for a range of possible disorders throughout a terrorist’s lifetime, and the lack of evidence on specific mental illnesses causing terrorism has led scholars to stop testing this relationship rather than to improve studies.


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