Social Identity and Terrorist Political Violence
Over the years, social scientists have tried to explain factors that lead to terrorist violence but there explanations seem not to convince the world. This is because forces behind terrorist actions are complex as experts opine that their violence is because of economic interests while others hold that terror is a psychological phenomenon. This analysis suggests that psychological aspects form the basis of terrorism violence, focusing on social identity that is anchored on religion, culture or other ideologies and not economic interests. In order to achieve this objective, the paper will capture terrorism violence as a group activity, depicting how perpetrators seek to realize social identity. Importantly, common cultural and psychological elements such as language and religion are crucial in nurturing social identity. Even though terrorist violence may not lack economic motivation, the members of the group act because of their socially constructed identity.
Before discussing the practical details of motivations of terrorist violence, it is worth noting that there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. In this paper, we shall adopt Lee’s definition of terrorist violence. Lee says terrorism violence causes huge fear among civilians that affirm the ideologies of a particular political enemy in order to compel the enemy to surrender or experience similar fear (205). This two say that the main stakeholders in terrorism violence are the terrorist group and the target. According to the organization of terrorism groups, the masterminds and actual executors of the violence have different ranks and roles to play. On the other hand, the target group comprises the victims who suffer the full wrath of the terrorists, and the universal group they could be representing. Unlike other wars, terrorist violence prioritizes inflicting fear and panic and not instant military conquest (Lee 205).
As mentioned before, terrorism violence is a group activity implying that it follows dynamics, which are similar to those of groups. McCormick notes that though certain individuals in small numbers bear the responsibility of executing the actual terror, they in most cases act on commands by a larger social network, to which they are members (487). Thus, the individuals do not own the results they achieve for unleashing fear through terror violence, as it is a fulfillment of their duty as members of the group in order to authenticate their belonging in the social movement. A good example is the manner in which Islamic militant operate in different social groups with unique ideology and political interests. Therefore, these groups may show differences in terms of operations, ideology and a range of social aspects. Since these groups have members who play different roles, they also have different ranks in their organizational structure. Because of the nature of what they do, members who execute real violence are the most visible while those who work behind the scenes in providing logistical and ideological support remain unseen.
From a wide range of terrorist activities, it suffices to deduce that terrorism is a group concept. For instance, interesting terror incidents followed the July 2005 London Subway bombings. Two weeks later, four suicide terrorists with bombs tried to attack a bus and three underground transport targets in a similar manner. Unfortunately, their ploy did not succeeded following the malfunctioning of the explosives, which led to their arrest. From investigations, it emerged that the four suspects were members of the transnational Islamic Jihadist group, which has various levels (Lee 206). Militant and ideological leaders like Osama Bin Laden who was Al-Qaeda’s leader before his death are always at the top of the weak organizational structure. Among other responsibilities, the leaders are the vision bearers of the terror group, endorse ideological prove for violence and selflessness. Throughout the history of terrorism, most Islamic militant heads use religion to justify suicide bombings by misleading the executors to assume they are fulfilling a just cause that bears a great reward. While this is the case, the leaders who hold top most positions in the network do not participate in real killings.
After the leaders, other senior members of the group offer ideological support to the rest of the members through face-to-face interactions and training to stabilize the ideology of the network group and establish a sense of belonging and allegiance to the group (Lee 208). For Islamic militancy, those who hold this rank teach the rest of the members on the significance of Jihad in preparation for suicide bombings and a range of terror activities. Ideological is vital for the success of terrorist group. In essence, ideological support involves safeguarding communication networks and channels like websites, which play a paramount role in training and recruitment of members into the group. Members of the terror group receive practical training on how to carry out violence from leaders in the operational level. This is a crucial department and leaders have military skills, technical knowledge for the planning and execution of violent attacks, including assembling of bombs, detonation of explosives and accurate location of targets. Actual bombers come at end of the operational level and bear the responsibility of destroying the target on location including suicide bombings.
Social psychology and social identity theory give the reasons why identity for terrorist violence is fundamental. The architects of the theory postulate group identity has the power to reveal the behavior of a person and that it is a social phenomenon (Gill 568). Even though supporters of rational choice theory hold, that behavior stems from conscious cost-profit assessment (Krieger and Meierrieks 3), social identity theory advocates dismiss the rational processes since they have no effect on people who act because of social identity. The actions of individuals can enhance self-worth of members within a particular social context. This implies that as individuals possess the freedom of choice, they adopt behaviors that favor social identity as they experience psychological benefits like self-esteem. Importantly, social identity shapes people’s behavior like shifting attitudes, stereotyping and modeling (Krieger and Meierrieks 4). When people share social identity, they also have a range of attributes in common, including but not limited to confidence, experiences, trust and love among others. This commonality makes such individuals interact more freely as opposed to those with divergent social identity. Furthermore, theorists of social identity opine that it has cognitive, behavioral and emotional elements, which members portray at personal level.
The nature of terrorists’ operations clearly depicts the suggestions of the social theory. Notably, these terrorist groups may lack concrete organizational structure because they are social movements but have several points of convergence like political motives, beliefs and identity. Thus, religion might not be the basis for the identity of this type of terror group. Other factors, which come into operation, include nationalist, leftwing and rightwing (Jones & Libicki 15). Every terrorist group has individuals who execute violence and those carry out violent activities. The leaders of the group are the perpetrators and have a lot of influence to other members in different cultural areas like military, religion and politics. The main role of the perpetrators is establishing the identity of the terror group by propagating the ideology, which they profess to the members. For instance, Osama Bin Laden was a powerful military and political leader who shaped the identity and role of Al-Qaeda. In social identity theory, the cognitive element is the ideological component, which defines the identity of the terrorist group. This means, for a group to succeed, members of must share their purpose, which stems from a common ideology. In this case, the cognitive element of a terror movement determines the behavior of its members.
Recent cases of terrorist violence clearly show the cognitive component of a social group. For instance, after the 2005 bombings of a passenger train in London, investigations revealed how religious leaders like Hamza al-Masri played a pivotal role in mobilize Muslims to hate and kill Jews and all non-Muslims they come across (Gill 568). The leaders of these groups exercise their power and convert their followers into murders by falsely convincing them that they are on a religious cause, which is part of their obligation. Whether Islam offers, justification to destroy non-Muslims is not their concern as they exploit existing religious differences and win followers in treating members of other social groups negatively. Over the years, Islamic terrorists who carry out suicide bombings see themselves as martyrs, sacrificing their lives for a just cause and not victims of violence. Since Islam endorses martyrdom, leaders of terrorist groups encourage their members to be suicide bombers. It is therefore evident that the high regard for martyrs in Islamic factions is a major psychological gain that attracts many into suicide bombing.
Even though there is an obvious link between social identity and the behavior of terrorists, there is limited empirical evidence that supports this. This is because in most cases, there is a tendency by the society not to recognize identity matters and the irrationality of group dynamics, leading to this gap (Ismayilov 15). Nevertheless, insanity does not offer a strong basis to capture the complex functioning of social identity and its affects to one’s behavior. Clearly, the process of how one becomes a member of a terrorist group and advance their ideology and interest is irrational. Individuals join these groups, not by force but through a systematic approach. For the case of suicide bombers who kill non-Muslims in the name of defending their religion are not insane but act under the manipulation of their leaders who make them believe that self-sacrifice for the group is honorable. For a rational process to exist there must be tangible gains like economic prosperity or perceived profits such as sense of purpose and high-self esteem. Being a member of a particular terror group can guarantee a person perceived and visible gains.
There is no consensus on the fact that social identity is the leading cause of terrorist violence in the world. For economists, terrorism stems from poverty even though these assertions do not have supporting evidence (Krieger & Meierrieks 9). Importantly, there is link between terrorism and economic factors such as poverty, income inequality and GDP. In facts, where terror activities have political backing, they may have nothing to do with people’s economic status. Cases where terrorists hire poor individuals in the society to commit terrorist violence are rare and in some instance do not occur completely. The society tends to embrace a range of criminal approaches like robbery and burglary where institutions to tame poverty are weak. In fact, the profiling of some of the leading terrorist groups in the world like Hezbollah shows how their members are highly educated and filthy rich compared to ordinary members of the society (Lee 206).
Since political motivation is prominent in terrorism, it is important to understand the political process. According to Lee, members of the society who are active in political processes usually have higher education and ease access to information and other resources, which is unheard of for the poor (206). In addition, terrorist group target small sections of the population when conducting recruitments and not the entire population. If terror groups targeted the poor, terrorism would be rife in developing nations owing to their abject poverty (Krieger and Meierrieks 6).
In summary, personal drive for terrorist violence and the social identity of a terror group an individual belongs, have a link. Even though a person may choose to join a terror gang because of economic interests, these people always operate under the influence of their leaders once they become members. The role of the leaders is to offer a cognitive component that includes shaping the ideology and purpose of the group. Because of the terror menace, governments worldwide are on a mission to combat this scourge. However, this can only succeed if they under understand terrorist group dynamics.
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Ismayilov, Murad. “Conceptualizing Terrorist Violence and Suicide Bombing.” Journal of Strategic Security 3.3(2010): 15-25.
Jones, G. Seth and Martin C. Libicki. How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qai’da. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2008. Print.
Krieger, Tim and Daniel Meierrieks. “What Causes Terrorism?” Public Choice 147(2011): 3-27.
Lee, Alexander. “Who becomes a Terrorist? Poverty, Education and the Origins of Political Violence.” World Politics 63.2(2011): 203-245.
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