Lost for Words: Questioning the Relationship between Trauma and Radicalisation

Covering terrorism presents myriad challenges for journalists. How can stories of victims and survivors contribute to the public's understanding of current issues while treating those left reeling with dignity and respect? What responsibility do journalists have in helping audiences understand the motivations of a perpetrator of violence? Here, three experts offer advice on covering traumatic experiences as they relate to radicalisation and terrorism.

“Violence begets violence” is an adage as old as history. But how? What part, if any, does prior traumatic experience play in sowing future acts of terror? Exploring the causality of violent acts is part of the media’s job, but it is also a potential minefield for journalists. Tight word limits and the need for strong leads can favour simplistic, single-stranded narratives that imply that “factor A” always leads to “outcome B.” And the difficult aftermath of violence almost inevitably generates accusations that attempts towards understanding how and why someone chose violence is somehow the same as excusing it.

To add nuance to the debate around how past trauma is linked to radicalisation, the Dart Centre’s Jeanny Gering spoke with three experts who specialise in disentangling the root causes of violent extremism. What follows is an edited transcript of Gering’s conversations with Dr. Katherine Brown, Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Birmingham, Daniel Köhler Founder and Director of the German Institute on Radicalisation and De-radicalisation, and Dr. Nimisha Patel, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of East London.

The discussion touches upon the following themes:

  • Is radicalisation a kind of pathology, only something people with pre-existing mental health conditions are attracted to?
  • Why every journalist should understand the mechanics of how an ideology spreads.
  • How certain labels, like “trauma,” “extremist” or “Islamist,” can trip up reporters if they are not carefully defined.
  • The impact that quick-sketch pieces about a perpetrator’s upbringing can have on the community they grew up in.
  • The debate over the role intergenerational trauma plays in refugee communities.

Jeanny Gering: First and foremost, do you see a link between trauma and radicalisation?

Daniel Köhler: As far as I know, there's no proven link between a traumatic experience and the radicalisation process. It is far more complex than that. First, we have to differentiate between various individuals, groups and other subsets of people involved in radical extremism. If we look at refugee radicalisation – which is currently a very big topic in Germany and an entirely separate field within radicalisation studies – then of course traumatic experiences become much more important when compared with other forms of radicalisation.

While a traumatic experience can trigger a chain of events that might prompt someone to explore different ideologies, the traumatic experience itself does not cause radicalisation. What does a person experience after a traumatic event? Can he or she make sense of the experience in their environment?  Factors like a positive social environment, a functioning family and the prevalent political culture all matter.

Katherine Brown: Two things are relevant here. The first is the idea of “carer’s trauma,” when individuals strongly identify with the trauma of others like them. This is the vicarious nature of trauma. If for example you talk to young British Muslims who have thought about traveling to Iraq or Syria, you see a heightened identification with Islam and the Muslim community, and that becomes their dominant frame of reference for who they are in the world. When people they identify with suffer – for example when they saw what has happened in the Balkans and now in Iraq, Syria or Palestine –they begin to experience that suffering as something requiring a response.

There’s also a theory that trauma can produce a kind of “cognitive opening” for people who have experienced it directly. The idea is that a traumatic event fractures your existing worldview to such an extent that you become more receptive to alternative ideas, such as those presented by radical groups. The prior traumatic experience encourages a more cut and dry, black-and-white worldview, which radical groups offer. My problem with this theory is that it presumes radicalisation to be a psychological weakness, which I don't agree with. But I think it can be a useful framework for thinking through trauma.

The experiences of people from France, Germany and the U.K. who have joined radical groups in Iraq or Syria are very diverse. Not all have had traumatic experiences that would edge them towards a tipping point. While there are examples of people with a history of arrest or domestic violence in the family, it's often a combination of factors that can’t be easily generalised . There are other situations where there is no indication of trauma at all, like in the case of the two sisters from Manchester. In this case, there is no direct correlation between traumatic experiences and radicalisation.

But despite not having experienced trauma themselves, the language used often refers back to trauma. When you look through blog posts from extremist groups, for example, they're constantly referencing past traumas. For example, they will write about bombings in Syria and say, “this is happening to your brothers and sisters,” which suggests a broader narrative of trauma that radical groups and individuals draw upon to legitimise their perspectives.

Daniel Köhler: And then there's always the question of when and how someone gets in touch with an extremist group. Are they being recruited, is it by chance, or are they actively seeking it out? All of these factors matter. .

In my view radicalisation always includes positive and negative factors. Negative factors are traumatic experiences, like racism, bullying, fights in the family, losing your job, really anything that could deeply frustrate an individual. These experiences can be exploited by a recruiter later on. Positive factors, on the other hand, include a quest for justice, freedom, significance, honour or pride, helping to defend women and children, improving society or carving out a strong identity. For some, the roots of radicalisation exist more in such negative factors; for others, more in the positive.

Nimisha Patel: Trauma is a very broad term. As a psychological term it basically means a rupture in one's psychic wellbeing. The rupture can be caused by a specific event or by a series of events. It can also be chronic, like living in an abusive environments or within conflict areas. So when we think about “trauma” in terms of reporting, one of the biggest problems is a very crude reductionist approach to the term: Implying that this thing happened here and it was so bad that it must be the reason this person did something destructive 10 or 20 years later.

It's never just “this one thing,” but rather a series of things. Many social inequalities and injustices can account for traumatic conditions, like poverty, homelessness, unemployment or marginalisation.

And in this connected age, what happens politically – both inside and outside of your country – effects how you understand social injustices and how people experience trauma. That’s one reason we need to think carefully about what we mean when we talk about “trauma”, because there are no direct causal relationships. All we can try to decipher using our research methods are the influences of a relationship: Is there a relationship? If so, how strong is it? But correlations don't actually prove causality. So I think there's a danger in drawing linear relationships between trauma and any subsequent event, like radicalisation.

JG: To what extent do you think journalists should focus on the individual backstories of perpetrators?

KB: When an attack happens, the media typically descends on the next-door neighbours or relatives of the alleged perpetrators in an attempt to get information. That can put tremendous pressure on those directly affected. You have to balance how you get information, and whether the information is actually necessary for the story. Clearly the personal angle is interesting,, but it’s important to consider consider how to go about it without exacerbating the trauma of those connected to the perpetrator(s).

Still, the perpetrator’s story is part of the larger story and journalists are clearly under pressure to produce it. One of the hazards is that readers often presume that you empathise or sympathise with the perpetrators: that you are trying to explain or justify their violence. When possible, try to situate that story alongside others that may have taken alternative paths. .

DK: There's a strong tendency to see radicalisation or radicalism in pathological terms, as some sort of sickness or disease, which leads people to look for risk factors in the individual’s biography. I would urge reporters to be very, very cautious about approaching radicalism in this way. “Breaks” in biographies might explain part of a radicalisation, but they don't shed light on the positive appeal, or the power and effectiveness of a group like ISIS.

What do these radical groups promise people? What do they want to change in society? What do they want to achieve in their lives? These are the factors that really motivate people to leave their homes and risk their lives.

It's not that they are so frustrated and so traumatised. These factors would not make you a strong candidate for any extremist or terrorist group. These groups want you to be able to function fully, to be committed and to be able to think strategically.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, the majority of Islamist extremists and terrorists want to change society in a way they deem better,. They have strong moral concepts like justice and freedom and dignity and honour. And I think it’s more important to understand these positive driving forces than to parse the effects of a traumatic experience: It’s these positive factors that can convert a traumatic experience into proactive behaviour.

NP: I can see why journalists need to report on perpetrators. For one, the public wants to know, and two, it's part of your duty, to report what you know about someone who committed a crime. But it's also a bit of a red herring because it looks at individual factors for radicalisation, and factors are not simply individual – they are social and political. So, as a journalist, how do you tell a story that gives equal balance to the person, the context in which they grew up, the social factors they were exposed to and the broader political context?

JG: Do you have recommendations for journalists when it comes to language and labels?

KB: To begin with, there was a lot of concern about people using the terms "Islamic radicalisation" and "Muslim radicalisation" – they made a lot of Muslims feel targeted. Then, there was a shift and people started using “Neofascist” or “Neofascist-islamic” or “Islamic fascist.” But then people didn't feel that fascism was an appropriate concept to link to Islam, so there was a move toward “Salafism" as an attempt to say, it's not all Muslims, it's just this group. But again it's not all Salafists. This partly reflects our lack of understanding about the diversity within Islam, and it leads us to create these labels. This can be seen as a positive thing because we're refining the term more and more, but by always including religion,in the label, there’s still the association.

What I would suggest is trying to explain whatever terms and labels you choose, or suggest alternative ways of understanding them. Some people have started using the term “new-jihadist” movements, which has advantages because it focuses on a key concept that radical groups employ. It's frustrating to me when I then hear people from religious communities say “but jihad means peace.” It does and it doesn't. It has two meanings. But when radical groups use it, they are invoking a connotation of violence.

NP: Language is really important to me as well, not only as a clinician but as someone heavily influenced by Foucault. How we use language shapes our understandings and actions, and leads to particular consequences. The obvious point is, don't talk about “trauma” without saying more because trauma is a construct. Don't talk about “radicalisation” because there isn’t a definition for it, or certainly no consensus for one. With “radicalization," we're basically talking about is a process during one's life through which somebody develops strong views and beliefs that are deemed “radical” by others. And well, you could say that is just called life.

The concept of radicalisation is in our parlance now but when we use it we should ask ourselves what we actually mean by it. I suspect that when most people try to break it down they will have difficulty explaining it. So I would urge caution when using it loosely.

“Terrorism” is a bit more straightforward because it has a legal definition. “Violent extremism” – I don't get that either. I'm an extremist when I have extreme views on something. Some of my colleagues would say I'm an extremist. All I can say is that I grew up under apartheid, within a refugee family and I experienced horrendous injustices. So yes, I have really radical views about social problems. And if by questioning my own profession and having strongly held views about it – including that psychologists are part of those structural problems and that we can contribute to or cause harm with our theories and practices – leads others to think that I am radical, then call me a radical. But what does that really mean?

Violent extremism is really when a particular ideology, deemed “radical” or “extreme,” is used to promote, incite or condone violent behaviour. But why not just call it “violence” then?

JG: What are a few key things journalists should know about ideology?

KB: In a nutshell, there are three sets of connected ideas that you find in most radical Islamic groups. These things help us understand where religion fits into the radical Islamic debate because they provide an overarching frame for what is otherwise nasty, petty politics.

The first idea is that as an individual, your life isn't very good. Radical Islamic groups often promote a narrative that says Muslims are historically oppressed by non-Muslims, and that the persecution  experienced by Muslims today is timeless. No matter what governments, politicians or the media say, the radical groups claim that this traumatisation and victimisation is personal. And that notion ties into this idea of a binary world: one of peace and one of war. The world of peace is the world of Islam, and the world of war belongs to everything else.

Then there is a belief that an ideal world can be achieved, and it's a personal obligation to pursue it. To some extent, they also tap into broader ideas that Muslims in the West are persecuted, and that men in the West are not allowed to be real men. This concept is actually very powerful for Muslim women as well, who believe they can live a pure life and be secure and protected and participate in building an ideal world as well.

The third idea is that you have a personal obligation to contribute to the creation of this new world.

DK: An ideology provides you with three things: a problem, a solution to the problem and a future vision. Radical ideologies have a very deep understanding of this. They propagate that there's only one problem in the world, for example the global fight against Islam. And they would say to each recruit, your personal problems are just symptoms of the global fight against Islam. You lost your job and you experienced racism because you are a part of that struggle. You are a part of Islam, you are a true Muslim, and this is why “the other side” is attacking you. There's only one solution to that. You cannot try to peacefully negotiate with “the infidels,” you have to take a stand, fight back and perform individual jihad because nothing else will solve the problem. And finally, they say that the only thing really worthy fighting and dying for is the reestablishment of the caliphate as the perfect home state for all true Muslims. This basic narrative, shared by all jihadist groups, binds them together and accounts for the negative aspects of people’s lives. It provides them with ample opportunities for positive solutions and future visions. This is the psychology behind radicalisation.

When a recruiter uses a traumatic experience to induce their own ideology, it can be a very a powerful radicalisation tool. When we look into specific sub-groups like refugees, where everyone is likely to have experienced traumatic events, there can be an almost collective trauma. This can be transferred over generations within refugee communities and harnessed very effectively to produce anger and hatred toward Western societies. If refugees experience alienation and discrimination in their new home country, and then meet Salafists for example, who speak the same language, have a common cultural background and offer a new perspective and solution, it may lead to radicalisation.

The largest group of German foreign fighters has Turkish backgrounds and most of them are descendants of Turkish workers who were brought into Germany after the Second World War. They were born, educated and socialised in Germany. So it can be small events, such as being bullied in school or not getting a job because of a Turkish name. Things like that can be traumatic for a person. But I think individual perception plays a large role, especially in childhood. There are instances where racism or right wing extremist attacks on immigrants could lead to radicalisation later on.

JG: What advice can you share with journalists on interviewing?

DK: As soon as you step in as a journalist, you need to be aware that you are becoming a factor – you are not neutral in the de-radicalisation process. If we are strictly talking about interviewing someone who is a former member of a terrorist group, who has started a de-radicalisation process, my first piece of advice would be to speak with that person’s counsellor.

Imagine being the person who is seen as a terrorist, and then you have CBS and The New York Times running a piece about you. It can be a massive ego boost for that person. Many of them might be attracted to that kind of attention. Media involvement can be a strategic tool in de-radicalisation, but only if it’s part of a coherent strategy.

NP: There are many problems with the research on the psychological aspects of violent extremism that it may be helpful for journalists to think about. After more than 30 years of research in this area, we have yet to find any conclusive evidence or a clear idea of what leads people to engage in terrorism or violence. The existing research looks at individual stories retrospectively, and tends to rely on single case studies. The rest of the research seems to rely on secondary resources, is regurgitated over and over again, and is then presented as conclusive.

My advice for journalists is to look at the different explanations and give them equal weight in the reporting, and also recognise that the research in this area is inconclusive. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to why this person engaged in violence – that's what it really boils down to.

These kinds of assumptions and statements about “radicalisation,” “trauma,” “'individual factors,” etc. get pedaled again and again in publications, and they can create a discourse that leads to really profound consequences – like dangerous legal policies – which criminalise people who are deemed are deemed “radicalised/potentially radicalized” before they've done anything wrong. And in those contexts where somebody has actually committed violence, these unquestioned assumptions about the individual's “trauma” or personality traits or family background can all stigmatise their family and community members. So let's stop and think about the legal and social consequences of the language we use and the way we write about perpetrators.

And lastly, let's think about what we do to pedal a particular discourse, because that can prevent us from shining a light on new narratives, and other, perhaps more complex explanations. Often while we're busy telling the same old story, real threats are being planned that could be addressed differently if we can simply widen our lens and scrutinise our own assumptions as well.