The Psychology Behind The Brussels Terrorists

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The Psychology Behind The Brussels Terrorists


by Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen


The authorities have released pictures of men implicated in the Brussels bombings, one of whom is thought to be still at large. But does the current media analysis mislead as to who is ultimately responsible?


A new study, recently published by Sofia Pinero Kluch from the Gallup public opinion research company, based in Washington, DC, and Alan Vaux, a psychologist at Southern Illinois University, USA, has uncovered some novel and even shocking findings, in a survey of attitudes to terrorism across the world.


This research appears to suggest we should perhaps look beyond individuals, and instead locate causes in communities and cultures.


The investigation, entitled, ‘Culture and Terrorism: The Role of Cultural Factors in Worldwide Terrorism (1970–2013)’, arose out of an analysis that terrorism seems to spring more frequently from certain countries or cultures. Terrorism originates from particular communities, even if the actual terrorist act is ‘exported’ to another country.  And this appears to explain the Brussels incidents.


For example, this research, published in the academic journal, ‘Terrorism and Political Violence’, found of several thousand suicide bombing incidents, 70% occurred in just three countries, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.


The study used the Gallup World Poll, an annual survey of 1,000 randomly selected adults in at least 140 countries, covering broad topics of well-being, economics, infrastructure, and social and cultural issues, and data on over 125,000 terrorist incidents around the world from 1970 to 2013, occurring in 208 countries or territories.


Sofia Pinero Kluch and Alan Vaux point out that Iraq and Pakistan are scored high on ‘collectivism’ in research on how cultures differ along the ‘Individualism-Collectivism’ spectrum, which reflects the degree to which individuals look after themselves, or defer to family and other groups. Although there is no formal research on Afghanistan, and how ‘collectivist’ it is, it is highly likely to score similarly high on this dimension as do Iraq and Pakistan.


Previous researchers on the topic of whether terrorism is linked to certain cultures have argued that a more ‘collectivist’ culture tolerates and supports suicide terrorism, because such an ethos promotes group over individual interests, particularly the values of loyalty, honour, avoidance of shame, and group opinion.


A previous study, cited by Sofia Pinero Kluch and Alan Vaux, of more than 2,000 terrorist incidents worldwide occurring from 1982 to 2006, found that 98% of suicide bombings originated in countries high on ‘collectivism’, and that no suicide terrorism campaigns originated from ‘individualist’ societies.


The countries where the population, when surveyed, was most rejecting in attitudes of attacks on civilians were Germany, Egypt, France, Estonia, and Latvia. The countries least rejecting of attacks on civilians were Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, and Senegal. A population’s tolerance of terrorism was significantly related to culture, with rejection of attacks on civilians significantly associated with more ‘individualism’.




Sofia Pinero Kluch and Alan Vaux also found in their study that cultures where there was more civic disengagement, suffering, anger, and a lack of hope, were all linked to several forms of terrorism. Countries where more of the population is voiceless, disengaged from their communities, suffering, angry, and hopeless, were more likely to harbour communities relatively tolerant of terrorism and individuals who engage in terrorism.


Much more surprising was their finding that countries which employ strict social norms to restrain gratification of basic needs, having fun, and enjoying life (i.e., low ‘indulgence’) tend to show a higher incidence of severe terrorist attacks, bombings generally, and specifically suicide bombings.


The authors claim this is a novel finding and that no known prior research has tested the relationship between ‘indulgence’ and terrorism.  It appears that a puritanical orientation—restraining the population’s gratification and enjoyment of life—promotes terrorism.


Perhaps, the authors argue, this is because grievances build up without means of resolution. Individuals may experience more frustration that leads to anger and other negative emotions, or the population feel less attached to a world that fails to meet their needs.


The authors cited another study for the period 1970 to 2010, of 17,000 attacks perpetrated by 41 organizations in 21 countries.  This research found that countries scoring higher on ‘collectivism’ accounted for 15,036 incidents of terrorism, while countries higher on ‘individualism’ accounted for 2,090, confirming the proposal that terrorism is more prevalent in, and perhaps facilitated by, ‘collectivist’ cultures.


Countries most rejecting of the 9/11 attack were Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Israel, and Latvia. Countries least rejecting of this attack were Iraq, Honduras, Bangladesh, United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan. Rejection of the 9/11 attack, too, was associated with ‘individualism’.  Rejection of the 9/11 attack was strongest in cultures that are more ‘individualistic’.


Another survey cited by Sofia Pinero Kluch and Alan Vaux asked citizens across the planet who they believed was behind the 9/11 attack, and in three countries, a substantial group identified Israel (Egypt, 43% of the population; Jordan, 31%; and Palestinian Territories, 19%). In four countries, 20% or more of respondents identified the U.S. government (Turkey, 36%; Mexico, 30%; Palestinian Territories, 27%; and Germany, 23%).


Sofia Pinero Kluch and Alan Vaux have shown that countries and cultures across the world vary widely in their tolerance of and attitude to terrorism and that, using general attitudes to terrorism, it may be surprisingly possible to predict from where attacks are going to originate.


This research found across the world that sentiments towards the 9/11 attacks appear strongly associated with attitudes to terrorism which in turn provides a breeding ground for future terrorists.


It could be that identifying those cultures could help predict the next attack.


The communities and their issues which incubate terrorism have to be addressed. Otherwise catching individuals without apprehending the reasons behind such a steady supply, merely renders the world ever more unsafe.

Follow Dr Raj Persaud on

Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and Google Play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.

Download it for free from these links: is external) is external)

Dr Raj Persaud’s new novel ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ on the narcissism of stalking and obsessive love is released in support of UK National Stalking Awareness Week April 18th, all proceeds from sales donated to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust the UK’s anti-stalking personal safety charity.





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