The psychology of radicalisation: Lego Islam

Many of those individuals joining the jihad have little knowledge of the Koran. Yet there are other signs that indicate whether somebody might carry out an attack in the name of Allah. By Frederike Haupt

By Friederike Haupt

Why do people who care little for jihadist ideology take up the cause? The question arises because suicide bombers who invoke Allah often know little about him. An international study assessing the data of 330 IS recruits last year revealed: the more religious knowledge the men ascribed to themselves, the less willing they were to carry out a suicide attack. What motivates those who are willing to carry such atrocities is therefore key to answering the question of prevention.

In the case of the 26-year-old Palestinian who recently stabbed a man in a Hamburg supermarket, it is too early for an answer. What we do know is that he called out "Allahu Akbar" during the attack and later stated that he had hoped to die a martyr's death. But he also said that he had decided to adapt an Islamic way of life just two days before the attack, while the attack itself was wholly spontaneous. He didn't bring the knife with him into the supermarket, but simply grabbed it off the shelf. Over the course of previous weeks, the man had been dutifully organising his documents ahead of his departure from Germany.

Now he's in detention, on suicide watch. Even before the attack, the Palestinian had been regarded as psychologically unstable, but state prosecutors currently see no conclusive evidence of "substantially limited criminal responsibility". The investigation continues.

Extremist ideology alone is not enough

The forensic psychologist Jerome Endrass has explored the question of how people get to the point where they carry out an attack in Germany. He is a researcher at the University of Konstanz and together with Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office, he has developed a system to help police assess the risk of whether a Salafist will carry out an attack. The system is due to be introduced this summer.

But Endrass is keen to stress: an extremist ideology alone is not enough. Someone who has a radical Islamic world view, but who is otherwise stable with no psychological illness, who doesn't threaten violence or obtain weapons, is not regarded as a risk. Conversely, this means that the ideology is only part of a blend of factors that motivate a perpetrator to carry out an attack.

Online IS propaganda (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Peters)
War and machismo – a potent mix: ″Those attracted by the IS propensity for violence barely engage with Islam,″ says Bielefeld-based violence researcher Andreas Zick. He sees clear parallels between the kind of propaganda peddled by right wing extremists and Islamists. "The cruder and simpler the theories were, the more successful they were.″ The important thing for the young men was the message that they were warriors

As Endrass says, the explanations for such deeds don't differ all that much from explanations for killing sprees or for stalkers who become violent towards the person they are pursuing. Students who carried out mass shootings at their schools have also used ideologies shared by others in particular Internet forums to justify their actions. Endrass' research shows that what violent perpetrators – whether rampage killers or terrorists – have in common is a "conspicuous personality".

The academic identifies four attacker prototypes; the categories are less clearly defined in reality, but the classification facilitates police work. The first category concerns the mentally ill – for example schizophrenics; secondly, people with personality disorders – for example those with narcissistic personality disorders; thirdly, those who feel drawn to the authoritarian and belligerent character of jihad; and fourthly Muslims who feel despised and discriminated against in Europe and perceive jihad as an invitation to avenge themselves.

Among the attackers in Germany claiming to act in the name of Islam, the first group plays a subordinate role. That is Endrass' assessment, one that is supported by other studies. It is also obvious: the mentally ill are often not in any position to carry out an attack, let alone make contact with members of "Islamic State", whether through travel to Syria or by other means. They are more likely to be pursuing their own conspiracy theories. By the same token, those who are severely depressed generally cannot and do not want to get it together to carry out an attack in the name of IS. There are, however, definite cases of suicide attempts from refugee camps.

Doctors at the Berlin Centre for the Treatment of Torture Victims estimate that at least a quarter of the refugees coming to Germany need psychological support. Islamists have in the past attempted to exploit the weakness of the mentally ill: thirteen years ago, a relatively unknown Central Asian Islamist group made headlines in Germany for trying to become the wards of Muslims who had been in psychiatric care following failed suicide attempts. At the time, security agencies suspected that the group may have intended to deploy them as suicide attackers at some point. But there is no evidence that such a strategy has become widespread since.Going down in history for an act of violence

A more significant role is played by attackers with personality disorders, for example those with narcissistic personality disorder who aim to inflate their miserable self-image through their actions. They cannot be helped with medication or psychotherapy. If they decide to perpetrate an attack in the name of Islam, it is often a convergence of several aspects: the desire to no longer be alive; the encouragement of Islamists who support them personally, via text message or videos online; and finally the prospect of stepping onto the world stage with a bombastic performance and going down in history for an act of violence. Regardless of the fact that they will no longer be around to witness it.

Islamism is currently extremely attractive, one could even say a top trend, among such attackers, because murders committed in the name of Islam are far more high profile than other killings. In another recent attack, a man opened fire with an assault rifle in a disco in the city of Konstanz, killed one man and died in an exchange of fire with the police. Unlike the attack by the Palestinian in Hamburg, his actions have largely been forgotten by the public. The perpetrator did not shout "Allahu Akbar". It is this perception in particular that Endrass describes as a huge problem.

He also holds the media responsible: these show the faces of the Islamist attackers, tell their life stories, quote their Facebook entries. For people who feel disregarded in public life, the prospect of this happening is especially appealing, he says. But he also concedes that such attacks must not be hushed up.

Islamism as new youth movement

As a rule, those attracted by the IS propensity for violence barely engage with Islam. The Bielefeld-based violence researcher Andreas Zick sees clear parallels between the kind of propaganda peddled by right wing extremists and Islamists. Endrass describes what attracts young men to such ideologies as "the main thing is, it's extreme". Together with researchers from Osnabruck, Zick recently published a study appraising the WhatsApp-chats of a Salafist youth group in Germany. The group had been planning an attack, but also chatted about questions concerning Islam. Or their perception of it.

One of the researchers described the world view assembled by the young men as "Lego Islam"; a view that does not draw on knowledge of the Koran, but that is thrown together from snippets found on the web. "The cruder and simpler the theories were, the more successful they were," said Zick at a presentation of the study in July. The important thing for the young men was the message that they were warriors.

Even Muslims who feel discriminated against in Europe and drawn to Islamism, appear to find the sense of community more important than the religion invoked by IS.

According to findings by U.S. researchers such as the anthropologist Scott Atran, the prospect of entering Paradise is no longer a major motivation in joining jihad. The promise of adventure and a purpose in life is more important for most young people, he says. "Islamic State" propaganda focuses on this. It shows fighters bathed in the warm light of a sunset, contented faces. Atran describes Islamism as an ultra-successful youth movement that represents something cool to those who feel marginalised in the West.

For Endrass it follows that precise monitoring must be conducted into which Salafists in Germany display anomalies – and who is managing to form groups of supporters. In addition, the authorities must improve their networking systems, on an international level too. Early intervention must also happen where necessary, he advises, and adds that there have been cases where "people inclined to carry out an attack have been helped to see reason."

Frederike Haupt

© F.A.S. 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon