Extreme tactics: Inside the mind of a terrorist

man in front of white board with hands behind head
James Collins

Navin Bapat

"Terrorism is an emotional topic," Navin Bapat told students, colleagues, and community members at the second Research Unplugged event of the fall season last week. Bapat, assistant professor of political science, led a lively hour-long discussion during which he shared recent research on terrorism and tried to debunk some common myths and misperceptions about the topic.

"Terrorists are portrayed as poor, uneducated psychopaths," said Bapat. "But empirical evidence suggests otherwise." Pointing to recent studies, Bapat said that "the vast majority of terrorists are not insane. Their education level is generally above the mean, and they typically are not raised in poverty."

So what is the definition of a terrorist, he asked the group gathered in the gallery of the theater. And what motivates participants toward violence?

Bapat mentioned that the way terrorists are drafted is similar to the process of drafting Army ROTC recruits. Individuals in both organizations join for reasons such as money, dedication to one's country and beliefs, and protection of national security. The major difference is that political entrepreneurs—Bapat's label for leaders of terrorist organizations—promote extreme fear and persecution as the main motivators. The leaders preach "security dilemmas," or threats to personal safety and religious practices, and they use strategic examples to promote their campaigns.

"It's like a game of chess," Bapat explained. "Political entrepreneurs anticipate their opponents' next moves." Achieving the desired response, such as retaliation, confirms the credibility of the leader. "Terrorism is a tactic for influencing policy," he said. "It's designed to evoke response."

One audience member wondered what motivates suicide bombers. Bapat responded, "These people believe they have no other option on Earth. And they're promised rewards in heaven and money and security for their families."

Throughout the conversation, Bapat used the definition of terrorism provided by the United States Department of State, "an act of aggression from a non-state actor against civilians for political purposes." According to this definition, notes Bapat, the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th were terrorist attacks, but the attack on the Pentagon was not because the Pentagon is a military target. "While this distinction may raise emotional objections, said Bapat, it is crucial to agree on a consistent definition.

Bapat is active in the multidisciplinary International Center for the Study of Terrorism, which is directed by Penn State's Kevin Murphy and involves universities from around the world, many under the auspices of the Worldwide Universities Network, of which Penn State is a charter member.

Many audience members wanted to know how research sponsored by such collaborative efforts and counterterrorism plans created by the government are fighting terrorism. Bapat said that conventional war, like that fought in WWI and WWII, is not an option for eradicating terrorism, and therefore America must foster non-conventional thinking in order to better deal with the problem.

"We can't eliminate terrorism," said Bapat. "Inevitably something will get through. But we do need to better understand what motivates terrorists and their leaders. It's crucial to confront the phenomena."

Navin Bapat, Ph.D., is assistant professor of political science. He can be reached at nab12@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 23, 2006