Behind the Mask

Gigi Marino
September 14, 2009

By the age of 18, Indonesian-born Mohammad Nasir bin Abbas was studying the strategy of terrorism and refining his weapons skills at the so-called "Mujahidin Military Academy in Afghanistan. By his early 20s, bin Abbas had been recruited by the newly formed Jemmah Islamiyah (JI), a radical Islamic organization operating from Southeast Asia. Achieving a key leadership role, he was placed in charge of a training unit that included territories in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Bin Abbas holds strong opinions and values. He believes in Sharia, the strict Islamic law that advocates dismemberment for theft and stoning for adultery. He trained the JI militants responsible for the Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people in 2002. And yet, he himself did not participate in those bombings, having already become disillusioned with JI because of its willingness to strike at civilian targets.

In fact, since then, Nasir bin Abbas has become an outspoken critic of Jemmah Islamiyah's fanatical militantism. He is a member of an informal and iconoclastic community of ex-terrorists—once violent individuals who no longer participate in extremist activities. His story and the stories of others like him, says John Horgan, provide valuable lessons for the study of terrorism.

Horgan is director of Penn State's International Center for the Study of Terrorism (ICST). His latest book, Walking Away from Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements, published by Routledge Press in May, examines case studies from several former terrorists as a framework for understanding the complex connective tissue that binds people to terrorist organizations and the circumstances that inspire them to leave.

"Only in the last couple of years have we actually started to look at how and why terrorists quit. It puzzles me why we have ignored it so long. One assumption is that once terrorist movements come to an end they are no longer relevant, Horgan says. "From my perspective as a researcher, this is the best time to go in and speak to these people about their involvement. It's safe for them to talk, and it's safe for us to question them.

Horgan, who has been interviewing former terrorists since 1996 when he was a Ph.D. student at University College, Cork in Ireland, talked to bin Abbas in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2007. "While he had no moral qualms about targeting the military or other symbols of the state, he drew the line at deliberately targeting civilians, says Horgan. "He said he was shocked at how far the movement was willing to go. For him, that was his point of departure.

Horgan is quick to point out that disengagement neither predicts nor predicates deradicalization. "The assumption is that we can somehow turn terrorists, change their beliefs, says Horgan. "One of the really striking findings from the new book is that people who have disengaged from terrorism aren't necessarily deradicalized. They may have left the movement, but they still hold the same attitudes and beliefs that they acquired inside it—views about the legitimacy of terrorism or the killing of innocents.

It Takes a Team

Penn State's ICST began in 2006 under the leadership of President Graham Spanier and Professor of Psychology Kevin Murphy, the center's first director, in cooperation with the Worldwide Universities Network, a group of 16 universities from the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, and China. Murphy, who is world renowned for his research on the efficacy of the polygraph test, said at the time, "Drawing on the talent and resources of an international consortium of universities, we follow a cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary model that aims to bring the best researchers together to further our understanding of terrorism, and use that knowledge to help reduce the threat of terrorism.

cricket mimicking an ant
Muhammad Mahdi Karim

Batesian mimicry: Cricket mimics an ant to ward off predators

Horgan embraces that interdisciplinary approach. He says, "On a typical day around our table, we have two psychologists, an entomologist, a political scientist, a history and religious studies scholar, and a scholar from communications arts and sciences.

At first glance, the entomologist may seem like the odd person out, but Horgan says that curiosity about how terrorists mask their identities led him to the insect world. He wanted to learn about mimicry and camouflage. "As it turns out, he says, "entomologists know all about these issues.

Professor of entomology Mike Saunders is working on a taxonomy of mimicry and deception to be used specifically for studying terrorist behavior. For example, in Batesian mimicry (named as are other types for the biologist who first described it), a harmless insect looks fierce to thwart predation. In Mullerian mimicry, the mimic and the prey share warning patterns and colors, and are both toxic to predators, who learn to avoid them. In Wasmannian mimicry, mimics look like their predators and get lost in the shuffle. In Peckhamian mimicry, the predator mimics its prey in order to pounce upon it. "I haven't looked at insect behavior in this light before, says Saunders. "We're in the initial stages of developing our model, and we don't know if it will hold up yet, but if it does, it could be quite useful.

Portrait of John Horgan
M. Scott Johnson

John Horgan

Another upcoming project for the center involves the transfer of technology among different terrorist groups. Last year, Horgan presented a paper with suicide-terrorism expert Mia Bloom on the IRA's 1990 proxy-bomb campaign. "This is a little known event in northern Irish history where the IRA kidnapped individuals they deemed to be collaborators and forced them to drive trucks laden with explosives into British Army checkpoints, says Horgan. "Such was the negative reaction, even within the IRA community, that after the first bombing the IRA decided to stop the campaign. However, Horgan notes that in the wake of the short-lived campaign, similar proxy bombings have turned up in Afghanistan, Iraq and Columbia. He says, "We strongly suspect that these movements have learned from the IRA's use of the tactic.

Bloom, who has since joined the Penn State faculty as an associate professor of women's studies, also studies ethnic conflict, child soldiers, wartime rape, and the phenomenon of female terrorists. Her book Bombshell: Women and Terror will be published next year by Penguin Press. Other center fellows include political science professor Philip Schrodt from the University of Kansas, whose research focuses on predicting political change using statistics and pattern recognition; political science and sociology professor Ricardo RenÈ LarÈmont from SUNY-Binghamton, an expert in Islamic law, politics and religion; and Penn State Harrisburg's Michael Kenney, associate professor of political science and public policy, who studies terror networks. Kevin Murphy, an organizational psychologist who now directs special projects, has authored 10 books and has 30 years of experience working with military and security sectors.

"There are very few centers like ours, that engage in truly multi-disciplinary work, says Horgan. "Our signature area is the psychology of terrorism. There is a real hunger out there for reliable, empirically validated information.

Everyday People

Horgan, Irish by birth, didn't meet an Irish militant until he started working on his dissertation. He is not driven by an unsettled conflict with his homeland's fractured history. He does not even admit partisanship and is meticulous about keeping politics on a solidly academic level. He is not attracted by the intrigue and deceit, but rather, by the sheer banality that often is companion to utterly hideous behavior.

Studies like Stanley Milgram's famous 1961 experiment showed that ordinary people would inflict pain on others in the name of following orders. In 1971, Philip Zimbardo had to cease his Stanford Prison Experiment because the participants acting in the roles of guards were becoming too sadistic. As a psychology student, Horgan says, "I was always captivated by the idea that in certain situations, extreme behavior can be elicited from people who are not necessarily distinctive or unusual in any way.

Horgan met his future mentor and collaborator Max Taylor, a leading expert in the psychology of terrorism, early in his student days at University College, Cork. "He would come to lectures and talk about these ideas, he says. "I was hooked from day one.

Together, Horgan and Taylor have developed a rigorous process for eliciting both qualitative and quantitative material from interviews with former terrorists. Horgan feels that much of what is written is opinion rather than scientific fact, and that discussion about terrorism submits too readily to clichÈ. "It's very easy to overstate or understate the dangers associated with terrorism, he says. "We ought to be able to objectively analyze terrorism with the tools we have at our disposal."

Key to the center's mission is dispelling misconceptions about terroristic behavior. At the top of that list is the assumption that terrorists can be profiled. "People become involved in terrorism in many different kinds of ways. We also tend to neglect the fact that people change because of being involved with a terrorist group, says Horgan. "Forty years of research in terrorism hasn't revealed any meaningful terrorist profile. I suspect there probably never will be one.

Another assumption the center seeks to unseat is that there is a single root cause of terrorism. Although it may appear plausible that societal forces like poverty or discrimination are the driving forces, Horgan counters that this notion has proven to be deeply problematic. "There are multiple ways of explaining terrorism, he says. "There are many people who are radicalized but who donít participate in it. The terrorism studies community is moving away from single theories.

Book cover for Walking Away from Terrorism

Horgan's own work looks at three phases: how and why people become involved in terrorism, what sustains their involvement, and what, if anything, causes them to disengage from active terroristic activities.

"It's only recently that we've come to uncover the complexity associated with how and why people become involved, says Horgan. "That complexity is disheartening to people. But unless we acknowledge and appreciate it, any initiative aimed at preventing terrorism is doomed to failure.

Consider the case of Omar Bakri Muhammad, former leader of Al Muhajiroun, an extremist movement in the UK. He is currently being tried by the Lebanese government for training al Qaeda terrorists.

Omar Bakri defies simple categorization. He does not directly participate in terrorist activities, but holds extremist beliefs. Horgan, who interviewed him in Lebanon for Walking Away from Terrorism, says Omar Bakri still has a lot of anger and blames the West for threatening the security of the Muslim world. "He told me, ëRadicalization is not something that is bad. I believe radicalization is an essential part of life. "I do not see anything wrong with it, especially as we see the direction the whole world is going."

Horgan reflects, "One of the lessons from the book is that while in some cases people literally do walk away, in other cases, walking away from one kind of involvement in terrorism means walking toward another kind of involvement. A person might move away from actively seeking to bomb people to a role in the political front. Or they might move from running a terrorist Web site to escalating their involvement. Disengagement is a more complex process than we think.
In more than a decade of interviewing former terrorists, Horgan says he is surprised how much they are willing to reveal. "You just have to ask the right questions. Another surprise, he says, has been that in all those interviews, only one person felt that he had no other choice but to become an active terrorist. Contrary to the popular belief that terrorists are brainwashed, Horgan concludes, the fact is that the vast majority of people involved in terrorist acts have freely chosen to participate.

What does hearten Horgan and his colleagues is the attention and respect they have received from U.S. legislators. "We have the ear of policy makers, he says, "and we have been warmly welcomed by individuals whose role it is to formulate new strategies for countering terrorism.

Horgan returns to his role as an applied psychologist. "The whole point of academic research is for it to have an impact and be relevant in the community at large.

Not a moment too soon.

John Horgan, Ph.D., is associate professor of psychology in the College of the Liberal Arts and director of Penn State's International Center for the Study of Terrorism (ICST). His latest book, Walking Away from Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements, was published by Routledge Press in May. Horgan can be reached at

Last Updated September 14, 2009