Page last updated at 11:41 GMT, Wednesday, 10 September 2008 12:41 UK

Study tracks 'pathways to terror'

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

7/7 bombers (BBC)
The 7/7 London bombers: Separatism fuels the path to terror

Scientists believe they have a clearer idea of what makes a terrorist after interviewing a group of Islamic extremists in Pakistan.

The project constructed psychological "profiles" to describe how Jihadists were led into their violence.

It quashes the idea that these people are "zombies", mindlessly following the orders of others; or mentally ill.

The picture that emerges is of largely intelligent people finding direction in the networks of associates they keep.

"One of the most frightening things about terrorists is that they are remarkably normal and often reasonably well educated, and certainly no indication of mental disturbance in the way they deal with the world," said Professor David Canter, director of Liverpool University's Centre for Investigative Psychology.

Important networks

Professor Canter's group conducted a series of interviews with 49 terrorists - people convicted of bombing and killings. The work was done outside of the UK because of the refusal of the British authorities to facilitate the research at home.

The team used an interview technique known as the "repertory grid" - a method that allows an individual to express their understanding of themselves and the world around them by indicating who is important in their lives.

This approach might, for example, involve asking interviewees to order cards printed with names of friends and associates.

The description of a terrorist this technique throws up is far removed from the caricatures often seen in the Western media.

"The work on pathways into terrorism indicates that it comes out of a social process; it comes out of a series of contacts that terrorists have with other individuals," Professor Canter told BBC News.

"These may be friends and associates; they may be members of their family. But more typically, they will be some sort of person they look up to, who may be a senior individual within a terrorist organisation, or maybe a teacher that they feel provides them with some feelings of self-worth and significance if they will take part in violent activity."

The professor said there were two main pathways into terror - through attachment to particular social groups who are on the fringes of terrorism; and through strong ideals or spiritual beliefs. These two routes could be further subdivided.

Reversing pathways

The research supports substantial anecdotal evidence which challenges simplistic notions of a rapid radicalisation. Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, was a talented graduate studying in Germany - but chose to effectively withdraw from the rest of society around him as he met others who shared his worldview.

In the same way, the ringleader of the 7 July London suicide bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, left behind a life as a youth worker as his political views, contacts and experiences led him, over a number of years, to turn to violence.

But the research also suggested that many terrorists were open to changing their ways.

Many individuals were clearly "malleable". Some interviewees who became involved in terrorist groups often realised their leaders were no better than those they perceived to have wronged them, the Liverpool researcher said.

And, he added, the study had lessons for how the authorities should work to block off the pathways to a life of violence.

"At the broader level, everything has to be done to undermine the idea that individuals think of themselves solely in terms of any particular group of sub-group - be that fundamental Muslims or supporters of a football club . Once people only think of themselves in those terms, then that sets the seeds for conflict."

For this reason, he said, there were dangers presented by the idea of faiths schools, particularly the strict style that preached separatism, such as a number of Pakistan's Islamic maddrassas.

British authorities, who have had a number of major successes in breaking conspiracies since 2001, have launched initiatives to de-radicalise jihadists - although there are disagreements over how best to turn people around.

Professor Canter was speaking at the British Association Science Festival in Liverpool.

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