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ISIL Reminds Us Who Joins Terrorist Organizations and Why

02/11/2015 06:15 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

The latest grotesque video from the Islamic extremist group ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) speaks volumes not just about terrorists but also about who joins mass movements. The ISIL captors took inhumanity to another level by setting a caged Jordanian pilot (doused with flammable liquids) on fire. It is barbarity as theater -- seemingly raising the horror bar ever higher -- apparently mass shootings and beheadings have become passé for ISIL.

As with all previous ISIL murders, there is the spectacle that they insist on sharing through social media. It includes the ubiquitous taunting of the families of the victims by posing hostages contrite and on their knees, followed by the venting of wrongs through long-winded philippics against the West and nonbelievers. This is repeated almost weekly, broadcast through the Internet with fetish-like frequency to shock, terrorize -- and more importantly to recruit.

The purpose of terrorism is, of course, to terrorize, and they are succeeding at that. Hundreds of thousands have now fled Iraq and Syria as a result of ISIL's unparalleled violence and mastery of social media. And even Arab governments, usually phlegmatic to do anything about religious extremists, are striking against ISIL. But one has to ask: who would be susceptible to their recruitment?

This is not just a rhetorical question. As we in the West are finding out, thousands of individuals from England, France, Germany, Sweden, the United States, and elsewhere have flocked to join ISIL, which seeks, through violence, to establish a worldwide caliphate that will govern all Muslims.

Eric Hoffer warned us in 1951 in his must-read book The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, written just a few short years after the horrors of WWII, that the marginalized, the desperate, the unemployed, the socially wounded, and the traumatized are naturally attracted to mass movements because the collective affiliation of the wounded brings meaning to their lives along with the prospect of hope. Keep in mind that in the 5 time zones that span from Morocco to Iran, unemployment hovers anywhere from 25 percent to as much as 40 percent. Couple that with an extraordinary amount of youthful testosterone (approximately 65 percent of the population is under 25) and unstable governments, and you have the proper admixture for decades of further instability and a ready source of individuals disposed to join any cause that offers hope. That would account for some of the enrollment in such causes. But what about the rest?

There are those who argue that mass movements, be they politically or religiously inspired, also attract what has been termed the clinically gullible. It's a term not to be found in the DSM-V (the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals), but which probably has applicability -- after all, look how many have joined toxic cults such as The People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana and Heaven's Gate, in San Diego, California. With all due respect, a person would have to be clinically gullible to join groups like that, and that perhaps explains the actions of people like John Walker Lindh, who, according to prosecutors, went to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban.

Then there are those who, because of their religious zeal, feel that they must participate in the spreading of their take on religion, by whatever means, protected by their God. No novelty there, as the Spanish Inquisition was no picnic for anyone accused of not being Catholic, or not being Catholic enough.

In the book Hunting Terrorists: a Look at the Psychopathology of Terror*, it was argued that terrorist organizations are rife with individuals who are "wound collectors" and indeed that in order to be a terrorist, a person must collect wounds - an exhaustive catalogue of social and historical abuses and grievances - because these then serve as justification for acting out. In his 1996 fatwa, Usama Bin Laden's wound collection went all the way back to the Crusades. All terrorists do that. Anders Behring Breivik, the convicted Oslo mass killer who railed against Muslims in Western Europe and multiculturalism before setting off a bomb killing six and systematically murdering 69 children, was an avid wound collector; as was Ted Kaczynski (known as the UNABOMBER), whose decades of wound collecting and intolerance of technology drove him to mail lethal packages to scientists.

But perhaps most disquieting is the recruit who is not written about, who joins terrorist organizations and mass movements such as ISIL because of who they are. Eric Hoffer referred to these individuals in his book as "Sinners;" a term perhaps best suited for its day. What Hoffer found, and what has often been overlooked by many sociologists and certainly by the general public, is that mass movements and especially terrorist organizations attract what we now call the psychopathic personality - in essence the predator described in Dangerous Personalities: An FBI Profiler Shows You How To Identify and Protect Yourself From Harmful People*. These are individuals who are perfectly content in causing great harm, who are perhaps even sadistic; and who are not bothered by their horrific actions.

Hoffer's observation really should not come as a great shock; after all, the Nazis had psychopaths in droves. I would go further and argue that terrorist organizations attract and even need psychopaths. After all, someone has to carry out the mayhem; the beheadings; the mass shootings; the setting of humans on fire--without care, even as the victims plead for their lives. They need people who are callous, who can hurt others effortlessly because they have no conscience and who can kill with reptilian indifference. They need people who are immune to the pleas of a grieving mother or a crying child as they shoot, stab, or behead. The average person doesn't do such things. These toxic movements need and attract psychopaths in quantity.

Psychopaths are not like you and me. The psychopath is, as Robert Hare, the world's leading expert on psychopaths put it, "an intra species predator:" looking for exploitable weakness and opportunities wherever they may exist. For psychopaths, a mass movement, especially one cloaked in religion, provides the opportunity to do anything they wish, uninhibited by morality, ethics, laws, or the police. Religion is merely a convenient veil, much as independence movements are used to mask wanton criminality.

For the predator, an especially violent mass movement or terrorist organization, whatever the philosophy being espoused, is a perfect cover. In normal society, if you kill, you are a murderer. If, however, you kill as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi did - under the cloak of quasi religious legitimacy--the beheadings of Nick Berg and Eugene Armstrong transform you into a hero among those who likewise believe. As for the effects on the rest of us, we too often forget: unbridled psychopathy creates unbridled infamy. That is why we remember Stalin, Eichmann, and Pol Pot, and the likes of Ted Bundy.

Knowing this doesn't make things any better or easier, but it is something that security services, as well as governments, must take into account--especially when we know that the Internet casts a far-reaching net to a global audience. This isn't recruitment in a 1930s beer hall, as happened with the Nazis (which nonetheless amassed a force that required a global effort to subdue). This is recruitment with the click of a button. The sordid ISIL propaganda of rage, hatred, and well-produced theatrical brutality is attracting thousands - perhaps as many as thirty thousand. They are not all psychopaths, to be sure, but enough are. Their cruelty will rub off on others, and unfortunately no government or mother pleading for her child to be released will prevail, because psychopaths have no conscience or remorse, as Robert Hare warned us in his groundbreaking book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of The Psychopaths Among Us. Hare makes the point that those who must deal with terrorists must remember: you can try to gently pet a rattlesnake all you want but it will still bite you. So do psychopaths.

It is heartbreaking to see the mothers, fathers, family, and friends of victims held by ISIL pleading for the release of their family members. It is almost unbearable to think about innocent people at the mercy of the uncaring; their fate in the hands of individuals who thrive on seeing family members suffer because these individuals feel no remorse; they have no sympathy, conscience, or heart - like their ilk in Treblinka, the killing fields of Cambodia, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Rwanda, and now in Iraq and Syria. They are impervious to rules, laws, or morality, and without conscience will do what others won't or can't. Eric Hoffer was being kind when he called them "Sinners." We must recognize psychopaths for what they are and deal with this reality that will not soon go away. Copyright © 2015 Joe Navarro

*Hunting Terrorists and Dangerous Personalities were, in the interest of full disclosure, written by the author.