John Monahan on Understanding What Makes Terrorists Tick


Professor Monahan examined risk factors for terrorism following the Fort Hood shooting.

October 11, 2011

Faculty Q&A

Pinning down what makes a person commit a terrorist act is difficult compared to understanding risk factors for other forms of violence, University of Virginia law professor John Monahan explains in his new article, "The Individual Risk Assessment of Terrorism," now available on SSRN and forthcoming in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law in early 2012.

Monahan, the first non-lawyer psychologist to hold a full-time position teaching in an American law school, has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court as the leading thinker on the issue of violence risk assessment. He applied his expertise in the field to terrorism in the aftermath of the Fort Hood shooting.

Can you describe your background in violence risk assessment?

I seem to have always been interested in this topic. I wrote a book called "The Clinical Prediction of Violence" in 1981. Twenty years later, I was the co-author of a book titled "Rethinking Risk Assessment," which reported the results of the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study. A software program to assess the risk of violence in people with mental disorder — named The Classification of Violence Risk (COVR) — based on data from the 2001 study, was released a few years ago.

Why did you decide to write this article?

After Army Major and psychiatrist Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and wounded over 30 others at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, the secretary of defense — then, Robert Gates — ordered a major examination of Department of Defense policies having to do with identifying people at risk of violence. The report, titled "Protecting the Force," came out last year. It cited the MacArthur study often, and suggested that our COVR software might be a model for identifying violence risk in national security contexts. Shortly after the report came out, I was invited to meet with DOD personnel, and asked what I thought needed to be done to improve the risk assessment of terrorism. I told them that a critical review that placed the risk assessment of terrorism into the broader context of the risk assessment of violence more generally was the first step needed to put the study of terrorism on a solid empirical basis. The second step was to convene a conference of leading researchers on terrorism and on risk assessment, along with operational personnel from many government agencies, to critique that review. The DOD agreed, and asked me to conduct the review. The meeting to critique it was held at the Law School last May.

You identify challenges in even defining what aspects of terrorism researchers should aim to assess  terrorism as a whole, specific types of terrorism, phases in the process of becoming a terrorist, or specific roles in terrorist activity (be it courier or suicide bomber, for example). What do you think is most important to focus on?

Academics sometimes lump all different types of terrorists together in their research. But it's very unlikely that the risk factors for being a member of the Irish Republican Army are the same as the risk factors for being a member of al-Qaida. And the risk factors for initially joining a terrorist organization may be different from the risk factors for continuing to remain in the organization. Finally, the kinds of people who raise money for a terrorist organization may not be the same kinds of people who actually plant bombs. On the other hand, one can easily go overboard in splitting terrorists into an unwieldy number of categories. I don't think we will ever have one empirically valid instrument to assess the risk of initially becoming a fundraiser for the IRA, and another empirically valid instrument to assess the risk of continuing to be an al-Qaida bomber. At this moment in history, I would prioritize focusing on al-Qaida-type jihadi terrorists, including significant fundraisers. I think we should study both initiation into terrorism and continuing in terrorism.

What are some of the obstacles we face in assessing risk factors for terrorism that we don't have with assessing common violence?

The most relevant thing about common" violence — acts such as the FBI's violent index crimes" of murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — is that there unfortunately is a lot of it. The prevalence of this type of violence makes it relatively easy to predict. But terrorism — fortunately — is quite rare compared to other forms of violence. Its rarity makes it extremely difficult to predict.

In your paper you identify several possible risk factors for terrorist violence that researchers have studied. What are these risk factors?

In terms of what we currently know about the risk factors for terrorism, my article is clearly pessimistic. Of the 10 variables that have been studied the most, three may be statistically valid risk factors for terrorism — age (20s), gender (male) and marital status (single). But these risk factors are obviously trivial and of little use in practice, since the number of false-positives — young single males who are not terrorists — would vastly dwarf the number of accurate predictions. Findings on the other seven variables that have been studied (social class, major mental illness, prior crime, suicidality, substance abuse, personality disorder and personality traits) have all been entirely negative. Terrorists in general tend not to be impoverished or mentally ill or substance abusers or psychopaths or otherwise criminal. Suicide terrorists tend not to be otherwise suicidal. In no society have personality traits been found that distinguish people who engage in terrorism from people who refrain from it.

Where does the risk assessment of terrorism go from here?

On where we go from here, I am considerably more optimistic. Four things seem to me to be promising candidates for being valid risk factors for terrorism. The first is ideology. Even though vastly more people espouse ideological commitments conducive to terrorism than participate in terrorist acts, it is hard to ignore the fact that certain extreme ideological commitments — usually political or religious — disproportionately facilitate initiation into terrorism. The second factor is affiliations. People who commit terrorist acts tend to associate with other people who commit terrorist acts. The more time potential terrorists spend with actual terrorists, the more likely the former are to themselves become terrorists. The third factor is grievances. Terrorists seem to be convinced that both they personally and the group with which they most closely identify have gotten an unjustly raw deal in life. Finally, a variety of what are now being termed moral emotions" may be risk factors for terrorism. Perceiving that other groups are violating values that are held as sacred" by one's own group seems to generate high levels of anger, contempt and disgust. The near-term future of research in this area may consist of determining whether these four factors — or some subset of them — can help in assessing the risk of terrorism.

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