Skip to main content

Using Psychology to Understand and Prevent Terrorist Recruitment

Using Psychology to Understand and Prevent Terrorist Recruitment


From left, Claudia Dominguez and Jessica Mueller discuss how forensic psychological science can deflect the draw to terrorism. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

Psychologists understand the forces that make people susceptible to recruitment and driven to radicalization, knowledge that can help prevent terrorist organizations from expanding their ranks, according to a 15 June gathering at the AAAS Pacific Division’s annual meeting at the University of San Diego.

Recruitment is a multifaceted process, said Jessica Mueller of Alliant International University during a symposium on the use of forensic psychological science to understand the causes and effects of terrorism that was sponsored by the Pacific Division Psychology Section.

Terrorist groups target human demands and necessities: “the need to belong, the need for money, the need for family,” Mueller said.

The radicalization of individuals – who come from a range of cultures and possess a diverse mix of ideological beliefs – begins to take hold as recruits adopt increasingly extreme ideals and aspirations – something Mueller calls “an essential process in formulating a terrorist’s mindset.”

“It solidifies their commitment to the cause,” she said.

Charity Vizcaino of the University of San Diego walked through the multi-step process by which terrorist organizations target and radicalizes recruits from the United States and other Western nations. 

The first move often takes place when individuals are facing personal turmoil or experiencing feelings of discrimination or alienation. Such factors make them more receptive to new ideas, she said.

Social media and online sites provide such individuals an initial meeting place, a venue well recognized by jihadist militant groups as good recruiting ground.

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, uses “positive framing” in its propaganda newspaper and on social media to draw in new followers, said Nick Davis of the University of San Diego. The group has claimed responsibility for attacks that killed 130 in Paris last year, 32 in Brussels in March and 49 people in the Orlando nightclub attack.

The organization recruits its members directly through social media, said Claudia Dominguez of the University of San Diego. Young women on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, identified based on their Muslim last names, are lured to Syria to fight alongside the militants as “jihadi brides,” she said.

The radicalization process deepens in its second phase when an individual seeks religious meaning. This is followed by what is called “frame alignment,” in which individuals connect with the public-facing agenda of the terrorist group, Vizcaino said.

Finally, the terrorist group socializes their new recruit through psychological conditioning, religious education, and ideological training.

“The individual experiences religious lessons and maybe activities with this group to facilitate indoctrination and then subsequent value changes,” Vizcaino explained.

Mueller cited the social psychology concept of in-groups and out-groups. Terrorist groups instill an “us-versus-them” attitude among their recruits, she said, to justify violence against the out-group: those who do not align with the values and goals of the terrorist organization.

Such findings can be used in the inverse to support de-radicalization efforts, the presenters said. Saudi Arabia and Europe have each launched programs to encourage radicalized recruits to disassociate with terrorist groups through a range of tactics. They engage family members in the process to appeal to the need of recruits to belong and become part of a community.

While more research must be done on the effectiveness of such programs, the presenters cited the importance of education in preventing radicalization in the first place.

They cited a program called Teachers Against Violent Extremism, started in Nairobi, Kenya, by teacher Ayub Mohamud. Mohamud trains teachers to equip students with skills to resist recruitment by terrorist groups. The panel called for more programs like this to be established, particularly in the United States. 

[Associated image: Andrea Korte/AAAS]