John Horgan is a Professor in the Global Studies Institute and Department of Psychology at Georgia State University. He has a PhD in applied psychology and his research focuses on understanding psychological qualities of the pathways into, through, and out of terrorism.
Professor Horgan is one of the world’s leading experts on terrorist psychology and his current research examines the psychology of religious converts and their involvement in violent extremism, and the processes by which children become involved in terrorist organizations. His work is widely published, with books including The Psychology of Terrorism, Divided We Stand: The Strategy and Psychology of Ireland’s Dissident Terrorists; Walking Away from Terrorism, Leaving Terrorism Behind, and Terrorism Studies: A Reader. He is Editor of the journal Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict and serves on the Editorial Boards of several further journals, including Legal and Criminological Psychology, Terrorism and Political Violence, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and Journal of Strategic Security.
Professor Horgan is a Series Co-Editor for Manchester University Press’ New Directions in Terrorism Series, and is a Senior Fellow (non-resident) of Hedayah, the world’s first think-tank dedicated to countering violent extremism. He is a member of the Research Working Group of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. He has held positions at the University of Massachusetts (Lowell), Penn State, the University of St. Andrews, and University College, Cork. Professor Horgan’s research has been featured in such venues as The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone Magazine, Nature, Scientific American and the Chronicle of Higher Education. He is currently co-authoring (with Mia Bloom) a book on children’s involvement in terrorism to be published by Cornell University Press in 2016.
I want to figure out why religious converts are increasingly involved in terrorism. Conventional wisdom says converts aren’t very knowledgeable about their new religion. Consequently, the argument goes, that makes them vulnerable to terrorist recruiters who offer a different perspective on how that new-found faith should be channeled. I’m not convinced. Studies show that converts tend to be far more knowledgeable than those ‘born’ into a religion, so it’s likely that there are some far more subtle social and psychological processes at play here. If we can figure out what those dynamics are, we just might be able to disrupt the process, and make the job of terrorist recruiters much harder.
My research offers evidence on the processes whereby people become involved in, and disengage from, terrorism. Responses to terrorism are rarely based on any scientific understanding of what drives it in the first place. I’m pushing hard against that trend. How I do that in reality involved a few things. As academics, I think we can all do a lot better to push out the “message” of our research. In addition to publishing, I do as much outreach (t.v., radio, press etc.) as I can. It’s time consuming, and it’s not easy, but we have no choice – if we want to change the world, we have to think much bigger than we normally do. I teach about terrorism in classes at Georgia State. I’m happy to hear my students say they think differently about terrorism, and how they bring those lessons home with them to have conversations with their family. I also give workshops to local, state and federal law enforcement officers on the psychology of terrorism. My goal is to challenge a lot of deeply held myths people have about terrorism, as well as to give people the tools to think about terrorism in a way that’s based in reality, and not fear, bias or just assumptions. Those aren’t easy conversations, but it’s reassuring that those tasked with the job of counter terrorism want to listen to researchers like myself. They want to know about the research being done at Georgia State, and to hear about how it can benefit them in what they do every day. A few months back, I gave a workshop at one of our intelligence agencies. After the workshop, a woman involved in counter-terrorist operations came up to me (she didn’t share her name or specific job) and said, “you know, I’ve been following your work for a long time now. We use it here in our group, and find it really helpful. Keep doing it.” I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to hear that, and consider myself lucky that our work is helping.
Psychology tells us that just because people commit atrocities, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are psychologically abnormal. Some of the most appalling inhumanity has mundane roots. It takes just a thousand little steps before it all breaks down. When I tell my students that there’s little evidence that terrorists are psychopathic, their disbelief is palpable. Some actually recoil in their seats! They can’t accept even the idea of it. Their reaction is always the same – but terrorists do these awful things, how can they not be crazy? Then I explain it. We examine cases, evidence, life histories, interviews I and others have done with terrorists. Slowly but surely the students learn about the gradual process whereby people become extreme. We examine how ‘new’ terrorists work hard to convince themselves that what they are doing is righteous, and that their victims really deserve it. Developing this kind of mentality allows them to feel better about the appalling things they are willing to do. This gradual working out of ideas is part of the terrorist mindset. It’s not impervious to cracking, but some terrorists are better at building walls than others. That’s just one of the first big ‘Aha!’ moments my students have, and it gets even more challenging from there!
Easy. That would be June 2016 when I climbed Mt. Rainier with fellow GSU faculty, staff and alumni. Under President Becker’s leadership and via the Touch The Earth program, I was one of a group of would-be adventurers that applied for a chance to climb this amazing mountain. I was secretly terrified at the prospect, but we trained (hard!) together for six months. I became physically fitter than I’ve ever been, I made lifelong friends, and as a bonus – we all submitted the mountain! It completely changed my life, and for better or for worse, turned me into a mountaineer. Two years later, I’m now climbing all over the world!