Fighting terror with psychology

Israeli and American psychiatrists and psychologists convened last week with their European counterparts to assess the psychological weapons available in countering terrorism. Former CIA official and psychiatrist Jerrold M. Post unveiled a five-point strategic psychological operations campaign he says is …

Israeli and American psychiatrists and psychologists convened last week with their European counterparts to assess the psychological weapons available in countering terrorism.

Former CIA official and psychiatrist Jerrold M. Post unveiled a five-point strategic psychological operations campaign he says is vital for counteracting terrorism worldwide.

Terrorism “is a vicious species of psychological warfare. The weapon of choice in countering it is psychological warfare,” Post told the participants at the Haifa University-sponsored conference entitled ‘Counter-Terrorism in Democracies: Political and Psychological Perspectives.’

This brand of warfare, he continued “is waged though the media, with violence as communication.” He contends that little attention has been paid to the power of “strategic psyop in undermining the adversary.”

Now professor of psychiatry and of political psychology at George Washington University, he founded the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior. His political psychology profiles include Saddam Hussein, whom he assessed after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Earlier he played the lead role in developing profiles of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat for President Jimmy Carter prior to Camp David. Since 9/11, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and the United Nations have solicited his views on terrorist motivation, nuclear and bio-terrorism.


Post stressed that “one does not counter psychological warfare with high-tech weapons.” There was also no statistical evidence in cases studied, including Israel’s retaliations in the 1970s, that military action deterred terrorism, he argued. In fact, such action could be counter-productive. Terrorist groups are “virtual hothouses of tension,” the psychiatrist said. “When they are attacked, internal disunity disappears.”

The most important element of a psyop campaign, in Post’s view, is to inhibit people from joining terrorist groups and organizations in the first place. He admitted that this was also the most complex element. The major influence, he said, was the social setting. He quoted one terrorist he interviewed as saying, “Everyone was joining.”

Publicly, Post found, families supported such organizations. Privately, however, they feared for their sons and for what might be done to their families as a result. He called for supporting programs encouraging economic development and the opening up of Muslim societies as a way of changing attitudes about joining terrorist organizations.

The other points in the political psychologist’s program were to produce dissension within groups, to facilitate leaving the group by means of creative amnesty programs, and to reduce support for the group and its leaders. This last element, he acknowledged, meant that moderate Islamic clerics had to engage “in the task of reclaiming their hijacked religion, depicting bin Laden and his ilk as distorting the meaning of the Koran, as violating the spirit of Islam.” Until now, he added, the voices of extremism have not been contested.

The first four points in Post’s psyop campaign are directed against the terrorist groups. The last element involves insulating the public against terror. Terrorism was awarded, he remarked, “every time the act of one extremist youth was sufficient to derail fragile movement toward dialogue and reconciliation.”

In another session at the conference, Dr. Magnus Ranstorp of Scotland’s St. Andrews University proposed that the UN should consider making suicide bombings for whatever purpose or cause a crime against humanity.

Ranstorp, who has advised the UN on counter-terrorism and terrorism, sees such a declaration as helping to delegitimize terrorism. He believes that delegitimization is perhaps the best way of ridding the world of the scourge of terrorism. He is the first to suggest equating suicide bombings with crimes against humanity.

“The idea,” Ranstorp said, “is to delegitimize the methodology, not the groups.” Indeed the lecturer, who said he has met all of the top-ranking Palestinian and Hizbullah leaders, thinks that Hamas and Hizbullah are legitimate parts of society because of their social components.

“Their techniques are terrorist, but that doesn’t tell the whole story,” he said after his formal presentation. “They are doing Arafat’s job [in the social sphere]. They have stepped into the vacuum created by the PLO leader. When Hamas is lured into the political system, it will be an important day.”

Although Ranstorp asked, “Where do you draw the line?” when asked to define Palestinian organization as terrorist, he does not include Islamic Jihad in his non-terrorist list. That group, he said, does not have broad-based support. Similarly he would put primary focus in attacking terrorism on networks that seek strategic change in the international system or those groups whose political agenda is totally non-negotiable.

As part of any delegitimacy campaign, he called for the creation of global forums for clerics across religious faiths to issue an “effective condemnation [of terrorism].” He also urged local initiatives, such as the Yemeni initiative “sheikhs against terror” to counteract what he described as “the appeal of extremism that resonates with the marginalized and disenfranchised.”