7 ways of spotting extremism before it becomes ‘terrorism’

Published: May 26, 2015

Earlier myths surrounding terrorism – such as madrassas being terrorist nurseries, poverty being a fuel for terrorism and the attraction of 72 virgins being a driving force for people to blow themselves up – now appear as hilariously absurd over simplification of facts. STOCK IMAGE

Following recent events, Sabeen Mahmud murder and the Ismaili bus attack cases, a lot of aspects regarding the perceived idea of ‘terrorism’ have come under question. The ‘psychology’ of terrorism has now become open for debate.

Earlier myths surrounding terrorism – such as certain madrassas being ‘terrorist’ nurseries and poverty being a fuel for terrorism – now appear to be hilariously absurd over simplification of facts.

Extremism that leads to ‘terrorism’ is a solemn and common phenomenon – more than many of us can imagine. Such confusion emerges due to the elusiveness of terrorism. Terrorism is hard to define and so is a ‘terrorist’. One widely accepted definition explains a terrorist as a non-state actor that relies on violence in order to further his political or religious agenda.

However, violence is not the only trait terrorists around the world share. Below is a list of attributes that I have found to be common in most extremist groups that eventually lead to terrorism.

Sense of calling

An extremist who plans or executes ‘terrorist’ activities is driven by a sense of purpose. He has an enlarged self-view as a chosen one, an indispensable peg over whom the “divine plan” rests. Psychologists believe this has to do with an identity crisis among individuals that enhances during adolescence. Foreign jihadis attracted to IS have this sense of calling and youth in common.

Submission to a larger than life figure

Terrorists often submit themselves blindly to a larger-than-life personality. It could be a deity, mentor or simply ‘divine’ commandments against which individuals lack ability to dissuade. Logical thinking is alien to them and they pathetically lack ability to critically interpret issues.

No shades of grey

For extremists, diversity seldom exists. Humans are either good or bad. They remain fixated with black and white, pathetically missing out all shades of grey in between. They jump on sweeping generalisations and interpret issues as right or wrong – overlooking neutral ground. They have strong scientific minds where two-plus-two could not be anything save four.

Cosmic worldview

Extremists interpret every socio-political conflict into cosmic terms. They are strong believers in the cosmic nature of things, as if in each conflict good and evil are at war.

‘Us versus them’

This cosmic worldview extends into individual associations with the likeminded groups causing divisions on the basis of people they belong or don’t want to belong to. This division between in-groups and out-groups matures into the ‘us versus them’ mentality. Further prejudices and insularity rouse suspicions and differences between the two groups. They generally develop a degenerated view of the opponent. Others appear to be wanderers from the right path, degraded and lesser humans who possess no right to live.

Sense of victimisation

Extremists fuel their wrath with real or false sense of victimisation which in effect results in terrorism. It matters less if the victimisation was personal or group-based, real or false; their sense of victimhood charges their fury.


Last, extremists resort to violence as a pacifier or a tool of conflict resolution. A common denominator among extremists is their exposure to violence – be it an abusive parent or other family members, a society where violence is acceptable. It could also be state torture or damages by non-state actors or wars.

Our radicalised society has many such traits present. That is why extremists and their apologists incubate so frequently. For a successful ‘anti-terrorism’ strategy one ought to address all these phenomena present in the society today, especially extremism in any form. Self-analysis is crucial. One needs to also look around friends and family for alarming signals. Heightened religiosity and growing isolation too are important indicators that should never be ignored.

Irrespective of how things work out with the individuals who are being dubbed as perpetrators, one thing is for certain – the terrorism dynamic is changing vehemently and we need to stay in-touch with its development, if we plan to truly end it.

Aasma Farhad

Aasma Farhad

She is an academic and freelance writer working on her first book on religious extremism and potential of religion and media in countering extremism in Pakistan. She tweets as @mountedhorse (twitter.com/mountedhorse)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • S

    One more point to be added…..if he is watching too much of Amir Liaqat and clapping hands all of the stupidity he is saying…..Recommend

  • Kisra A Khan

    Informative article and eval . Good read . Recommend

  • unbelievable

    Us vs them & sense of victimization. A country which never accepts responsibility for it’s actions – never apologizes – and seems to blame every wrong doing on others. If blaming others makes you feel good fine – but don’t let it distract you from actually doing something to fix the problem – and part of that solution is controlling the Madrassas.Recommend

  • Muhammad Zubair

    It is right to large extend. But i am interested about your coming book, because its related to my interest.Recommend

  • Sabeet Raza

    I must be honest, this is very very well penned. Quite logical simplifications to complex theories. All this apart, Best of luck with your book :)Recommend

  • http://www.sepia-paper.deviantart.com Muhammed Waqar Younis

    Police is a Terrorist to an Criminal and an Criminal is a Terrorist to the Police, There is no way you can find out who is a Terrorist, a Person that causes terror is known as a Terrorist, I myself think of calling them Evil more appropriate rather then “Terrorists”Recommend

  • نائلہ

    Agreed. Although any amount of Amir Liaqat is not healthy for the brain.Recommend

  • Ali Rana

    v nicely compiled….well informative.Recommend


    A society that does three things creates the embryonic conditions where terrorism is born: 1. Injustice via courts 2. Les than 3% of GDP invested in education 3. No focus on governance rather on metro, motorways and economic corridors.Recommend

  • Ram

    buying a ticket to pakistan should be 8th oneRecommend


    DAESH’s ideology has changed how we look at terrorism in the region today. It is a common misconception that kids from poor homes who are madrasa educated are most likely to be manipulated into joining the ranks of terrorists. Lately we have seen Muslim youth from all over the world aspiring to travel to Syria to join the so-called caliphate. Just a few weeks ago we saw college educated young men caught who had been involved in multiple brutal killings in Karachi. These young people are DAESH inspired. DAESH had been recruiting on multiple on-line forums and propagating their ideologies online which, we can be sure, are not for poor uneducated youth but for the more affluent ones who have access to computers and the internet.

    It is a known fact that DAESH has been recruiting in the region and was confirmed by General John Campbell recently. Now more than ever it has become incumbent not only for the governments and security agencies but also each and every parent to look into the affairs of their children more closely. Have a chat with them and tell
    them the dangers of dreadful ideology of death and destruction being spread by
    DAESH. We have been fighting this battle for decades in the remote mountains of the region. DAESH has changed the dynamics of this war. Now we have to fight it in our homes and on our internet -connected devices. Each and every one of us have to take responsibility, especially if we are parents and protect our children in being manipulated and misled by a bunch of lunatics who are bent on making this planet a living hell.

    Abdul Quddus
    DET – U.S. Central CommandRecommend

  • Critical

    Wrong analogy by most of the muslims…The Terrorist is not someone who creates terror but someone who uses terror to achieve a political agenda…

    The main aim of a terrorist is to challenge a govt or authority by creating terror attacks and weakening the morale of the opposite group….

    A police who uses terror is not a terrorist ,he’s just a bad policeman…When USA attacked Afghanistan,they didnt try to use bombings to make Afghan people question govt..they said they are on a war…..Recommend

  • AA

    It seems like author have done some serious research on the topic, however, I would like to point out a common trait that I noticed among most extremists I met. I have worked with a religious group in Pakistan and had many occasions when I was “informed” that, “Allah has chosen me for something special.” This was a “pickup line,” I often shrugged off by saying, hope He has chosen “someone special” for me too

    The people who fall for it were emotionally imbalanced These were the ones who swing between extremes of morality, they were found exploring porn, experimenting with prostitutes at one phase and taking trips to the mosque, praying nawafil for hours and performing Aitekaf in another phase. This goes on in cycles,

    There is a feeling of guilt and shame for the urges to enjoy “immorality” which they could not control.There is this “one last sin” syndrome and feeling of guilt continue to build up every passing day of their life, consequently a feeling of helplessness loomed. Suddenly a savior showed up, who promises a short cut to redemption, a
    martyrdom, that will just wash off all the sins places them close to
    Allah and they takes it.Recommend

  • AA

    Not the individual soldiers who volunteered after seeing videos of 911 on their TV. They came revenge the attack, since they were a part of an organized military they called it a war and believe it was, but the man who sneak out in the middle of the night and slaughtered several innocents, or the one’s who played shooting game with real Afghans, or the one’s who took pictures standing on their (human) kills, or the one who peed on dead bodies of their enemies and took pictures of it, were they different from those who play foot ball with the heads of their dead enemies. The difference is being in an organized military or membership of the group, but both at their individual level were demeaning the humanity.Recommend