Terrorists approaching violence: fear and cowardice prevail

August 22, 2017
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Through a micro-sociological study, Alessandro Orsini – an international terrorism expert – has analyzed the emotional and behavioral dynamics of six Italian terrorists linked to the far-left, who committed a total of thirty-five murders. His conclusions reveal that by carrying out such crimes, the attackers were not moved by courage, but on the contrary they perpetrated these acts of vile violence in a state of fear. Their victims were indeed only hit when stuck in no-way-out situations, ie., without the possibility of escaping, or with no ability to defend themselves.

The reconstruction – through interviews, the perusal of autobiographies, and witnesses – of how the onslaughts were planned and implemented shows a setting up process that was lucidly aimed towards creating the perfect conditions to make the strike the safest moment for the attacker. This also involves reducing the tension normally caused by physical confrontations and brawls, that is by the fear of killing and being killed. Contrary to belief, terrorists are constantly confronted with fear, and to succeed in their plans they must minimize the risks for counterstrikes and unexpected reactions. The emergence of violent conflicts creates an emotional tension, which may result in a decrease in lucidity and a reduced control of bodily movements, compromising the effectiveness of the actions themselves.

Physical strength is therefore less important in a violent confrontation compared to the ability of reducing emotional constraints and fear: ideologies collapse in the face of individuals being scared, as they’re obviously frightened by the prospect of being killed or overpowered. When considering terrorists belonging to the Italian extreme left, this emotional tension is mainly resolved in two different ways: one is to put the victim in a condition of weakness, ie. striking when they are in a group and by themselves; The other way consists in deceit, that is the terrorist needs to hide their intentions by making them incomprehensible to the victim, so as to eliminate any possible reaction.

The Orsini study is based on a considerable amount of primary and secondary sources, including the testimonies by the terrorists themselves. The author has given them enough space to talk about themselves, at the same time not allowing for their own stories to take over, through semi-structured interviews that he himself has conducted: therefore he allowed these terrorists to talk freely, waiting for the appropriate time to introduce his own questions. It was obviously a very delicate type of work, carried out from a sociological perspective, not from a psychological one. This approach served the immediate cause of answering a fundamental question: how did terrorists feel when they shot a completely defenseless person?

Are Terrorists Courageous? Micro-Sociology of Extreme Left Terrorism

The author

Alessandro Orsini

Alessandro Orsini is Assistant Professor of Sociology of Terrorism and Director of the LUISS Osservatorio sulla Sicurezza Internazionale. He is also Research Affiliate at the Center for International Studies at MIT in Boston and a member of the government research board on radicalization


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