Understanding The Neurobiological Processing Of Violent Extremists – Analysis


Radicalisation is a spectrum graph where the mass of non-violent extremists have accumulated at the bell curve on the horizontal axis. A smaller number, the violent extremists, bundle on the tail of this horizontal axis, are involved with the most heinous events in the human history.

By Sumaiya Shaikh

The large proportion of research and policymaking in countering violent extremism uses socio-economics, political and regional history, religious and political doctrine, social anthropology and psychology, of the various terrorist groups and its ideological underpinnings. Often CVE researchers specialise in a limited number of disciplines to predict the complex human behaviour of political violence. Evidently, the question for everyone involved in studying violent extremism remains about what makes a violent extremist.

Radicalisation is a spectrum graph where the mass of non-violent extremists have accumulated at the bell curve on the horizontal axis. A smaller number, the violent extremists, bundle on the tail of this horizontal axis, are involved with the most heinous events in the human history.

CVE research and security measures are primarily focused on reducing and monitoring this left side of the axis and the area under this bell curve in an attempt to brace the tail end of it. In reality, the tail end of the violent extremists is the most destructive with their actions associated with mass casualties. This year alone, the large-scale attacks in Afghanistan, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, raised questions regarding oft-repeated assertions about what makes a non-violent extremist tread over towards the violent form.

Violent and non-violent extremists

While millions share the extremist ideologies of terrorists, either partly or wholly, there are only a limited few who physically indulge in accomplishing the goals of the doctrines. While joining the IS, foreigners upon arriving were required to enlist skills and willingness to carry out suicide attacks in a form, and not everyone signed up for such deadly tasks except a limited few.

Not only are there false positives — people who fit the terrorist profiles, subscribe to the ideology, but have never engaged in terrorism, but also there will always be true negatives — those who do not meet the social, economic, ideological or the religious profile of such profiles offered by the various disciplines of the social sciences, but yet engage in violent extremism. Neuroscience — a combination of biological psychiatry using genetics, epigenetics, psychopharmacology, functional brain imaging and psychological behaviour, could be the missing discipline that bridges the gap to explain co-variances and root causes.

While it should be acknowledged that extremist ideology is a mere enabler for terrorism, the biological predisposition to such behaviour is something that largely separates the violent form, from the non-violent form.

Commonalities of emotional processing in violent aggression

Using neuroscience, in both primates and humans, various forms of verbal or physical aggression, anger and hostility are studied, instead of ‘violence’ to answer the research questions related to the specific reward-seeking, motivational violence as observed in terrorists. By the true definition of violence, it is the extreme form of action where physical aggression leads to physical harm, while anger is an emotion preceding aggression, hostility is a cognitive form that represents resentment and suspicion.

For example, the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka were one of the deadliest in a long time since the country moved forward from the inter-ethnic conflict involving the LTTE. Sri Lanka remained one of the few nations in South Asia protected from the Islamist ideology, and hence, the multiple orchestrated bombings on the Christian holy sites appeared as a global shock. On the other hand, while the Pakistani Taliban has been criticised globally for its terrorist behaviour, the Afghan Taliban is treated by some as a nationalistic force trying to ward off its occupiers. Another large scale killing by an Australian man in Christchurch recorded his terrorist act as a means to ‘show off’ while his ideology was found to be deeply rooted in the white supremacist Balkan movements from Eastern Europe.

Unlike any law-abiding citizen with guilt, shame or sickness post involvement of murder of another human, the terrorists share distinct commonalities in emotional states before and after the acts of violence which sets them apart from non-violent individuals. These include seeking reward and pleasure in the violent acts, deriving motivation from morally higher space, and absence of guilt due to their rejection of the victims’ humanity. Neuroscience has extensively studied reward, pleasure, motivation and guilt, in addition to fear, through which these ideologies emerge and proliferate, as inherently biological behaviours in not only humans but also in other non-human primates.

During these emotional states, distinct areas of the brain such as the nucleus accumbens (NAc) with specific cell receptor types such as dopaminergic D1/D2 involved in reward procession are activated validating the processing of such emotions in the brain. Also, while such brain regions are activated during physical aggression, they are activated during addiction behaviour to pleasure-inducing drugs indicating that the addiction to violence and drug addiction have significant overlaps in neurobiology.

Relying on other co-variants of terrorism

Studying neuroscience, in addition to all other disciplines for CVE provides an actionable understanding of the unanswered questions of CVE researchers. Questions such as why did wealthy, educated terrorists such as Mohammed Atta- the lead hijacker of 9/11, Osama bin Laden, Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri -the current leader of al-Qaeda, sons of a wealthy spice trader in Sri Lanka who helped National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) to systematically plan the bombings killing over 250 people, engage in terrorism while such ideologies are mainly a consommé for the lower socioeconomic (SES) class.

As for Hashim Mohamed Zahran, an extremist from a lower socio-economic stratum (SES), his oratory charm, social deviance, callousness, lack of empathy, sensation seeking and violent aggressiveness places him in an antisocial personality domain, more commonly known as psychopathy. Above his non-ambiguous character, he has proven to be suicidal by committing the act of self-destruction. His mental status was not of a healthy person. His actions and history showed all signs of his inflated tendencies, yet he did not get assigned the label of a ‘mentally ill person’. This alone is a reason enough to broaden an understanding of terrorism using neuroscience to single him out among all his other radical peers, especially after he posted several videos on social media calling for violence against non-believers. Yet, the authorities failed to pick these signs in time to isolate what makes a cardboard terrorist such as him.

Thus, correlative variants such as only poverty, wealth, education or ideology could be false determinants of violent extremism, where a more appropriate study should be based on a cocktail of both biological and environmental factors in predicting and countering terrorism.

Differential fear processing in violent extremists

Being a radical alone doesn’t automatically predispose to violence. In the case of many Islamist terrorists, this radicalisation may have risen from the feeling that Muslims are under attack globally. While this fear of persecution may be valid for a large proportion of minorities, Muslims or not, all across the globe, there is only a small subset among those radicals, who engage in violent extremism.

The fear and its associated stress responses are linked to the activation of an ‘almond-shaped’ brain region called the amygdala. The amygdalae seated between the superficial cortical layer and the deeper layer- is an emotional processing area of the brain, receives both excitatory and inhibitory signals from other parts of the brain. The superficial layer or cortex is a highly evolved region responsible for functions such as language, calculation, movement, and sensory processing. Later, this information is sent to the amygdala for processing the emotion associated with the higher-order function. For example, upon seeing a horror film, the visual cortex analyses and sends information to the amygdala, that activates a fear response. This fearful response during a horror film is processed by the amygdala, thus, tricks the brain due to its inability to distinguish between real and pseudo-fear.

During radicalisation, this fear response in the amygdala is conditionally paired with people of the ‘out-group’ for the radical group, when presented with the people of this ‘out-group’, radicalised individuals that are primed for violence exhibit conditional or contextual driven violence such as in Pavlovian conditioning.

This prior-conditioning occurring through radical literature, propaganda or misinformation about the ‘out-group’, determines the basis of the fear. Primarily, this fear can be of racial extinction linked with lowered birth rates or decreasing racial supremacy of the radical group as was with the Christchurch shooting terrorist. Despite that, not everyone who fears the ‘out-group’ has a heightened stress response — translating to amygdala ‘activation’ in the brain.

Hence the question remains, what causes the activation of brain regions such as the amygdala, differentially in terrorists, as compared to the radical non-terrorists. Other substantial critical factors such as genetics, epigenetics, hormones- in combination with early childhood and adolescent environment such as exposure to trauma and prior-combat training play a substantial role in predicting violent behaviour. Such neurobiological disparities of who will get affected by early adversities and who won’t, also explain why some individuals acquire post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression after a stressful event and some don’t. This also explains why other individuals, despite the adversities and exposure to radicalised literature, have ‘neurobiological resilience’ to not involve in terrorism.


Limiting its understanding to one area of research can produce countless but often confounded explanations about the human behaviour in terrorist activities. Critics may dismiss the mere mention of genetics as a sister idea to eugenics, but this is not only wholly contrived but also ignores the scientific data and the complexity of research that is not solely dependent on genetics.

An acknowledgment that the neurosciences, not just sociology or psychology, can be used as a missing piece in countering violent extremism where all other fields have exhausted its scholarly capacity, and can immensely add to the countering global violence extremism measures and, predicting terrorist behaviour promptly.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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