Finding a dark light: Experiences in and reflections on terror


This paper originally arose as a personal response to trauma, whilst visiting Paris at the time of the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher Supermarket tragedies, and was intended as one among many psychoanalytic contributions to the ongoing, urgent and uncertain global debate. This presentation questions whether our understandings from the consulting room are transferable in comprehending the nature and origins of hate and terror in the immediate world around us, especially in troubled young people who ultimately seek radical and dark solutions.

Whilst I was happy to make a contribution to this series, I need to make two important disclosures. The first is that I do not pretend in any way to be an expert on terrorism – this paper concerns terrorism generally. The second is that my knowledge of recent infiltrations into South East Asia and of South East Asian culture generally is extremely slim other than a general awareness that Asia has become a new focus for ISIS, as it loses its caliphate hopes in the middle east. It now calls on potential recruits in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand and Singapore to join with and fight alongside ISIS-linked militants in the Philippines. I read a rather dramatized article stating that an army of 500,00 jihadists is now poised on Australia’s doorstep as Indonesia reports an unprecedented spike in radicalism

However, as a child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and as a supervisor/ consultant to child protection workers, together with my work with child and adolescent trauma victims and also long term work with the consequences of early trauma in adult patients over many years, I remain in a state of horrified awe at man’s destructive capabilities – but thankfully with some surviving capacity to be equally in awe of our creative possibilities.

Much that I have to say concerning these oscillating human potentials has already been discussed very thoughtfully and evocatively in Coll Osman’s presentation “The precarious balance of hate and love in our times” and in Janet Chauvel’s presentation “Fundamentalist states of mind: some thinking about Australian treatment of asylum seekers”. Whilst my paper primarily concerns the attraction to and development of a terrorist identity, it also acknowledges the internal dynamic development of fundamentalist states of mind, not always linked to particular ideologies, but rather as perverse and psychopathic expressions of violence.

Having watched the compelling France 24 and other French media in 2015 and, last week, being equally compelled to watch CNN coverage of the Las Vegas horror, I also remain concerned and conflicted about the rapid growth of general and social media’s capacity to convey helpful information but also to incite, inspire and inform terrorist activities and the anonymous incubation of individual hatreds. When this is combined with the availability of “weapons of war” it may explain many of the 279 mass shootings in the US this year, or the 1518 mass shootings there since the 2014 Sandy Hook massacre of young children. 1715 people have been killed and 6089 wounded since Sandy Hook. Terror is now a more frequent companion in our day to day lives.

According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, terror-related deaths have increased almost ten-fold since the start of this century, surging from 3,329 in 2000 to 32,685 in 2014. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, they shot up by eighty percent. “The steep and virulent rise of terrorism ranks among the more disturbing trends in the world today.” (Special Report, Scientific American Mind, May/June 2016)

The word terror refers to the sensation of unmitigated fear and anxiety unleashed by sudden confrontation with death, where submerging the other in death anxiety is the aim of terrorism; a form of violence directed towards the generation of fear. I think nowadays it applies, particularly, not just to those directly confronted, like the customers in the Lindt café, the staff at Charlie Hebdo, the passengers in the planes heading toward the WTC, the terrified adolescents on the Norwegian island, the passengers on the London tube, the schoolchildren at Columbine, holiday makers on the Tunisian beach, but also to those of us watching on helplessly. Since the Islamic State (as one form of terrorism) declared a caliphate in June 2014 there have been over 143 attacks in 29 countries killing 2.223 people. (These are claimed ISIS or ISIS-inspired attacks outside Iraq and Syria, including other parts of the Middle East as well as the West.)


Let me take you back to Paris, January 7, 2015, visiting with family, where my more direct exposure to terrorism began. About a kilometre away, we learnt that 12 had lost their lives in the Charlie Hebdo office; journalists, cartoonists a financial expert, two policemen ... and “one of us”, as it were, Elsa Cayat, a psychotherapist/psychoanalyst, Charlie Hebdo columnist and board member. 11 others wounded, 4 critically. All murdered in execution style by the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi. We also learn that another gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, responsible on the 8th of January for the brutal murders of a jogger and young female policewoman, on the 9th of January, had killed 4 Jewish patrons and taken 15 hostage at a Hypercache Kosher Supermarket in Porte de Vincennes, before himself being killed by storming police, very reminiscent of the Martin Place tragedy.

We knew that Charlie Hebdo had a history of attracting controversy. Islamic Organisations in 2006 under French hate speech laws had, unsuccessfully, sued the newspaper for publishing the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammad. After a 2011 issue retitled “Charia Hebdo” featured a cartoon of Muhammad, the newspapers headquarters was fire bombed and its website hacked. In 2012 Hebdo had published a series of similar cartoons, some with nude caricatures of the Prophet. The French foreign minister at the time had declared that in “France there is a principle of freedom of expression ... but is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?” Hebdo’s editor, at the time, had responded saying “We do caricatures of everyone, every week, but when we do it with the Prophet, it’s called provocation.”

President Francois Hollande, addressing a stunned crowd at Hebdo, exclaimed “a despicable act of terrorism... an attack on the freedom of the press ... an attack on freedom! Freedom is stronger than barbarism, our best weapon is Unity!” Commentators agreeing “not an attack between civilisations but an attack on civilisation.” Secretary of State John Kerry, echoing these statements, proclaimed France as the founder of the principles of freedom, born of revolution. I am reminded it was Robespierre who coined the word “terror” - “la grande terreur”- and who was later to lose his own head on charges of terror.

The analyst Salman Akhtar’s definition of terrorism from above appeared apposite here, where governments persecute and destroy minorities compared with terrorism from below which acts against the state. In this original French example of course the persecuted very quickly became the persecutors.

Why step outside

Shmuel Erlich, a distinguished teacher and analyst, practising and working from home in Israel during the Gulf War, describes two situations where we should expect the impact of real life events to be uncontroversial and beyond subjectivity - external trauma and life under terror attack. Certainly, listening to my patients serially recounting events in Martin Place as they unfolded, required effort in staying focused and not leaping to the phone. More recently, listening and watching accounts of the latest horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas and the ISIS-inspired murders at Marseilles station, I experienced similar traumatic resonance.

In her introduction to Franco de Masi’s “ The Enigma of the Suicide Bomber”, Anna Maria Nicolo questions whether we, as therapists, are able to concern ourselves with momentous social phenomena and whether we have the skills or experience to respond to the myriad questions they pose. At the same time she reminds us that at critical historical junctures psychoanalysis has stepped into the social realm – most notably in relation to the Holocaust and working with concentration camp survivors and in the nuclear debate when mankind faced possible extinction. Nowadays similar urgencies face us in relation to the evils perpetrated by terrorists and the horror of recognising the depth and long term consequences of institutional and individual child abuse and its more concealed, dark nature. She makes the comment that helped catalyse this paper – “We have come to realise that every individual is not only the witness but also the unconscious agent of such violence. For this reason we are becoming more and more aware that our field is not confined to the internal world of the individual, but extends to all aspects of the relationship between the intra psychic and the interpersonal”.

Evil has its fascinations. The terrorist’s mind fascinates us, according to the Israeli analyst, Shmuel Erlich, (Couch and the Market Place) firstly, because we ponder whether it is possible to discern those factors that make a person capable of committing the terrible acts such as took place on 9/11 or 1/15 and since then; and secondly, because it challenges a central anxiety that if we can’t identify what makes a person a terrorist then how can we be certain we will never become one.

In her excellent publication “God, Freud and Religion”, Dianna Kenny refers to Hinshelwood’s description of how early infantile feelings of helplessness and fears of annihilation are provoked in the face of imminent threat, which can, at an individual or group level, provoke more violent reactive outcomes.

Such, I think, was the struggle I observed in media and leader responses to the events in Paris, and more particularly in myself - horror and hate toward the perpetrators, whilst struggling to maintain a thinking position. I particularly responded to Kenny’s simple but profound reminder that “the message of psychoanalysis is clear that unless we can acknowledge murderous rage and envy within, we are condemned to act it out, albeit in the spirit of piety and righteousness and, I would add, simplistic conclusions.”

Freud, in his correspondence with Einstein did wonder if his theories regarding man’s innate destructiveness might be too distant from immediate experience to be of practical use. “It is not very fruitful,” he remarked, “when an unworldly theoretician is called in to advise on an urgent practical problem”. (Why War, 1932) Others, however, have stepped beyond the role of “distant theoretician”.

The analyst Vamik Volkan, in his extensive experience working with statesmen, administrators and other mental health professionals has helped forge vital links between political science and psychology, reinforcing the benefits of an unconscious, psychoanalytic psychological dimension in understanding ethnic, national and international conflicts, and the passions and meanings (Levine) that underlie religious fundamentalism, terrorism, suicide bombings, ethnic and religious conflict, ethnic violence and ethnic cleansing. He describes individuals clinging to their large–group identity as a kind of “reparative patch” for a damaged or traumatised self. “

Through the work of analysts such as Volkan, Varvin, Bion and others we understand more how when large groups are threatened by conflict, identity issues and rituals, they are more susceptible to political propaganda and manipulation, and may tolerate extreme shared sadism and/or masochism in defence of the group’s identity. National Socialism and the Holocaust is a prime example. Volkan wrote in 1997 that “better understanding and application of psychoanalytic thinking regarding the psychologies of large groups may help unveil those irrational and stubborn factors that lead to violence so that they can be dealt with more effectively, so that we can bring our worst enemies, our shared identity conflicts and anxieties, from darkness into light.”

Ira Brenner, in his publication “Dark Matters - Exploring the Realm of Psychic Devastation”, has argued that psychoanalysis is in fact a psychology of trauma and that “after more than a century of fruitful elaboration and detours, is coming back to its roots.” He refers, by cosmological analogy, to the “dark matter of the mind”; psyches largely held together by invisible, unconscious forces and mental content. It is the psychoanalytic nature of this “dark matter”, in its most destructive form, that has, since Paris, exercised my mind.

As the Kouachi brothers ran from their Hebdo evil, shouting “Allahu akbar” (God is great) and “We have avenged the Prophet” I found myself not only shocked and saddened, for those who left their homes that morning expecting to return that night, but preoccupied with a confusion of other thoughts. Who or what had been avenged, how is it that some higher power is invoked as justification for murder? What led these and other young men to this point and ultimate demise?

The Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly grew up in circumstances one would imagine as the more typical terrorist pathway. There was trauma, neglect, deprivation, violence and in Coulibaly’s case, early evidence of psychopathy.

Said aged 34 and Cherif Kouachi 32, at the time of their death, were French citizens born in Paris to Algerian parents. Even cursory examination suggests life was never going to be easy for them as products of an appalling childhood. Randall and Conroy in the “National” 18/1 commented “much media coverage of the recruitment of young men and sometimes women, to extremist causes, focusses on bright, middle class students whose indoctrination inspires them to abandon careers in medicine, business or the law. But for the Kouachi brothers (and Coulibaly) particularly, the route to extremism followed a more classical path, progressing from their difficult childhoods to radicalisation, falling under the influence of militants bent on “winning the hearts and minds of impressionable young people”.

In the days following Paris, biographical reconstructions of these three men began to flood broadcasts. Randall and Conroy wrote, again in the National (on 18/1) in relation to the creation of militants – “It is a troubling question. People the world over survive the most unpromising of origins without becoming ruthless killers. But it is difficult to dismiss a possible link between loveless, grossly dysfunctional family lives and dehumanized conduct in adulthood. For a tiny minority, extremism and the thrill of severe violence, add extra dimensions to criminality and terrorism.”

In Kenny’s opinion “an embrace of fundamentalism is enabled by two processes, social processes that homogenise minds, and a failure of the capacity for introspection” where “external reality is so chaotic and destructive as to overwhelm emotions and the ability to think and where the capacity to bear the anxiety or distress of one’s situation has been exceeded”.

“Whilst this description,” she continues, “would fit many patients we see who have experienced unimaginable early trauma, abuse and family and social chaos, and who live in fragmented and dissociated states, where capacities for affect regulation and reflective capacity have been severely distorted, damaged or virtually destroyed, only some will cross the barrier into purposively destroying others.”

Our current knowledge of the long-term consequences of childhood trauma I think would affirm de Masi’s hypothesis that “those who have had unsatisfactory attachment experiences early in life and who grow up with low self esteem, unresolved emotional pain, identity diffusion, and a sense of alienation from self and others are likely to be attracted to terrorist organisations because they are searching for remedies for the psychological traumas they have experienced”, graphically captured by Kenny in her categorisation - ”the disenfranchised, the embattled, the denigrated and rejected, the deprived and needy, the traumatised and dispossessed, the envious and rageful are all fair game for the message of fundamentalist religious and politico-religious ideologies, particularly at times of heightened anomie, when the established values of society are all called into question (Galanter)”. We seem to be moving further into such a time. Kenny describes the progression where “born again ‘fundamentalists’ become warriors with a simple message of salvation found in naïve and literal interpretations of sacred texts - or philosophies, where all uncertainties about life are relieved, but at the cost of relinquishing one’s individuality and one’s mind, in blind obedience to a collective ideology promoting violent terrorism.”

Similarly Erlich has suggested that what we see in terrorist actions and the terrorist mind is not so much a function of overwhelming rage, hatred and destructiveness, though these may indeed be present, but an opportunity to obliterate boundaries and merge with a greater entity, idea or ideology, preserving a purity of the self from “the contaminating impurity of others who become the enemy”.

The word “jihad” employed by extremist Islamic groups means in fact, simply a struggle, but nowadays is enlisted by extremists to wage war, under the delusional aegis of purification.

One week after Hebdo and the Kosher Supermarket, Professor Anne Azza Aly, (then Associate Professor in the department of Social Science and International Studies at Curtin University) an expert in counterterrorism and deradicalisation and the Founding Chair of People against Violent Extremism and now a federal politician, offered a more nuanced view, writing in the Guardian that there was no empirical evidence that religion and ideology are primary motivators for violent extremism, but that radicalisation seemed more a social issue. For more than a decade she and others had been studying the issue of young Muslims becoming radicalised towards violent extremism, and were exploring ways to prevent radicalisation or intervene in the radicalisation process.

We are faced with paradoxical difficulties when it comes to approaching the dynamic of radicalisation and that of de-radicalisation. We need to consider that terrorism is “not so much about spreading fear as it is about seeding retaliation and further conflict”. (Scientific American Mind, May/June 2016.) It makes sense then that “overreaction can be precisely the wrong response to terrorism and can be exactly what terrorists want ... it can do the work for the terrorists. (David Rothkopf “Foreign Policy” November 2015) Radical minority leaders can use violence and hate to provoke majority authorities to institute a culture of surveillance against minority group members, who in turn may experience misrecognition, dis-identification and disengagement from the mainstream, which in turn can feed into the arguments of radicals. Hence over-reacting can heighten paranoia, splitting and ideological rigidities. Over-reaction and fear can beget greater extremism, fuelling a cycle referred to as co-radicalisation.

In this climate, steps used by extremists to enlist recruits may be facilitated. In the first phase, there is isolation of the teenager from his social environment. (The use of recruitment rhetoric over the internet, encouraging disillusionment with his current social environment, leading to stopping seeing friends, abandoning hobbies, school etc.) In the second phase there is the slow disappearance of personality into a new group identity where the group becomes the individual’s identity. In the third phase the teenager adheres completely to the group ideology and in the fourth phase there is the development of a dehumanised response to all those who do not follow the same path of “awakening”. (Scientific American Mind, May/June 2016).

The issues involved in de-radicalisation programs are, therefore, immense. A number of programs have been instituted, such as the People Against Violent Extremism (Aly), a community-based group endeavouring to bring in family counselling as an intervention based on the German Hayat program. In this program, a hotline leading to a family counselling program is available if a family member recognises the signs. Recent reports indicate that almost no use has been made of such a program established in June 2017 in New South Wales. Also reformed jihadists have been utilised in de- radicalisation programs.

She felt it only attracted the attention of the media in the aftermath of attacks such as the Boston marathon bombings and the shootings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher Supermarket in Paris. She spoke of the fall out for Muslim communities, then placed in the position of having to defend their religion. Her view is that the role of religion, as a primary motivator, in radicalisation and de-radicalisation, has been grossly overestimated. The revelation that wannabe foreign fighters prepared for battle by reading copies of “Islam for Dummies” and the “Koran for Dummies”, appeared to underscore factors other than religion, such as anger at injustice, moral superiority, a sense of identity and purpose, the promise of adventure, and becoming a hero; all were implicated in case studies of radicalisation, where religion and ideology served as vehicles for an “us vs them” mentality and a justification for violence against those who represent “the enemy”.

Rashad Ali, a former member of a revolutionary Islamist group, (now Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue and a Counterterrorism practitioner, and author of “A Guide to Refuting Jihadism) has spoken openly of his gradual realisation that the group he had joined, growing up in Sheffield and feeling different due to his religion and ethnicity, was both dangerous and non- religious. He describes how his minority identity as a Muslim was captured and blown out of proportion. Capturing political aspirations, identity politics, and an aspect of religious identity, he describes these groups putting together a recipe, able to capture young people, make them feel singularly confident about their religion, and possessing solutions to economic, social and political problems, by viewing a world, influenced by Western evils, that could be reversed by terrorist acts and a holy war aimed at establishing a Caliphate, determined by extreme interpretations of Sharia law and the resurrection of medieval punishments.

In an excellent Atlantic article (02/15) “What Isis Wants”, Graeme Wood comments on an interesting paradox, that whilst Islamic State is very Islamic, it has in fact attracted many psychopaths and adventure seekers from disaffected populations, largely drawn from Europe and the Middle East; whilst the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam. Rashid’s own experience seems to have been a perversion of ‘learned’, requiring the relinquishing of a natural sense of right and wrong and the imposition of a very narrow and extreme political reading of a very diverse religious tradition.

For a deeper understanding of the historical development of this particular brand of fundamentalism I would recommend two recently published works, Robert Manne’s “The Mind of the Islamic State” and Graeme Wood’s “The Way of the Strangers – Encounters with the Islamic State”.


Given that terrorist membership is drawn largely from adolescent and young adult populations, questions regarding identity formation and staging points for radical solution, are now a major preoccupation, certainly for parents and those of us who work with young adults. The road to identity formation nowadays seems more complex and unclear than Erickson’s, valuable, but more limited thinking about the task of adolescence being the achievement of an integrated identity. (Bohleber)

We know (Briggs) that the risks and hazards to which adolescents are nowadays more exposed do leave them vulnerable to the development of many psycho- social disorders, which peak during the adolescent years - suicide, self harm, substance abuse, offending behaviour, depression and eating disorders.

From studies of infancy and the work of Fonagy, Target and others on mentalisation we now appreciate rudimentary feelings of identity are dependent on early mirroring, enabling preverbal regulation of affect and the development of reflexive capacity. We know, clinically, that if a primary parent, for whatever reason, lacks the capacity, as Bion describes, to modulate, receive and digest primitive projections, infants may be left in a wilderness of their own sensations, and may eventually conceive an inner hatred (De Masi) of the world and a powerful wish to die.

It seems clear that “identity development can no longer be considered an epigenetic developmental task that is completed at the end of late adolescence, (Erickson), but now might be best thought of as a never- ending task. It can be a confusing world. Young individuals are at times expected to do more and to do so alone.” (Bohleber) Family and extended family structures have become, under new psychological and socioeconomic pressures more vulnerable. Most often, but not always in my experience, troubled adolescents presenting for treatment are the leading edge and presenting symptom of severe family dysfunction, illness and trauma, often trailing intergenerational ghosts behind them. Anne Manne, in her excellent “The Life of I: the New Culture of Narcissism”, comments on the increased prevalence of avoidant personality types in an increasingly avoidant culture, paradoxically more suited to survive in such a culture, but with worrying consequences for the development of true empathy.

An important consideration here is the effect of media violence, particularly on young minds. In 2012 the Media Violence Commission for Research on Aggression (Psychiatric Times 2012) reported that over the past 50 years a large number of studies conducted around the world have shown that watching violent television, watching violent films, or playing violent video games increases the likelihood for aggressive behaviour.

In my experience, it is an important clinical assessment question, where often such material heightens sadomasochistic elements, feeding an internal climate of hate, often directed at the young person himself or herself.

Psychopathology and terrorist identity

A variety of different factors, including dramatic social changes, heightened and confusing expectations and retreat into virtual worlds, have made it very difficult to identify a particular biographical or socio-economic model for terrorism. It may be that in a world that now demands heightened expectations whilst offering harder and more limited opportunities, alongside the seductive, limitless access to other worlds, we may be placing more pressure on a central determining element (Erlich); that is “a stronger need for an existence rooted and submerged in something greater than ourselves”. The vehicle required may be a cause, an ideology or religious teaching, or an idea, even a mad idea, that promises an idealised state; very attractive perhaps to young searching minds (Erlich). If such ideological identifications, creative or destructive, fail, there may be a regressive movement to other destructive alternatives such as drugs, self- mutilation, various forms of perversion and addiction; from whence secondary ideological seductions may provide “dark” rescue.

Here we have de Masi’s pathologising category of terrorist development, individuals constantly seeking excitation and action-oriented behaviour; those personality types destined to become terrorists, often motivated by failure in their personal lives; such as the Kouachis and Coulibaly.

This category includes individuals suffering from narcissistic or paranoid syndromes, where feelings of inadequacy fuel narcissistic rage and, eventually, identification with a particular powerful figure or doctrine preaching the “politics of hate” (de Masi). Here we find so-called lone wolf terrorists such as Man Haron Monis of Lindt Café infamy, or white supremacists such as Dylann Roof, the church shooter, or malignant psychopathic narcissists such as Anders Brevik, whose massacre of young people on an island in Norway has been chillingly described by Anne Manne and Asne Seierstad. The list continues relentlessly to Las Vegas.

Some evidence suggests there may be neurological and structural brain defects (Anderson 2004) in certain individuals. Perhaps this would be a silver scientific lining we might wish to cling to in order to explain those horrific sado- masochistic situations where death seems to become the price of killing, as in the Columbine School massacre for example, where in contrast to suicide terrorists, it seems the two student instigators were excited by killing, loved blood and wanted to shed it, in complete identification with destructive Nazi killers and serial killers. A very different picture with very different motivations to those suicide attackers who put their life in the service of a community with which they are wholly identified, acting in the name of a group and not out of personal hatred.

In contrast the majority of suicide terrorists appear to fit with de Masi’s non- pathologising category, coming from cultivated or upper classes, with neither sociopathic antecedants nor history of sociopathic behaviour. They often appear to be well adjusted, in contrast to the stereotype of “the poor maladapted terrorist or fanatical monster”. (de Masi) However, I am inclined to agree here with Kenny and others that whilst giving all the appearance of well-adjusted, many may nurse feelings of marginalisation and lonely devaluation, struggling over long incubation periods with inter- generational projections and a sense of progressive alienation from the culture in which they live.

A 2012 study of radicalised Muslim youth in Australia, found they tended to be young (less than 30), unmarried, socially marginalised and economically disadvantaged, who seem to have taken refuge in seeing themselves as part of the global Ummah (Islamic Nation).

Usuelli (2006) described a group of second generation terrorists, such as the 7/7 London Underground bombers, not driven by hate, apparently integrated into the Western World, but plunged into an identity crisis, by virtue of ethnic conflict or affective trauma, attributing dissatisfaction to having to live in “the contemporary and materialistic world”. We know (DM) prolonged exposure of an individual to situations of intense emotional suffering may defensively lead to thoughts about self-annihilation, which may remain dissociated, continuously altering development and producing traumatic distortion of emotional experience, and assisting the development of processes of dehumanisation.

Traumatised communities may similarly experience humiliation, an inability to mourn loss, and may become a wellspring for individual and collective containment failure. A twofold identification of victim and persecutor, fuelled by traumatic memory, may persist for decades or even centuries - not unlike the struggles around similar internal entities, in long and difficult analyses, with traumatised patients, and this may be where bridges between the nature of our clinical work and understanding traumatised group processes becomes relevant. (De Masi)

Volkan (2003) used the term “chosen trauma” for that set of circumstances that have never been worked through by a community and are transmitted from generation to generation for centuries. The intergenerational transmission of violence in many different forms is something we see in family and community situations, seriously affecting children’s development, but in environments riven by the extra dimensions of war and enmity, mental dissociative and other defensive strategies, combined with the neurodevelopmental effects of prolonged trauma, destructive, dehumanised outcomes are inevitable. Such cycles of violence, uncontained and untransformed, become bombs. In a 2004 study carried out in Gaza 37% (el-Sarraj) of children surveyed, dreamt of becoming martyrs when they grew up. War and in particular ethnic violence, dislocation and refugee status remains a central crucible for these outcomes. A tsunami of consequence is now building anew in the disaster that is Syria.

De Masi noted a little registered fact, that, given an emphasis of reportage of Western atrocities, a statistic arrived at by the National Counterterrorism Center revealed that Muslims (the so-called “near enemy”) themselves suffered between 82 and 97% of terrorist related fatalities, up to the year 2011.

Intergenerational transmission — A generational view

In 1933 Freud wrote with great prescience “... mankind never lives completely in the present. The ideologies of the superego perpetuate the past, the traditions of the race and people”. It is perhaps in this watershed between individual strivings in young people and inter-generationally transmitted, unresolved pain and ideological striving, we find the ‘breeding ground and fertile soil for terror’.

My research assistant noted that only a tiny percentage of people in the category of poor, marginalised and culturally displaced seemed to turn to violent extremism.

However, reflecting on the basic issues of family structure and appalling childhood the Kouachi brothers had endured, he noted a comment made, after the shooting, by Evelyne a de facto carer for the Kouachis, who had lived on the same grim housing estate, that “... Cherif was a child like any other ... but he knew no love. In religious fanaticism he found the family he never had”. In his research, a common motif, in many of the cases, seemed to be an initial period of dissolute behaviour - drink, drugs, sex - followed by a swift shift into extreme ascetic religiosity, often under the influence of a spiritual mentor. However, if one were to substitute, for example, certain elements of evangelical Christianity for Islam in this equation then it could also look like a not uncommon adolescent trajectory.

Similar, less ascetic pathways can be charted for those who find conviction and refuge in destructive fundamentalist white supremacist and neo- fascist movements. Fundamentalism’s many forms have the capacity for destructive consequences not always so dramatically expressed.

In our example case of the Kouachis, we have a horrific childhood characterised by parental desertion and suicide, institutionalisation and petty crime, setting the stage for a troubled adulthood that included gaol and subsequent radicalisation. But their identity as French–Algerians, born in France to Algerian immigrant parents, adds a very significant intergenerational layer to their profile. Much like Ireland was for the British, Algeria remains the locus of France’s “troubles”; a former colonial possession that gained independence in 1962 after a bloody 8 year war of independence, characterised by acts of terrorism on both sides, leaving many scars. A bitter conflict between the mostly Muslim population and the French military, which led to independence but divided the country and left more than one million people dead, was lived through by the Kouachi parents. As Andrew Hussey documents in his “The French Interfada” the French had invaded Algeria in 1830. This was the first colonisation of an Arab country since the days of the Crusades and it came as a great shock to the Arab nation. The first battle for Algiers was a staged affair, pleasure ships sailing from Marseilles to watch the bombardment, landings, and the resultant carnage on the beaches. Hussy goes into much more detail, with Algeria not then given the status of colony but annexed to France, with no claim to any independent identity. The historical antecedents to the “Algerian troubles” that broke out in France during the 1990s are not difficult to interpret.

When one combines the uncertain identity, both in terms of family and culture, that seems to permeate the story of the Kouachis, with the intergenerational trauma of the Algerian conflict, it becomes easier to see how the brothers’ path to radicalisation emerged. In many ways they were a triple threat for potential radicalisation: poor without any family structure, and part of a vilified, culturally cleansed group viewed with great suspicion by mainstream French society.

Despite having been born and raised in France their entire lives, it is easy to imagine how these brothers may have felt like strangers in a hostile land.

The Tsarnaev brothers, who perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombings, are a different case again, but share similarities with the Kouachis. Although part of a relatively strong and outwardly stable family structure, the intergenerational situation was equally turbulent, with the family having emigrated to the US from a particularly volatile area of the North Caucasus. These brothers were not subject to the same kind of racial, religious, cultural miasma that swirled around the Algerian Kouachis, but when examined in detail as in Masha Gessens “From Chechnya to Boston: the Tsarnaev Brothers’ Motivations” and Alice Lociceros “Why Good Kids turn into Deadly Terrorists”, one can discern a definite disconnect between the family and the society into which they were transplanted. Here, inter-generationally transmitted motivations become clearer.

None of the major theorists on radicalisation however suggest there is a universal model of causation that has predictive certainty. Economic background, relative assimilation into ‘host cultures’, apparent ideological background and other seemingly important factors all fail to account for why some people act violently and others do not. Dr Francis of Lancaster University’s Radicalisation Research Project considers the background factors are as individual as those who choose this step, which explains the difficulty of theories of radicalisation to accurately predict violent behaviour. These are major considerations in thinking about de- radicalisation programs; details of which I have omitted here, but which may be a focus for later discussion.

Whilst it is true that a high proportion of a traumatised population will not become terrorists, just as a high proportion of those abused in other circumstances will not themselves become abusers, they may carry the consequences of their own abuse in different ways.

Invoking neuroscientific studies such as mirror neurone theory (Rizzolati and Gallese 1998) De Masi suggests we can only understand our fellow human beings, if we have in turn been understood and have fully internalised the experience of emotional contact with others. If not we may be doomed to retreat from the truth and take shelter in the construction of a grandiose identity.

In our clinical struggles, linking severe forms of psychopathology to infantile trauma, particularly in those patients seemingly not amenable to treatment, De Masi finds the common denominator of emotional absence. This certainly resonates with my own experience. This remoteness may encourage flight into another world, a psychic reality, dominated by megalomaniacal or sexualised fantasy, until at some point split off feelings of anger, powerlessness and despair find expression in destructive acts againstothers. (LasVegasperhaps.)

Analytic thinking in relation to states of destructive or malignant narcissism (Rosenfeld 1971, Meltzer 1973, Steiner, Symington etc) and popular instructive works such as Anne Manne’s “I” illustrate the mental map at the base of such severe psychopathological structures, which through seductive propaganda may “overcome and colonise healthy parts of the personality and compel them, in malignant fashion, to espouse destructiveness (De Masi).

De Masi fashions a striking bridge between fundamentalist religious communities and their leaders and the destructive nucleus that may operate in an individual, malignant, narcissistic scenario, insidiously colonising the personality and demanding complete surrender to a view of the world and those aspects that should only be hated and destroyed. It is in both contexts a god object that offers protection but at the cost of total adherence to its creed and its seductions, and individual freedom of thought. It is a Faustian bargain in its worst form. Some such bargains may be struck at a very early developmental time.

Clinical example

At this point in the original paper I included an account of working with a young adolescent, one of a number I have encountered, where different forms of early trauma and neglect had stimulated an avoidant life style and preoccupation with violent fantasy, movies and internet immersion, propagating strong sado-masochistic, perverse and violent preoccupations. (I have not included the full account for reasons of confidentiality and to spare you!)

This analysis involved forming a very gradual alliance with the possibility of this young person finding meaning and relief in a therapeutic relationship; cautiously and fearfully prepared to enter into and struggle with the deep hurt and disengagement at the centre of this young man’s illness.

At a certain point in analysis with young individuals, where anger, hatred and distrust – the consequences of early trauma – start to recede as trust in the therapist and the transference alliance begins to grow, a period of fragile vulnerability emerges. In this state it might now be possible for a particular belief system or ideology or form of thinking to be implanted – in contrast to the true aim of analysis which is to facilitate the freedom to develop one’s own hitherto shackled feelings and thinking. It is therefore, I think, this newly uncovered vulnerability that can be a site for development of radicalisation and restriction of free thought or freedom. It occurred to me, in drawing some threads together, that if at this time in the analysis I had been a mad fundamentalist recruiter rather than merely a slightly mad analyst, and had spoken to my young patient about bombs rather than a growing movement out of fear to free thinking, and if I had fashioned the ghosts from this young man’s early nursery and life experience into a small militia and if I had chosen to fuel hatred and remove barriers to violence in the name of a greater cause or ideology and its promised rewards – then it is not hard to imagine how a newly acquired trust might be secondarily abused and groomed to some destructive and dehumanised end. Any body of thought or influence, any theoretical understanding of the mind carries with it the potential for both outcomes ... freeing the individual from an inner world of persecutory fear or leading him into another. Fortunately, in this young patient’s case and after a long struggle, the direction of progression remained the former. His previous triumphant stand of destructive actions against himself and others was safely able to give way to guilt and sorrow and repair. It reminded me of Hanna Segal’s (1997) wise reflection that it may be the inability to take responsibility and experience guilt for destructive actions that is a central factor in keeping mechanisms of triumph alive. The recovery of this ability, however, requires a particular form of sustained empathy and the development of trust. It can itself be easily abused.

Concluding comments

However, as de Masi cogently reminds us “if we as analysts and therapists and scholars are to concern ourselves with terrorism we must first of all eschew the facile solution of classifying the phenomenon in conventional paradigms, for example, the phenomenon of suicide terrorism as the pathological union of individual suffering and the omnipotent, destructive mentality of a political organisation”. And I would add, not to take simple analogies between our experiences in the consulting room, as easily being translatable to a complex, threatening external world.

At the same time, I think it is possible, because of the work of de Masi, Volkan and others, to more fully appreciate how our collective experience, with individual and group therapeutic interactions, may continue to offer insights into significant cultural issues, and the specific challenges that face us now in relation to terrorism, and the radicalisation to a range of “dark solutions” sought by young lives, living in a more complex world. Having been touched by such outcomes - in the world, and in the consulting room - and having briefly engaged with the literature in this area, I am much more aware that to venture into this area, to move beyond the status of “distant theoretician,” requires deep immersion, just as our work as therapists requires such immersion in individual experiences.

De Masi concentrated much of his thinking on the phenomena of suicide terrorists but concluded that “this form of present day barbarism is merely one of the symptoms of the insanity that pervades the daily lives of millions of human beings”. In relation to pervasive insanity, de Masi includes the fact of globalisation and the current narcissistic phenomenon of the “unique identity”, inherent in racism and genocide, as important elements underlying many of the conflicts and atrocities in today’s world. Any utopian retreat into the notion of a unique identity or belief makes conflict between people inevitable, creating good and bad splits along paranoid-schizoid lines, but on a global scale.

Narcissism and the idea of a unique identity afflict not only individuals, but entire peoples “closing that space that might allow others to be experienced as meaningful enrichment of our experience”. It is not hard to think of current, glaring international and national examples of these phenomena.

Dr Elsa Cayat, the Tunisian born, French, Jewish psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and Charlie Hebdo columnist was among those killed on 7 January.

In her very last column, written on the day before her death and published posthumously on 14 January, she wrote - “human suffering derives from abuse. This abuse derives from belief, that is, from everything we have had to swallow.”

Three main points from her final column are poignantly pertinent to this discussion:

  1. It is harder than we think to open up to others and accept their differences. “I want to talk about the difficulties humans encounter in opening up to others and their differences, but also their difficulty in making room for it” Cayat wrote, “and from this observation, highlight how hard it is for them to acknowledge the fact they don’t make any room for their own differences”

  2. Before we can understand others we need to know ourselves. To find out who we really are, we need to look far back into our history and pretend we are seeing ourselves for the first time, before any experience has added bias to our lives

  3. We have to call our references into question. We have to get beyond everything that people have made us “drink” from their baby bottle, everything that people have made us swallow without we having thought about it, re thought about it, and above all, interpreted it. There is no other way than to discard all pre-conceived illusions. Such is the heritage of psychoanalysis, of critical thought.

In summary, we may all have vastly different beliefs, but to coexist together in this world we need to respect and tolerate each other. And the ability to do so lies only within ourselves.

I would like to have known her.


Aly, A (2011) Terrorism and Global Security: History and Contemporary Perspectives, Palgrave MacMillan, South Yarra, Vic.

Aly, A (2013) The $1m method to deradicalise Australia’s youth and prevent a terrorist attack, viewed 14 July 2015.

Ali, R (2008) The Guardian, 6 December.

Ali, R (2015) ABC Lateline, 26 June.

Bohleber, W (2010) Destructiveness, Intersubjectivity and Trauma: The Identity Crisis in Modern Psychoanalysis, Karnac, London.

Boots, J (2013) The Grain of Sand and the Pearl, conference paper, unpublished.

Briggs, S (2002) Working with Adolescents and Young Adults. A Contemporary Psychodynamic Approach, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke.

Brenner, I (2014) Dark Matters: Exploring the Realm of Psychic Devastation, Karnac, London.

Chauvel, J (2017) Fundamentalist States of Mind: Some thinking about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, Psychoanalysis Downunder,

Chrisafis, A (2015) The Guardian, 13 January.

De Masi, F (2011) The Enigma of the Suicide Bomber: A Psychoanalytic Essay, Karnac, London.

Erickson, E (1959) Identity and the Life Cycle. Selected Papers, International Universities Press, New York.

Erlich, H S (2013) The Couch in the Market Place: Psychoanalysis and Social Reality, Karnac, London.

Kenny, D T (2015) God, Freud and Religion: the Origins of Faith, Fear and Fundamentalism, Routledge, London.

Fonagy, P, Gergely, G, Jurist, E, & Target, M (2002) Affect Regulation, Mentalization and the Development of the Self, Other Press, New York.

Fisk, R (2005) The Great War for Civilisation. The Conquest of the Middle East, Harper Perennial, London. <>

Francis, M Freud, S (1933b [1932]) (1915d) Why War, S.E. 22, Hogarth, London. Freud, S Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, S.E. 14, Hogarth, London.

Gessen, M (2015) The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road to a Modern Tragedy, Scribe, Melbourne.

Green, A (2005) On Private Madness, Karnac, London.

Hussey, A (2014) The French Intifada: The Long War between France and its Arabs, Granta Books, Great Britain.

Kaplan, A (2012) ‘Violence in the Media: What Effects on Behavior’, Psychiatric Times, 5 October.

Kernberg, O (2003) ‘Sanctioned Social Violence: A Psychoanalytic View’, Int J Psychoanal, vol. 84, 683-698.

LoCicero, A (2014) Why “Good Kids” Turn into Deadly Terrorists, Praeger, Santa Barbara, California.

Manne, A (2014) The Life of I. The New Culture of Narcissism, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Manne, R (2016) The Mind of the Islamic Nadim, H (2015) State, Redback 10.

Osman, C. (2017) The Precarious Balance of Love and hate in Our Times, Psychoanalysis Downunder,

Randall, C and Conroy, E (2015) The National, 18 January.

Segal, H (1997) ‘From Hiroshima to the Gulf and after: socio-political expressions of ambivalence’ in Steiner, J. (ed) Psychoanalysis: Literature and War: Papers 1972-1995, Routledge, London.

Salewicz, C (2015) ‘Doctor Elsa Cayat: Psychoanalyst who wrote for “Charlie Hebdo” and was murdered in the terrorist attack of the magazine’: Independent, 12 January.

Seierstad, A (2013) One of Us. The Story of Anders Brevik and the Massacre in Norway, Virago.

Stoller, R J (1977) Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred, Quartet Books, London.

Varvin, S and Volkan, V (eds) (2003) Violence or Dialogue: Psychoanalytic Insights on Terror and Terrorism, Karnac, London.

Vermote, R et al (2015) ‘A Psychoanalytically Informed Hospitalization-Based Treatment of Personality Disorders’, Int J Psychoanal, vol. 96, pp. 817-843.

Volkan, V (2014) Psychoanalysis, International Relations and Diplomacy, Karnac, London.

Volkan, V (2013) Enemies on the Couch: A Psychopolitical Journey through War and Peace, Pitchstone Publishing, Durham N.C.

Wikipedia (2015) Anne Azza Aly, viewed July 2015.

Wood, G (2015) The Atlantic, February.

Wood, G (2017) The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, Penguin Books, Great Britain.