The Darker Minds of Society: A Psychological Analysis on Terrorists

Photo of police in Indonesia at site of failed attempted suicide bombing, New York Times/Getty Images

By: Sarah Kaster, UCLA student who interned with the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Joel D. Parker, Ed. April, 2017

Editor's Note: The following article was begun in 2016, and has since proven to hold water, despite the intense and ongoing debate over the connection between psychological illness and terrorism (or the lack thereof). Moreover, following attacks, such as the Christmas market attack in Berlin last December, and the attack near the British Parliament in March of this year (in addition to many others in Turkey, Iraq, and elsewhere in recent months), the evidence increasingly suggests that most terrorist attacks that appear to be a solo act are in fact organized and coordinated, and can no longer be considered purely 'lone wolf' attacks. In fact, while just a year ago, some argued that lone wolf attacks were among the most pressing issues facing Western governments, articles have appeared recently by veteran analysts suggesting that the term itself is so misleading as to be best left unused. That said, few have really delved into the matter from a psychological perspective, and so this post is meant to start the discussion with helpful definitions of terms from the field of psychology, in an effort to escape the murky waters of popular psycho-babel that often pervades the discussion on sanity and violence.

After an individual commits an act of extreme violence, they are often labeled as much more than just a terrorist. In an attempt to rationalize the loss of so many innocent lives, the public quickly concludes that the perpetrators are crazy, insane, or even psychopaths. Despite these common perceptions, studies involving direct contact with captured terrorists over the past two decades have gradually led researchers to conclude that “the outstanding characteristic of the terrorists is their normality.” Yet, the perpetrator responsible for the Bastille Day terrorist attack last year in Nice, France, which led to the death of 86 people and injured nearly 500, has been described in a manner that clearly contradicts this notion. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, identified as the man who drove the 19-tonne truck into the crowded promenade in Nice, was described by those who knew him as “aggressive,” “having an altered perception of reality” and “narcissistic.”  
The discrepancies between the public opinion, past researchers, and first-hand reports in describing the mental stability of a terrorist prompt important questions germane to the psychology behind the phenomenon of terrorism. From a psychological perspective, people will often equate the extreme violent behavior perpetrated by a terrorist with mental illness and the inability to engage in rational behavior. However, collective research has shown that maladaptive personality traits are most common in lone wolf terrorist attacks, while those involved in organized attacks often show no psychological abnormalities. This paper explores the different psychological profiles that have been identified among terrorists, and dispels the misconceptions often associated with terrorist psychology.

Misconception #1: All Terrorists are Psychopaths  
First, let’s address a leading misconception that tends to influence public perception in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. The notion that the violence perpetrated by a terrorist must be the result of antisocial behavior like psychopathy, while intuitive, is not supported by scientific evidence. When facing the devastation that follows the aftermath of an attack, in a quest to make sense of the tragedy of loss and despair, there is a natural tendency to pathologize the perpetrator. Likewise, in light of the victims, casualties, and damage that is left behind-- how could one not conclude that the agent responsible is a remorseless, “cold-blooded killer”? But when making these assumptions, people often do not have an accurate understanding of the term “psychopath”. Psychopathy is defined as a personality disorder that is characterized by the presence of antisocial behavior (e.g. irresponsibility, impulsivity) and “deficient affective experience” (e.g. callousness, grandiosity, lack of empathy). Like many mental illnesses, psychopathy occurs on a spectrum. This means that a person can meet the criteria of being a psychopath while only having a few psychopathic traits that vary in severity. Dr. Jennifer Skeem, Professor of Psychology at UC Irvine delineates that psychopathy is not inherently violent. According to Dr. Skeem, “psychopathic individuals often have no history of violent behavior or criminal convictions...nor is it clear that psychopathy [or general antisocial traits] predicts violence much better than a past history of violent and criminal behavior.” Contrary to the public notion that terrorism and psychopathy are correlated, Skeem and her experience researching psychopaths illustrate that this is not the case.
Misconception #2: Every terrorist must have the same psychological diagnosis
Back in 1981, researcher Marsha Crenshaw concluded that "the outstanding common characteristic of terrorists is their normality.” Like Crenshaw’s findings, Andrew Silke, described that “research on the mental state of terrorists has found that they are rarely mad or crazy; very few suffer from personality disorders.” Yet, in the wake of more recent attacks, it is common that the terrorists who are described in the media do not fit these descriptions. In a CNN report that covered the Orlando nightclub shooting, the wife of the terrorist attacker claimed that “she [thought] he was mentally ill.” It has become routine for people to blame mental illness as the origin of terrorist attacks, despite the fact that experts in psychology have found no causal relationship between mental illness and terrorism.
These contradictory portrayals demonstrate that when examining the phenomenon of terrorism through a psychological lens, it is important to first classify the type of attack that the perpetrator was involved in. While the above assertion by Crenshaw still holds credibility, it generalizes all terrorists as perpetrating similar attacks. Before making any generalizations on the psychological state of a terrorist, one needs to be familiar with the type of attack that was carried out. Those who are deemed psychologically normal, and have been studied by researchers like Crenshaw and Silke, are often involved in organized attacks. However, emerging research on lone wolf terrorists—such as the Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, has identified a divergent trend.

Before introducing the psychological nuances in terrorist attacks, it is important to understand the distinction between organized versus lone wolf attacks. Organized attacks are “initiated, planned and carried out by members of a terrorist organization.” The 9/11 attacks on America, executed by al-Qaeda suicide attackers in 2001, are an example of organized structured terrorism. In contrast, lone wolf attacks are carried out by an individual with a “personal initiative who underwent a personal radicalization process either via acquaintances or through the Internet.” Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the man responsible for the 2009 Fort Hood shooting in Killeen, Texas, is an example of a lone wolf attacker. Without outside guidance and in order to advance his own ideological perspective, Hasan killed thirteen fellow soldiers at a military base using two semiautomatic pistols.

Psychological Overview: Organized versus Lone Wolf Attackers
Regarding organized terrorist attacks, the conclusions obtained through research have frequently revealed that the individuals involved are not psychologically or mentally abnormal. This conclusion is found among the researchers who have had the rare opportunity to conduct direct interviews with the perpetrators behind such attacks--allowing them to best understand the mental state of the terrorists. Israeli psychology professor Ariel Merari found no risk factors associated with mental pathology or mood disorders in his study of suicide terrorism.
Since suicide attacks are one of the most contemporary tactics of organized terrorism, findings that they are driven by individuals with stable personalities warrant further explanation. Unlike the phenomenon of suicide itself, which is clinically associated with risk factors that are present among lone wolf terrorists, organized suicide attackers have the goal of more than just ending their own lives. The motivations behind suicide attacks are guided both by rational incentives and logical reasoning. In many cases, suicide attackers believe that they are performing an act of martyrdom, “whether for their faith, their people, or their cause.” For example, “jihadists” carry out such attacks because “they see themselves as having a higher purpose.” Besides wanting to further their ideological or political cause, the perpetrators responsible for suicide attacks might do so because of the logistical advantages that it holds for their terrorist organization. Since the suicide attacker involved in the operation will unlikely survive and be captured, the security of the terrorist organization has a less chance of being compromised. In addition to security measures, the nature of such operations can inflict maximum physical and psychological damage to the target at a minimum cost to the terrorist group. Collectively, available research clearly suggests that organized suicide attacks are guided by rational reasoning--whether they stem from a drive to carry out ideological and political goals or the tactical advantages that benefit the terrorist organization.
In contrast to the research on organized terrorists, recent findings related to lone wolf terrorists have revealed a trend of psychological abnormalities. In a 2010 study on fourteen American lone wolf terrorists, researcher Chris Jasparro found that “at least six suffered from mental illnesses.” In another series of case studies, one researcher found that three out of the five lone wolf terrorists had been diagnosed with personality disorders. Further, four out of the five struggled with severe depression throughout their lifetime. Ted Kaczynski, a more notorious lone wolf attacker known as The Unabomber, was known to have struggled with mental illness throughout his life. His extreme social anxiety caused him to live a life of a recluse, emerging from his home only to deliver bombs. Before he resorted to living in isolation, Kaczynski sought psychiatric help and was described as struggling to win “battles with depression.” Since his days of terrorizing the public, there have been numerous other lone wolf attacks that have occurred in America. Such attacks, like in the case of the 2013 Boston Bombers or Orlando nightclub shooting, were instigated by individuals reported to have problematic personality traits.
In the end, the research on terrorism has found that terrorists involved in lone wolf attacks are often psychologically abnormal, while those involved in organized attacks show no signs of psychological deviance. Yet after every violent attack, we find a reason to focus on mental illness as the explanation for why an individual becomes involved in terrorism. Given that researchers have found no evidence that supports the claim that organized terror is connected to mental illness, security and government agencies would benefit from exploring other strategies that analyze the extent to which an attack may have been planned by a larger network. Additionally, by recognizing the misconceptions that come with every terrorist attack, and observing the psychological nuances that are distinct to each attacker, we can gain more accurate insight into their personality and behavior. As our perceptions and insight into terrorist attackers become more defined, so will our ability to effectively understand and stop them.


Borum, Randy. "Psychology of Terrorism." University of South Florida Scholar Commons. January 2004.

Crenshaw, M., & LaFree, G. (2017). Who Did It?: The Attribution Dilemma. In Countering
Terrorism: No Simple Solutions (pp. 131-164). Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. Retrieved from

Connor, Jeffrey and Carol Flynn. “Report: Lone Wolf Terrorism.” June 27, 2015. Accessed
August 2, 2016.

Ellis, Ralph, Ashley Fantz, Faith Karimi, and Eliott C. McLaughlin. “Orlando Shooting: 49
Killed, Shooter Pledged ISIS Allegiance.” CNN (CNN), June 13, 2016.

Ganor, Boaz. “The Terrorist Attack in Orlando – Preliminary Conclusions.” June 16, 2016.
Accessed August 2, 2016.

Hirstein, William. "What Is a Psychopath?" Psychology Today. January 30, 2013. Accessed August 02, 2016.

Hunt, Elizabeth, Marina A. Bornovalova, Eva R. Kimonis, Scott O. Lilienfeld, and Norman G. Poythress. Psychopathy Factor Interactions and Co-Occurring Psychopathology: Does Measurement Approach Matter? 27, no. 2 (January 12, 2015). Accessed August 3, 2016.

Nossiter, Adam, Alissa J. Rubin, and Lilia Blaise. "Years Before Truck Rampage in Nice, Attacker Wasn’t ‘Living in Real World’." The New York Times. 2016. Accessed August 02, 2016.

“Psychopathy: A Misunderstood Personality Disorder - Association for Psychological Science.” December 7, 2011. Accessed August 2, 2016.

Silke, Andrew. "Courage in Dark Places: Reflections on Terrorist Psychology." Social Research 71, no. 1 (2004): 177-98.

Teich, Sarah. "Trends and Developments in Lone Wolf Terrorism in the Western World."
International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. October 2013. Accessed August 2, 2016. and Developments in Lone Wolf Terrorism in the Western World.

Lebanon: An Unwilling Host for Syrian Refugees

Syrian refugees harvesting olives in Lebanon,

By Hannah Nowikow, MDC intern, Summer 2016
Joel D. Parker, ed.

Following the civil war in Syria which has killed over 300,000 and displaced more than half of Syria’s 22 million citizens since 2011, Syria’s much smaller neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan have been overwhelmed with refugees. Lebanon, whose political system has been plagued by deep divisions, now boasts that roughly one in every four people residing in its territory is a displaced person of Syrian descent. Even the most sympathetic politicians have been unable to muster up any kind of medium-term plan as a result, and many political figures have openly expressed anti-refugee sentiments. It bears mentioning that it was only on August 17th, 2010 that Lebanese politicians managed to pass some sort of progressive legislation to help Palestinian “refugees” (i.e., descendants of Palestinian refugees who possessed very few civil or labor rights from their arrival in 1948 and after 1970). The enforced ambiguity of status by the inaction and incompetence of the Lebanese political establish puts pressure on Syrians to either return to Syria or endure a lifestyle lacking fundamental civil rights in Lebanon. If the treatment and immersion of Palestinian refugees into Lebanese society is any indication of future policy for the 1.1 million Syrian refugees formally registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), then the path to political, societal and economic equality for these newly displaced individuals will be plagued with legal challenges and continued socioeconomic deficiencies for decades to come. 

 As a result of decisive conflicts between the sectarian groups within parliament, no president has been elected into power since May 2014, leaving Lebanese NGO’s and local governments the task of formulating policy to mitigate the crisis at hand. Although the ruling political elite, divided along the lines of Christian, Sunni and Shi’ite sects, has contrasting means of dealing with the refugee crisis that would further their own respective agendas, the Lebanese municipalities have been informally given unregulated authority. Subsequently, since August 2014, more than 45 restrictive curfews have been enforced upon the refugees by local police forces. Even though municipalities do not have the jurisdiction to administer such legal policy, given the current national political deadlock, there is no one to disband the measures. Further compounding the issue of municipalities “taking the law into their own hands” is demonstrated following suicide bombings in late June in the Christian village, al-Qaa, after which the municipalities invoked more curfews. Such measures by the government serve to solidify to the Lebanese public that refugees are the source of all the problems within the country. 

Initially, Lebanon was commended for its humanitarian act of extending an “open-door” immigration policy toward displaced Syrians, and the country even went a step further as to offer the new residents the same domestic rights given to other foreigners. However, increasingly more stringent restrictions regarding who was permitted entrance were enacted and some even accuse the Lebanese policy as being constructed in such a way that purposefully aimed to exploit the incoming Syrians. The difficulty related to renewing residency permits has directly caused the number of Syrians lacking legal residency papers to increase. Although international law mandates that no person-seeking asylum can be forced to return the place in which their lives are threatened, Lebanon has not technically established any official refugee policy and consequently is able to treat Syrians as foreigners susceptible to exploitation, deportation and arrest. 

Some analysts argue that the no long-term solution will be formulated in order to prevent a Sunni majority of seats within Parliament. However, Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, Gebran Bassil instead contests that the creation of a long-term solution is not hindered by differing sectarian political agendas, but rather the result of Lebanon being a country unable to accommodate the basic needs of so many vulnerable individuals. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Bassil says, “But are we handling it? Not at all. We are suffering. We are losing a lot of security. In economic terms, we are spending more than $10 billion on the refugee crisis. We are suffering a lot, and the promises of the international community have not been met.” Given the current state of the Lebanese central government and economy, this is a relatively valid point. 

Lebanon’s history regarding Palestinian refugees and the lasting impression it has left on the country, the majority weighs heavily on future policy for displaced Syrians, even if the circumstances are different and it is not inevitable that the country will repeat its former mistakes. For instance, despite having received the right to access some forms of formal employment, poverty and unemployment still obstruct Palestinian refugees from a satisfactory way of living. Additionally, Lebanese citizens still harbor animosity toward these refugees exhibited through discrimination and marginalization in all aspects of society. 

The international community has to step up in terms of funding given to the government, specifically in areas related to improving access to education, water and electricity. However, it is worthy note that given the lack of political cohesiveness, the potential for corruption is increased and subsequently the misused allocation of international aid is definitely in the realm of possibility. Furthermore, giving Syrians legal residency and access to formal employment will serve to benefit all members of the country. Legal residency will allow Syrians the freedom to search for work in areas beyond their checkpoints, without fear of detainment or fines. If unemployment rates decrease, then parents will be able to sustain their families without being forced to make their child work, thus lowering child labor and increasing enrollment in non-formal and formal education. 

Who is to blame? Is it the international community that has not provided the already fragile Lebanon with adequate support to properly deal with the influx of 1.5 million refugees into the country? Is it the fault of the Lebanese government for not permitting the legal residency of these displaced individuals because that would cause a shift in the demographic in favor of a Sunni Muslim majority? Wherever or whoever the finger should be pointed at does not change the dire situation of these severely impoverished and neglected human beings.

Iran’s Jews: Hoping for a Break

By Gil Melili, July 2016
PressTV image: inside a Synagogue in Iran, YouTube screenshot

Since the rise of the Islamic Republic after the 1979 Revolution, Jews and other minority populations have co-existed precariously under the revolutionary Shi’ite Persian majority culture, despite having some rights as minorities. One source of insecurity for the Jewish population has been the conflation among the Iranian public of Judaism and Zionism. Moreover, the fact that Shi’a Muslims have perceived themselves as victims of Sunni majoritarianism within the broader Islamic world has at times bred paranoia rather than sympathy towards other groups. This ingrained paranoia coupled with public confusion regarding the political aims of Iran’s Jewish population tends to foster widespread discrimination from state institutions as well as the society at large, despite recent reports suggesting that Jews feel more at home in Iran.
According to Dr. Lior Sternfeld at Penn State University, the Jews of Iran have always fared relatively well compared to the Jews of other Muslim countries given their status as a recognized religious minority and the different rights that come with that.  However, according to Meir Javedanfar at IDC Herzliya (of Iranian-Jewish origins), the situation for Jews as well as other minorities in Iran is nevertheless dismal and should never be overlooked given the institutional limitations placed on them.  Though these experts disagree on how bad the general situation of Iranian Jews is today, they definitely agree that there is room for improvement.
Iran’s Jews, for instance, have been accused many times of espionage and conspiracy over the last couple of decades.  One of the most notable reported examples of this occurred during the Khatami presidency in which 13 Iranian Jews were arrested in Shiraz for committing espionage for Israel in 1999.  During this ordeal, those accused served 17 months in prison before even facing trial while the judge for their case also served as investigator and prosecutor.  Furthermore, the Jewish defendants were initially denied the right to chose their own legal representation despite the fact that they were entitled to it as part of a recognized religious minority.  Though most of the accused supposedly admitted to the charge of espionage, all of them have been released as of 2003.  This case not only served to further blur the line between Jews and Zionists in the public eye but also serves as an example for one of the worst human rights abuses towards Jews by Iranian government institutions.
Rather than coming solely from these institutions, negative sentiments towards the Jewish minority have popular footholds as well.  In 2010, a group of Basij students attempted to vandalise the sacred Jewish sites attributed to both Esther and Mordechai in response to destructive acts they believed Israel was doing at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque at that time.  Clearly, tension between Israel and the Muslim world can often worsen sentiments among Muslim Iranians towards local Jews.  That said it still is not clear today, whether Iranian Jews may beare subject to harm when Israel is perceived as being more pro-Sunni or anti-Shi’a, as could be the case with an increasing number of reports on improved Israeli relationships with a number of Sunni-majority countries, such as Turkey. Typically, anti-Jewish actions in Iran usually correspond with either local paranoia that Jews are conspiring with Zionists, or in reaction to reports that Israel is possibly harming generally revered Islamic symbols.
With that said, there have nevertheless been sustained efforts by heads of government ranging as far back as even the Khatami presidency in showing at least some acceptance towards the Jewish minority.  One recent example of this was shown in a Tweet by President Rouhani in September 2015 wishing the Jewish people a happy new year and even referring to the historical connection between Islam and Judaism.  Though these English-language statements may have been aimed to garner support from a skittish Jewish population as well as the international community in the face of tense relations with Israel, it nevertheless indicates the extension of an olive branch from the state to its Jewish population.  Indeed, many Iranian Jews hope for better relations with the state following international progress towards a nuclear deal with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, figuring that less outside pressure on Iran may lead to reduced pressure on them from the state.
    Even though positive steps have been made, Iran is still quite far from being a haven for the Jewish people and this can be understood given a couple of crucial indicators.  According to official estimates, the actual number of Jews living in Iran has rapidly declined from around 14,000 in 1996 to under 9,000 in 2011, though other sources estimate different rates of decline.  Also, as a recognized religious minority under Iran’s revolutionary government, the Jewish people have always been limited in terms of the civil and political rights granted to them, which according to researchers like Meir Javedanfar, serves as one the most pressing issue facing them since 1979. Even though there is much discrepancy between different reports on the current situation of Jews in Iran, it is still possible to contemplate the nature of this situation.  With that in mind, maybe the Jews of Iran are trying to remain in their society’s status quo as to not attract to themselves any unwanted attention during these heated times with Israel.  Or rather, they are gradually making their way out of Iran given the limited rights granted to them as evident from Iran’s minority laws as well as their decline in numbers over the last decade.

NGOs and the Socioeconomic Development of Palestinian Women in the West Bank

Jaclyn Shaw

Despite numerous barriers to economic success facing Palestinian women in the West Bank, many are able to benefit from a vital network of individual philanthropists and NGOs aiming to help them. To be effective, such aid networks must understand the current social, political, and economic realities of West Bank Palestinian women, who have the potential to drive wide-reaching changes in their society as a whole. Patriarchal societal norms, inadequate public transportation, and employers’ bias against hiring women may undermine their economic self-determination. Ironically, such domestic and regional setbacks affecting the lives of these women have been discussed in media reports, while grassroots movements and organizations on the ground helping West Bank women are often ignored.
This typical pattern was recently overturned, however, when Hanan al-Hroub was awarded the Global Teacher Prize in March 2016 by Pope Francis. Al-Hroub used her moment of fame to explain to the world that her passion for teaching nonviolence to Palestinian children began when her children were traumatized following an incident involving shooting on their way home from school. As a teacher, she seeks to build a stronger, more peaceful Palestinian society by positively influencing the next generation. However, her success also serves to highlight the challenges that her peers face. Due to internal Palestinian conflicts and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, many Palestinians have experienced similar traumas. Indeed, girls in the West Bank had a 37.8% rate of psychological morbidity in 2000. This means that a corresponding percentage of these children had behavioral and/or emotional disorders, including PTSD. It is thus important to keep in mind the psychological, not just political or economic, obstacles that Palestinian women in the West Bank face as they seek to build successful, happy lives.
While education and psychological health are prerequisites for success, some NGOs and women’s cooperatives arising in the past couple of decades have sought to empower women economically, as well. Such a group is the Women’s Affairs Technical Committee (WATC), which focuses on equal rights for women in Palestinian society. In 1992, the group was established in Ramallah with the aim of achieving social justice as is outlined by the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, the Palestinian Women’s Rights Bill, and international law. Its strategies are nonviolent and it rejects violence by others. Its accomplishments include its publication of the only monthly newspaper on Palestinian women’s issues and society, it has a weekly radio program, a social media presence, and it partners with other like-minded women’s groups. The group endorses pluralism, secular discourse, and equal application of the law as the means of moving toward greater rights and opportunities for Palestinian women.
The WATC has seen marked progress in its work since its founding, although many problems still persist. One success came in 1995-6 when the WATC successfully protested against the Palestinian National Authority’s (PNA) plan to force Palestinian women to obtain their male guardian’s permission in order to receive a passport. During this movement, the WATC also called for a 30% minimum quota of women in the Palestinian legislative council, which gained support from many candidates. The WATC’s emphasis on increasing the number of women in the Palestinian government should not be understated; without women in power, the glass ceiling that Palestinian women face will remain. Another notable milestone for the WATC came when it successfully lobbied the Civil Administration to legally guarantee Palestinian women three months of maternity leave and a paid hour for nursing their babies. Unfortunately, these laws are not always enforced, but it still marks an important step in the right direction. These changes facilitate women’s abilities to succeed in the workforce and fulfill roles other than motherhood and matrimony. Women wishing to work outside the home require legal and social support to balance motherhood and professional life. Once the existing rules are enforced evenly, Palestinian women can lobby for measures to encourage this balance.

Healthily, there are disagreements among Palestinian women in the West Bank on how best to create a better future for themselves. Pluralistic organizations like the WATC may be unappealing to ultra-pious or Islamist Palestinian women who tend to shun secular values. Feminist NGOs that rely primarily on foreign funding may face domestic delegitimization. To avoid such a stigma, the Ramallah-based WATC accepts funding from foreign sources, as well as from Palestinian donors. The Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization each claim to support women’s rights groups (the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the General Union of Palestinian Women), but such claims are largely symbolic, with few actions to back them up. Moreover, priorities and ideologies also vary between Palestinian women on the basis of socioeconomic status. As Palestinian women gain economic opportunities over time, it is hoped that their voices will form the basis for a growing civil society with growing economic productive potential.

Jaclyn Shaw is currently pursuing her B.A. in Political Science at SUNY Geneseo with a minor in Religious Studies. This past academic year, she studied abroad at Tel Aviv University in order to learn more about the intersection of religion and politics in the MENA region. While at TAU, Jaclyn interned at the MDC, where she researched for this post. Edited by Dr. Joel D. Parker, researcher at the MDC, and internship manager.

Understanding Russia's Military Objectives in Syria

Timur Akhmetov- Despite Russia's recent announcement that it is scaling back its direct involvement in the Syrian civil war, which is now entering its sixth year, the overall policy objectives of the Kremlin included an aspect that is often overlooked: namely, the fact that Russia needed to test, demonstrate, and showcase its contemporary military arsenal in order to prove not only that Russia is capable of acting on the global arena, but also in order to convince potential clients to consider Russian technology in the future. In that vein, the introduction of new technologies became one of the prominent features of the Russian military operation in Syria. Officially, Russian actions are limited to deployment of air forces, there is evidence, however, that Russian latest technologies are actively used on the ground by the Syrian army (SAA) and its proxies.

The transfer of military technology between Russia and Syria occurred long before the outbreak of the civil war, with the first installments dating back to the mid-1950s. Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs1 noted last September that the country's military personnel were in Syria before the active phase of the military operation began, and their presence was associated with the supply of Russian weapons and arms to Damascus.

In its first stage, Russian engagement was primarily focused on rebuilding and reconstruction of available technological resources of the Syrian military machinery. The SAA, with the help of Russian advisors, managed to establish a system of training and provision of their units as well as the maintenance and repair of heavy fighting machines like the T-55 or T-72 Soviet battle tanks, which are widely used by government troops.

According to military expert Victor Murakhovski, newly available infrastructure for servicing heavy military equipment has allowed Syrian troops to considerably minimize their losses and continue to advance in strategic areas with a steady pace, an underlying factor of its success in Latakia and northern Aleppo.2

At the same time, the conflict in Syria allowed some of the latest Russian technologies to be put to the test in real combat conditions, which is particularly important for Moscow in terms of the export potential of military equipment and investment in new R&D projects.

Internet publications reported in early February3 on the successful debut of  Russia’s T-90 tanks in northern Syria. These reports not only mentioned  the  first combat use of these modern tanks, but experts also mentioned the successful use4 of Russian experience in the protection of military equipment vis-à-vis modern anti-tank systems like TOW-2.

There is also evidence that the ad hoc transfer of certain military technologies takes place between Russian advisors and the SAA as well. According to the information portal Military Review, photos of military vehicles equipped with an improvised optical-electronic suppression system began appearing around the internet in late 2015.5 The development of such a system was then necessitated by a sharp increase in anti-tank systems in the hands of Syrian opposition forces.

Russia has also enabled better communications within the SAA through non-military technologies, such as GoPro cameras mounted on military vehicles and tanks. This enables infantry and machine crews to know what each other is seeing in the hazardous environments of urban warfare.

New Russian technologies in the hands of the SAA are not necessarily implemented in a way that ensures optimal usage. A lack of formal training among crew members6, especially in case of highly sophisticated battle machines, and rising expertise of the opposition fighters in the anti-tank warfare tactics may still lead to considerable losses among the Russian made tanks -- particularly the older models that are still used on the front lines of the Syrian conflict.

In that way, Russia helps establish a full-fledged military infrastructure and deploy a number of its latest technologies on the battlefield. At the same time, Russia seems to be inclined to limit its presence and financial commitments to the ongoing campaign using available technologies. Russian newspapers, with reference to an Austrian military journal, draw attention to the fact that the government manages to keep the costs of the military operation to a minimum. One example of these efforts was introduction of the SVP-24.7

This technology allows helicopters and fighter jets, which rely heavily on Soviet made freefall or 'dumb bombs,' to calculate more precise release points and to increase accuracy at a relatively low cost. However, the bombs themselves have been known to cause casualties since they are dependent on a number of factors, including the skill and planning of the actual operators in the field. If the operators fail to account for all the various weather and air patterns at play at the moment, then this technology may not have the ability to prevent unwanted collateral damage.

Despite the negative international media attention given to the civilian casualty rate of the Russian campaign, it should also be mentioned that the deployment of Russian troops abroad and introduction of the latest Russian technologies help the Russian military test its capabilities in real fighting conditions and reveal possible vulnerabilities of their technologies.

The Kremlin's expansive policy has two basic goals: political and commercial.8 Military analyst Alex Kokcharov suggests that "demonstration of military power is aimed at potential arms buyers who may want to see how warheads work in a real combat situation, not only during exercise.”9 The commercial aspect may already be paying off, since the overall share of Russian companies in international arms manufacturing and sales has been steadily rising since 2013.10 At the same time, Russia continues to pay a considerable price for its involvement in support of the Assad regime, and while the technology used may increase the efficiency of the regime's forces for a relatively low cost, it is unclear whether the endeavor will pay off politically in the future. That partly depends on the larger issues of whether the Syrian crisis can be effectively resolved through political means, whether its refugee crisis can be stemmed, and whether global terrorism can be curbed. Most likely, these larger issues will require broad cooperation and consensus building between Russia and its allies rather than simply new military products on the market.

Timur Akhmetov is an independent analyst on the Middle East with special interest in the Russian and Turkish foreign policies. He is currently interning at the MDC and blogs for the Russian International Affairs Council.

1 RIA news agency, “Lavrov: Russian servicemen have been in Syria for many years” [Russian], September 10, 2015.
2, “Cumulative effect” [Russian], January 27, 2016.
3 Ekaterina Zgirovskaya and Pavel Kotlyar, “Vladimir” gets to Aleppo,” [Russian], February 5, 2016.
4 “TOW missile v T-90, direct hit: Probably first-ever footage from Syrian battleground,” February 26, 2016
5 Voennoe Obozrenie (Military Review), “Russian “nestling boxes” successfully “suppress” American TOW-2s” [Russian], February 8, 2016.
6 Viktor Murakhovsky, “What is the chief threat to Russian’s T-90 tank on the Syrian battlefield?” Russian Beyond The Headlines (RBTH), March 2, 2016.
7 Anton Valagin, “How Russia will save in high-precision war,” Rossiyskaya Gazeta [Russian], January 1, 2016.
8 An expert on Russia and Ukraine in the IHS Country Risk.
9 Mashable via Russia Today, “Russia turned airstikes in Syria into advertisement of Russian weapons,” [Russian], December 10, 2015.
10 The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “Global arms industry: West still dominant despite decline; sales surge in rest of the world, says SIPRI,” December 14, 2015.

Silencing the Conscience of Syria: Are Rebels Mimicking the Regime?

Marie-Sophie Roeder- More than two years have passed since the kidnapping of a group of secular opposition activists in Syria known on social media as the #Douma4. Yet unsettling questions emerging from this  isolated event in the grand Syrian tragedy have not been answered yet. Though several rebel militias had full control of the area of their abduction, none seems willing to admit any knowledge of their current whereabouts and conditions. The area of Douma, which was hit with chemical weapons in August of 2013, has been increasingly consolidated by the Jaysh al-Islam militia, which is vying to be part of the negotiations for Syria's future. Were these activists targeted due to their work of documenting human rights crimes, or perhaps merely because they were well-known secular intellectuals, or were they were merely victims of the general chaos of the civil war? Answers to such questions are more complex than they would appear at first glance.

Razan Zaitoneh, her husband Wael Hamada, and their colleagues Samira Khalil (married to Syrian writer and intellectual dissident, Yassin al-Haj Salih) and Nazim al Hamadi, human rights campaigners and central figures in the Syrian unarmed secular opposition, were abducted from their office of the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) on December 9, 2013 in the Douma, a suburb of Damascus. It was reported that masked gunmen stormed the office, stole computers and documents and abducted the four staff members.1 The activists worked together in the VDC on reporting human rights violations in Syria and had established several centers aimed at empowering women. Several of the staff members of the VDC had been awarded for their efforts in peaceful protest against the Syrian government and the armed rebel factions.

Their kidnapping is only one example of abductions over the past three or four years in Islamist jurisdictions of Syria that seem to target prominent intellectuals. Such kidnappings fall in between two more typical types of kidnappings: one that is the domain of all sorts of criminals seeking to gain some ransom fees, and the other being a sort of political kidnapping aimed to stop or intimidate a direct political opponent. In the context of the civil war, labelling abductions of famous people is in itself tricky, since the difference between a kidnapping and an arrest depends to some extent on how one perceives the legitimacy of the ones doing the abduction. For supporters of the Salafi agenda in the Syrian context, perhaps the disappearance of these four activists represents something other than a kidnapping. Perhaps it is an arrest or a legitimate silencing of "secular" voices. If this is the case, as Yassin al-Haj Salih has pointed out, why were the Islamist factions, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the hard-core Salafis so quiet?2 Why did they fail to own up to the crime? And moreover, why did they blow off the moderate civilian Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul, and its appeal for the immediate release of the kidnapped prisoners?

These are not purely rhetorical questions, but rather, they speak to the heart of the crisis, which is the fact that civilians have almost no influence on the actual events in Syria and some of them desire to bring about a different system based on transparency and openness above all. This is less a matter of moderate versus extremist, secular versus religious, and more a problem of the cycle of violence that has besieged Syria since the beginning of 2012. Since the Assad regime decided to target civilians with violence and intimidation and certain external elements seemed to support an armed uprising as a reaction to the regime’s actions, civilians were immediately caught in the aforementioned cycle of violence without a choice. No matter how benevolent the militias that wrested control from the regime—they had to be ruthless and powerful above all. Otherwise, they too would have been crushed and the revolution would have been lost altogether.

Activists calling for the release of these and all other political prisoners have blamed the Sunni-Salafist rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, a central militia in the Islamic Front with strong ties to Saudi Arabia, for the kidnapping.3 Jaysh al-Islamhas increasingly gained control of Douma and its larger area of Eastern Ghouta but has, however, repeatedly denied any connection to the abduction. At the same time, early statements appeared to be unconcerned with the particular abductions of the activists, who came to be known as the Douma Four, or by the hashtag #Douma4. Among factors that pushed this incident to the side, the civil war itself was already at a deeply chaotic and violent stage, particularly following the regime's chemical weapons attack in that area in August of that year.4 Indeed, a more recent Syrian air force strike killed the leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Zahran Aloush, known for his obscure statements on democracy and the construction of a military junta in Ghouta to the east of Damascus.5 There is no confirmed information about the current whereabouts of the human rights activists, although there has been speculation that they are being held in a jail under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra.6 If this is the case, they may be in particularly acute danger, since Russian air strikes have targeted known detention centers held by that group in recent weeks.

Looking at the history of Syria, one can draw similarities between this kidnapping and regime strategies over the past half century, since the concept of silencing opposition voices is not a new phenomenon within the country. The previous regime of Hafez al-Assad notoriously imprisoned numerous opposition leaders and prominent intellectuals such as Riad al-Turk, Jamal al-Atassi and Michel Kilo. Samira Khalil and Wael Hamadeh, two of the Douma4, were imprisoned for their opposition activities before 2011, and Razan Zaitoneh was forced into hiding after being accused of being a foreign spy by the Assad regime. While the Hama massacre of 1982 and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s is well-known today, it is less known that the regime simultaneously targeted intellectual elites and professionals with arrest and long-term imprisonment.  
Assuming that the opposition group Jaysh al-Islam bears some responsibility for failing to properly investigate and aid in the release of the Douma4 activists, it appears as if they are complicit in regime-style crimes. Through these old methods, the kidnappers operating in rebel-controlled areas aim to silence new opposition voices. More recently, Jabhat al-Nusra arrested a radio DJ in Idlib, whose equipment was damaged, accusing him of corrupting morals through secular music.7 One source mentioned that this may have come in reaction to anti-Islamist graffiti.8 Arresting individuals following a graffiti incident, of course, brings to mind the 2011 arrests of a number of youth in Dera ͑a by the regime, which set off a storm of protests leading to the anti-regime uprising in the first place.
Whether one calls the abduction of the Douma4 an unfortunate kidnapping or an intentional arrest depends on whether ordinary criminal gangs are responsible, or whether one of the militias under the auspices of Jaysh al-Islam played a role. Either way, the disappearance of the voices calling for transparency, participation and the empowerment of women in particular, prevents their potential criticism and political activism against militia leaders. If indeed Jaysh al-Islam carried out the arrest of the Douma4 for political purposes, or knows where they are and refuses to negotiate their release from kidnappers, one must conclude that cooperation between secular and Islamist factions of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad may not appear soon, despite the December 2015 agreement of 34 rebel organizations including Jaysh al-Islam to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in formulating a negotiating platform against the regime. Moreover, the Assad regime benefits from the silencing of secular intellectuals, which was made clear last summer when the regime symbolically declared the death penalty was due to Michel Kilo, and the journalist Faisal al-Qassem, both of whom live outside of Syria.

Marie-Sophie Roeder is currently pursuing her B.A. in Middle Eastern Studies and Politics at Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg with a focus on Radical Islamic Movements and International Relations.  This semester, she is on exchange at TAU and conducting a research internship at the MDC with a primary focus on the Syrian Civil War and its conflicting parties as well as on Women in the Syrian secular Opposition.

1 The Syrian Human Rights Committee, December 10, 2013,

2 Yassin al-Hajj Salih, "The Issue of the Kidnapping of the Douma Four and the Position of the Political Opposition Organizations," [Arabic] al-Hayat, June 10, 2014.

3 Human Rights Watch, April 28, 2015,

4 See for instance, YouTube video from May 18th, 2015,


6 Syria Untold, May 27, 2014 retrieved from