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Psychoanalyzing The Link Between Upbringing And Terrorism


A screen grab from an extremist video purportedly showing Khamzat Azimov, a 20-year-old Frenchman who went on a knife rampage in Paris earlier this month.

When 20-year-old Khamzat Azimov went on a deadly stabbing spree in Paris this month, a May 12 attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, details about his upbringing caught the attention of psychoanalyst and counterterrorism expert Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin.

Considering Azimov's infancy in war-torn Chechnya, and the fact that he continued to live with his mother in a one-room Paris apartment until he was shot dead by police in the midst of his attack, Kobrin saw a pattern reflected in other Islamist terrorists she has studied and written about.

They include Chechen Islamist separatist leader Shamil Basayev, Jordanian-born Al-Qaeda militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the Boston Marathon bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, also of Chechen descent.

In a nutshell, Kobrin said all appear to have had relationship issues with their mothers that stemmed from being infants in what anthropologists describe as "shame-honor cultures."

"My analysis strips the aberrant violent antisocial behavior down to its naked truth -- a problem buried in their souls but arising early in childhood development run amok," Kobrin tells RFE/RL.

Reservoir Of Rage

"The problem is that these terrorists are coming from shame-honor cultures, which are dysfunctional by definition," Kobrin explains.

"Their reservoir of rage arises from problems nested in early maternal attachment in shame-honor cultures -- the early mother-infant bonding attachment, the first relationship in life," Kobrin says.

Boston Marathon bombers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (pictured) and his brother Tamerlan were born into what Kobrin calls a shame-honor culture. (file photo)
Boston Marathon bombers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (pictured) and his brother Tamerlan were born into what Kobrin calls a shame-honor culture. (file photo)

A shame-honor culture is one where the pursuit of what is considered "honor" can lead to a quest for achieving a sense of "justice" through violence and revenge, anthropologists say.

In shame-honor cultures -- as you would find in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Arab Middle East -- shame is used to discipline infants and children, Kobrin explains.

Infants in shame-honor cultures, she says, are also often treated like objects and learn to repress their feelings to the point that internal rage can boil within.

Making matters worse, Kobrin says, women in shame-honor cultures are also often devalued, objectified, or even physically abused.

"Women who are abused also become full of rage," Kobrin says, noting that subconscious reactions of young mothers to abuse seriously impact a child's early development.

The first four years of a child's life is a crucial time when most infants develop empathy for other human beings, she says, adding that the lack of empathy and concern for the pain that terrorists cause to others is "almost worse than the terrorist attacks themselves."

According to Kobrin, Islamic State extremists exhibit behavior full of "destruction, cruelty, [and] sadism," which is completely "out of bounds." (file photo)
According to Kobrin, Islamic State extremists exhibit behavior full of "destruction, cruelty, [and] sadism," which is completely "out of bounds." (file photo)

Kobrin says psychoanalysts should take care not to "diagnose" an entire group of people.

But she makes an exception in the case of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State extremists "because their behavior is so out of bounds" with "destruction, cruelty, sadism, and revenge leading to heinous crimes against humanity."

Kobrin also says a better understanding of maternal attachment in shame-honor cultures would help in understanding the roots of terrorist violence.

She explains that terrorists from shame-honor cultures are torn between an unconscious rage against their mothers and the cultural expectation that they are not permitted to separate from their mothers.

On one hand, the mother is idealized as a powerful object. But her power is also perceived as something toxic that must be destroyed, she says.

"Maternal attachment and shame play a significantly traumatizing role since children are shamed into behaving, which causes rage," she said. "When these children grow up, they treat others as objects" and the cycle perpetuates itself.

Room For More Research

But while much has been written about the political, economic, and religious motivations of terrorists, Kobrin says little has been done to "decode the meaning of the terrorists' aberrant behavior from the perspective of early childhood development and trauma."

Ann Masten, a child development professor at the University of Minnesota, agrees.

Masten's research focuses on the impact of risk, adversity, and trauma upon child development.

In a report for the Society for Research in Child Development, Masten said critical gaps in the understanding of child development in relation to terror include "limited evidence on neurobiological processes, cultural influences, strategic preparedness, peace-building interventions, and the roles of social media in mitigating or enhancing risk for trauma or engagement in terror activities."

"Developmental scientists, even as they carry out additional and better research, have an important body of knowledge to share with parents, educators, policymakers, first responders, and all those charged with ensuring the safety and resilience of children," Masten concluded.

James Garbarino, a child psychologist and founding director of the Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University in Chicago, says a core principle of existing research is that the impact of trauma on "the concrete basics of day-do-day life" matter most in the development of children.

Garbarino says research suggests risk factors that combine to create "a generation of maladjusted children" include "exceedingly high rates of family violence, divorce, coronary disease, incidence of depression and tension, exposure to trauma, and a high pressure socio-political climate."

"Generally, it is the accumulation of risk factors in the absence of developmental assets that does the damage to children in the long run much more so than the presence or absence of any one risk factor," Gabarino says.

Psychoanalyst and terrorism expert Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin
Psychoanalyst and terrorism expert Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin

Kobrin agrees there are "other intervening factors that can tip the scale" in radicalizing a person to the point that they would kill others.

But she maintains that a "key factor" behind the lack of empathy displayed by IS militants is the use of "shaming" by their parents in early child rearing practices.

"It's finally starting to come to the table," says Kobrin, whose books include The Banality of Suicide Terrorism, The Maternal Drama Of The Chechen Jihadi, and The Jihadi Dictionary.

"We should not be afraid, due to our notions of political correctness, to expose the unconscious behavior of terrorists who come out of shame-honor cultures," she maintains.

"To say that a kid radicalizes at age 17 out of the clear blue sky is to really do that kid and his family and the public a disservice," Kobrin concludes. ‘There are early indicators that a child is in trouble, and we can use these indicators to identify such cases sooner and do an earlier intervention."

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