Sehgal on the Terrorist Mindset

Commentary | December 12, 2013

Writing for The News International, EWI Board Member Ikram Sehgal explains how the mindset behind terrorism can and should be changed.

Read the original article in The News International, or see below. 

A mindset is a set of assumptions that everyone develops throughout their lives and become so established that people or groups continue to adopt or accept prior behaviours, choices, or tools of those within the same mindset without question. As an incident of a person's philosophy of life mindset can be powerful, having the ability to control, persuade and even hold us back from doing or achieving things in life.

The ‘Cold War mindset’ was prevalent in both the US and the USSR. This included absolute trust in the two-player game theory, the integrity of command chain, control of nuclear materials, and the ‘mutual assured destruction’ (MAD) theory of both in the case of war. Many consider that this mindset usefully created ‘détente’, serving to prevent an attack by either country. Power groups that fail to review or revise their mindsets with sufficient regularity cannot hold power indefinitely.

A single mindset is unlikely to possess the flexibility and adaptability needed to address all future events. For example, the variations in mindset between the Democratic and Republican parties in the US (and within the two parties themselves) have made that country more able to challenge assumptions than Russia’s Kremlin with its more static bureaucracy.

How is mindset influenced in a progressive organisation? People’s behaviours can be changed in one of two ways – either forced through management decree or one can change their thinking to result in new desired behaviours. Both approaches have been used by different leaders at different times. While altering mindsets is more effective at sustaining change over the long term, it does take additional time and effort to properly effect the change. Once done, a person’s mindset can lead them to take actions (behaviours) necessary to foster momentum and a critical mass of commitment throughout the organisation. 

In Pakistan we are confronted with an extremist mindset that is extremely barbaric in nature. It kills and maims without remorse – children, the elderly and womenfolk are fair game. This enemy aims to destroy the very foundations of this country. It does not recognise the constitution of Pakistan or the values of democracy or the laws of the land. One of its aims is to introduce Shariah law in Pakistan based on its obscurantist interpretations of Islam. 

What to talk of battling terrorism, understanding the mindset of the terrorist is easier said than done. Our failure to make much headway is mainly because we provided the breeding ground of extremism through various policies. These were compounded by increasing income disparities, rampant corruption and a denial of opportunities to the common man for education and socio-economic advancement. Without pragmatic steps to address these problems an adverse mindset momentum will continue to gain ground, a time may come when even military operations become futile and counterproductive.

Terrorism must be placed in a proper perspective. To quote Stratfor Global Intelligence, “terror attacks are a tactic used by a variety of militant groups for a variety of ends, mainly to produce a psychological impact that far outweighs the actual physical damage caused by the attack itself”. A wide variety of militant groups and individuals seek to use violence as a means of influencing a government – either theirs or someone else's. But if people live their lives in a constant state of fear, those who seek to terrorise will win. 

Denying would-be terrorists this multiplication effect of fear and anxiety prevents them from accomplishing their greater goals. People must assume the proper mindset, take basic security measures and practise relaxed awareness to counter terror. The media has a major role to play in not exacerbating mass fear and anxiety. This will dispel paranoia and prevent robbing people of the joy of life.

A few years ago the people in Pakistan were deeply divided over the Taliban, some wrongly viewed these militants as fellow Muslims and sons of the soil simply yearning for Islamic law. Many did not want direct military action to be taken against them. 

With thousands of Taliban atrocities plus the many suicide attacks, bombings and other incidents of terror, a slow but sure change in perception has become visible. Now most feel that the Taliban threat will have to be stopped for the good of the country and the lives they now lead. Despite this, many Pakistanis still blame the US and the war in Afghanistan for their current troubles.

What triggers a terrorist mindset? It could be poverty, social underdevelopment, a quest for political empowerment and justice. The explanation that is more disturbing is not religion but ideology motivating the militants into such deadly missions like suicide bombings.

Change is the window through which the future can enter our lives. In today’s era of globalisation the country’s future depends upon on how well we manage to keep abreast of the changes in various fields viz economy, science, technology, medicine, etc. Without such awareness of the achievements of counterparts or rivals, the country will be left behind. Rather than lamenting the disgrace World War II heaped upon Japan as a consequence of its defeat, the Japanese people managed to change their mindset from defeatism to that of transforming Japan into an economic powerhouse.

One must be acutely aware of one important aspect of human behaviour – no one will change what they are doing until they change their mindset. A change in mindset is vital for progress and leadership plays the most vital role in this aspect. Strong leadership and good governance must be provided by leaders to explain and forcefully drive home the reasons and the need to change. They must be able to convince the people to accept such change and progress wherein their salvation lies. Continuous campaigns and explanations are required to consolidate the minds of the people to be able to change mindsets.

It may be difficult but everyone has the ability to change their core inner beliefs upon which they base their view of themselves and of the world. It is true that most people find changing even one small belief extremely difficult, let alone a whole range of self-supporting beliefs based on negative pre-conditioning. Only a tool for change will enable us to rapidly install new thought patterns and positive mindsets, based on proven success models. 

Our mindset regarding certain aspects of our lives is malleable and based on our choice of the meaning we give to things, mainly a positive mindset. Empowered by positive thinking together with an attitude of joyous expectance of only the best, we put ourselves in the correct frame of mind to propel ourselves into proper action while anticipating and expecting successful outcomes. 

Often external events and circumstances seem to rush in to assist with our intended result. The knowledge that our positive mindset can translate into a world of difference, regardless of the goal we should seek, is priceless.