Psychologists not surprised by mental and social profile of JI members

ChannelNewsAsia.com/January 11, 2003

Psychologists whom Channel NewsAsia spoke to say they are not surprised by the willingness of some Jemaah Islamiah (JI) members to be suicide bombers even though they were not ignorant or disenfranchised.

The key, they say, lies in charismatic leaders who know how to manipulate a group, and change their attitudes and beliefs.

Just like the Aum Shinrikyo cult which carried out a deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, the JI members are not stupid.

One-third had intelligence above the population norm, and 2 had superior intelligence.

The White Paper concludes these men understood fully what they were doing, and they were deadly serious about it.

Psychologists specialising in group dynamics told Channel NewsAsia that a charismatic leader is key in such groups.

"The charismatic leader is effectively able to say, 'We who are in this group are right and moral, anyone who's not in this group is not a good person,'" said Dr Elizabeth Nair, Psychologist, National University of Singapore.

"There's strong out-group derogation, where they say, 'Members who are not with us are bad people, so we can do a lot of bad things to them,'" she added.

Something that Singapore JI leader Ibrahim Maidin and Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir have done successfully.

In fact, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has shown that he can even influence followers via videotape and Internet.

But how did the JI leaders succeed in getting seemingly average Singaporeans, to volunteer to be suicide bombers?

"A skilful gifted charismatic leader with an agenda of aggression and hostility can successfully lead members to all sorts of action, suicide, homicide and unsociable behaviour," Dr Nair explained.

JI leaders also resorted to oaths and surveys to reinforce a sense of in-group belonging and affiliation among members.

Dr Nair said: "The survey form and the oath of allegiance and are examples of public demonstrations of commitment and affiliation - the first step to attitude change, where people stand up and profess to something they may not believe in."

Assoc Prof Kumar Ramakrishna, Security Analyst, Institute of Defence & Strategic Studies, said: "It appears they displayed desires to want to obey and follow - essentially a willingness to listen and to do what they were told - and for ideological teachings - they subcontracted their religious beliefs to the religious teacher."

And as the White Paper explained, JI leaders slowly increased the psychological commitment and pressure so even members who had misgivings about the recce missions could not withdraw as they felt they were already in "too deep."


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