Home Q&A with Adam Lankford on Counterterrorism and Terrorist Psychology

Q&A with Adam Lankford on Counterterrorism and Terrorist Psychology

Last Updated: 5/4/2021

CriminalJusticePrograms.com speaks with Dr. Adam Lankford, professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama. His research focus is on counterterrorism, especially issues of terrorist indoctrination and recruitment. He is the author of Human Killing Machines: Systematic Indoctrination in Iran, Nazi Germany, Al Qaeda, and Abu Ghraib. Below he talks about what it takes to be in the counterterrorism field today.

What is your current position?

I am a criminal justice professor at The University of Alabama.

What made you interested in counterterrorism research?

I was a senior undergraduate student on 9/11. In fact, I was about to head to class when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Like many Americans, I felt like it was a call to duty – there was an instant need for new thinkers to figure out how to protect this country more effectively. Even before that point, I had been interested in criminal psychology, so after the attacks, I decided to specialize in terrorist psychology. I wanted to know why the 9/11 hijackers attacked us, what the future threat would be, and ultimately, how to stop them.

Can you describe your research – what are some of the conclusions that you were able to draw?

Sure, my research has covered different areas of counterterrorism and international security issues, including brainwashing and terrorist indoctrination, online terrorist recruitment strategies, government interrogation tactics, terrorist rehabilitation, and the psychology of suicide terrorists.

In general, most rank-and-file terrorists – those who don’t carry out suicide attacks – are very similar to you and me – they have similar fears, and they respond to similar pressures and incentives. This means that the better you understand people – yourself, your friends, your family, the people you see at school or work, and the people you see on the street – the better equipped you are to understand terrorists.

But of course, the key is that you need to be able to differentiate between what is applicable to counterterrorism and what’s not. If you can begin to understand the underlying aspects of human nature, you can use that knowledge to explain why people choose to become terrorists, how to get them to talk in the interrogation room, and how to rehabilitate them (in the cases where that’s still possible).

What advice do you have for someone interested in a counterterrorism career?

There are a lot of different job opportunities in the counterterrorism field: positions for analysts within the Intelligence Community, positions for Special Agents with the FBI, and positions for law enforcement officers, accountants, lawyers, linguists, and other types of employees throughout the country.

Student should choose the career path that fits their strengths by thinking about what they do best and how they want to spend their time. Do you get energized by sitting at a desk, digging through documents, and searching for clues, in order to build a case that will put a terrorist suspect behind bars? Can you spend hours reading, analyzing, and writing and still remain focused? Or do you prefer being on your feet, out in the field, as an intelligence operative either at home or abroad, building relationships with assets who can provide vital information, or going on missions to bring terrorists to justice.

What kind of educational background is needed for this career?

If you want to become an intelligence analyst or counterterrorism expert where your job relies on brainpower, you need to get a Master’s degree, at the very least. By having one, you distinguish yourself from many other college graduates, and frankly, it shows that you’re a serious student who is committed to professional success. There are many employers in the field who get bombarded by applications from new college graduates, and they basically disregard them unless you have a graduate degree.

But just having a Master’s degree is not a magic ticket. The quality of your graduate program and the quality of your professors makes a big difference as well. If your future employer can see that you have a reference letter from a professor whose name they know and whose accomplishments they respect, that can get you in the door. And then it’s up to you to perform, and perform at a high level.

What would you say is one of the biggest misconceptions about terrorism?

The biggest misconception is something I’ve been working to reverse for the past few years: the assumption that suicide terrorists are psychologically normal. It’s been ten years since 9/11, but many experts still claim that the 19 terrorist hijackers who struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were essentially Al Qaeda’s version of our Navy Seals. They claim that these suicide terrorists, and other suicide bombers all around the world, are just so fully committed to the cause and so unafraid of death that they’re willing to courageously sacrifice their lives for what they believe in.

The truth is that most suicide terrorists are motivated by personal problems and suicidal tendencies, more than politics or religion. New studies and psychological assessments of suicide terrorists strongly support this fact. There are millions of people who have extreme ideological views, and many thousands of regular terrorists who are willing to kill for what they believe in. What makes suicide terrorists different from everyone else is that they’re usually struggling with various combinations of depression, hopelessness, guilt, shame, and rage. This makes them very similar to other people who commit conventional suicide and murder-suicide.

What are the realities vs. perceptions of counterterrorism efforts?

The perception is that over the past decade, there has been a lot of important progress made in improving our national security. And it’s true that Al Qaeda’s terrorist organization appears far weaker today than it did 10 years ago. Killing Osama bin Laden was a major accomplishment, and many other leaders and operatives have been killed or captured as well.

However, the reality is that no one knows for sure whether or not new airport security screening policies, for instance, have made us any safer – or whether we’ve just gotten lucky to not have a major terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. It’s entirely possible that we’ve spent billions of dollars and wasted a great deal of time simply so that we’d feel safer. There are many reasons to think that airports are still not very secure, and it’s undeniable that there are still many soft targets which remain incredibly vulnerable, such as schools, malls, shopping centers, and so on.

Overall, there is still a lot of work to be done, and people looking for a career in counterterrorism will have plenty of challenges to tackle.

In your opinion, what do you need to succeed in a counterterrorism career?

The short answer is that you need the ability to predict the future. Or at least you need to be able to predict the future better than the terrorists can, in order to stay one step ahead. Counterterrorism professionals need to be proactive, not reactive, because we care far more about preventing attacks and saving lives than about punishing terrorists after something catastrophic has already happened. If an attack occurs, then in some sense the terrorists have already won that exchange – so we don’t want to even get to that point.

Along these same lines, the 9/11 Commission determined that the September 11th attacks were actually preventable, and that the biggest failure was our security officials’ failure of imagination. So, in our program, we teach students how to combine their creativity and imagination with critical thinking skills, pattern recognition skills, comparative analysis skills, and theory application skills, so they can use all existing knowledge from the past to make sound predictions and threat assessments for the future.

In addition, students need to learn how to be quick learners – how to master new information, or a new challenge, as fast as possible. No one knows for sure what’s going to happen on the terrorism landscape 10 years from now, so whatever is, we want our students to be prepared to respond to it in a thoughtful and informed manner.

What do you see for the future of counterterrorism efforts?

Domestically, I expect there to be increased counterterrorism focus on lone wolves and homegrown groups. Recent attacks, such as the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona and the combined bombing/shooting attacks in Norway, show that one killer can paralyze a nation in fear – at least in the short term. Furthermore, weapons are getting cheaper and more powerful, which allows individual terrorists and small groups to do increasingly more damage. This is going to be a major challenge in the years to come.

Can you describe your book Human Killing Machines – how can someone interested in pursuing counterterrorism benefit from the book?

Sure, the book shows how powerful organizations can recruit and indoctrinate ordinary people and then compel them to carry out horrific acts of violence on command. It covers several different kinds of violence, including torture, terrorism, and genocide. Ultimately, it makes several important contributions. First, it reveals underlying aspects of human nature, which make people vulnerable to being manipulated and misled. By knowing about our own weaknesses, we can begin to take steps to make sure we don’t fall into similar traps. Second, it highlights the violent potential of coercive organizations, and the strategies they often use to ensure obedience. Third, it makes specific recommendations for how we can begin to reduce Al Qaeda terrorists’ commitment to their missions, improve the U.S. military and increase its accountability, and undermine the dangerous regime in Iran.


Photo: Zachary Riggins