Thought Crime

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Thought Crime

Newspaper article

By: Kathleen Taylor

Date: October 8, 2005

Source: Taylor, Kathleen. "Thought Crime." Guardian Unlimited, October 8, 2005, 〈,,1587653,00.html〉 (accessed February 5, 2006).

About the Author: Kathleen Taylor is a research scientist at the University of Oxford. Until 2002, Taylor studied the effects of dyslexia, but, since that time, she has been studying issues relating to brainwashing, thought control, and interpersonal influence. Her book, Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, brought together psychological and social issues to assess why groups in history have tried to influence and control the thoughts of others and how that process has impacted society.


With the spread of terrorism into Western democracies and large metropolitan cities, profiling a "typical" terrorist has become increasingly difficult. The challenge was compounded when it was shown that some of the actors behind these terrorist actions were, in fact, citizens of the very nations and communities they were attacking.

The attacks against London's transit system on July 7, 2005, served as one of the clearest examples of the phenomenon of the "home-grown" terrorist in the current war on terror. Included among the suicide bombers who carried out the attacks on London's subways and busses were young British citizens who had grown up, worked, and raised families in British cities.

Brainwashing—a term coined by the CIA in the 1950s—is one explanation that has been advanced in an attempt to understand why people turn to terror. This phenomenon, which has been seen in societies of many types all over the globe, attributes a person's willingness to commit certain acts to an alteration of their free will after they have been subjected to certain specific conditions.

It is argued that isolating a person and then controlling his actions are the two necessary first steps used by terrorists to start new recruits on the road toward martyrdom for their cause. The final steps in the brainwashing of recruits involve planting uncertainty about the person's previously held beliefs, constant repetition of the ideologies of the terrorist group, and manipulation of the person's emotions. These brainwashing tactics are known to have been practiced by groups like Al Qaeda, allowing them to succeed in developing large groups of followers around the world.

The ability of terrorist agencies to use these approaches to recruit followers poses an added risk, since it makes it far easier to conceal terrorists within society. Identifying and thus combating this form of "thought crime" is now being recognized as an important objective for law enforcement and national governments taking part in the war on terror.


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This article highlights a new aspect of the threat posed by international terrorism, whereby terrorist groups succeed in manipulating the thoughts and desires of recruits through the process of brainwashing. While this phenomenon is not impossible to combat, it can not be fought with traditional law enforcement tools or military action and, thus, serves as a new challenge in the war on terror.

Brainwashing is not a new practice and has been used throughout history to different degrees to advance religious, political, and social ideologies. Yet, the spread of global terrorism has raised awareness of its use by terror groups for recruitment purposes.

Since some terrorist groups incite their members to kill themselves and others in the name of the terrorist ideology, complete mental control is considered a necessary prerequisite in developing a terrorist willing to become a martyr for the cause. The article reproduced above explains that brainwashing is, in fact, a scientific process that employs a series of discrete techniques to mold recruits toward a desired end. When all these techniques are employed, the terrorist group can successfully cause individuals to commit extreme acts that they would never have considered before being brainwashed.

The use of these brainwashing techniques requires a willingness on the part of the person being brainwashed combined with environmental conditions that allow the person to see the thoughts being introduced as valid. By isolating and then controlling the information that a person can access, the terrorists are able to begin infiltrating that person's thought processes. The eventual result is to encourage participation in a terrorist attack. As these approaches can theoretically succeed in all nations around the world, international terrorist groups are becoming increasingly reliant on brainwashing to expand their networks with new terrorists who can easily infiltrate a given society. By recognizing the specific dangers of brainwashing, nations will be better prepared to fight the recruitment efforts of terrorists within their own borders.



Pape, Robert A. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House, 2005.

Web sites

Atran, Scott. "Genesis and Future of Suicide Terrorism." Interdisciplines, 〈〉 (accessed February 5, 2006).