Talking to Terrorists – A Psychological Approach

Group Immersion Dynamics Overview

The burning problem facing law enforcement and the intelligence community is how to successfully interview suspected terrorists. One school of thought reasons that one has to know the backgrounds and ideologies of the terrorists and their organizations. This is an intricate problem given the multitude of groups and individuals claiming to be terrorists. While manuscripts on terrorist mindsets, motivations and targets fill the bookshelves, it is difficult to find “how-to” books on interviewing techniques that can be used against terrorists for law enforcement and intelligence purposes. The key to a successful interview is the interaction between the individuals. However, we must understand that the individual has sworn or pledged some type of loyalty to the rest of the group and will be very hesitant to give up any information. We must change our tactic to center on the person and not the affiliated group. The answers lay in understanding the group dynamics, how an individual becomes immersed in the group identity and how to reverse this process.

The Group Immersion Dynamics Model provides a systemic approach. This model categorizes the seven personal stages the individual moves through as a group member and identifies how the terrorist transforms from a self-identity to a group-adopted identity in relation to each stage. The questioner can then leverage this understanding to move the terrorist down the Identity Pronoun Scale (IPS) to a point where the focus is on the individual. Successfully implementing this invasive technique allows the investigator to obtain information and intelligence on the group from the individual’s perspective.

Understanding Terrorist Groups

Human nature causes one to engage in subjective stratification (the seeking out and affiliating with others of like mind, values and beliefs). Individuals join groups for various reasons including a psychological sense of fulfillment, glory, purpose and belonging among others. The psychopathology of hate groups also applies to terrorist groups. This is of particular importance when the violent nature of the terrorist group appeals to an individual who feels a need to lash out and gravitates to others who are seen as taking action against the perceived enemy.

How does one become a terrorist? How quickly does the transformation from non-violent actor to terrorist occur? The transformation takes time as the individual accepts the group norms, values and beliefs as their own. In an organization that uses violence to accomplish its goals, the group seeks to isolate the individual from any external contacts (to include family and friends). The group supplants the social relationships of the individual by becoming the “family and friends.” The intensity of the feelings associated with the group is deeper because of the like mindset and shared beliefs of the group members. The individual does not have to defend their thoughts and actions in the group and constant reinforcement of these beliefs fosters a bond of trust.

The conversion process is slow as the group initially accepts the individual as they are. As the recruit begins the process of assimilation, the group identity exerts itself through the indoctrination and camaraderie of the group. The indoctrination consists of an intensive and/or repetitive study of the group mythology and immersion in the group norms, values and beliefs. This mythology is comprised of the past traumas and glories that the group feels connected to through interpretation of the group values, beliefs and goals. As the new member accepts these interpretations as truth, they also accept the mythology on a personal level and can even believe that they have personally experienced these traumas or glories. A person, who joins a group that readily accepts violent methods to promote their goals and ideals, promotes the mythology of traumas and glories, the power of group anonymity and the loss of self-identity, can justify the crossing of moral boundaries that at one time would have been taboo.

The greater the acceptance of the group identity the farther the person has moved up the Personal Immersion Pyramid (PIP) and the IPS and the less likely they will “betray” the group by yielding information. To overcome this tendency, the investigator must be able to locate the terrorist on the PIP. This crucial element provides for the proper planning and conduct of the interview. Understanding the IPS gives one a tool to counter the PIP and can give us leverage over the individual without “betraying” the group.

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Personal Immersion Pyramid

The PIP is a direct reflection of how one identifies themselves in a group. It closely mirrors the organizational structure of terrorist groups in which the base represents the greatest numbers of members. The lower three layers of the pyramid represent where the terrorists recruit from when member numbers dwindle at the top. This pyramid represents the commitment and the level of belief one has in the group. The long-term survival of the group requires a constant cultivation of Sympathizers who will ultimately become True Believers.

While the group will work hard to change an individual-centric view into a group-centric view, the real transformation only occurs at a personal level. Therefore, the individual ultimately controls the progression, up and down the pyramid.

PIP Category Descriptions

True Believers (TB) – Absolute acceptance of everything about the group; the group’s needs are primary; identity identification is the group; perceives any criticism against the group as an attack

Believers – Accepts almost everything about the group as the truth and the right course of action including the crossing of certain moral boundaries; identifies one’s individual identity within the group norms; can still argue points about the group

Indoctrinated – Thoroughly accepts the mythology, ideology, beliefs of the group without any criticism; knows most of the points of the group; can “Talk the Talk;” have moral boundaries that they will not cross; may still possess some sense of self

Rivergrass – First true member of the group; one who can switch sides when it suits their personal goals; this person may at one time have been higher in the pyramid but may have changed their mind; can identify themselves in the “I” pronoun but can still talk about the group as “We”; actually becomes a dedicated member of the group

Participants (Active) – Support the group actively with economic, moral and social support; may take part in demonstrations, fund-raising, passing the mythology etc., but only when the time suits them

Supporters (Passive) – Identifies with the group’s cause; still unsure about the means but is unwilling to take any action against the group; facilitates the group’s presence; may also discuss the group’s message with family and friends

Sympathizers – Understands the group’s cause but does not agree with their actions and may turn the group or members in if they feel threatened by the group’s actions

Identity Pronoun Scale (IPS)

At the same time the individual moves up the PIP, the center of their identity moves from the self to the group or from an “I” pronoun usage to a “We” perspective. Examining the definitions presented in the PIP, one can see the impact on the identity and the reasons for the shift. The individual shields themselves with the mythology, beliefs, values and norms of the group. This allows one to perform actions without any guilt or consequences, but to accomplish group goals they must become a “we” and stay away from examining their own actions from the singular “I” perspective. The “We” offers them protection and empowerment because they are surrounded by others who act the same way. This constant reinforcement is only possible through the assimilation of the “I” to the “We” mindset. The higher the individual is on the IPS the less likely they are to give up any information on the group because of the identity immersion and loss of personal needs, goals and norms.

Counter-Immersion Technique (CIT)

The impact of the PIP on commitment to the cause and the IPS impact on identity combination enable the terrorist to resist talking. Any attack on the group, such as asking for information or questioning the ideology, will again strengthen the resolve of the terrorist to not cooperate. As long as the focus stays on the group, the individual can use mythology and indoctrinated training to resist any efforts at coercion or cooperation.

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The investigator has to move the terrorist down the IPS. Only when the terrorist can look at the world through the “I” identity will they then be ready to talk about the group. To this end, the investigator must concentrate all questions on the “I”. The “I”-focused questions should start with questions about the present, move to the future and then ask about the past. Questions in each of these tenses are designed to force the individual to examine their lives from the “I” perspective. This technique leverages an introspection that creates a self-induced psychological pressure that an outsider cannot begin to approach. This pressure can continue to build and work even after the investigator has called an end to the interview session. The individual examines their actions and the impact without the benefit of the group protection.

Once the terrorist reaches the point of “I” again, the questioner can now offer incentives and consequences of cooperation and non-cooperation using the power of personal impact.

Role Identification Technique

When the interviewer probes the individuals about themselves, there needs to be an emphasis on past roles that the individual may have had. This would include family roles such as “Father, Son, Mother, Aunt, etc.”; any role will suffice, the point is to ask questions about themselves in this role. Another approach to the roles that they had in the past is based on jobs or tasks such as “Student, Teacher, Farmer, Shop Owner etc.”; again we are looking for the identification of roles not associated with the group. Again, the questions need to revolve around the individual and their personal roles.

IPS Reversal Technique

Although this technique relies heavily on the Counter-Immersion Technique, it can be powerful once implemented. This technique focuses on changing the “I” back into a group identity. However, this time the interviewer creates a new “We/Us” for the individual to join. This new “Us” will be made up of the interviewer, his associates and the individual. Prior to implementing this technique, the interviewer must have discovered the motivations of the individual. Common motivations are individual safety, love of family, money, etc. Whatever the circumstances, the interviewer becomes the answer to the problem. The problem can only be solved by working together. This creates a bond of trust and that can be exploited for information.

Accomplishment/Failure Technique

Another useful technique is to use the individual’s ego against them. Even though they may have been part of the group, everything that they did was on an individual basis. Whether it was making it through the training, conducting operations or gathering intelligence, at some point they had only themselves to rely on. The interviewer must work hard to extract these successes, but can also employ the flip side of this technique by keying in on their failures as individuals. The more accomplishments or failures one has, the more the interviewer can downplay the contribution of the group thereby moving the individual down the IPS.


As one can see Group Immersion Dynamics is based on some basic psychological fundamentals. While not a replacement for intelligence and law enforcement techniques already in use, these techniques work on the individual on a very personal level. Even if the person is not entirely cooperative the techniques will keep playing on the mind of the individual as they wait between interviews. This self-internalization and reflection is more powerful than any external pressure that could be applied. While this article has focused on using the principals against terrorists, the techniques can be used against anyone who self identifies as a group member.


by Norman Lihou