Trauma healing: when violence strikes and community security is threatened

When the Kenya Truth, Justice and Reconciliation (TJRC) released its reports in 2013, I was surprised that my country had committed atrocities to its own people at various times in our short history since independence. The worst was the Wagalla Massacre that claimed over 5, 000 lives, and wounded thousands. These blind spots in our history has been a major cause of agony among many marginalized people.

Stories of women and men who are unable to have children because of what the military did to them abound in our society. At the release of the reports, I was shocked that victims just wanted the Kenyan government to acknowledge wrongdoing and apologize.  Having lived through a post-election violence in 2007, which claimed the lives of at least 1,500 people, I felt that an apology was insufficient.  Reading Carolyn Yoder’s book on Trauma Healing, has enabled me to understand that trauma healing is a unique process to every individual or community, and that in order for healing to occur, other support systems, including government apology, are needed.

Yoder’s book has widened my understanding of the subject of trauma healing. I have learned about the close link between violence and trauma, and how it relates to some of the events I have experienced in Kenya. For instance, it was widely claimed that part of the reason Kenyans fought against each other in 2007 and 2008 was because of unaddressed injustices that have traumatized some communities since independence. Therefore, unresolved trauma is dangerous because at some point traumatized people can resort to revenge or to other violent means so as to give themselves a sense of ‘closure.’

Yoder’s discussion of the nexus between biology and trauma challenges my assumptions that trauma is just a social construct. Despite her explanation, I still grapple with questions such as whether trauma can be dealt with the same way people deal with depression or under what circumstances can a community builder recommend medical attention for trauma cases as opposed to a social process such a Transformative Community Conferencing or Restorative Justice.

Reading Yoder’s explanation about secondary trauma has enabled me to reflect on my experience as a teacher and education counselor in Nairobi. Most of my students and their parents had fled wars in their respective countries. Even though some of these children had not directly experienced the wars their parents fled from, their perspective about life was majorly shaped by their parents’ experience of war. The narratives parents passed down to children affected them immensely. Unfortunately, neither me nor any of my teachers really understood the concept of trauma especially, one associated with consequences of war. Such children need specially trained teachers to heal.

Traumatic events shatter the world as we know it and shape victims’ future world. For instance, with increased terrorist attacks and constant electoral violence, people in my community (and perhaps in all communities) constantly worry about their security. Every election year, people vote for leaders from their community because they assume that such leaders better understand people’s trauma, and therefore will help them heal. But the reality is that only one person can be a president. So, communities that do not get the presidency are always scared.

Meeting the needs of the victims when the state is the offender: A Restorative Justice approach

Meeting the needs of the victims when the state is the offender: A Restorative Justice approach

Governments ranging from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Australia are some of the leading offenders in the modern world. The case study below is a representation of harms caused by states throughout the world. History is full of examples of governments turning against a section of its population or the entire populations, and the case study below is a representation of the harm or injuries governments can cause their people.  The victims of these governments suffer in silence, with no opportunity for closure. Even when repressive regimes have been overthrown or reformed, it is possible for the victims to continue suffering until their needs are explicitly met.  This paper discusses the needs of victims when the state is the offender, why the needs cannot be met by a conventional criminal justice system, and how Restorative Justice can facilitate healing. The paper discusses how offender governments can be held accountable for the harm caused through offering a national or state apology.


The field of criminology is replete with literature on state crimes against its people. Some of the most serious crimes committed by governments include genocide, systematic torture, assassinations, and rape by state security apparatus among others. For instance, the Kenya Truth Justice, and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) found out that between 1963 and 1978, the first president of Kenya presided over a government that perpetrated many violations of human rights such as Killings, torture, collective punishment, denial of basic need, arbitrary detention of political opponents and activists. It also found out that between 1978 and 2002, the second president of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi, presided over a government that committed gross violations of human rights e.g. massacres, unlawful detentions, and systematic and widespread torture and ill-treatment of activists, and assassinations among other violations. The Commission further revealed that between 2002 and 2008, the third president of Kenya, Mwai Kibaki presided over a government that was responsible for many gross violations of human rights. These violations include unlawful detentions, extra judicial killings, and economic crimes and grand corruption. Finally, the Commission found out that despite the special status given to children in the Kenyan society, they have been subjected to untold and unspeakable atrocities including killings, physical assault and sexual violence.

The Commission learned that even though these atrocities happened over six decades ago, the victims are still suffering from the consequences. Some victims of rape and torture are always scared of the police and military, and some of them have never gotten over the stigma that comes with abuse. Others have never even considered starting a family because of the trauma they suffered. They lost trust in the government that betrayed them, and isolated themselves from the community. Some of them (including those who are dead) passed the trauma to their children, who are secondary victims.

To thwart a secessionist rebel movement in one part of the country, the military was given wide ranging powers, and they proceeded to torture and maim civilians. These activities caused harm and disrupted community life. People were forced to flee from their villages to the neighboring country. Those who remained suffered the agony of constant brutality from the police and the military.

Governments are some of the leading offenders in the modern world, and this case study is a representation of harms caused by states throughout the world ranging from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Australia. History is full of examples of governments turning against a section of its population or the entire populations. The victims of these governments suffer in silence, with no opportunity for closure. Even when repressive regimes have been overthrown or governments reformed or laws changed, the victims can continue suffering.

This paper discusses the needs of victims when the state is the offender, why the needs cannot be met by a conventional criminal justice system, and how Restorative Justice can facilitate healing. The paper discusses how the offender governments can be held accountable for the harm caused through offering a national or state apology.

The Relationship Between Victims, Offenders, and Community in Restorative Justice

Restorative Justice is a set of principles or framework that seeks to address limitations in the conventional criminal justice system, which does not cater for the needs of victims, offenders, and the community. Restorative Justice focuses on these needs through a process that seeks to understand the harm caused, the obligations that arise, and who to engage in restoring/and or healing relationships or repairing the harm. According to Zehr (2003), the conventional criminal justice system defines crime in a way that excludes the victims. Crime is framed as an offence against the state as opposed to the victim who suffered harm. The state is concerned with upholding the law, and punishing transgressors. Its concept of justice is punitive, and the victim is only salient to the extent that he or she helps the state to prove that a crime was committed. It ignores the victim’s primary needs, namely: (1) Real information about the offense, why it happened, and why the victim was targeted. (2) An opportunity to tell his or her side of the story in the presence of the offender and the community. These acts allow the victim to receive acknowledgement for the harm suffered. (3) An opportunity to regain agency and feel in control of their lives. Taking part in their own case enables them to regain control of their lives, and feel empowered. (4) Restitution or vindication.

Meeting these needs becomes even more complex when the state is the offender. In Restorative Justice, the offender is held accountable for the harm caused but accountability in this case does not mean punishing the offender as this does not necessarily meet the needs of the victims. Victims want a sense of vindication for the wrong done to them, and they also want the offender to stop causing injury or hurting other people. Therefore, offender accountability involves taking responsibility, and “facing up to what one has done” (Zehr, 2003: 15) in a manner that provides victims with closure.

As noted earlier, the relationship between Restorative Justice and the role of victims, offenders, and the community becomes complicated when the state is the offender. Whereas principles of Restorative Justice have been examined, studied and applied to restorative circles, and victim-offender conference among others, there is little research on how they can be applied in situations where the state (as a collective) is the offender, and in situations where the victims are not affected directly.  For instance, in the Kenyan case study discussed in the introduction, some of the victims did not suffer the harms directly. In fact, most of the people who testified during the commission hearings, are children of those who directly suffered the government atrocities. Often, the conventional criminal justice system does not address the harm caused by these secondary victims despite the fact that their pain is not in any way less or bearable.  Restorative Justice, emphasizes the participation of the victims, offenders, and the community in righting a wrong. Zehr (2003), and Cunning (2006) notes that when one of those parties is missing, the process is at risk of becoming weak and ineffective. So, what happens to the victims and the community when the state cannot be brought to a victim – offender meeting or to Restorative Justice circle or to a conference? Are there alternatives for meeting the needs of the victims and the community?

The existing restorative justice literature that examines probable links between state crimes or abuses, and restorative justice is sparse and not well developed. Cunneen (2006), in discussing reparations, responses to the gross violation of human rights, and restorative justice, points out that Restorative Justice has been slow to consider the implications of situations where governments are the offenders/cause harm. She contends that Restorative Justice should find a way of involving the government because as an offender it must be held accountable, and encouraged to take responsibility. In other words, governments have a responsibility to repair the harms they cause

Conventional criminal justice system considers a crime as a violation of law, and an injury to the state because of the assumption that the state protects its people. People have tasked the state to provide them with security. Therefore, the state is perceived as a legitimate enforcer of law and order. The state’s arena for achieving this is the courts where the government is pitted against defensive offenders. The process rarely involves the primary victims or their communities. Restorative Justice offers a solution that involves an encounter of all stakeholders such as the victims, the offender, the community, and the government. As the figure above shows, the rights of victims should be vindicated and that offenders should compensate the victims. The role of the government in this case is to facilitate redress to victims, and also ensure that offenders are treated with fairness. As Van Ness and Strong (2015) writes:

The community seeks to restore peace between victims and offenders and to reintegrate them fully into the community. For victims, the goals can be expressed as healing, for offenders, they can be expressed as habilitation. The circular construction of the figure suggests the dynamic and dependent relationships that are necessary among the parties under restorative justice theory. (Van Ness and Strong, 2015: 56).

So, when the government is the offender the relationship depicted above is shattered. Now the government has to occupy an entire section of the circle, giving it a lot of power against the victim, and the community. That is why an injury or harm caused by the government is traumagenic.[1] It has ripple effect on the victim’s generation and the community if left untreated.  The remainder of this essay discusses national or state apology as a means of holding the government accountable.

National Apology as Accountability

One way of holding governments accountable is through demanding for a national apology. Strang (2002) argues that in the aftermath of crime, what victims want most is symbolic reparation, primarily an apology. Therefore, the offender including the state should be responsible for restoring the relationship, and can do so by apologizing to victims (Braithwaite, 1989).

A national apology is a collective, political, and intrastate apology that can take any one or combination of the following forms: Political apology, reconciliation apology, historical apology, public apology, or collective apology (Smith, 2008). It is an apology for past wrong doings of the state and its agents, directed at specific victim(s), and it is political because it is made by and through political channels or institutions. The apology usually involves the head of state apologizing –  on behalf of a group, for something neither the speaker nor the vast majority of the group did – often to a group of people who, while representative, were not among those originally wronged (Villadsen, 2008).  An apology issued for the distant past is called inter-temporal or historical apology, and one issued in the recent past, is called transitional apology.  In the first case, the people demanding the apology are descendants or representatives of the victims, while in the second case it is the primary victims or their representatives. Some of the general principle of a national apology are discussed below.

First, according to MacLauchlan (2010), a national apology is considered genuine and meaningful when it involves material compensation, changes and witnesses, or a renegotiated political relationship between apologizer (the state) and the victim. In this case, the apology is less about feelings, and more about collective commitment to change future behavior, and public exposure of this position. This does not imply that national apologies are devoid of such feelings such as remorse, sadness, regret etc., it rather shows that the apology does more than expressing these feelings.

Second, a national apology is not left to the machination of the government alone. Often, it is crafted by both the victims and the government or offender. The participation of these two parties together with the community whose relationship was affected by the harm caused mirrors normal victim-offender conference. Drafting the apology together does not imply consensus, it merely accords the groups an opportunity to negotiate the meaning, form, and content of the apology. This frees apologies as speech-acts from both any rigid, universalistic formulation, and an equally rigid, culturally determined expression.

Third, a national apology should be detailed enough to cover the history and pattern of injustice and harm caused. The victim need to know why they were targeted, and how everything happened. Where an apology follows a Truth and Justice Commission, these issues will have been covered in the proceedings of the Commission. For instance, in the case of Kenya, the TJRC gathered comprehensive evidence and testimonies on what happened to the victims. They captured the chronology of events that led the government to attack its own people. They exonerated the victims from self-blame, by allocating blame appropriately.

Fourth, to be formally considered appropriate, the form of a national apology should include: publicity, the official nature of the state, and ceremony. Concerning publicity, the victims should be informed about the apology, and it should be made in the language they can understand. It will be futile to offer an apology to victims who cannot understand the content of the apology. But assuming the victims and their community participated in the drafting of the apology, they will be familiar with its content.  Furthermore, a national apology should be written down for permanency, and reference. Publicity is also important for the victim especially if the harm caused had humiliated them and alienated them from their society. An apology given publicly will enable them to repair their relationship with others. At last they have an opportunity to feel vindicated.

Finally, the apology must be sanctioned officially to be credible.  It should not be a quasi-apology made by a politician over the media or in conferences. Official sanctioning can be through a form of a legislation, official speech, or official press conference.  The idea of having a ceremony is to show that such an apology is rare and is done for the sake of correcting harms caused in order to allow the victims to heal. Therefore, a national apology is not something a state can daily. The fact that a genuine apology involves some form of compensation, deters governments from carrying it out often. Of course, this can also be a setback on Restorative Justice. It is possible that the victims do not care about any compensation; they just want an acknowledgement of the harm caused. Perhaps, they just want their loved ones to know that they are not to blame for the harm or injury caused. Hence, states withholding apologies for fear of victims demanding compensation, are hurting the victims. This can be resolved through holding a conference with the victims, and the community to discuss the form of the apology.

National Apology and the Principles of Restorative Justice

How does it meet the needs of the victims, the offender, and the community?

An effective apology can yield significant therapeutic benefits for the victim, offender, and broader community. For instance, depending on the harm caused, victims can harbor resentments, which may be so extreme to the extent it encourages feelings of revenge or retaliation. This kind of resentment disrupts the victims’ life, and denies them a chance to envision a future. Instead, they keep fixed on the past that harmed them. An apology can result in a “near instantaneous erosion” of these resentments (we will discuss how this happens in the next section)

Victims fear that they may be targeted again, especially when they do not know why they were targeted in the first place (often, the conventional criminal justice system does not provide this information).  They may begin to mistrust people or resort to self-blame as a way of coping with uncertainty in their lives. An apology will empower the victims; it is a promise that the harm will never happen again. It reassures them that the state has put the behavior that led to the violation behind them. Therefore, an apology restores the victim’s self-worth by vindicating him or her.

Apologizing enables the current government to separate itself from past transgressions demonstrating that they care about the future wellbeing of its citizens, and that it possesses the moral capacities that define human beings. Furthermore, having received the apology the victims may begin to regard the government in a better light. In other words, an apology from the government can restore the victims’ trust in the government.

When a government apologizes, the victims get the acknowledgement they want, and the public is reassured that the harm cannot happen to any citizen.

How can a national apology be structured to meet the needs of the victims and the community?

An effective national apology follows or incorporates principles of Restorative Justice that seek to right the wrong, and allow victims to heal. Such an apology should express the following:

Acknowledgement that harm was caused, and that the state is responsible. Restorative Justice views a crime as a harm done to people and the community (Zehr, 2003). Victims have been socialized to accept some assumptions about the world such as the orderliness of life, their control over their lives, and their relatedness to other people. When a harm is caused, they lose their control, and they become disconnected, disempowered, and disordered. At this point their greatest need is the power to regain control over their own lives, and the need for vindication of their rights. When the offender acknowledges, the harm caused, the victims regain an appropriate sense of control over their lives.

Therefore, acknowledgment allows the victim (group) to seek recognition of the way they have been treated, and mark the end of a period of painful denial. It should involve two things: Reckoning and Naming. Reckoning is the candid, unqualified acknowledgement of events, without justification or explanation. It shows that the offender is aware of the injustices they committed and does not seek to devalue their severity. Naming involves specifying the victims. It ensures the apology is made to the right people, and there are no generalizations.

The state should explicitly explain the wrong done in a truthful way. The truth should be told, and the offence should not be minimized or justified. [importance of acknowledgement]

Regret that it was wrong. This shows that what happened was wrong, and also shows that the apologizer, in this case the state is sad and sorrowful. By expressing regret, the state passes negative judgment on past events, and affirms to the victims that what was done was wrong. Caution should be exercised against mitigating the events, as this runs opposite to condemnation of the facts. In no circumstance the state should let it appear that what happened to victims was not serious compared to other atrocities elsewhere. Regret should be complimented with content addressing acknowledgement, responsibility, remorse, non-repetition, and refraining from asking for forgiveness.

Taking responsibility. The government must accept responsibility for the harm caused. There should not be justifications or excuses. In other words, liability must be assumed unconditionally because apology will be unnecessary if conditional. There should never be room for legitimating the harm.  Accepting responsibility shows that the state is willing to be held accountable, to shoulder blame. It acknowledges its failure to act responsibly. The state also should refrain from passing the responsibility to another entity or blaming others or claiming provocation or even claiming that it was an accident or that they had good intentions. Those things will undermine the apology, and hurt victims more. Victims want the state to take a clear and unambiguous stand in condemnation of the offence (Herman, 2005).

Showing remorse (being sorry). This feeling is elicited by the shame and guilt of doing something wrong. It is the feeling that provides motivation for apologizing. Feeling remorseful makes the apology authentic because remorse assumes responsibility, and agency. Here the state can show the victims that what it did was shameful, and humiliating. The state should acknowledge that the act is a dent in its history.

Non-repetition (declaring that it won’t happen again). Promising not to do harm again reassures the victims and the society of their safety. They stop looking over their backs or being terrified. Safety is extremely important for the victims and the community, and one way of reassuring them that they are safe is through mechanisms that minimizes a reoccurrence of an injury. As the Kenyan case study shows, subsequent governments can perpetuate evil structures that torture and antagonize citizens. The Kenya TJRC revealed that the government has continuously neglected the victims, and sometimes even hurting them more. Therefore, a promise that an offense will never happen again is reassuring to the victims and the community. A state has power and machinery to ensure this is implemented. For instance, they can start institutions that checks government activities, and provides early warning.

Repudiation. This is closely related to the point above. It promises the victims that time has passed, and the behavior that caused the harm is gone forever. Thus, “repudiation reveals a new moral identity for the perpetrators that enables a new relationship between them and their victims. In facing the past squarely and understanding its ‘darker’ chapters, the nation can immunize and inoculate itself against repeating the mistakes of the past.” The apology is a way of showing that the state is charting a new course for the better.

Forgiveness. An apology should never ask for forgiveness, let alone expect it. The choice of forgiveness is the preserve of the victim.             Actually, the fact that the state is apologizing restores power to the victim. That sense of helplessness the victim felt due to the harm caused is lost as the victim realizes that he or she has the power to forgive/ to respond to the apology. But the state should not expect any reply. That will be too much to put over the shoulders of the victims.

An apology that incorporates the elements discussed above will be consistent with the principles and goals of Restorative Justice.


This article has discussed the practice of Restorative Justice when the offender is the government. The paper recognizes the fundamental importance of the encounter between the victim and the offender. It has discussed the needs of the victim, and how the offender can be held accountable by meeting certain obligations. It discussed the complexities that arises when the offender is the government, which is also tasked with the responsibility of ensuring public safety. The paper proposed that a national apology is the perfect response, and means of participating in Restorative Justice for the government has caused harm in the past.

Through examining a national apology as the primary instrument for repairing, healing, and rebuilding relationships harmed by historical injustice, I argued that without the apology, the victims will continue in the state of victimhood, without ever getting any closure. This sense of victimhood will cause trauma that will definitely be passed down to generations. In other words, there is undercurrent of fear that exists among victims of state injustices that the very same atrocity might be revisited upon them. Therefore, an apology quiets the victims. Without the apology, there would be greater concern among the survivors, that shameful acts and humiliation might be repeated.

I discussed the limitations of the practice of Restorative Justice when the state is the offender. I showed that although there are limits on what Restorative Justice can do to heal the victims and the community when the state is the offender, it is not really correct to suggest that restorative justice has nothing to offer.

Although I did not point out that apology is not a prerequisite for restoration of the relationship or a guarantee that it will happen, I believe that when an offender apologizes restoration and reconciliation is likely to happen.

Finally, I should reiterate that an apology may not be appropriate in all restorative situations. Some situations may require other additional measures in addition to the apology.


Alfred Allan, Sophie M. Beesley, Brooke Attwood & Dianne MacKillop (2014). Apology in Restorative and Juvenile Justice, Psychiatry. Psychology and Law, 21: 2., 176-190.

Braithwaite, J. (1989) Crime, Shame and Reintegration. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Cunneen, C. (2006). Exploring the relationship between reparations, the gross violation of human rights, and restorative justice in Handbook of Restorative Justice: A Global Perspective (London: Routledge).

Edwards, J.A. (2010). Apologizing for the Past for a Better Future: Collective Apologies in the United States, Australia and Canada. Southern Communication Journal, 75 (1), 57-75.

Herman, J. (2005). Justice from the Victims Perspective. Violence Against Women, 11(5) 571-602

Hooker, A (2017). The Little Book of Transformative Community Conferencing: A Hopeful, Practical Approach to Dialogue. (New York: Good Books)

Natalia Josephine Blecher (2011) Sorry Justice: Apology in Australian Family Group Conferencing, Psychiatry. Psychology and Law, 18:1, 95-116.

Sherman, L., Strang, H., & Woods, D. (2000). Recidivism patterns in the Canberra reintegrative shaming experiments (RISE). (Canberra: Australian National University)

Smith, N. (2008). I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Strang, H., & Sherman, L. (2004). Protocol for a Campbell collaboration systematic review: Effects of face-to-face restorative justice for personal victim crimes. (Cambridge, MA: Campbell Crime and Justice Group).

Villadsen, L. (2008). Speaking on Behalf of Others: Rhetorical Agency and Epideictic Functions in Official Apologies, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 38 (1), 25-45.

Zehr, H. (2003). The

[1] A traumagenic event is one that causes trauma or is likely to cause trauma. The term was coined by Hooker, A (2017). The Little Book of Transformative Community Conferencing: A Hopeful, Practical Approach to Dialogue. (New York: Good Books).

Toward a Sustainable Peace

Toward a Sustainable Peace

Peace means different things to different people, but most assume that preventing violence or escalation of a conflict leads to sustainable peace. They also assume that peacebuilding efforts will address the root causes of conflicts, build or rebuild social institutions and set up effective governance structures, and institute the rule of law. But what happens when various actors in a country are not willing to stop violence or resolve conflicts because war and violence serves their economic, political and psychological functions? Do we kowtow their line and join the plunder? Or do we heighten our calls for negative peace (absence of violence)?

David Keen’s 2012 book, Useful Enemies: When Waging War is more Important than Winning them, responds to these questions and offers a critique of liberal peace, which assumes that people in a country have an interest in peace since they can obtain material and non-material well-being only during peace. He shows that ‘winning hearts and minds’ approach to peacebuilding has not yielded considerable success. In fact, it is the very process of liberal peacebuilding – political and economic liberalization – that often generate destabilizing consequences in conflict torn countries, hindering the attainment of peace. Thus, prompting the question: How can we move beyond peacebuilding activities that exacerbate violence?

Keen challenges us to reconceptualize our approaches to peacebuilding to devote substantial time to conflict analysis. We should ask tough questions such as who has vested interests in the continuation of the conflict? Who is gaining politically or economically? Clearly, winning a war or reconciling a country may not be in the interest of some actors – they will try all means to block a sustainable solution. Keen challenges peacebuilders to reconsider their understanding of conflict and their current peacebuilding strategies. Often peacebuilders succumb to the “planning trap”. They base their activities on wrong assumptions, informed by poor analysis, and do not see the big picture that winning is not what war is always about. Most problems in peacebuilding are caused by this short-sightedness on the part of peacebuilders. For instance, peacebuilders have in the past blamed rebels for causing violence but ignored their grievances or the greed within the counter insurgence forces and the role of corrupt governments. History is replete with examples where government soldiers have forged a mutually beneficial system with the rebels making war a profitable venture.

Failures in societies and governments where corruption and greed sabotages peacebuilding efforts are not an accident, they are rather a reflection of powerful structural factors that are not easy to transform. You cannot transform these societies by winning their hearts and minds. Keen disagrees with peacebuilders who attribute modern conflicts to the breakdown of political, economic and social order. Sometimes the reverse is true, that is, governments, rebels, and peacebuilders have contributed to the breakdown of economic, political, and social institutions of a country. Hence, it is not enough for peacebuilders to have good intentions for rebuilding these ‘failed’ societies as good intentions alone cannot bring sustainable peace.

Preventing violent extremism through education

“Extremism can flourish only in an environment where basic governmental social responsibility for the welfare of the people is neglected. Political dictatorship and social hopelessness create the desperation that fuels religious extremism.” Benazir Bhutto


Uncertainty-identity theory and the rise of homegrown terrorists

Uncertainty-identity theory and the rise of homegrown terrorists

Threats of terrorism originating from the youth within the Western countries have increased in the recent past. This article seeks to understand the growing phenomenon of extremism among the youth born and raised in Western countries. It specifically attempts to synthesize results of Uncertainty-Identity Theory research, and provide a general assessment on why and how young people born, and living in rich and relatively peaceful Western countries join or associate with extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).


On July 7, 2005, Khaled Kelkal, a British national planned and coordinated a series of terrorist attacks in central London targeting civilians using public transport system. On April 15, 2013, two brothers, Tsrnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who were permanent residents in the U.S. bombed civilians at the Boston Marathon. Also, on January 7, 2015, the Kouachi brothers, French citizens committed terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris (Lynch, 2013). Unlike other terror attacks committed by transnational extremists, who plan and travel to Western countries to carry out the attacks, these select cases involved youth born and raised in the Western countries they targeted.

Studies by Hafez and Mullins (2015) show that threats of terrorism originating from the youth within the Western countries have increased in the recent past. There have been nearly 200 known cases of homegrown jihadists in the U.S. alone in the last decade, and many more in other Western countries. Furthermore, a report by the Center for Counterterrorism research estimates that more than 5, 000 people from Western countries have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria(ISIS). Scholars have made attempts in understanding why young people born and living in rich and relatively peaceful Western countries join or associate with extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Earlier research in terrorism focused on international terrorists, and the groups they identify with (Bizina and Gray, 2014). It also sought to understand the individual dynamics that influence one into becoming an extremist. This type of research hinged on the premise that people turned to terrorism because of some personal predisposition. The assumption underlying much of this research was that most terrorists had some common characteristics that can be figured out through psychometric analysis of large quantities of biographical data on terrorists (Hudson, 2010). Therefore, the aim of this kind of research was to find the standard profile of a terrorist.  Russel and Miller (1977) carried the earliest research that attempted to sketch a terrorist profile. Using data compiled on over 350 known terrorists from eighteen Middle Eastern, Latin American, West European, and Japanese groups, they revealed the profile of a terrorist as a single male, aged 22 to 24, with at least some university education, most often in the humanities. Additionally, other researchers reported findings of personality pathology, claims that did not stand up to empirical scrutiny (Segeman,2014). These attempts to reveal the terrorists’ personality and draw conclusions from their demographic makeup failed resoundingly, and was abandoned.

The realization that there was no standard profile of a terrorist prompted a shift in terrorism research from the ‘why’ question to ‘how’ people join or come to identify with a terrorist organizations (see Taylor, 1988, Reich, 1990, Silke, 2003, Horgan, 2005).  But the focus was still on the transnational terrorist networks, which constituted a clear majority of extremists’ threats to Western countries (Wilner and Bubouloz, 2013).  However, with the rising threat of terror attacks by youth born and raised in Western countries, the depiction of a terrorist as a transnational striking at the Western values from abroad, is slowly fading. Yet we know little about the factors that drive young people to become jihadists. I argue that the roots of radicalization and terrorism do not lie in the individual, but in the macrosocial environment of the Western countries in which these young people live. Therefore, this paper seeks to understand this growing phenomenon of extremism among the youth born and raised in Western countries. It specifically attempts to synthesize results of Uncertainty-Identity Theory research, and provide a general assessment on why the youth join or identify with extremist groups such as ISIS. I begin by examining uncertainty-identity theory, and then discuss the process of radicalization. I use ISIS as a case study.

Uncertainty-Identity Theory

Uncertainty-identity theory posits that reduction of self-uncertainty is the basic motivation for social identity processes, and group behaviors. The theory ascribes specific forms of group attachment, self-definition, and group structure to individuals striving to reduce feelings of uncertainty through group identification, self-categorization, and prototype-based depersonalization (Hogg, 2006). It builds on the premise that individuals have an overwhelming need to locate their self-concept within a social context in order to gain a firm grasp of their identity. For instance, Hogg (2006) points out that when individuals are uncertain about who they are, and do not know what to think, feel or do, they are more likely to identify with groups with prototypical attributes that can reduce their uncertainty.

According to Hogg (2007), uncertainty-identity theory has three  premises: (1) People are motivated to reduce feelings of uncertainty about or related to themselves; (2) identifying with a group reduces self-uncertainty because the group’s attributes are cognitively internalized as a prototype that describes and prescribes one’s own attitudes, feelings, and behavior, and these attributes are consensually validated by fellow group members; (3) Highly entitative groups that are distinctive and clearly defined are most effective at reducing self-uncertainty. The following section of this paper explores the causes of uncertainty, and discuss characteristics of entitative groups.

Life conditions induce uncertainty

Studies show that homegrown terrorists (a term used to refer to terrorists who attack their country of citizenship) are mostly second and third generation immigrants, and newly converts to Islam.  Although these young people are often well educated, are native speakers of languages in the Western countries where they live, have no prior affiliation with radical Islam, and in most cases, were not necessarily brought up observing or practicing Islam (Belarouci, 2009), studies have shown that they are a vulnerable demographic (Lyons-Padila, 2015). Some of the reasons that induce uncertainty include:

Marginalization in their various Western countries. Writing about this group Vidino (2007) pointed out that although these young people may appear to have integrated well compared to their parents or grandparents, they harbor deep-seated feelings of marginalization and resentment. Marginalized people experiences feelings of significance loss and may be looking for opportunities to affirm a sense of identity and self-worth. Buuiis (2009) noted that most of the first and second generation immigrants in Britain want to be active participants in society, and it is exactly for this reason that they are more sensitive to exclusion. Therefore, marginalized immigrants are more likely to be attracted to groups that offer a clear sense of inclusion and purpose and the opportunity to restore a sense of self-worth. ISIS recruitment documents such as Dabiq magazine often highlight this marginalization. They invoke the humiliation and suffering of Muslims living in Western countries, and the need for Muslims to live in a Caliphate (in this case a place of protection), which resonates with young people experiencing uncertainty.

Economic deprivation. Studies have shown that first and second generation Muslim immigrants, despite their education, have lower labor force participation, employment, and occupational attainment (Cheung, 2014). Gurr’s (1970) theory of relative deprivation, which defines deprivation as a person’s belief that he or she is receiving less than deserved, shows that economic deprivation can led to frustration and contribute to violence. Freytag and colleagues’ (2011) tests on this theory found out that indeed poor socio-economic development can lead one to join a terrorist organization. First and second generation Muslim immigrants feel that they do not have equal access to employment opportunities compared to other citizens.  Therefore, these feelings increase their uncertainty, and makes them susceptible for recruitment by terrorist groups such as ISIS.

Weak religion. Although studies indicate that religion is not the primary motivator for joining violent extremist group like ISIS (Roy, 2015), there is evidence that weak religion among the newly converts, and the first and second generation immigrants not raised to observe Islam contributes to their uncertainty. The link between weak religion and extremism is well explained by Appleby (2000). He contends that a weak religion is one in which the people have a shallow understanding of their religion. ISIS recruiters target the newly converts, and the first and second generation Muslim immigrants in the West because they are aware most of these people do not have a theologically grounded understanding of Islam. As noted above, ISIS promises them a home in the caliphate where they can experience a richer practice of Islam.

Writing about Western jihadists who have converted to Islam, Wood (2017) noted that uncertainty about life can be triggered by how the social environment reacts to these young people in the event of a tragedy or crisis in personal life such as the loss of parents or the inability to attain success in the fields chosen or glorified by one’s parents or authority figures. Of course, there are many people in life who face personal tragedies every day, and they do not join extremist groups. But what maters here is not the personal tragedy but the kind of support one receives from his society. Feelings of isolation, neglect, and rejection heightens one’s uncertainty about he or her position in the society.

Feelings of uncertainty persist if the inducing context remains. Those who are less tolerant of uncertainty, are motivated to lessen the feelings (Rokeach, 1960) to render their world predictable and be in control of their own behavior by identifying with a group.  For instance, one can argue that radical Islamist ideology conferred the Tsarnaev brothers (were involved in Boston bombing) an avenue for reducing the uncertainty induced by the confusion they felt when their parents divorced, and the subsequent abandonment of the teenagers in America, and the rejection from the community (Reitman, 2013).

Reducing self-uncertainty through group identification

Uncertainty-identity theory posits that feelings of uncertainty are solved by identifying with a group (Hogg, 2007 and Hogg, 2012) through self-categorization (Hogg, 2006). This allows individuals to confer the characteristics of a social group to themselves, in other words, the group provides them with a social identity – a shared reality and definition of who one is, how one is located in the social world, what one should think, do, and feel, and how one will be perceived and treated by others. The significance of this social identity stems from the fact that human beings organize their lives into various kinds of social groups with prototypical attributes that “describe members’ perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, values, feelings, and behaviors” (Hogg, 2007: 79). Hence, categorizing individuals as group members changes how other people view them; seeing them not as unique individuals possessing their own attributes but rather as prototypical group members.  This categorization reduces uncertainty because it confers a person with a group identity that directs him on how to behave and socialize with others.

Does uncertainty motivate people in the same way? Feelings of uncertainty are not uniform to every individual; there are variations that determine a person’s relative position to uncertainty, and the reduction of uncertainty (Hogg, 2007). For instance, an individual can experience more uncertainty for losing a job as opposed to breaking up with a friend, while another will experience more uncertainty after breaking up with a friend than for losing a job. (Hogg, 2007) argued that feelings of uncertainty about or related to self are likely to have the greatest motivational force, “because the self is the critical organizing principle, referent point, or integrative framework for perceptions, feelings, and behaviors.” Therefore, if uncertainty matters to an individual, it will motivate his or her behavior.

If the uncertainty is extreme, the individual will be motivated to identify or join a totalistic group with ideological orthodoxy, intolerance, violence, and extremism (Hogg, 2005, Hogg, Adelman and Blagg, 2010). We will now examine how they identify with these groups.

Why Extremist Groups Appeal to Western Jihadists

Not every group is best equipped to reduce uncertainty through identification (Hogg, 2005). Only entitative and groups that are relevant to self-definition can.  Hogg (2007) defines an entitative group as one that has some clearly defined boundaries, uniform structure, unequivocal membership criteria, common goals, and common fate, which makes it “groupy”. Under uncertainty-identity, when individuals experience uncertainty especially self-uncertainty, they are likely to identify more strongly with high entitative groups (Hogg and Blaylock, 2012) because they view these groups’ attributes as inalterable. Therefore, such groups provide them with prescriptive social identity, and sense of self.

Totalistic groups are highly entitative, and they include terrorist organizations such as ISIS, which has a rigid and hierarchical structure with a clearly delineated chain of legitimate influence and command, and substantial intolerance of internal dissent and criticism. The group is also ethnocentric and it seeks to fight out-groups (Hogg, 2007). Lifton (1989) identified eight characteristics of such groups, namely: milieu control (control of communication), mystical manipulation, demand for purity, cult of confession, sacred science, loaded language, humans subordinate to doctrine, and dispensing of existence. Studies by Barron and Maye (2017) shows that the ideology of ISIS is consistent is consistent with the above characteristics.

When self-uncertainty is strong, individuals are more likely to identify strongly with extreme or totalistic groups. Other related groups like the militaries in the Western countries do not meet the above described characteristics. Furthermore, the young people who join those groups are merely running from the Western environment in which the militaries are apart. To be a soldier is to fight for people you can identify with. Clearly, those who join ISIS feel that they can identify more with ISIS than their countries.   ISIS provides them with an immutable social identity and a sense of self. Therefore, totalistic groups do a better job at reducing or fending off persistent and intense or extreme uncertainty induced by factors such as marginalization, economic deprivation, civil conflicts, unemployment, and relocation among others.

Uncertainty-Identity Theory and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

There is no universally agreed upon definition of terrorism or terrorist groups. Every country has its own criteria of designating groups as terrorist organizations. This article follows (Gibbs, 1989) definition, which states that terrorism as an illegal violence or threatened violence directed against human or nonhuman objects provided that it: (1) was undertaken or ordered with a view to altering or maintaining at least one punitive norm in at least one particular territorial unit or population; (2) had clandestine features that were expected by the participants to conceal their personal identity; (3) was not conventional warfare; (4) was not undertaken or ordered to further the permanent defense of some area. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a classic example of a group that has committed the kind of terror Gibbs (1989) described.

ISIS is perhaps the most successful extremist group with supporters in different parts of the world. It seized huge chunks of Iraq and Syria, declaring itself a state and governing territory for several years and counting. The group began in 2004 as al Qaeda in Iraq, before rebranding as ISIS two years later. In 2014, ISIS declared a caliphate – a state, governed by an Islamic absolute leader.   Outside of the territory it controls in the Middle East, it directs, and inspires acts of terrorism around the world. A running count kept by CNN indicates that ISIS has carried out 143 attacks in 29 countries excluding Iraq and Syria, and has killed at least 2,043 people.  Despite this, tens of thousands of men, women, and children from U.S., Canada, and Western Europe have immigrated to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS (Wood, 2017). Why would people with seemingly comfortable lives choose to identify with a group that has killed civilians around the world? As noted earlier, these people join ISIS because of the uncertainty they experience in the western countries. Therefore, they identify with ISIS, a totalistic group, to reduce the uncertainty (Hogg, 2007). ISIS furnishes them with a sense of identity, for instance the men become Mujahedeen (fighters) with a prescribed behavior on what to think, feel or do, thus providing a moral compass and rules for living that pervade an individual’s life (Hogg, Adelman and Blagg, 2010).

Consistent with the observation that majority of homegrown terrorists are second and third generation immigrants and newly converts to Islam, studies have revealed aspects of these populations lived experience that induces uncertainty, for instance, economic deprivation (Lyons-Padila, 2015), marginalization (Wilner and Dubouloz, 2010), weak religion (Appleby, 2000), and identity crisis (Roy, 2015).  These young people are the most disadvantaged as they have a higher rate of unemployment, poor health, poor educational attainment, poor relationships with police, high incidences of imprisonment and poor prospects all around (Samad, 2004). Studies show that they are at a stage of life where they are seeking an identity, while looking for approval and validation. They are searching for causes that can be religiously and culturally justified, that provide them a way to identify who they are, and that provide a clear call for action” (Baker et al. 2007). The uncertainty in their lives coupled with ISIS’s high machinery for propaganda and recruitment leads them to identify with ISIS in order to reduce the uncertainty. ISIS is a high entitative group with unequivocal attributes, which provide group identity that clearly defines self from uncertainty.

ISIS is a well-defined group with an extremist ideology, that is, to form an Islamic state on the prophetic model that acknowledges no (physical) boundaries (Bunzel, 2013). This ideology is rooted in a certain interpretation of Islam. Consistent with research that religion and religious ideas provide complete and generally accepted ideas that addresses both daily uncertainties and existential uncertainty, ISIS’s declaration of a caliphate (an Islamic state headed by an absolute leader) tightened its boundaries, affirming its identity as an extremist group (McGregor, Haji, Nash, and Teper, 2008).

The Sharia law, which is applied throughout the caliphate prescribes what members can or cannot do. It further serves as a reference for group prototypical attributes. One’s behavior is determined or mediated by the Sharia law. Although this can limit one’s freedom, individual freedom does not matter a lot to those seeking to identify with a group in order to reduce uncertainty. The group is intolerant and violent to out-groups, and its moral absolutism grounded in the literal interpretation of Islam. It embraces ideological orthodoxy, which serves as a powerful motivation for dehumanizing out-group members.

Of course, not every youth who experiences feelings of uncertainty identifies or joins ISIS. A lot depends on the context inducing uncertainty, and no two contexts are alike. For instance, Muslims from France to Germany to Belgium, and Netherland created what is often referred to as “parallel societies” in European countries (Baker et al., 2007) because policies encouraging multiculturalism allowed for numerous Diasporas to be created along ethnic considerations, thus religious communities did not have mix with each other (Kepel, 2010). On the other hand, France encouraged a policy of assimilation anchored on secular values, which alienated communities that were keen on observing and practicing their religion. Although both contexts create uncertainty, they do not motivate a person’s behavior in the same way.  Whether one decides to join or identify with ISIS depends on additional factors such as being recruited, and the need for cognitive closure among others. Cognitive closure is a need for a sense of shared reality (Kruglanksi, Pirro, Manneti, and De Grada, 2006). In times of uncertainty people get attracted to groups with a solid sense of shared reality.  Newly converts to Islam who have little knowledge about the Islamic religion may be high on the need for cognitive closure, and this amplified need for closure can easily endear them to groups such as ISIS that confer members with a firmly rooted sense of shared reality.

When ISIS declared a caliphate, many groups and people affiliated with al Qaeda shifted their allegiance to ISIS because it is a more homogenous group is in terms of attitudes, level of conservativism, and group norms. These attributes are highly preferred by individuals high on the need for cognitive closure (Kruglanski et al., 2006).


Whereas earlier research on terrorism was mainly conducted in psychology, and focused on the personality of the perpetrators, the social psychological research on terrorism discussed in this paper looks at how groups have profound impact on an individual’s identity.  The paper has attempted to synthesize results of uncertainty-identity theory research, and examined   the process of radicalization. It has explored the “group centrism” of ISIS as an extremist group, and attempted to understand why the second and third immigrant youth identify with this group. We found out that the environment in which individuals live induces uncertainty, and under uncertainty-identity theory, people experiencing feelings of uncertainty are likely to identify with a group because groups provides them with a sense of identity – gives them a sense of who they are, what they should think, feel or do.

This paper notes that uncertainty alone may not lead one to identify with ISIS, often, uncertainty creates ripe conditions which makes the first and second generation Muslim immigrants vulnerable to ISIS recruitment machinery.

The main limitation for this study is the lack of comprehensive and reliable data on terrorism to test the theory. Most of the data available to scholars is secondary, mostly from journalists and Jihadi websites. Journalists describe who the perpetrators are, focusing mostly on the leaders of the terrorist groups, and the organizations that conducts these attacks. These stories, however informative, are not designed to be analytical in a manner that advances our understanding of how people identify with groups like ISIS.  Although policy think tanks compile biographical databases on terrorists, they are not large enough for a comprehensive study. Furthermore, most governments classify such information making it quite difficult to obtain unless one has special access to police or intelligence files on terrorists around the world. Perhaps, researchers can attempt to test the theory in a laboratory using other totalistic groups that are not necessarily violent.

The ISIS case discussed in this paper is hardly sufficient to qualify as scientifically representative of religious terrorist groups.  The study only helps us to understand how extreme uncertainty can drive young people to identify with extremist groups. This study encourages us to look at people lived experiences in order to understand what motivates them to join extremist groups.


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Understanding ’emotion’ in a Passage to Africa

This reflection explains how social psychological research on emotion inform my work in peacebuilding. My aim is to discuss how the study of emotion can improve our understanding of violent conflicts. I begin by explaining an excerpt from a memoir of a British journalist, George Alagiah, who worked in conflict prone areas across Africa.  In a Passage to Africa,[1] George Alagiah has captured a vivid passage about embarrassment in Somalia during the civil war in 1991. He writes:

And then there was the face I will never forget…I saw that face for only a few seconds, a fleeting meeting of eyes before the face turned away, as its owner retreated into the darkness of another hut. In those brief moments there had been a smile, not from me, but from the face. It was not a smile of greeting, it was not a smile of joy – how could it be? – but it was a smile nonetheless. It touched me in in a way I could not explain. It moved me in a way that went beyond pity or revulsion. What was it about the smile? I had to find out. I urged my translator to ask the man why he had smiled. He came back with an answer. ‘It’s just that he was embarrassed to be found in this condition,’ the translator explained. P. 104

The quote underscores the significant role of emotion in understanding how people deal with the reality of violent conflicts. The man was embarrassed because he was helpless – helpless for being in the presence of a foreign journalist, and being unable to help his family especially  women who despite the utter despair of the war “aspire to a dignity that is almost impossible to achieve.” P. 105.  Thus, the presence of a foreign other, and the presence of helpless women increased the man’s self-reported embarrassment (Omar and Collet, 2013). Furthermore, considering that Somali people are Muslims, a woman who is unable to cover her head experiences pain. The pain is even more for the man because of his identity as a protector.

Probably, the civil war has constrained this man’s ability to perform his most salient identities (father, protector, Muslim etc.) and has therefore generated embarrassment (Stryker, 1987). War terrorizes people’s lives and renders them helpless. Therefore, I would expect that in such a situation, it is normal to feel overwhelmed, and even a need to cry or display anger. But in the case of the Somali man, the societal feeling rules do not encourage men to cry or show their helplessness (Hochschild 1979). Hence, he must manage the negative feelings in a manner acceptable in his culture. His smile manages the outer impression but does it address his feelings (Goffman 1959)? Moreover, if the war persists, this man’s salient identities may never be verified. Thus, he will experience more negative emotions. He may address this by changing his identity to that of a refugee or victim (Stets 2005).  The expectations for this identity will be different.

The study of emotion will help people who intervene (humanitarian workers) in these psychological phenomena or conflict situations to be more useful to victims, that is, help them manage negative emotions (Kidder and Sharp 2013). Even people in conflict contexts will always attempt to maximize the experience of positive emotions, and minimize the experience of negative emotions (Ekman, 2003 cited in Kidder and Sharp 2013). Furthermore, during a war, negative emotions can persist for a long time when individuals are unable to manage them. According to Thomas Scheff, these emotions gather incredible force. For instance, “rather than only being ashamed, one is ashamed. One can also become ashamed when angry, and angry that one is ashamed, round and round, resulting in ‘humiliated fury.’[2] This humiliated fury might be the basis of violence or revenge. However, experiencing negative emotions does not essentially lead to violence as other social influences must be considered. (Gillan 1996) studied shame and identified three conditions necessary for shame to cause violence: (1) the shame must be a secret (2) the perpetrator perceives no other alternative than violence and (3) the perpetrator lacks the inhibiting emotion such as love or guilt. It is therefore possible that the study of emotion may lead to a theory of origins of extreme violence.[3]

(Thoits 1989) observes that most social psychologists study emotion as a dependent variable – a product of social influences. But social influences can also be a product of emotions. Arlie Hochschild, in her latest book, Strangers in their own land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,[4] writes about “people segregating themselves into different emotionally toned enclaves- anger here, hopefulness and trust there.” P.6.  Thus, categorization in this case is influenced by emotions. Hochschild was interested in understanding empathy walls, and how people can cross those walls. She defines empathy walls as barriers that prevent us from understanding the other, barriers that make us develop negative emotions to people who hold different beliefs from us. Although this study of emotion and how it influences social identity is based on Tea Party members in Louisiana (which she considers the center of American right), its results can be generalized to other populations across the US.   The methods of studying emotions takes the form of experiments, surveys, ethnographies, and in-depth interviews or a combination of the above (Sharp and Kidder 2013), given that most contexts are different especially conflict prone contexts, one wonders what to consider before generalizing results of a study.

In conclusion, the study of emotion is significant to our understanding of justice processes. Stets (2005) talks about the process by which justice is attained as being like that by which an individual’s identity is verified. But of interest to me, is how emotions change in Restorative Justice, and how they influence the identity of the victim and the offender.  Scholars generally agree that restorative justice is about relationships as opposed to the law (Llewellyn 2012, Zehr 2003). When harm is caused, a relationship is affected, and depending on the intensity of the harm caused, the victim might feel sad, depressed, helpless, humiliated etc. Restorative justice is supposed to address the harm caused and restore the relationship. An acknowledgement of the harm by the offender enables the victim to move from, say anger to compassion.

[1] Alagiah, G (2001). A Passage to Africa. (London: Abacus)

[2] Scheff, T (2010) Shooting Spree: A Response to Constant Humiliation, The Huffington Post

[3] Gilligan, J (1996). Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. (New York: Vintage)

[4] Hochschild, A (2016). Strangers in their own land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. (New York: The New Press)

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