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Psychological impact of war

We see terrorism and its impact in our daily lives now. BBC News seems to talk almost exclusively about the terror threats we in the UK are subject to; there is no getting away from it. For many, it can actually feel as though we are in the middle of World War Three; having to watch what we say for fear of upsetting a would-be terrorist, military families forced to dry their uniforms inside their homes for fear of raising their profile by putting their washing out on the line, soldiers afraid to use their military discount because they don’t know who is listening. What has caused this? asks Paula Mathers, Assistant Director at Coverguard Services.

Why are there people taking their belief of Islam to such extremes? What has caused these nice, normal young men and women to act out in this way? It all seems to go back to the Syrian Civil War.

The Syrian Civil War grew out of the unrest of the 2011 disagreements and is now being fought between several agencies; the Syrian Government, a loose alliance of Syrian Arab rebel groups, the Syrian Democratic Forces, Salafi Jihadist Groups and ISIS. ISIS seem to be everywhere; in every Middle-Eastern country accessible. Each sector receives substantial financial support from foreign agencies, creating a perception that the conflict is waged by religious and global powers.

Since the war began, more than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and almost 50pc of the country’s population have been made homeless, with children being brutally tortured and killed ( 24/05/16), this, coupled with lack of freedom, economic woes, resentment of the Syrian government and drought-induced poverty has caused serious feelings of loss – similar to that experienced with bereavement.

Whether an individual copes with a significant loss in a positive and constructive way or a negative and destructive manner depends on the coping mechanisms and support given. Coping mechanisms can include; disbelief / denial, disorganisation and dependence, intellectualisation. Emotional reactions co-exist with coping mechanisms, they are means for the individual to express emotions and feelings associated with loss. These feelings are; anger and resentment, guilt, fear and anxiety, shame, loneliness, relief and recovery. These feelings are very unpredictable, and when the loss is as great as losing your entire family, your home and everything generations have built, you are going to lash out with one of these emotions. Sadly, for the Western World, lashing out with these emotions can mean acts of terrorism, soldiers being beheaded in the street, and mass shootings against groups of individuals.

On the afternoon of May 22, 2013, a British Army soldier, Fusilier Lee Rigby of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was attacked and killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale near the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, south east London. As he lay bleeding from a bullet wound in his arm, sprawled on the carriageway at Artillery Place, yards away from the mutilated remains of Fusilier Lee Rigby whom he had just killed, Adebolajo was still trying to deliver his message; “Please let me lay here,” he moaned as a paramedic assessed his wounds. “I don’t want anyone to die. I just want the soldiers out of my country … I wish the bullets had killed me so I can join my friends and family.”

This was a ferocious attack on a 25-year-old soldier who had been stalked and viciously mown down. For Adebowale and Adebolajo though, this was their last resort. Michael Adebolajo is an intelligent man with a strong Christian upbringing, who did well in school and had many friends, but who converted to Islam during the first year of his degree in Politics. It seemed to be the only place he felt answered the questions he had in life. As a result of his conversion, Adebolajo was surrounded by protests against the devastation of War, and it affected him greatly; he didn’t have a support network available to bring any positives from this, or show him any differing point of view. His Christian upbringing had taught him of the moral consequences of murder, and yet here he was being shown “evidence” by his new faith that this very community who abhorred murder so much were killing those in Iraq and Syria; those who he was taught were innocent victims, God’s children.

Adebowale’s beliefs steered him to the influence of Anjem Choudary, a British Islamist social and political activist (now convicted of inviting support for Islamic State). Choudary taught that Muslims cannot be at peace in the West because the West is at war with Muslim lands. The logical endpoint of that thinking is that adherents must either migrate to Islamic lands – or resort to violence because there is no “covenant of security” protecting them and their people. As a result, Adebowale left for a short time for Somalia to live under Sharia rule. Upon his return, he was immediately under investigation by the Security Services (MI5), who, he felt, harassed him as a result of his trip.

This would have further added to Adebowale’s feelings of mistreatment and mistrust towards the British Government. The influences of Choudary, Syria, propaganda, an education into a corrupt political system and government harassment seem to have all been one giant catalyst for Adebowale. His need to show the world his perception of what was happening around him, of protesting in his way, took over and this led to Adebowale working with Adebolajo to show their feelings in the most awful way in our view.

This is just one example of terrorism in the Western World, and the influences the wrong people can have after the impact of devastation. Adebowale blames the British Government for the war in Iraq. He was exposed to countless films, documentaries and home movies, which can be taken in many different contexts. Islam seemed to offer answers to all the questions Christianity couldn’t, and an education in politics showed Adebowale how corrupt the system really is. All these factors, in addition to the mourning at the loss of his friends, co-believers and authority figures pushed Michael Adebowale further in to the arms of extremism. Surely, with this in mind, we should be looking at the psychological impact our actions may have, and try to better educate young people across the world; not just those at risk of becoming extremists, but also those living with the effects of war.

About the author

After six years as working as a psychologist within security for the UK Government, Paula joined Coverguard Security as a manager in February 2016. She was quickly promoted to Assistant Director where she heads the more “interesting” aspects of the company; an ACS contractor. Visit


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