Home Opinion Interviewing Members of Armed Groups in Northern Ireland

Interviewing Members of Armed Groups in Northern Ireland


By Dr. Elena Mastors
Dean, School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University

Northern Ireland has a tumultuous past and the conflict there that erupted in the late 1960s is often referred to as “the troubles.” In 1998 most parties involved in the conflict agreed to a political settlement known as the Belfast Agreement. Even in 2012, wounds from the past are still healing.

There is a human dimension to conflict, and researchers agree that interviewing members of armed groups can be extremely beneficial in understanding their behavior and advancing related studies. To this end, I set out for Northern Ireland in May 2005 and since that time, I’ve made several trips and have interviewed numerous individuals involved in armed groups or their affiliated political parties such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the Irish National Liberation Army, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defense Association. I tackled questions such as:

  • What motivated these individuals to join armed groups?
  • What roles did they play?
  • What are the dynamics of your group?

[Podcast: Psychology of Profiling in Terrorism]

My next mission: finding out what they leave

Armed conflict has a serious effect on others as well, and I also talked with community members, community workers, security forces, and political party members about the conflict.  An important question to the study of terrorism is why individuals leave their groups. For this reason, this July I will return to Northern Ireland with an adjunct faculty member, teaching for the Intelligence Studies Program at American Military University (AMU). There, we will  interview two former members of armed groups that chose to leave and focus their energy on party politics.

Gaining insight into the motivations, thinking styles and group dynamics has been enormously beneficial to my understanding of armed conflict and advancing knowledge in the terrorism discipline.   But the most important benefit is to our students at AMU.  We are able to use our findings directly into the classroom in a variety of courses so that students have the front line knowledge gleaned from these interviews.

Intelligence profiling: understanding our adversaries

We cannot rely on our gut instincts to guide us in our understanding of leaders, particularly adversarial ones. A case in point is former President George Bush’s first impression of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a democrat, which he subsequently maintained, even while democratic freedoms were clearly being eroded by Putin. There is a vital lesson to be learned here; that is, first impressions, if left unchecked, skews our understanding of a leader and can affect our long-term decision-making. If our beliefs about a leader are wrong, the danger of policy or operational miscalculation and missteps are likely.

“Intelligence Profiling” is one way to provide an in-depth understanding of these leaders. Academics, particularly those using political psychological approaches to the study of leaders, have a lot to offer in the area of profiles.

Some of these approaches include the study of:

  • various leadership traits
  • operational codes
  • integrative complexity
  • psychoanalytic approaches
  • various personality attributes

Each of these profile depictions brings different insights to our study of leaders. In our Intelligence Profiling class at the graduate level, we expose students to a variety of these approaches and demonstrate how they are applied to an assortment of leaders.

Dr. Elena Mastors
is currently the Dean of the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. Dr. Mastors is an expert on political psychology as it pertains to conflict, terrorism and political leadership. She writes frequently on understanding leaders and group dynamics from a political-psychological perspective. She is also a frequent lecturer on the important role of individuals and group dynamics in armed groups. Most recently, she conducted field work in Northern Ireland.

Dr. Mastors has published on the subjects of conflict and armed groups. Her most recent books include Introduction to Political Psychology, The Lesser Jihad: Recruits and the al-Qaida Network and Breaking al-Qaeda.



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