Preventing Extremism and Terrorism: Reporting on an Intervention in Secondary Schools

This is part of our special feature on Radicalism and Violence.


Following the terrorist attacks throughout Europe in the last few years, one of the focus points of European governments and the European Commission (EC) has been prevention. Within a larger framework, programs for social inclusion in education, training, and youth, the EC took the initiative to co-fund projects addressing the prevention of violent radicalization and promotion of democratic values, fundamental rights, intercultural understanding, and active citizenship. In this context, the objective of our research is to measure the effects of a specific intervention in secondary schools. The intervention technique used is Quiet Time based on Transcendental Meditation. Preliminary results of the project are presented in this paper. The project is co-funded by the EC.


The Mindset of the Terrorist

There is only limited agreement between researchers to explain the psychological mindset of a terrorist. Victoroff lists fourteen separate approaches for understanding the psychological mindset of a terrorist  (Victoroff, 2005). He concludes that one specific psychological approach to understand the terrorist is not feasible, because terrorists differ widely in motivation, convictions, and objectives. Consequently, trying to identify or profile terrorists within the general population based on psychological characteristics is a difficult task (Crenshaw, 1981; Atran, 2003; Fields, Elbedour, & Hein, 2002). However, some common psychological characteristics can be identified (Victoroff, 2005): high affective valence regarding an ideological issue; a personal stake, such as strongly perceived oppression, humiliation or persecution; low cognitive flexibility; and the capacity to suppress both instinctive and learned moral constraints against harming innocents. Although these shared psychological characteristics may be insufficient for profiling or identifying terrorists, they can be very useful for prevention. As Moghaddam states, “Prevention is the long-term solution to terrorism” (Moghaddam, 2005). He argues that short-term strategies have limited effectiveness and are extremely costly and counterproductive, “because as long as conditions on the ground floor remain the same, every terrorist who is eliminated is quickly replaced by others.” Thus, in his opinion, the only fundamental solution to minimize or eliminate the threat of terrorism is to prevent young people to become terrorist.


Social Inclusion and Prevention

Social inclusion is defined by the World Bank as “The process of improving the terms for individuals and groups to take part in society,” and “The process of improving the ability, opportunity, and dignity of people, disadvantaged on the basis of their identity, to take part in society” (World Bank, 2013). This study examined an intervention technique on secondary schools throughout Europe (children at the age ten to eighteen) to support these adolescents to develop psychological characteristics, which are contrary to the psychological traits that characterize terrorists, thereby supporting social inclusion of these adolescents. The intervention technique chosen is Transcendental Meditation (TM), because earlier research shows TM supports social inclusion, by improving the ability for people to take part in society. It also develops psychological characteristics that counter the characteristics of the terrorist mentioned by Victoroff (So & Orme-Johnson, 2001; Dillbeck, Raimondi, Assimakis, & Orme-Johnson, 1986; Chandler, Heaton, & Alexander, 2005).


Research set-up

The research was conducted in five schools in Europe—in Sweden, in The Netherlands, and in Portugal. These schools introduced Quiet Time in their curriculum, in the form of fifteen minutes silence at the beginning and at the end of the school day. Students were invited to practice Transcendental Meditation (Wallace, 1970) during these fifteen minutes. Students who did not practice Transcendental Meditation were requested to perform a silent activity (reading, sitting with eyes closed) during this period; this group was also excluded from the research. The TM group was split up into two groups. The first group started immediately with the technique and the second group started after three months. The second group became the control group. Both groups where tested before starting with Transcendental Meditation and after three months, before the control group started. Standard psychological tests were used to measure differences between the pretest and the posttest. Also, the teachers where tested in the longitudinal study with the pretest and the posttest.


Preliminary Research Results

Preliminary results indicate that the TM group becomes less anxious to be humiliated by others in social settings; they increase their cooperation with others and demonstrate a higher flexibility in relationships; they demonstrate a higher ability to exchange information, and show a higher ability to express feelings and needs. The results were strongly correlated with the frequency of meditation. Children with higher frequency of meditation showed more significant improvement in these psychological characteristics, compared to children who learned the technique but did not meditate or meditated only infrequently.

For the teachers, preliminary results showed lower anxiety and stress levels, decreased negative effects (afraid, nervousness, …) and emotional exhaustion, compared to higher job satisfaction, higher positive effects (enthusiasm, interested,…), personal accomplishment and psychological well-being (Vieira, Vieira dos Santos, & Gomes, 2018).



Prevention is, in our opinion, a key approach for reducing extremism and terrorism. Educational interventions play a major role in this approach and this project demonstrates that interventions using Transcendental Meditation could be a feasible and effective way of obtaining this goal. This is one of the first projects in Europe to use Transcendental Meditation technique to tackle the complex problem of extremism and terrorism. Part of the project is to develop policies for policymakers throughout the EU about lessons learned and ways to implement Quiet Time and Transcendental Meditation at schools. Preliminary results show that this approach may be effective in preventing extremism and terrorism, and that the approach is applicable for schools. Execution of this approach is much less expensive than more traditional short-term strategies, such as secret service intelligence approaches. We recommend further research is needed to replicate and confirm these conclusions.


Raymond Slot is professor at the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences and researcher on social inclusion.

Frans Van Assche is research fellow at the University of Leuven (Belgium), and served many times as external expert to the European Commission.

Sérgio Vieira is assistant professor at University of Algarve (Faculty of Human and Social Sciences, Department of Psychology and Educational Sciences), his area is educational psychology.

Joana Vieira dos Santos is assistant professor at University of Algarve (Faculty of Human and Social Sciences, Department of Psychology and Educational Sciences), her area is organizational psychology.



Atran, S. (2003). Genesis of Suicide Terrorism. Science, pp. 1534 – 1539.

Chandler, H., Heaton, D., & Alexander, C. (2005). The Transcendental Meditation Program and Postconventional Self-Development: a 10-Year Longitudinal Study. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, pp. 93-121.

Crenshaw, M. (1981). The Causes of Terrorism. Comparative Politics, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 379-399.

Dillbeck, M., Raimondi, D., Assimakis, P., & Orme-Johnson, D. (1986). Longitudinal Effects on the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi Program on Cognitive Ability and Cognitive Style. Perceptual and Motor Skills, pp.731-738.

Fields, R. M., Elbedour, S., & Hein, F. A. (2002). The Palestinian suicide bomber. In C. E. Stout (Ed.), Psychological dimensions to war and peace. The psychology of terrorism: Clinical aspects and responses, Vol. 2, pp. 193-223

Moghaddam, F. (2005). The Staircase to Terrorism: Psychological Exploration. American Psychology.

So, K.-T., & Orme-Johnson, D. (2001). Three Randomized Experiments on the Longitudinal Effects of the Transcendental Meditation Technique on Cognition. Intelligence, volume 29 pp. 214 – 440.

Victoroff, J. (2005). The Mind of the Terrorist; a Review and Critique of Psychological Approaches. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol 49, Issue 1, pp. 3 – 42

Vieira, L. S., Vieira dos Santos, J., & Gomes, A. (2018). Preliminary results Portuguese schools. Europe conference. Utrecht.

Wallace, R. (1970). Physiological Effects of Transcendental Meditation. Science, 1970 167: pp. 1751-1754.

World Bank. (2013). Inclusion Matters; the Foundation for Shared Prosperity. Washington DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development; the World Bank.


Standard European Commission Disclaimer

“The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.” Project reference number: 580416 – EPP – one – 2016 – one – IT – EPPKA3-IPI-SOC-IN.


Photo: Elementary classroom | Shutterstock
Published on October 2, 2018.


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