How does a ‘normal student’ like Seifeddine Rezgui turn into a cold-blooded murderer?

The Tunisia gunman was an ordinary boy who loved breakdancing and Real Madrid. So how was he induced to massacre innocent people?

Tunisia attack: Seifeddine Rezgui, the ISIL gunman who carried out the shooting
Tunisia attack: Seifeddine Rezgui, the ISIL gunman who carried out the shooting

By Prof Ian Robertson – The Telegraph, 30 Jun 2015…

The father of Tunisian gunman Seifeddine Rezgui said on Sunday that Islamist extremists had ruined my sons brain with horrid thoughts and ideas, they broke him. He is right.

Seifeddine Rezgui was almost certainly indoctrinated into a worldwide cult that has made acquired political capital using social media just as Facebook and other companies have made financial capital.

The methods used are the same as all cults have used for centuries, from the 12th century Persian and Syrian Assassins to the doomed followers of Jim Jones in 20th century America. These groups had to physically search out the vulnerable, groom them face to face, love bomb them, isolate them from their normal circles and then gradually desensitise them to more and more extreme ideas.

Ali Al-Rezgui, uncle of gunman Seifeddine Rezgui (Photo: Hassan Morajea)
Ali Al-Rezgui, uncle of gunman Seifeddine Rezgui (Photo: Hassan Morajea)

Rezguis indoctrinators used the power of social media to fast-track this process and embrace him into a murderous cult. They are doing this with thousands of vulnerable people in most countries of the world, grooming, isolating and desensitising them from a physical distance of thousands of miles, but a digital distance which is intimately face-to-face.

Sundays New York Times gave a perfect description of this process of indoctrination of a vulnerable young American Sunday-school teacher by a radical English recruiter she had never met. Even without any face to face contact, the standard cult-induction methods were used to get her gradually to accept more and more extreme ideas, culminating in the moral acceptability of suicide bombing.

Rezgui in his beloved Real Madrid replica football shirt
Rezgui in his beloved Real Madrid replica football shirt

Rezgui was by all accounts a normal young man, a soccer supporter who enjoyed breakdancing to western music but who, after his first year in university, according to a fellow student, showed a marked changed in demeanour. He began to spend more and more time with an extreme Salafi group advocating jihad, and becoming close to its leader, a man called Rashed.

This group did indeed ruin Rezguis brain to the point that he came to believe that it was not only acceptable, but actually virtuous, to massacre helpless men, women and children as they enjoyed the simple, harmless pleasures of human existence.

Rezgui, as far as we know, did not start out as a deviant with some sort of disordered personality ? the video of him enjoying the simple human exuberance of dancing testifies to this. He wasnt a failure in life ? he was in university, studying, and, for the first year there, apparently happy.

Cult recruiters sniff out vulnerability and isolation, and who knows, perhaps there was something about Rezgui that made him vulnerable. But maybe in certain febrile socio-political climates, personal vulnerability is less crucial for the indoctrinator.

But for sure, Rashed and his fellow recruiters would have made Rezgui feel very special, very respected, very good about himself ? this is the love bombing. At the same time they would have insisted on him severing his links with anyone but the cult ? this is the isolation that is essential to every cult.

And isolation is crucial because if you control the human contact, then you can control the mind. And then you can systematically re-programme the values and moral compass of the person. Desensitisation means gradually exposing people to ever increasing doses of an idea.

This can happen in the body to allergens ? it is possible to eliminate some allergies by gradually exposing the person to slightly increasing doses of the substance that otherwise produces an allergic reaction. The body can gradually adapt, from the first tiny exposure, through moderate exposures, until finally the allergic response no longer happens.

The same can be true for ideas, if you perfectly control the minds exposure to them. First you come to accept that unbelievers are worthless, then that they are spitting in the face of god by flaunting their bodies on these godless beaches. These are not humans, because humans are defined by god, and they are godless. And the rest follows .

Professor Ian Robertson is a psychologist and author of The Winner Effect (Bloomsbury). He blogs at and tweets @ihrobertson.

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