Terrorism, like many other horrific types of violence, has begged in the minds of many for a psychological explanation. The research and systematic analysis that has been done on the topic, however, show that neither mental illness nor a simple “lack of conscience” are significant primary causes of terrorism. There is no known “terrorist personality.” The pathways and influences that lead certain individuals to become terrorists are quite diverse. Psychological research and systematic analysis, however, can help illuminate the processes by which people and groups come to adopt extremist ideologies and subsequently use those ideas to justify violent actions.
Since the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, leaders in the U.S. intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement communities have concurred that terrorism currently poses the most serious threat to American national security. Understanding the causes, motivations, and determinants of terrorist behavior poses an enormous challenge in countering that threat, leading to a heightened interest in the “psychology of terrorism.” This entry focuses on the psychological dimensions of terrorist behavior, deemphasizes the analysis of sociologically based explanations (sometimes referred to as root causes) or macrolevel economic and political theories, and does not address the psychological effects of terrorism.
After decades of social science research, no single theory of aggression has gained ascendance as an explanatory model for all types of violence. Terrorism is a distinct form of violence, although the basic question of how best to define terrorism has itself been a vexing problem. For heuristic purposes, though, most agree that terrorism would include acts of violence (as opposed to threats or more general coercion) intentionally perpetrated on civilian noncombatants with the goal of furthering some ideological, religious, or political objective.
Issues of intent, tactics, motive, ideology, and legitimacy of targets all add complexity and plurality to the construction of terrorism as a form of violence and challenge the emergence of a unifying explanatory theory. Commenting on the search for a master explanation of terrorism generally, Walter Laqueur has insightfully observed that there exist “many terrorisms” and that the factors that cause, sustain, or weaken them may vary greatly for different groups in different contexts at different points in time. From a psychological perspective, the psychiatrist Jerrold Post believes that there is not one terrorist psychology, but multiple terrorist psychologies.
Psychological theory and research on terrorism has evolved considerably since the 1960s. The earliest line of work was drawn principally from psychoanalytic theory and tended to focus on narcissism and hostility toward parents as explanatory variables. More recent explanations have moved away from this approach. A summary of the more contemporary body of professional literature on the psychology of terrorism is outlined below and framed around a series of functional questions.
How and why do people enter, remain in, and leave terrorist organizations?
Research on terrorists and violent extremists who adhere to a broad range of ideologies shows that the pathways to, and motives for, terrorism are quite varied and diverse. Among the key psychological factors in understanding whether, how, and which individuals in a given environment enter the process of becoming a terrorist are motive and vulnerability. By definition, motive is an emotion, desire, physiological need, or similar impulse that acts as an incitement to action, and vulnerability refers to susceptibility or liability to succumb, as to persuasion or temptation. Regarding motive, researchers have begun to distinguish between the reasons for joining, remaining in, and leaving terrorist organizations, finding that motivations may be different at each stage and not even necessarily related to each other. Regarding vulnerability, there do appear to be some common vulnerabilities and perceptions among those who turn to terrorism—perceived injustice, need for identity, and need for belonging, though certainly there are persons who share these perceptions but do not become terrorists.
In 2006, at Pennsylvania State University, an Advanced Research Workshop was convened of professionals who study the psychology of terrorism. The common “risk factors” for terrorism identified by the participants of the workshop included the following:
- Perceptions of isolation or alienation from general society
- Perceptions of individual or group humiliation, injustice, shame, or dishonor
- Social isolation
- Need for identity and desire to belong
- Sense of disillusionment with the available alternatives
- Ideology that legitimizes terrorism
- Role models and heroes
- Sense of being or identifying with victims
Promising areas of inquiry have focused on common stages and processes in adopting extremist ideologies rather than on the content of the motive or justification per se. Three contemporary theories describing the adoption of extremist ideologies include Randy Borum’s generic four-stage terrorist mindset model, which attempts to explain how grievances and vulnerabilities are transformed into hatred of a target group and how hatred is transformed—for some—into a justification or impetus for violence. Also recently introduced is Ali Moghaddam’s staircase to terrorism model, in which he describes a convergent (i.e., fewer people proceed to each successive stage), five-step progression that transforms the personal experience of adversity into violent terrorist action. Using a more socially based framework in a study of people affiliating with Al-Muhajiroun in the United Kingdom, Quintan Wiktorowicz outlines a four-part, developmental process based on social movement theory. Although each model was developed independently, and almost contemporaneously, the consistency of the major themes across the three models is quite striking.
To what extent is psychopathology relevant for understanding or preventing terrorism?
Research on the psychology of terrorism has been nearly unanimous in its conclusion that mental illness and abnormality are typically not critical factors in explaining terrorist behavior. Studies have found that the prevalence of mental illness among samples of incarcerated terrorists is as low as or lower than in the general population. Moreover, although terrorists often commit heinous acts, they would rarely be considered classic psychopaths. Terrorists typically have some connection to principles or ideology as well as to other people (including other terrorists) who share them. Psychopaths, however, do not form such connections, nor would they be likely to sacrifice themselves (including dying) for a cause.
To what extent is individual personality relevant for understanding or preventing terrorism?
There is no terrorist personality “type,” nor is there any accurate profile—psychologically or otherwise—of the terrorist. Moreover, personality traits alone tend not to be very good predictors of behavior. Becoming a terrorist is probably best regarded as a process rather than as a single decision. That process is affected not only by the individual psychological characteristics, but also by situational factors, recent experiences, associations with others, and the ambient political environment and influence of people’s constituencies. The quest to understand terrorism principally by studying the personality traits of terrorists is likely to be an unproductive area for further investigation and inquiry.
To what extent are an individual’s life experiences relevant for understanding or preventing terrorism?
Certain life experiences tend to be commonly found among terrorists. Histories of childhood abuse and trauma appear to be widespread. In addition, themes of perceived injustice and humiliation often are prominent in terrorist biographies and personal histories. None of these contribute much to a causal explanation of terrorism but may be seen as markers of vulnerability, possible sources of motivation, or mechanisms for acquiring or hardening one’s militant ideology.
What is the role of ideology in terrorist behavior?
Ideology is often defined as a common and broadly agreed on set of rules to which an individual subscribes, which help regulate and determine behavior. Ideologies that support terrorism, while quite diverse, appear to have three common structural characteristics: They provide a set of beliefs that guide and justify a series of behavioral mandates; those beliefs are inviolable and must be neither questionable nor questioned; and the behaviors are goal directed and seen as serving some cause or meaningful objective. Culture is a critical factor in the development of ideology, but its impact on terrorist ideologies specifically has not been extensively studied. Ideology guides and controls behavior, perhaps by providing a set of behavioral contingencies that link immediate behavior and actions to long-term positive outcomes and rewards, or it may best be viewed as a form of rule-following behavior.
What distinguishes extremists who act violently from those who do not?
Not all extremist ideologies facilitate violence, nor are all extremists violent. One potentially useful distinction to consider is the direction of activity—that is, whether the focus is more on promotion of a cause or destruction of those who oppose it. Even within destruction-oriented extremism, it usually takes more than ideology to compel violent action. Psychological and social influences must erode the powerful, naturally occurring barriers that inhibit widespread human killing. The two main avenues of assault on those barriers are outside-in (i.e., effects of the group or social environment) and inside-out (i.e., making an internal cognitive adjustment about how to perceive the environment or situation).
What are the vulnerabilities of terrorist groups?
Terrorist groups, like all social collectives, have certain vulnerabilities in their existence. Some come from within the organization, and some operate from outside. Internal vulnerabilities include internal mistrust, boredom/inactivity, competition for power, and major disagreements. Some of the more common external vulnerabilities include external support, constituencies, and intergroup conflict.
How do terrorist organizations form, function, and fail?
Surprisingly little research or analysis has been conducted on the stages and cycles of terrorist groups’ organizational development and functioning. In particular, there has been little systematic inquiry on the process of terrorist recruitment, despite the fact that thwarting tomorrow’s terrorists is at least as critical as understanding extremists of the past and the present. There are three tentative conclusions on extremist recruitment: (1) terrorists focus their recruitment where sentiments about perceived deprivation are deepest and most pervasive, (2) social networks and interpersonal relationships provide critical connections for recruitment into terrorist organizations, and (3) effective terrorist recruiters either identify in or impart on the prospect a sense of urgency and imminence in “closing the deal.” Though some anecdotal reports exist on how some specific individuals came to join a terrorist group, there has been little serious scientific or systematic study of recruitment and radicalization processes.
From extremist group research based on organizational behavior principles, it does seem clear that the group must be able to maintain both cohesion and loyalty. Effective leaders of terrorist organizations must be able to maintain a collective belief system, establish and maintain organizational routines, control the flow of communication, manipulate incentives (and purposive goals) for followers, deflect conflict to external targets, and keep the action going.
The State of Research
Social science researchers in the field of terrorism studies are nearly unanimous in their conclusion that its research largely lacks substance and rigor. Several fundamental problems remain unresolved: There still is no agreed-on definition of terrorism, most of the existing research is not empirical or based on any data, and the existing research is largely inapplicable to operational considerations. Future endeavors designed to inform counterter-rorism operations should be operationally informed, maintain a behavior-based focus, and derive interpretations from analyses of incident-related behaviors.
In addition, to further the basic social science of terrorist behavior, NATO’s Advanced Research Workshop posed the following as “high-priority” research objectives for the future:
- A more rigorous, specific understanding of social and political movements that are not involved in violence, in order to understand what leads some organi-zations toward violence
- More primary research—better access to and more interviews with activists and terrorists
- Better triangulation of data obtained from these sources
Furthering psychological and other behavioral science research on terrorism will, it is hoped, enhance international security and prevent acts of violence toward innocent civilians.
- Borum, R. (2003). Understanding the terrorist mindset [Electronic version]. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 72(7), 7-10. Retrieved from http://works.bepress.com/randy_borum/7/
- Borum, R. (2004). Psychology of terrorism. Tampa: University of South Florida. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/208552.pdf
- Borum, R. (2004). Psychology of terrorism: Annotated bibliography. Tampa: University of South Florida. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/208551.pdf
- Moghaddam, F. (2005). The staircase to terrorism: Psychological exploration. American Psychologist, 60, 161-170.