Inside the mind of a terrorist
Coming to a town near you…
Thousands of terrorist plots have been uncovered around the world in the last five decades, from the 1972 murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, the 1975 hostage taking at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna, the 1995 sarin gas attacks in Tokyo, and the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington.
Although terrorism includes diverse actions – all involving the murder of innocent civilians – all of them, by definition, are intended to generate extreme fear in the name of political, religious or other ideological goals.
But the spectacular nature of the 9/11 attacks and the upsurge in activities by al-Qaeda, ISIS and other twisted nut-job groups have at least spurred psychologists and psychiatrists to try to understand and identify the psychological reasons for terrorist acts.
Terrorism is intimidation with extreme violence. It is a new unexpected and hitherto undreamt of form of warfare, and we desperately need to study and understand it.
Researchers have traditionally focused on the political motivations of groups such as the IRA, but today’s scientists are focusing on what is happening inside the minds of terrorists in an attempt to discover what drives them to carry out illogical and counterproductive acts of suicide and mass murder.
There are more than 800 books available on the psychology of terrorism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, according to the psychology database PsycInfo, more articles on terrorism have been published since 2001 than in the previous 120 years.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has spent $12 million on establishing Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) a research consortium of more than 30 scientists charged with investigating the origins, dynamics and psychological causes and impact of terrorism.
The latest wisdom is that the vast majority of terrorists are not mentally ill but essentially rational people who weigh the costs and benefits of acts of terrorism, and conclude that terrorism is profitable. So far, the knowledge gained has been depressingly unoriginal, except in a particular social context.
Group dynamics, often driven by charismatic leadership, play a powerful role in convincing individuals to embrace expansive goals and use violence to attain them. Personal factors also draw people toward terror. Terrorist groups, like conspiracy groups, which provide followers with someone to blame and someone to join, provide their members with a feeling of belonging and empowerment and, in some cases, a means of avenging perceived past wrongs, hence Islamic terrorism’s preoccupation with ‘the Crusader.’
Many of the psychological explanations or theories of terrorism are based on supposition and assumption, because empirical studies of the terrorist mind are relatively scarce, for obvious reasons. Even so, researchers hope that any insights gained will help them thwart future acts of terrorism.
Terrorism goes back to the first century A.D., when Jewish Zealots assassinated Roman occupation forces and their collaborators because they believed Roman rule was incompatible with Judaism. Like other religious extremists, the Zealots rejected the authority of a secular government and laws that did not incorporate their beliefs. Centuries later the rise of nationalism engendered a new breed of terrorist, exemplified by the IRA, loyal to a collection of people who share the same culture and values.
Most nationalists aim to either create or reclaim a homeland. Their actions designed to create international sympathy for their cause and to forcibly coerce the dominant group to accede to their wishes. Social revolutionary terrorists such as the German Red Army Faction and the Italian Red Brigade, on the other hand, seek to overthrow capitalism and the current social order.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s it was the nationalists and social revolutionaries who were responsible for most acts of terrorism. Both groups sought to influence and coerce the West and the Establishment and claimed responsibility for their actions. But in the last two decades, credit for around 40% of terrorist attacks has gone unclaimed. Experts attribute this to the increase in attacks perpetrated by religious extremists, many of whom are ‘lone-wolves,’ operating independently of a traditionally structured hierarchy.
Unlike politically motivated factions, religious terrorists do not act to influence the status quo – they act to destroy a decadent West in the name of Allah. Claiming responsibility is unnecessary because they believe God knows and has sanctioned their atrocity. This is why they are so dangerous – they are unhindered by negative Western political reaction or even human morality – instead of fearing death they embrace martyrdom. Seventy-two virgins await their arrival in Paradise.
Because of this unassailable belief in the rich rewards of the afterlife, they are willing to spawn casualties with abandon, as demonstrated by every single act of unbridled and religiously motivated terrorism.
In February 1998, a fatwa was issued by the World Islamic Front, which perfectly illustrates this destructive mind-set. It reads in part ‘In compliance with Gods order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims: The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it … to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque (Mecca) from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.’
Such a mind-set seems pathological and indeed, many people think terrorists are insane. Some researchers suspect extreme violence is an expression of psychiatric problems such as antisocial personality disorder. But studies of members of the German Red Army Faction, the IRA, Hezbollah, and others have yielded no evidence that terrorists are mentally ill. Even suicide bombers are sane in most respects.
After interviewing some 250 members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza from 1996 to 1999, United Nations worker and journalist Nasra Hassan reported that none of these young would-be bombers struck her as depressive or despondent. They always discussed the attacks matter-of-factly and were motivated by deep religious conviction that what they were doing was right.
In 2005 an expert committee on the psychological causes of terrorism concluded that individual psychopathology was insufficient explanation. Terrorist leaders typically screen out such people from their organizations because their instability makes them a liability. Many researchers now believe that, far from being lunatics, terrorists rationally calculate the costs and benefits of their actions. This ‘rational choice’ theory of terrorism means that violence and the spread of terror is a calculated strategy for achieving political and religious objectives.
According to terrorism expert Martha Crenshaw of The Wesleyan University, autobiographical tracts from terrorists such as Sean MacStiofain, the first chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, Palestine Liberation Organization activist Leila Khaled and the Brazilian guerrilla fighter Carlos Marighella, support this view. Their writings reveal that intellectual thinking coexists with hatred and that political theorizing is a common outlet for frustration over political grievances. When theorizing hardens into dogma, it becomes dangerous. Studies of militant Islamist jihadists reveal a similar pattern.
After perusing thousands of government documents, media reports and court records on 400 extremists, forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman of the University of Pennsylvania determined that these individuals are far from brainwashed or socially isolated hopeless fighters. 90% of them came from caring families and 63% had been to college. Similarly, the suicide hijackers of 9/11 were well educated – three of them attended graduate school and were the children of well-off Saudi and Egyptian families.
In short, according to Sageman in his 2004 book Understanding Terror Networks, they were the best and brightest of their societies in many ways. ‘Terrorists are generally completely normal people… People just like you and me.’
Could it be that we are barking up the wrong tree here? Could it be that the explanation for terrorist’s willingness, nay desire, to blow themselves up is grounded in a more simple premise… The know they’re going to die anyway one day – they don’t see any future stacking supermarket shelves in this life, so why not hurry to the next and arrive in Paradise covered in glory as martyrs?
Conversely, not all terrorists come from financially and socially solid backgrounds. When Israeli social scientists conducted post-mortem profiles of 93 Palestinian suicide bombers, aged 17 to 22, the scientists found that the bombers were uniformly uneducated, unemployed and unmarried.
But according to political psychologist Jerrold M. Post of George Washington University, no matter what their background, what seems to be a common denominator for all terrorists is a willingness to subordinate their individual identity to a collective one. Previous studies on the malleability of members of groups have shown how easy it is for individuals to become submerged in the larger organism of the group. Examples of the phenomenon are apparent in charismatic Christian churches – particularly in the US – at music festivals and in hypnotism shows. And so the group dynamics explanation seems to be the most accurate.
A growing number of researchers are coming to the conclusion that terrorism can be best understood through the lens of group psychology. It is against the group dynamics context that the terrorist’s rationale begins to makes sense, possibly because the benefits of terrorism are generally those of the group and not the individual.
Charismatic leaders play an important role in setting these goals and convincing followers to embrace them. According to an article by Jerrold M. Post in eJournal USA, Palestinian suicide bomb commanders have told their recruits ‘You have a worthless life ahead of you, you can do something significant with your life, you will be enrolled in the hall of martyrs…’ A powerful incentive for disorientated and confused young men if ever there was one.
The bombers themselves will then be ready to embrace the larger aims of their mission even though it will be at ultimate personal cost.
In 2003, Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Nichole Argo interviewed 15 Palestinians in Israeli prisons who had gone on failed suicide missions. Each had placed the interests of their society above their own.
Osama bin Laden convinced the 9/11 attackers to embrace his cause and sacrifice their lives for it. Just like any religious cleric, bin Laden regularly used verses from the Koran to validate acts of extreme violence.
In Middle Eastern cultures, individuals are indoctrinated with extremist political goals very early in life. From interviews with 35 incarcerated Middle Eastern terrorists, Post and his colleagues learned that adults routinely teach children to hate the enemy – Israel – and to believe in the destruction of Israeli forces. One interviewee told how he was taught by the Imam at his mosque that the enemy had effectively evicted Palestinians from Palestine.
In a minority of mosques in both Europe and the Middle East, radical Islamist preachers repeat the same messages of hatred and promote the use of violence against the despised infidel. From a psychological perspective, constant repetition of these ideas means reinforcement. The process itself can exert an almost hypnotic effect on vulnerable, inexperienced or discontented minds. When those minds – dissatisfied with the world into which they were born and in which they live – then continue the discussion outside the mosque or over the Internet, or in secretive rooms above kebab shops in Birmingham or London, is it any surprise that mere thought eventually turns into action?
Thousands of young Muslims poured into Syria and joined ISIS when they were promised a God-given opportunity of making something of themselves. The chance of being founder members of a new and glorious Caliphate was for many, too good an opportunity to pass up.
The rules of the Caliphate would be simple to understand, unlike those of the complex world they left behind. What’s not to like about being an AK47 toting soldier of fortune in a brave new world where the once shelf-stacker will now be the master, with the power of life and death over others? And if it all goes wrong, there’s always the short cut to Paradise.
In interviews carried out by Posts team, militant Islamist terrorists from Hezbollah and Hamas justified suicide terrorism by reframing it as martyrdom, or self-sacrifice, in the name of Allah. Thus, such acts fulfilled another socially prescribed goal – they underscored the depth of an individual’s faith.
Social context is also critical to this idea. The researchers found that religiously motivated Islamist terrorists were more committed to self-sacrifice than less religious perpetrators, whose objectives were purely political.
The Chechen rebels who held more than 800 Moscow theatre goers captive for 58 hours in October 2002 were equally committed to self-sacrifice for the supposed ‘greater good.’
Psychologist Anne Speckhard of the Free University of Brussels in Belgium interviewed 11 of the hostage survivors in 2004, and discovered that the Chechen ‘freedom fighters’ knew precisely what they wanted – independence and an end to the harsh occupation of Chechnya. But at the same time, it was their religious beliefs that motivated them to become martyrs for their cause – nothing was more important to them than dying for their homeland. During the siege, one terrorist reportedly said ‘All of us have the same fate here… We are here to die.’ Terrorism was thus used as a means to fight back and to find personal meaning and justice where they were perceived as absent.
As with conspiracy theorists and extremist political parties such as the English Defence League or the British National Party, joining a radical group provides a sense of community, power and identity to people who might otherwise feel alone, powerless, unimportant and ignored. One of the prisoners interviewed by Post’s team declared: armed action proclaims that ‘I am here, I exist, I am strong, I am in control … I am on the map.’
In some societies, social pressure also plays a part. When asked why they joined, many of Post’s interviewees responded that everyone was doing it and not to belong would mean being ostracised. This is a distant echo of the prehistoric need to abide by, and support, the needs of the group. To rock the boat is a severe impropriety, and historically, dissenters are often driven from the group and thus denied the safety and communal benefits of membership of the group.
Psychologist John Horgan of Pennsylvania State University spoke to one ex-activist who had a similar explanation… ‘I just sort of slid into it – I had the feeling I was being sucked in by the group.’
In addition to providing a sense of belonging and power, a terrorist organization can provide a means of vengeance for past humiliations. ‘What drives people to such acts of violence is a long history of humiliation and an overwhelming desire for revenge,’ according to Palestinian psychiatrist Eyad El-Sarraj, who, before his death, directed the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. El-Sarraj says that many suicide bombers during the second intifada from 2000 to 2005 had watched family members killed, beaten and humiliated.
More than 70% of some 900 young Muslims in the Gaza Strip interviewed by psychologist Brian K. Barber of the University of Tennessee had suffered severe trauma during the first intifada from 1987 to 1993. Many of these teenagers had been tear-gassed by Israeli soldiers or had experienced attacks while in school or at home. Studies of the backgrounds of other terrorists also indicate trauma was the most important reason that dove them into the underground movement.
In other cases, family strife may be a significant factor. Criminologist Lorenz Boellinger of the University of Bremen in Germany and his colleagues probed the backgrounds of 250 people who had been suspected or convicted of terrorist activity – they read trial records and spoke to prison officers as well as to seven of the terrorists themselves and found that many of the activists had experienced stress early in life from poor family attachments or other social problems. Their interviewees seemed to compensate for life’s disappointments and feelings of powerlessness by subscribing to a reality that was starkly defined by friends and enemies.
Terrorism is not just about violence, of course. As the name suggests, it’s also about spreading fear, as expressed in the Chinese maxim ‘Kill one, frighten ten thousand.’ In many instances, this psychological tactic succeeds all too well. After 9/11, for instance, the whole of America experienced high levels of psychological distress.
Researchers hope that by understanding terrorist’s motivation, they will be able to turn the tide. By probing the collective psyches of the terrorist groups, they aim to find new ways to thwart the recruitment of additional group members, to inject dissent into terrorist societies, to facilitate escape from terrorist life and perhaps to strip group leaders of their powers. By unravelling terrorist bonds, such tactics could eventually halt many terrorist atrocities.
Terrorists justify violent actions by focusing only on the end result – their moral judgement is driven by an obsession with only the outcome. Put another way, their moral judgement is rooted solely in the success of an action rather than the moral necessity of committing that action. In other words, they justify their violent acts with the logic that the end justifies the means.
While most people judge a moral action by both its intentions and its outcomes, terrorists ignore motive. Violent extremism carries with it abnormal forms of moral cognition which are almost certainly shaped by cultural and/or religious beliefs.
There is always a trade-off between intention and outcome and just how terrorists make this moral calculation is not yet fully understood. Typically, adult moral judgement depends on a person’s ability to represent and integrate information about goals and consequences. Normal people’s moral judgement is determined mostly by intention. But, when intention and outcome are in conflict, moral judgement can only be made possible by considering both factors.
In a study published in May 2017 in the scientific magazine Nature, researchers conducted a series of cognitive and psychological tests on 66 Colombian right-wing paramilitaries, all of whom were imprisoned for committing terrorist acts.
All the subjects had been convicted of an average of 33 murders. A control group of 66 non-criminals and 13 incarcerated non-terrorist murderers were also included in the study.
Tests included assessments of moral cognition (morality), IQ, aggressive behaviour, and emotion recognition. The results revealed that terrorists exhibit higher levels of aggression and lower levels of emotion recognition than non-criminals. Importantly, the team found it was the difference in moral cognition most strongly distinguished the terrorists from the other groups.
Although the researchers ‘expected an abnormal moral judgement in terrorists, we were in fact very surprised by the selectivity of this pattern. As it happens, in comparison to many other measures (multiple measures of aggression and various other cognitive and affective functions) moral judgement was the variable that best discriminated between groups. This unexpected result suggests that distorted moral cognition may be a hallmark of the terrorist mindset.’
The terrorists, when judging whether the actions of others are morally permissible, primarily focus on outcomes, rather than integrating both intentions and outcomes as the controls did. This result, the authors note, suggests that a terrorist’s moral code prioritises ends over means and the team concluded that this pattern of skewed moral judgement is an important component of the terrorist profile.
‘Terrorists deem it appropriate to do whatever it takes to achieve an aim, so their moral judgements may overestimate the success of an action above and beyond the morality of its underlying intention. That is, their outcome-based moral judgments may stem from the belief that any action can be justified as long as it is conducive to an aim (in their social niches, perhaps utopian aims in many cases.)’
Radicalization is thought to be a gradual process and individuals slowly become more susceptible to new ideas. First, they cut themselves off from their families and friends and thus also their connections to peer support and conventional value systems. They immerse themselves in a radical religious counterculture, either on their own, or with the encouragement of a jihadi recruiter. They become brainwashed people whose ideology teeters on the edge on mental illness.
But why do people who are not devout Muslims pledge allegiance to terrorist groups?
Recruits are attracted to ISIS because its actions mirror the cultural values of those who are marginalised or those who suffer from anti-social personality disorders. Many IS attacks around the globe are carried out by freelancers who act without direct orders from the IS leadership.
There can be no doubt that IS propaganda plays a key role in recruitment. Propaganda is at its most effective if the individual is looking at or reading about nothing else. Islamic State propaganda tends to focus not on a religious rationale for their actions, but on extreme violence.
There is a widely and reliably reported story of two would-be jihadists who, before they left Birmingham for Syria, ordered Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies to fill gaps in their knowledge. So perhaps there is another factor at play that is even more alluring than religious radicalisation.
We are frequently told how individuals who join IS often frequented bars – even gay bars – had Western girlfriends and smoked and drank almost up to the time they committed their own act of violence. Sayfullo Saipov – the ‘lone wolf’ who drove a van into a crowd of people in New York in October 2017, killing eight and seriously injuring a dozen others – often swore and frequently arrived late to prayers. The 9/11 hijackers, the Nice terrorist and the London Bridge attackers were known to take alcohol – the Westminster attacker was often high on drink and drugs.
The most common explanation is that this lifestyle was a cover for their real intentions. But how can some people become radicalized so quickly? It stands to reason that they are often dissatisfied and yes, marginalised, and even suggestible. But there is something else…
Jihadis seem to be drawn to a value system of aggressive machismo, that disparages ordinary work and sustains the impulse for immediate gratification. Jihadis seem to be attracted to a culture that promotes redemption through violence, loyalty, patriarchal leadership, the reduction of women to convenient objects of pleasure and thrill seeking to the point of martyrdom.
Islamic State’s ‘soldiers’ more closely resemble the sort of street gang with which many of its Western foot soldiers are familiar.
Much work has yet to be done, but the results of all these studies – and more – should provide invaluable assistance when it comes to diagnosing terrorist traits and tendencies in suspects or vulnerable young Muslim men and women.
In the meantime, it is equally important that we recognise the pernicious influence of religious belief. Religion is like a virus. It infects everyone who comes into contact with it – it is passed from parents to children and in the case of incarcerated Muslims in Britain, from prisoner to prisoner. As with any virus, extremist religion targets the weak and the vulnerable – and in prisons there are plenty of them, disenfranchised, excluded, and ripe for conversion.
It is the simplicity of radical Islam and Islamic Sharia law that protects against a complex and complicated world. This is one of the attractions of joining a collective that is governed by, and lives by, simplistic rules. It is this easy-to-understand version of Islam that is so attractive to otherwise confused individuals. Following a set of very basic rules, laid down centuries ago in a very different world, requires no great intellect. There is no uncertainty of debate – everything is taken as literal – even instructions on how to properly beat wives.
Michael Adebolajo, 31, the man who murdered Lee Rigby is busy radicalising other inmates at HMP Frankland, County Durham, which also holds other infamous criminals, including child murderer Ian Huntley, Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe and serial killer Levi Bellfield. As a result, Adebolajo has been called the most dangerous prisoner in Britain. But staff at the prison claim they do not have the resources to watch him 24/7, let alone do anything about it!
The bottom line is that home grown Islamic extremists have been ‘brainwashing’ other inmates. Adebolajo has been branded ‘violent, unpredictable and a major danger to other prisoners.’ Adebolajo’s present purpose in life is to recruit as many Jihadis as possible. He has been given ‘special category’ status and has even converted non-Muslims to his twisted interpretation of Islam.
Prison sources say that he has radicalised dozens of other prisoners. One prison official said ‘Adebolajo spends most of his waking hours preaching his distorted form of Islam to anyone who will listen. He sees every inmate as a potential Islamic State soldier whether they are Muslims or not. He has a big personality and is very charismatic and some of the more vulnerable prisoners will fall under his spell. He is a very dangerous individual.’
Maybe Adebolajo is insane. His internment at HMP Frankland costs the British taxpayer £1500 per week – more than the cost of a suite at the London Hilton. Surely there is a cheaper and more humane, permanent solution to this problem?
Prisons in the UK are already taking steps to segregate hard line Muslim prisoners from the rest of the prison population. They should also be on the lookout for changes in appearance and personality or character.
In the meantime, the whole world is in this for the long haul. From the villages of Malaysia to the war-torn streets of Aleppo, from the hills and valleys of Afghanistan or the scrublands of central Africa to the bright modern cities of Paris and London, terrorism is something that is affecting us all. To stop it, we must first understand it. Only then can we win the war.
The Terrorism Research Center
Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START)
February 1998, fatwa issued by the World Islamic Front
An Arsenal of Believers | The New Yorker
Martha Crenshaw, Explaining Terrorism (Political Violence)
Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks
The Mind of the Terrorist: The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to Al-Qaeda. Jerrold M. Post. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Collective Identity: Hatred Bred in the Bone Jerrold Post, Director of the Political Psychology Program, The George Washington University
‘Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Nichole Argo interviewed 15 Palestinians…’
‘Psychologist Anne Speckhard of the Free University of Brussels in Belgium interviewed 11 of the hostage survivors in 2004…’
Soldiers for God: A Study of the Suicide Terrorists in the Moscow Hostage Taking Siege. Anne Speckhard in The Roots of Terrorism: Contemporary Trends and Traditional Analysis. Edited by Oliver McTernan. NATO Science Series, Brussels, 2004.
‘Psychologist John Horgan of Pennsylvania State University spoke to one ex-activist…’
The Psychology of Terrorism. John Horgan. Taylor & Francis, 2005.
‘Brian K. Barber of the University of Tennessee… severe trauma during the first intifada from 1987 to 1993…’
‘study published in May 2017 in the scientific magazine Nature, researchers conducted a series of cognitive and psychological tests on 66 Colombian right-wing paramilitaries…’
PsycInfo articles on terrorism
Other articles & books on terrorism, go to
Andrew Newton 2017.