Online Exclusive

The Psychology of Terrorists

First, let’s dispel the myth that terrorists are mentally ill.  If you believe that most terrorists are crazy, psycho, or suicidal you are wrong.  30 years of research has failed to identify a good profile of a terrorist.  We now know that terrorists are no more likely to have mood disorders, psychopathology, or personality disorders than non-terrorists from the same background.  If you think that terrorists are immoral and have no empathy for others you are also wrong.  Let’s look at this rationally.  Imagine yourself as a terrorist, pick one, any one.  You are living an often nomad existence underground, in fear of being discovered and stopped.  The only people that are around you are people who share your own goals.  Would you want an unstable whacko living with you?  Someone who is so out of touch with reality that they cannot be depended on, or could hurt you or other members of your group before your goal was met.  Not probably. Organized terrorist groups who can plan successful attacks are also likely to be within the normal range of personality. In fact, individuals chosen for a terrorist mission have undoubtedly demonstrated that they are trustworthy, reliable, loyal, organized, intelligent, and dedicated to a specific cause.  Increasingly, terrorist groups are recruiting highly skilled professionals who have expertise in fields such as communications, computer programming, engineering, finance, and the sciences.  Terrorists use groups and networks for both logistical and psychological support. Groups afford a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, and perhaps even a sense of identity.

Terrorism is generally defined as the use or threat of violence, by small groups against non-combatants of large groups, for avowed goals.  We have a tendency to correlate religion with acts of terrorism.  This is far from fact.  While religious fanaticism creates conditions that are favorable for terrorism, it does not cause it.  The three primary causes of terrorism are feelings of social, political, and historical injustice.  Terrorism is the warfare of the weak.  It is the final recourse when all other conventional methods have failed.

Of course, there are the lone wolf terrorists.  These are individuals who commit violent acts in support of some group, movement, or ideology, but who does so alone.  They are not affiliated with any command structure and do not get resource assistance from any group.  Examples of lone wolf terrorists include Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City bombing), Theodore Kaczynski, (the "Unabomber—he actually was schizophrenic), and Eric Robert Rudolph (the Olympic Park bomber).  The current belief is that the Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev acted as lone wolf terrorists.  Obviously, it is much more difficult to identify and prevent potential attacks from self-radicalized individuals acting alone or in small groups.

Yes, normal people can be terrorists. Normalcy is a characteristic feature of terrorists, they just blend in.  The Tsarnaev brothers are a perfect example of this, all the news reports and interviews reinforced that they were normal Joes.  Remember that terrorists are not born terrorists.  Let’s look at Bin Laden.  Osama didn’t wake up one morning and decide to be a terrorist.  The path was long and arduous.  Terrorists, like Bin Laden, kill for a combination of shared ideology in conjunction with extremely intense small group dynamics.  Most people believe in something bigger than life.  Many of us call this entity God in one form or another.  We need to make sense and meaning in our life…and of our death.  Most people identify with a group whose core sense of values related to family, religion, ethnicity, and nationality are similar to theirs.  Some people are willing to kill for, and to die for, these values.  Why else would you have joined the law enforcement profession?  Or why would men and women enlist in the military?  The point is that most people are capable of terrorist acts under some circumstances. 

The five main objectives of political terrorists are quite clear:

  1. Creating mass anxiety, fear, and panic
  2. Fostering a sense of helplessness and hopelessness
  3. Demonstrating the incompetence of the authorities
  4. Destroying a sense of security and safety
  5. Provoking inappropriate reactions from individuals, authorities, and/or governments

Additionally, large-scale terrorist incidents can have adverse effects on world financial markets, travel and tourism. 

The Strategies of Terrorist Aggression

There are two kinds of aggression; emotional and instrumental. Emotional aggression is associated with anger; it doesn’t consider long-term consequences. The goal of emotional aggression is hurting someone who has hurt you.  Instrumental aggression is more calculating; it is used as a means to meet other more enduring ends. Terrorist aggression usually involves both.  The act inflicts immediate damage and results in the destruction of life and property.  However, and far more importantly, terrorists hope that the long-term effects will be much more devastating. 

The Long-Term Goals of Terrorist Attacks

  1. Fundamentally, terrorists want to create fear and uncertainty far beyond the immediate victims and those close to them.
  2. Terrorist want “the enemy” to spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and money on security. Essentially this forces their target to transfer resources from productive purposes to anti-productive security measures.
  3. Terrorists particularly hope to elicit a violent response that will assist them in mobilizing their own people.  A violent counter attack to a terrorist act that is not well aimed is a success for the terrorists. this will assist them in mobilizing their own people
  4. Terrorists also hope for a reaction of stereotyping and prejudice in which the terrorists are seen as typical members of the cause they say they are fighting for.  Often terrorists’ most dangerous opposition comes from moderates on their own side who seek alternatives other than violence. Profiling or any other perceived infringement of civil rights can encourage a sense of unfair victimization by everyone involved.

What about the Suicide Bomber?

While most individuals who attempt and/or complete suicide display signs and symptoms of depression, terrorist do not.  That is because the primary aim of the suicide is not to die, but to actualize a mission on behalf of a cause.  Their motivation invariably stems from rage and a sense of self-righteousness.  They view themselves as soldiers willing to sacrifice themselves for a higher purpose, contributors to the accomplishment of a greater good.  They seek revenge and crave publicity.  Ideally, individuals with the highest status make the best suicide candidates; those with the most to lose raise the credibility of the group’s cause.  The primary goal of the suicide terrorist is political change. 

Unfortunately, we can never, ever be absolutely safe, no matter how much treasure we spend or how many civil liberties we sacrifice.  The true correlation of psychology and terrorism mental health has little to do with the perpetrators, and everything to do with the victims.