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.

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. 


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