Issue 3, September 2004
Understanding Who Becomes Terrorists
Alex O’Connor, Science Journalist
Psychology, University of Maryland
1. Data collected from 341 members of the political-religious
movement Hizballah. The question was open-ended, part of a
self report survey, and asked participants to explain reasons
for their association with Hizballah. Source: Schbley,
type of person becomes a terrorist? From the 1960s through the mid-1980s,
psychologists believed mental and psychological disorders were the
basic explanation for terrorists’ behaviors and motivations.
However, today, few experts attribute terrorism to mental illness.
There are two broad reasons why experts have changed their view
on the psychopathology of terrorists. First, the conception of a
terrorist has become more complex and dynamic over the past two
decades. Before the 1980s, most terrorists were lone assassins who
restricted their attacks toward political leaders. But, by the mid-1980s,
international terrorist organizations began to form. As these organizations
began to grow in size, so did the scope of their targets, as many
organizations began attacking civilians in addition to political
or religious leaders. As terrorism changed, so did the types of
people who became terrorists. While a lone terrorist or assassin
may suffer from mental illness, a member of a terrorist organization
is likely the product of other phenomena.
years of research has found psychopathology and personality disorder
no more likely among terrorists than among non-terrorists from the
same background,” says Clark R. McCauley, professor of psychology
at Bryn Mawr College, in an essay to the Social Science Research
Council. McCauley’s research comprises psychological assessments
and interviews of known terrorists.
fact, terrorist organizations avoid people with mental illnesses.
These organizations need members that will be cooperative and loyal
to the group. Someone without such qualities may jeopardize missions
or betray the group. As Rex Hudson, author of Who Becomes a Terrorist
and Why, says, “The careful, detailed planning and well-timed
execution that have characterized many terrorist operations are
hardly typical of mentally disturbed individuals.”
example, although schizophrenics were once assumed prime candidates
for terrorist organizations, most psychologists today agree a schizophrenic
would not be able to function in such an interdependent environment.
Schizophrenics usually have difficultly working in social groups,
and group functioning is a top priority for terrorist organizations.
is another characteristic that terrorists look for in new recruits.
Terrorist organizations do not want members who stand out in public.
Moreover, discreteness is not a common characteristic in someone
mentally ill. For example, someone suffering from schizophrenia
or depression is less likely to be concerned with their appearance
and thus more noticeable in a public crowd. Consequently, terrorist
organizations have intense screening processes through which they
eliminate candidates who may be a hindrance or risk to the group.
This would include someone who is mentally ill or someone who could
give away the group’s identity.
psychopathology has become a less prominent explanation as to why
people become terrorists, psychologists have considered social and
developmental explanations. For example, the frustration-aggression
hypothesis may provide insight into the mind of a terrorist. Prior
research has shown that in humans and other animals, increased stress
and frustration leads to increased violence. This led some to hypothesize
that people in under-privileged areas are more likely to commit
acts of terrorism because they deal with harsh social stress and
Joseph Margolin believes that, "much terrorist behavior is
a response to the frustration of various political, economic, and
personal needs or objectives." Frustration likely contributes
to a person becoming a terrorist, but if frustration was the principal
factor, one would expect the most frustrated people within an area
to become terrorists. However, in many organizations, most members
are educated, middle- or upper middle-class males.
some people join terrorist organizations hoping for a different
lifestyle, a way to escape poverty, or the excitement. People who
join for the above reasons may initially have no desire to murder
anyone. However, once they become a member of the organization,
group dynamics can alter their behaviors, motives, and reasoning.
For example, a terrorist group puts pressure on its members to conform
to a single set of beliefs and values to minimize dissent within
the group. A common belief terrorist groups impose upon their members
is that their organization is a victim and has a right to protect
itself against its oppressors.
approaches are another explanation that has received attention.
Melanie Killen, professor of Human Development at the University
of Maryland, says, “Most Americans do not understand the depth
of deprivation in [some countries] and the implications for healthy
social development. The experience of social depravity hinders mental
and moral development.” Some psychologists believe this depravity
leads potential terrorists to have a ‘black-and-white’
sense of moral reasoning.
is not to say that terrorists have no sense of right and wrong.
Rona Fields, a Washington D.C. psychologist who has assessed terrorists
for 30 years, asserts, “They [terrorists] believe there's
a difference between right and wrong, but when they do something
in the name of [their] cause, it's justified.”
cause, ideology, and life experiences are more than just a justification
for their actions, however; they are a reason for their actions.
“If you ask a terrorist, they will probably say murder is
wrong. But they see their actions as more complex,” says Killen.
She argues it unlikely that terrorists have immature or black-and-white
reasoning regarding their actions. On the contrary, their reasoning
is so complex it may become convoluted to them (Figure 1). Factors
such as poverty, frustration, religion, lack of freedoms, boredom,
envy, and unequal rights lead to these complexities.
Is there a psychological profile of terrorists?
2. Hamas is a terrorist organization based in Palestine.
Many groups that the United States government classifies as
terrorist organizations perform communal work within their
own countries. Scholars believe much of the support Hamas
receives from Palestinians is due to their communal work.
All data is from 1996. Source: Hudson, 1999.
above explanations certainly do not account for every terrorist.
Some people may become terrorists for none of the previously mentioned
reasons. Therefore, it is clear numerous factors exist as to why
someone becomes a terrorist. And, of course, these factors differ
between individual terrorists.
In the past, researchers and the U.S. government looked for distinctive
psychological similarities between terrorists in the hope that it
would help them detect potential terrorists with more ease. The
finding that there is no terrorist profile came about slowly because
few psychologists have interviewed known terrorists. Obviously,
few terrorists are available and willing to be analyzed by a psychologist.
if psychological profiles for terrorists did exist, they may not
always be helpful. Peter Forster, professor of psychology at the
University of the South Pacific, says, “The other problem
with psychological profiles is that they can be very misleading.
You may recall that psychological profilers put out profiles of
the 'Washington sniper' that included such features (based on previous
studies of such snipers) as a white male working alone. That may
have distracted some people away from the actual culprits - two
African-American men working together. It could have delayed the
“While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer,
nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” -- F. M.
is, obviously, of advantage to experts and the government if they
were able to understand the makings of a terrorist. Such knowledge
may help in detecting terrorist cells and members, thereby preventing
terrorist actions. However, what is the benefit of the American
public understanding a terrorist’s mindset?
There are probably many people who assume or insist terrorists are
insane, crazy, or religious nuts. Unfortunately, these stereotypes
are not only untrue, they may be detrimental. “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,” says McCauley. However, terrorists
are not typical members of the cause for which they are fighting
(Figure 2). Terrorist organizations generally hold the most extreme
viewpoints of the people they claim to represent. So it is important
to understand that the factors influencing people to become terrorists
alongside the social dynamics of their organization ensure that
terrorists are not random representatives of their population.
P. Terrorists view us as targets, not as humans. http://www.jsonline.com/lifestyle/advice/sep01/charcol25092401a.asp
Horn, R. Models for Conflict and Terrorism: Psychological/Sociological.
R. (1999). Who becomes a terrorist and why: The 1999 government
report on profiling terrorists. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.
I. The Psychological Framework of Suicide Terrorism. http://www.jcpa.org/jl/vp496.htm
C. The Psychology of Terrorism. http://www.ssrc.org/sept11/essays/mccauley.htm
C., & Segal, M. (1987). Social psychology of terrorist groups.
In C. Hendrick (editor). Review of Personality and Social Psychology.
G. The Psychology of Terrorism: Fanatical Identities. http://www.psy.ku.dk/mirdal/terrorisme1.htm
A. (2003). Defining religious terrorism: A causal and anthological
profile. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 2, 105-134.
Psychology of Terror: The Mind of the Terrorist. http://www.blue-oceans.com/psychology/terror_psych.html
of Young Investigators. 2004. Volume Eleven.
Copyright © 2004 by Alex O'Connor and JYI. All rights reserved.