Journal of Young Investigators
    Undergraduate, Peer-Reviewed Science Journal
Volume Eleven
Issue 3, September 2004

Understanding Who Becomes Terrorists

Alex O’Connor, Science Journalist
Psychology, University of Maryland


figure 18

Figure 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, 2003.

What 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.

“Thirty 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.

In 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.”

For 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.

Discreteness 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.

Since 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 frustration.

Psychologist 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.

Alternatively, 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.

Developmental 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.

This 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.”

A terrorist’s 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?

figure 18

Figure 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.

The 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.

Even 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 investigation.”


“While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” -- F. M. Dostoevsky

It 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.

Further Information

Chard, P. Terrorists view us as targets, not as humans.

Horn, R. Models for Conflict and Terrorism: Psychological/Sociological.

Hudson, R. (1999). Who becomes a terrorist and why: The 1999 government report on profiling terrorists. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.

Mansdorf, I. The Psychological Framework of Suicide Terrorism.

McCauley, C. The Psychology of Terrorism.

McCauley, C., & Segal, M. (1987). Social psychology of terrorist groups. In C. Hendrick (editor). Review of Personality and Social Psychology. 9:231-256.

Mirdal, G. The Psychology of Terrorism: Fanatical Identities.

Schbley, A. (2003). Defining religious terrorism: A causal and anthological profile. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 2, 105-134.

The Psychology of Terror: The Mind of the Terrorist.

Understanding Evil.

Journal of Young Investigators. 2004. Volume Eleven.
Copyright © 2004 by Alex O'Connor and JYI. All rights reserved.

JYI is supported by: The National Science Foundation, The Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Glaxo Wellcome Inc., Science Magazine, Science's Next Wave, Swarthmore College, Duke University, Georgetown University, and many others.
Copyright ©1998-2004 The Journal of Young Investigators, Inc.