Psychology of Terrorists


This paper serves to identify some key factors behind the psychopathology of terrorist organizations. With current research that has been conducted I have compiled an overview of what makes a terrorist. I analyze 5 questions: 1) How and why do people join terrorist organizations? 2) To what extent is psychopathology relevant for understanding or preventing terrorism? 3) To what extent is individual personality relevant for understanding or preventing terrorism? 4) What are the vulnerabilities of terrorist groups? 5) What is the impact of leaders being removed from their positions either by dying or being overthrown?

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How and why do people join terrorist organizations?

People have joined terrorist organizations for many reasons. They hate a specific group of people or wish revenge upon other people who have, in their eyes, wronged them. They also can hate groups or people for many other reasons. Bartol and Bartol (2014) state when people lack the skills and strategies to modify at least some of their social situations, feelings of helplessness usually result and that this may explain why some individuals engage in terrorist activities. When an individual feels there is no alternative option they are more likely to try something drastic like join a terrorist group. It has also been hypothesized that young people lacking self-esteem and a sense of self may be primary candidates for joining terrorist groups (p. 333). Young people are simply looking for a purpose and meaning in their life to grasp on to. Something they can stand for that makes them feel like they are accomplishing something in their life. The psychologist Erik Erickson has developed eight stages of identity that a normal, well-adjusted person follows. When a person fails to navigate Erickson’s eight stages of identity they have created a negative identity for themselves. Scholars have suggested that many terrorists have failed to effectively negotiate Erickson’s eight stages and consequently have assumed a negative identity (Arena and Arrigo, 2005). The negative identity encourages these persons to turn to extremist organizations to finally experience purpose and meaning in their lives (Bartol and Bartol, 2014). When they [individuals with a negative identity] join a terrorist organization they see themselves doing something worthwhile with their lives (p. 334). Many terrorist come from backgrounds where, “…menial work gives little satisfaction, political freedom is sparse or nonexistent, avenues of recreational escapism are few, and social mobility and hope for a better life is little more than a fantasy” (Miller, 2006. P. 126). Randy Borum has identified three motivational themes of why people join terrorist groups that are consistent among terrorist organization members. “Based on a review of the existing literature three motivational themes – injustice, identity, and belonging – appear to be prominent and consistent. These themes also relate to one’s potential openness or vulnerability” (Borum, 2004). As noted by Rex Hudson (1999) the basic premise of terrorists…. evaluated in depth was “that their violent acts stem from feelings of rage and hopelessness engendered by the belief that society permits no other access to information-dissemination and policy-formation processes.

To what extent is psychopathology relevant for understanding or preventing terrorism?

Psychopathology has for many years looked at an individual and analyzed them to explain behaviors that are considered abnormal. According to Borum (2004) the chief assumption underlying many psychological ‘theories’…is that the terrorist in one way or the other not normal and that the insights from psychology and psychiatry are adequate keys to understanding. What has been found through research is that terrorists are rather normal people. They are at minimal risks for violence and at times have excelled in their academics and occupations and even live normal lives. [T]here is very little evidence that members of terrorist organizations are mentally unstable, irrational, or psychopathic, states Bartol and Bartol (2014), they go on to say that many studies report that terrorists are psychologically much healthier and considerably more stable than other violent criminals. Borum (2004) states the research that does exist is fairly consistent in finding that serious psychopathology or mental illnesses among terrorists are relatively rare. Not all terrorists have antisocial personality disorder (p. 31). They are not necessarily psychopaths but exhibit behavior that is not normal. Andrew Silke (1998) observed that after researchers failed to find any strong links between terrorism and major psychopathology, “a trend has emerged which asserts that terrorists possess many of the traits of pathological personalities but do not possess the actual clinical disorders. This development has effectively tainted terrorists with a pathology aura, without offering any way to easily test or refute the accusations.” With all the research that has been conducted on terrorism I was not successful in finding any direct link between terrorism behavior and any mental illness or abnormality. This can make it very difficult to determine who is at risk for becoming a terrorist. Each person may have their own different set of risk factors that are different from the next person who becomes a terrorist. Much more research is needed to conclusively state who will or will not become a terrorist. The only criteria we have so far is that they feel angry, alienated, disenfranchised, believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change, identify with perceived victims of the social injustices they are fighting, feel the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem, believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral, have friends or family sympathetic to the cause, and believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie, and a heightened sense of identity (Grohol).

To what extent is individual personality relevant for understanding or preventing terrorism?

With all the research on terrorists there has been no conclusive findings of a “terrorist personality”. It is more often than not that the personal and situational factors that exist in one’s life will lead a person to the terrorist lifestyle. Risk for engaging in terrorism is the product of factors related not only to the individual, but also to the situation, setting, and potential target (Borum, 2004). Factors such as the support or rejection of friends and family to the extremist ideology or justifications for violence, the degree of security or target hardening that exists, the recency or severity of experiences that might exacerbate hostility toward the target all could affect the nature and degree of risk posed by a person of investigative concern (Borum, 2004). One complication of trying to create a terrorist personality is the fact that there are many different roles in a terrorist organization. Of all the different roles only a select few will actually be associated with the killings. Research has been conducted on whether there are some systematic differences between people who partake in terrorist organizations and those who do not partake in terrorist organizations. The research found “the active terrorist is not discernibly different in psychological terms from the non-terrorist; in psychological terms, there are no special qualities that characterize the terrorist” (Taylor and Quayle, 1994). With the personal and situational factors that exist in a person’s life making it rather difficult to create a personality of a terrorist. There are perhaps always warning signs orpre-event indicators, (travel, chatter, messages left behind) in terrorism cases, but none are more telling than these two: (1.) subscribing to an uncompromising ideology which seeks to use violence to achieve its goals and (2.) isolation (Navarro, 2009). These are, for the most part, the best traits of terrorists that we have been able to find to date through research. It does not create a complete picture of a terrorists personality traits but it gets us closer to one. Further research is needed to create a more accurate list of terrorist personality traits.

What are the vulnerabilities of terrorist groups?

It seems that a terrorist group would be a well-organized group of people but with the psychological aspect of free will even terrorist groups have vulnerabilities. All terrorist groups have internal and external factors that can lead to their decline. Borum (2004) states that the major internal factors are internal mistrust, boredom and inactivity, internal power competition, and major disagreements. In a terrorist group they must maintain a level of security and trust between everyone (p. 52). They are being watched not just by their local people but by government agencies worldwide. Guarding themselves from outsiders is a very difficult task. Boredom can be a huge problem in a terrorist group. During periods of low activity terrorist groups become vulnerable to exposure. The members become agitated and start focusing on internal suspicions and fellow members rather than a mission or the goals of the terrorist group (p. 53). In a terrorist group there will always be a power struggle for the top positions. One person thinks they can do a better job than the current leader of their terrorist group and the power struggle begins. Stirrings of dissent may come from a variety of sources: concern about a particular decision by the leadership, collective restlessness bred by lengthy periods of inactivity,

or the aggressive actions of a member who has the ability to influence others (p. 53). This in turn can divide a terrorist group and lead to its decline. Major disagreements can also tear a terrorist group apart. With everyone having their own opinion arguments are bound to happen which can divide the group and lead to its eventual decline. Borum (2004) also states some external factors; external support, constituencies, and inter-group conflict. A terrorist group must be able to survive through support network (p. 54). They need somewhere to get supplies to live, train, and operate. To get this support a terror group needs constituents. A group’s constituents or supporters can either deter or encourage terrorist activity (p. 55). Conflicts with other terror groups can arise. This can cause unrest with the members of the groups and lead to their decline. Christopher Harmon (2007) notes six vulnerabilities of terrorist groups: 1) Operational requirements expose terrorists to scrutiny. 2) Terror groups have leaders, who may be captured or killed. 3) Power struggles are natural and common in terror groups; these can and should be exploited…or created. 4) Terror organizations are human, and terrorists can be forced to the point of exhaustion. 5) Terrorism is morally and indefensible. That is an advantage no state should lose sight of, or neglect its public diplomacy. 6) States still sponsor terrorists, and military power is still required to check such behavior.

What is the impact of leaders being removed from their positions either by dying or being overthrown?

To be a successful terrorist organization you need a successful, charismatic leader. They are the ones calling the shots and who everyone looks to when plans fall apart. They raise moral, make sure their members stay in-check, and lead the organization towards their goals. The leader maintains a collective beliefs system, establish and maintain organizational routines, control the flow of communication, manipulate incentives for followers, deflect conflict, to external targets, and keep the action going (Borum, 2004). When a terror group is removed from their position for any reason the group takes a hard hit in leadership and someone else must stand up to the plate and lead the group. Audrey Cronin (2010) write that the structure, size, age, and motivation of a group make a difference: those that have ended through decapitation [removing the leader of a terror group] have tended to be hierarchically structured, young, characterized by a cult of personality, and lacking a viable successor. This can lead to many problems for the new leader of a terrorist group. The new leader needs to be charismatic, trusted, and loved just as the previous leader was. A new leader can bring mistrust, competition for power (who will be the next leader), and disagreements on how the organization will operate (Borum, 2004).


People who join terrorist groups and organizations are just like you and me. They feel like their voice is not being heard and get drawn in to terrorist groups and organizations tactics and a desire to make a change and be heard. With the recent studies and research we still have not definitively created a successful profile of terrorists. We understand that given the situational factors a person can become a terrorist. Terrorist groups and organizations are subject to the same vulnerabilities that all groups and organizations experience. The key to a decline is terrorist groups and organizations is to remove their leader from their position in the group or organization.


Arena, M. P., Arrigo, B. A. (2005). Social psychology, terrorism, and identity: A preliminary re-examination of theory, culture, self, and society. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 23, p.485

Bartol, C. & Bartol, A. (2014). Criminal Behavior: A Psychological Approach (10thed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Borum, R. (2004). Psychology of Terrorism.

Cronin, A. (2010). No Silver Bullets: Explaining Research on How Terrorism Ends, Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, Volume 3, Issue 4

Grohol, J. (2009). The Psychology of Terrorism.Psych Central.

Harmon, C. (2007). Vulnerabilities of Terror Groups.



Miller, L. (2006). The terrorist mind I: A psychological and political analysis. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 50, p. 121

Navarro, J. (2009). Unmasking Terrorists – Two Critical Characteristics!,

Silke, A. Cheshire-Cat logic: The recurring theme of terrorist abnormality in

psychological research. Psychology, Crime & Law. Vol 4(1) Apr 1998, 51-69.

Taylor, M. and Quayle, E. Terrorist lives. London: Brassey’s ; 1994.

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