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The Psychology of Terror - The Mind of the Terrorist
© Peter M. Forster / University of the South Pacific / September 2001


According to the official FBI definition, terrorism is: "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." The objective of terrorism may be to gain publicity for some cause, or the desire to obtain concessions or bring about social change. There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, however (Long 1990).

Terrorism may be classified in different ways, depending on the interests of the classifier. For example:

1. Domestic - in own country against own people
2. International - in other country by non state actors
3. State sponsored - by government against own people or in support of international terrorism

Another typology is:

1. Political - for ideological and political purposes
2. Non-political - for private purposes or gain
3. Quasi-terrorism - skyjacking and hostage taking
4. Limited political - ideological but not revolutionary
5. Official or state - used by nation against nation or people

Still another typology contains the following categories:

1. Revolutionary - aims to overthrow or replace an existing government (Red Army Faction, PLO, Hizbollah)
2. Political - groups that focus on gaining power or supremacy, removing government intrusion, or on changing beliefs (Aryan Nation, Posse Comitatus, Freemen)
3. Nationalist - promotes the interests of an ethnic or religious group that is seen as being persecuted by another (Sikh radicals, IRA, ETA)
4. Cause Based - groups devoted to a social or religious cause using violence to address their grievances (Islamic Holy War, Anti-abortion campaigners, feminist terrorists in Nepal)
5. Environmental - groups dedicated to slowing down development they believe is harming animals (Animal Liberation Front, Earth 1st)
6. State sponsored - when a ruling regime provides funds, intelligence or material resources to terror groups, usually operating outside their borders (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan)
7. Genocide - when a government seeks to wipe out a minority group in its territory (Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, Turkey)

None of these are particularly satisfactory, however, characterised as they are by overlapping categories and subjective definitions.

The word "terrorism" traces its roots in the English language to the French revolution (1789 -1794). The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant used the word in 1798 to describe a pessimistic view of the destiny of mankind. Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) called it "propaganda by deed". Carlos Marighella (circa 1930) wrote the Latin American handbook on terrorism, claiming it required adherence to a "higher morality", and that one man's terrorist is another man's liberator. Countries like Ireland, Cyprus, Algeria, Tunisia, and Israel might not have become independent republics if not for terrorism.

Psychology and terrorism

It is the psychology of terrorism that causes it to command so much attention compared to other threats to life. To give this some context, the death toll of the September 11th attacks in the USA, the most devastating attack in US history, was placed at 3,016 by the 15th December 2001. The death toll in that country from murder is about 16,000 a year in recent years.

Another of the more surprising aspects of the study of terrorism and terrorists, given the magnitude of the events they trigger and the amount of attention that is devoted to them, is how little research has been carried out into its psychological aspects. This paper is relatively short, not just because it is a summary review, but because there is little research to report. At the time of writing, this seems to be changing however, with the US-declared 'War on Terrorism.'


Among the things we do know is that terrorists have many different reasons or motives for their acts. Many politically motivated terrorists, whether they are of the left or the right, want to bring down an existing government or regime. Many religious terrorists want to attack those that they see as attacking their religion. Others want publicity for their cause. Suicide terrorists have almost always had at least one relative or close friend who has been killed, maimed or abused by an enemy (Kushner, 1996).

There is also no single psychological profile of terrorists. For example, most, but not all suicide terrorists are aged between 16 and 28. Most are male, but 15% are female. Most come from poor backgounds and have limited education, but some have university degrees and come from wealthy families (Merari, 1990).

In the case of the 11th September attacks in the USA on the Trade Centre and Pentagon, many are pointing to Osama bin Laden’s organisation. In part, he is motivated by anger against the USA after the Gulf War, in which his country of origin, Saudi Arabia, provided a base for attacks by the USA and its allies against the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. He also sees the USA as an enemy of Islam, particularly through its support of Israel and, despite having been supported by the USA during the cold war, disdains US culture and values. However, not everyone connected with his organisation, ‘al Qaeda’, which means ‘the base,’ have the same motives. They often recruit operatives to work for them from amongst young men at mosques who have a powerful urge to defend Islam from perceived attacks world-wide. These attacks may be by Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, by Russians in Chechnya or formerly in Afghanistan, or most often, by the USA and Israel in the middle east. However, these passionate and emotional young men are not usually permitted into the inner organisation of al Qaeda, where cold, hard pragmatism is more of a feature. The inner group, as opposed to his world-wide intelligence network and operatives network, is extremely careful. They live most of the time in tents and move frequently. They allow no electrical or electronic devices of any kind near them, to prevent monitoring of their activities.

Terrorist violence, like most forms of aggression, is more likely to be carried out by men than by women. Women’s roles with respect to terror groups were more often devoted to support, fund-raising, organising, public relations and political representation. With the rise of feminism, this is changing. The US American group, SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) and more recent all-women, feminist terror groups, such as those in Nepal, provide examples of changes in this area.

Merari is one of the few psychologists to interview suicide bombers. He has said of them:

"Culture in general and religion in particular seem to be relatively unimportant in the phenomenon of terrorist suicide. Terrorist suicide, like any other suicide, is basically an individual rather than a group phenomenon: it is done by people who wish to die for personal reasons. The terrorist framework simply offers the excuse (rather than the real drive) for doing it and the legitimation for carrying it out in a violent way." (Merari, ibid, p.206.)


As far as we know, most terrorists feel that they are doing nothing wrong when they kill and injure people, or damage property. Most seem to share a feature of a psychological condition known as anti-social personality disorder or psychopathic personality disorder, which is an absence of empathy for the suffering of others - they don’t feel other people’s pain. However, they do not appear unstable or mentally ill. In fact terror groups usually dislike or distrust those who wish to join them, who appear to be unstable. Silke (1998) goes so far as to say:

"It is very rare to find a terrorist who suffers from a clinically defined 'personality disrder' or who could in any other way be regarded as mentally ill or psychologically deviant."

A common, but by no means universal feature, is a type of simplistic thinking in which “I am good and right. You are bad and wrong.” It is a very polarised thinking which allows them to distance themselves from opponents and makes it easier for them to kill people who are connected with their enemies, with apparently little or no sense of remorse or guilt. This is not a lack of intelligence however. Many terrorists are of above average intelligence. It would also be wrong to think that this mode of thought is exclusive to terrorists. It is common among young children and I know psychologists who display the same mode of thinking!

A closed-minded certainty is also a commonly observed feature of much terrorist thinking. A document left behind by Mohamed Atta, one of the 11th September attackers, illustrates this. In it is the following:

“Everybody hates death, fears death, but only those, the believers who know the life after death and the reward after death, would be the ones who will be seeking death.” Also, “Check your weapon, say morning prayer together, and, if you take a taxi to the airport, when you arrive, smile and rest assured, for Allah is with the believers and the angels are protecting you.”

Apart from the reference to weapons, similar sentiments were expressed by the members of the Heavens Gate cult, who committed collective suicide in 1997. Again, however, this mode of thinking is not exclusive to terrorists and suicide cults. Many religious people, for example, can be similarly closed to ideas or evidence that contradicts their belief systems.

Developmental models

Terrorists, particularly political terrorists, may come from upper rather than lower class backgrounds, as in the vigilante groups that make up right-wing, pro-government "death squads" in Latin America and Asia. Terrorists are often the products of overly permissive, wealthy families with whom they were in conflict, had inconsistent mothering, or were isolated from (Martin and Romano 1992).

The point above about black and white thinking suggests that a useful avenue for research may be to look at some aspects of terrorist behaviour as reflecting an immature form of thinking or moral reasoning.

Kaplan (1981) assumes that terrorist behaviour is pathological. He differentiate between the reasons and causes of terrorism by proposing that reasons are the social variables that facilitate terrorism or help rationalize terrorist behavior. However, he says that the causes of terrorist behavior “must be sought in the psychopathology of the assassin” (p. 36). He proposes that terrorists have a pathological need to pursue absolute ends. Kaplan proposed that this is an overreaction to childhood experiences of humiliation at the hands of an aggressor, which results in a sense of failure and lack of self-esteem. Thus, their personality is defective and cannot cope with life stress through socially appropriate means.

Research by Israeli (1997) suggests that suicide bombers often come from broken families and he also proposes that they suffer from low self-esteem.

Social Learning models

It is not a coincidence that many terrorists come from places where peace is not the norm; places like the Middle East or Northern Ireland, where all the present generation of young people have known is regular, extreme, well-publicised violence. Violence could be the norm for such young people, whether it is on a wide scale or within a smaller community or family. It may come to be considered the normal response to achieve objectives. Silke (2001) is exemplifying this approach when he describes the process of becoming a terrorist as being primarily an issue of socialisation. He further states that the move from being disaffected to becoming an active terrorist is usually precipitated by a catalyst:

"Normally this is an act of extreme physical violence committed by the police or security forces or other rival group against the individual, family, friends or simply anyone they can identify with. The fatal shooting of a 12-year-old boy by Israeli soldiers in September 2000 at Netzarim acted as such a catalyst event for Palestinians. Captured on television, the shooting of the boy as he cowered with his father behind a water barrel contributed to a dramatic resurgence in terrorist violence in the region."

Some terrorists are following family tradition, as in the case of both Protestant and Catholic fighters in Northern Ireland or some groups of Palestinians in the Middle East, and the social learning model, with its emphasis on imitation and role models, can easily accommodate this.

This approach emphasises education and the provision of peaceful role models as a major part of the solution to terrorism, particularly aimed at children in their formative years. Silke (ibid) recommends that addressing the genuine grievances of minorities and other disaffected groups is one of the methods of preventing further atrocities. He adds that security forces should also be restrained in their use of force towards such groups. He thus predicts that military reactions to terror attacks have no deterrant effect and are more likely to lead to an escalation of violence. His model would presumably predict that the military campaign in Afghanistan will do more harm than good.

Psychoanalytic models

Some terrorists appear to be rebelling against their parents through attacking authority figures and organisations, as with violent Marxist groups that terrorised Europe, particularly Germany and Italy, in the 1970s. This approach, which generally assumes a psychopathology model of terrorists, would emphasise better upbringing, including the resolution of childhood conflicts, as at least part of the solution.

Behaviourist models

Most terrorists are heroes to someone and, according to this model, such reinforcement increases the likelihood of terrorist behaviour. We saw the support from some Palestinians and Pakistanis for the 11th September attacks in the USA and, to mention an example from the Pacific region, the support from some parts of Fiji for George Speight and his group of terrorists, to the extent that he was even elected to Fiji’s parliament and his supporters invited into the political party and government of Prime Minister Qarase. Most terrorists want and need that support.

This approach emphasises breaking the connection between terrorist behaviour and the rewards received by the terrorists for carrying it out, as part of the solution. As with the social learning model, most of those who support this model do not assume psychopathology on the part of terrorists.

Economic models

We also need to bear in mind that some groups choose the terror option because it is relatively inexpensive and yet can have huge effects. It does not require large amounts of money (although some terrorists such as bin Laden are very wealthy). It does not require large numbers of people or equipment. It is the warfare of the poor and disaffected.

This approach emphasises the importance of cutting off the funding of terror groups as part of a solution.

The media

Silke (2001) implicates the media in the lack of understanding of terrorists and the promotion of what he says are ineffective hardline strategies to deal with them, that are widely accepted by the public and by politicians.

Many terrorists do what they do, at least in part, for the huge amounts of free publicity they get from the media. Some people have described publicity in the media as the “oxygen of terrorism”. Without it, some (but not all) terror groups would either stop what they are doing, or redirect their efforts into different channels. Many terror groups relay their demands through media organisations, or make the publicising of their cause a condition of releasing hostages, for example. However, the relationship between terror groups and the media can become risky if the group doesn’t like the way it is being portrayed, as illustrated by the murder of an Irish reporter in September 2001 by the Protestant terror group that uses the name the Red Hand Defenders (possibly the LVF).

Also, complicating the issue is that terrorism often works. Yesterday's terrorist leaders can become today's statesmen, justifying their past use of terror as a paramilitary instrument to even the odds between the weak and the powerful. You can see this in a lot of countries that now condemn terrorism. Perhaps George Speight will one day achieve this status.

Terrorists and their victims

Very few terrorists feel pity or empathy for the people they kill or maim. One or two have, however, and that is something that can be built on by those with an interest in rehabilitation. For example, the man who was imprisoned for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, later expressed remorse for what he had done, saying that he had not realised how many people would be hurt.

However little they feel for the suffering of others, terrorists are usually aware that their supporters or potential supporters need to feel that the killing, injuring or threatening of the victims of terror, is justified. A common way of doing that is to equate the victims with those who are perceived to be attacking them directly. For example, Osama bin Laden, in an interview with Hamid Mir, editor of the Urdu newspaper Ausaf, is quoted as follows:

"The American people should remember that they pay taxes to their government, they elect their president, their government manufactures arms and gives them to Israel and Israel uses them to massacre Palestinians. The American Congress endorses all government measures and this proves that the entire America is responsible for the atrocities perpetrated against Muslims. The entire America because they elect Congress."

Post traumatic stress

For surviving victims themselves, and their friends and families, the reaction to their experiences may be post traumatic stress. To summarise briefly, post traumatic stress involves disturbances of behaviour that occur after a major stressful event. The common symptoms are intrusive thoughts, nightmares and sleeping difficulties, anxiety or fear, alienation from people, ‘jumpiness’, emotional numbness and problems with social relationships. They vary in type and scope enormously from person to person though. Some people will need professional help. Others will get by with the support of their families and friends.

Stockholm Syndrome

Hostages have been known to sympathize with their captors and become emotionally attached - in one case even get married. The name of the syndrome derives from a hostage situation in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1973, four Swedes held in a bank vault for six days during a robbery became emotionally attached to their captors. As far as we know, the abused bond to their abusers as a means to endure the life-threatening stress they are under. The most notorious instance came when US heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and after some months, re-christened herself "Tanya" and joined their ranks. The Stockholm Syndrome is an emotional attachment, between captive and captor that develops 'when someone threatens your life, deliberates, and doesn't kill you' (Symonds, 1980). The relief resulting from the removal of the threat of death generates intense feelings of gratitude and fear that combine to make the captive reluctant to display negative feelings toward the captor or terrorist. In fact, former hostages have visited their captors in jail, recommended defence counsel and even started a defence fund. "The victims' need to survive is stronger than his/her impulse to hate the person who has created the dilemma." (Strentz, 1980) The victim comes to see the captor as a 'good guy', even a saviour. This condition occurs in response to four specific conditions:

  • A person threatens to kill another and is perceived as having the capability to do so.
  • The other cannot escape, so her or his life depends on the threatening person.
  • The threatened person is isolated from outsiders so that the only other perspective available to her or him is that of the threatening person.
  • The threatening person is perceived as showing some degree of kindness to the one being threatened.
Trauma tourism

A recent phenomenon associated with terrorist attacks is that of ‘trauma tourism.’ This refers to the appearance of large numbers of people with dubious qualifications and untested or harmful techniques such as ‘Debriefing’, offering themselves as trauma counsellors. This form of voyeurism adds complications to those genuinely trying to manage disasters and help those with problems.


Psychologists study terrorism with the aim of identifying those who are or may become terrorists, with a view to aiding in prevention, detection or capture. A better understanding of the circumstances that cause a person to become a terrorist may help us prevent it in the future. It is worth emphasising that understanding something in no way implies justification for it, although not everyone agrees with that. Silke (2001) cites RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan as saying:

"understanding [paramilitary activity] comes dangerously close to authorising, sanctioning and approving."

The need is great. In addition to the horror of the attacks in the USA on September 11th, Jane’s Intelligence Digest has evidence that Osama bin Laden’s group, or those connected to it, have been trying to obtain weapons-grade nuclear materials. 10 kg of such material, enough to make a small nuclear bomb, has gone missing from the loosely guarded stockpiles maintained in Russia. In fact many people consider that the main threat to US national security is the danger that biological or chemical agents, or weapons-grade material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation states. The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that the illegal trade in nuclear materials has doubled since 1996, and the agency counts 370 confirmed cases of smuggling of such materials in the past 8 years. A US State Department study reports that up to 130 terrorist groups worldwide have expressed interest in obtaining nuclear capabilities - among them Osama bin Laden's group. Some experts maintain that with a lump of enriched uranium a bit smaller than a football, some materials available at a retail electrical store, and a competent engineering graduate, a terror group would have a reasonable chance of making a crude, but effective nuclear weapon.

Further Reading

The Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies is at
The Terrorism Research Center maintains a web site at
The US Government's policies on terrorism is at Terrorism and U.S. Policy.
A new site from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) contains essays by well-known social scientists on the events of and following September 11. Among the pieces currently posted are essays by Seyla Benhabib, Olivier Roy, and John Hall. Future plans are to add a teaching guide by mid-January, to help instructors use the essays in lesson plans, and to use some material from the site in a book series that SSRC will launch in 2002.


Combs, C. (1997) Terrorism in the 21st Century. NJ: Prentice Hall.
Hoffman, B. (1999) Inside Terrorism. NY: Columbia Univ. Press.
Israeli, R. (1997). Islamikaze and their significance. Terrorism and political violence, 9, 96 - 121.
Kaplan, A. (1981). The psychodynamics of terrorism. In Y. Alexander & J. Gleason (Eds.), Behavioral and quantitative perspectives on terrorism (pp. 35–50). New York: Pergamon.
Kushner, H. (1996). Suicide bombers: Business as usual. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. 19. 329 - 338.
Long, D. (1990) The Anatomy of Terrorism. NY: Free Press.
Martin, J. & A. Romano (1992) Multinational Crime. Newbury Park: Sage.
Merari, A. (1990). The readiness to kill and die: Suicidal terrorism in the Middle East. In W. Reich (Ed.), Origins of terrorism: Psychologies, ideologies, theologies and states of mind. Cambridge University Press.
Silke, A (1998). Cheshire-cat logic: The recurring theme of terrorist abnormality in psychological research. Psychology, Crime and Law, 4, 51 - 69.
Silke, A. (2001). Terrorism. The Psychologist, 14, 580 - 581.
Simonsen, C. and J. Spindlove (2000) Terrorism Today: The Past, The Players, The Future. NJ: Prentice Hall.

© Peter M. Forster
University of the South Pacific
September 2001