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.
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,
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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:
activity] comes dangerously close to authorising, sanctioning
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.
The Inter-University Center for
Terrorism Studies is at http://www.cteh..ac.il/terror/index.html
The Terrorism Research Center maintains a web site at http://www.terrorism.com/index.html
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. http://www.ssrc.org/sept11/
Combs, C. (1997) Terrorism
in the 21st Century. NJ: Prentice Hall.
Hoffman, B. (1999) Inside Terrorism. NY: Columbia Univ.
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
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
Simonsen, C. and J. Spindlove (2000) Terrorism Today: The Past,
The Players, The Future. NJ: Prentice Hall.