Terrorism is an unlawful use of force or violence against innocent, unarmed civilians or property in an attempt to intimidate government or societies to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives/ demands. It’s a complex social problem and a divisive issue of our time; feels challenging to even discuss it, let alone dive deeper into its myriad social, political, religious, and other factors that cause it. It has always been a subject of intense study in psychology and still has a long way to go. But, there is no agreement on what exactly defines terrorism and it’s not easy to figure out what makes a terrorist ‘click’, but law enforcement and counterterrorism officials have begun consulting psychologists to try.

        It includes State-Sponsored terrorism, Majority terrorism (ex- riots), Minority terrorism (ex- bomb blast, suicide attacks), and Terrorism supported by external agencies.

Also depending on the country, its political system and history; types of terrorism differs. Such as:-

  • Civil Disorder – It is a type of collective violence that disrupts the community’s peace, security, and normal functioning.
  • Political terrorism – It refers to the violent criminal behaviour intended to instil fear in the population, or a significant portion of it, for political goals.
  • Non- Political terrorism – The terrorism that isn’t intended at achieving a political goal but does have a “deliberate plan to create and maintain a high level of terror for coercive objectives, but the end goal is individual or communal gain rather than achieving a political goal.”
  • Anonymous Terrorism – “Less than half” of all terrorist incidents were “claimed by their perpetrators or plausibly assigned by governments to identifiable terrorist groups” in the two decades previous to 2016–19. There have been several theories proposed as to why this occurred.
  • Quasi Terrorism – The acts that occur in the course of committing violent crimes that are similar in form and method to actual terrorism but lack the necessary ingredient. Although the main goal of quasi-terrorists is not to instil fear in the immediate victim, as is the case with true terrorism, they employ the same modalities and strategies as genuine terrorists and generate similar results and reactions.
  • Limited Political Terrorism – It refers to the acts of terrorism carried out for ideological or political reasons but not as part of a coordinated plan to seize control of the state.
  • Official or State Terrorism – “It refers to countries whose rule is dependent on fear and oppression to the point where it resembles terrorism or reaches such proportions.” Structural terrorism is a term that refers to terrorist activities carried out by governments in the pursuit of political goals, frequently as part of their foreign policy.

        In such a scenario, the frequently asked question is whether there are certain characteristics or a profile of the person who is most likely to become a terrorist! Psychologist John Horgan, PhD, a professor of security studies at the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts- where he is also the director of Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, is an applied psychologist who specializes on terrorist behaviour in his research, is the author of more than 70 publications on terrorism and political violence and is also a member of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime’s Research Working Group. The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone Magazine, and the Chronicle of Higher Education have published articles about his research. He said that the short answer is ‘no’ but still this has not stopped psychologists and researchers who are looking for demographic profiles. Since there is no clear way to profile who might be a terrorist, then how do experts begin to comprehend and analyze terrorist behaviour and plausible profile? It’s done with a great deal of patience by reaching out and interviewing people who were once engaged in high-profile terrorist activities and have now disengaged from terrorism.



  • Family Status- It has been found that there is a negative relationship between terrorists and their uneducated parents (Durmaz, Sevinic & Yayla, 2007). Also, presence of consultants and counsellors are important in school because it can help young children in gaining self-awareness and awareness about social issues by discussing terrorist violence. Sometimes, less educated parents fail to inculcate peaceful values and ideas in their children or even do not encourage any conversation about such topics.

       Financial support for family– Another factor that is perceived as an assurance is the financial stability that they get when they join a terrorist organization or complete an act of terror because an extra grant is provided to the families of suicide bombers. 

  • Age – The age of an individual seems to be a key driver in changing one’s behavioural pattern. Dialmy in 2005 concluded that suicide bombers in Casablanca were all young people. Also, many future suicide ‘martyrs’ who are recruited from local mosques are among the young individuals who have been carefully selected. Young adults, who tend to have a tendency of delusion, fantasize their own life without any logic and reality base, become aggressive and develop a rigid ideology which makes them join terrorist organizations.
  • Employment Status– Not only unemployed but also well educated or well qualified and employed people are involved in acts of terrorism.

      As people develop high concerns towards the employment issues, they feel increasingly excluded from mainstream society and are likely to protest either peacefully or violently, in order to voice their suffering from social marginalization.

       In the case of the unemployed, those who have a sporadic work history, have less education, have lower socio-economic statuses, and fail to achieve their own aspirations in the days of achievements/ success; tend to get involved with terrorist groups. These people also seem to suffer from low self-esteem, lack self-identity, and suffer due to low education and illiteracy, are detrimentally affected by the financial crisis. Also, those who have an empty mind, instead of getting into some productive work move into this field just to earn money and satisfy their ego by doing inhumane activities.

       Even in the case of employed, those who join terrorist groups internally have enough reasons to convince themselves to do such violent activities, such as they are dissatisfied with the government, staying presently in altered societal conditions.

  • Peer Groups Pressure/ Influence- This variable aims at measuring the impact of friends on changing the intention to act. Research has demonstrated that delinquent behaviour is mostly committed in groups. Researchers Piquerro and Tibbets in 2005 confirm that the more time spent with friends, the more adolescents adopt aggressive behaviour patterns and tend to act in a socially destructive manner.


1. Antisocial Personality- Many terrorists demonstrate diagnostic features of Antisocial Personality Disorder without possessing the actual disorder. These people have some common characteristics such as social alienation, early disturbance of social development process, narcissist rage, and hostility/violence; whichis similar to characteristics of people with antisocial personalities such as being aggressive, irresponsible, cynical, impulsive, lacking empathy, and knowing the experience of professional failure.

2. According to the personality theory of Sigmund Freud, the human psyche has three parts i.e. id, ego, and superego. ‘Id’ is the unconscious and instinctive component that contains impulses and urges, it is stubborn, unreasonable, and is based on animalistic desires, which works to increase pleasure by satisfying the wishes. ‘Ego’ is the conscious part that tries to create a balance between the unrealistic Id and the external real world by working out realistic ways to satisfy the Id’s demands. ‘Superego’ is partly unconscious which reflects the society’s moral values and ethics, its function is to control the Id’s impulses, especially those that the society forbids.

So, from a Psychoanalytic point of view, terrorists have devalued ‘superego’ and ‘ego’ is strongly influenced by the drive of destruction, thus they are unable to or no longer able to censor the morbid demands of ‘id’.

3. Sadistic Personality– Sadism involves gaining pleasure from seeing others undergo pain or discomfort. Individuals with such personalities show recurrent cruel behaviour and aggression. It includes emotional cruelty, purposefully manipulating others through the use of fear, and a preoccupation with violence. Scholars now agree that group factors, rather than individual factors, are the best way to understand terrorism. Nonetheless, the personality pathology thesis is still held by a few scholars; the Neo-Freudians’ version is currently the most popular. Specifically, this was supported by Post (1984) in the case of favouring personality dynamics as an important factor. Even if this thesis isn’t entirely correct, it may be able to answer a few questions like- Who is more susceptible to become a terrorist? Consider the case of two people who are in the same situation. One joins a terrorist group, whereas the other does not. What is the reason for this? This thesis does a good job of explaining the distinctions. If it would have been the group factors only and not the individual factors that motivate one to join the terrorist groups then every other person living in the same situation would have joined the terrorist organization, but the reality is different. So, it explains that individual personality factors are responsible for this too. Thus, the Neo-Freudians gave an explanation that narcissistic wounds at an early age split the self into two parts i.e. when self-esteem, self-concept is hampered/ hurt at an early age, the trauma leads to the splitting of ‘self’ into two halves:-

  • ‘Grandiose me’– It means an unrealistic sense of superiority, power, importance, identity. Ex- “I am great, influential, powerful; everyone except me is wrong”.
  • A hated and devalued ‘not me’-This is basically projected towards outside targets, who are blamed and thus become scapegoats. The meaning is- except me everyone else is worthy to be hated and devalued.

To this thesis, Post gave a modification and provided them as the following inner dynamics:-

4. Nationalist/ Separatist Leader- These leaders believe in separatism which is basically the advocacy of a state of the cultural group, ethnic, tribal, religious, racial, governmental or gender separation from a larger group. It often refers to political secession, greater autonomy. Such individuals are loyal to their parents, reject the government, and so take revenge from the government that has harmed their parents. Even if it sounds strange, many a time’s people who have lost their parents due to terrorist attacks, join terrorist groups because of the belief that the government failed to protect their parents, so this government should be uprooted.

Their various reasons for believing in separatism are:-

  • Emotional resentment and hatred towards rival communities.
  • Protection from genocide and ethnic cleansing.
  • Resistance by victims of oppression, denigration of language, culture, or religion.
  • Opposition to political decisions.
  • Perception that the state can no longer support one’s own group and has betrayed their interests.

5. Anarchism Ideologies– Anarchism means a cluster of doctrines and attitudes based on the belief that government is both harmful and unnecessary. In contrast to the above-mentioned point, people with this ideology are disloyal to their parents, identify their state, and are dissatisfied with their parents. Their main motive is to create panic, havoc, and destruction among people so that it will build their social identity.

It basically consists of 2 main conditions:-

  • An analysis of power relations underlying existing forms of political authority.
  • A vision of an alternative liberation society based on cooperation, as opposed to competition, coercion, and functioning; without the need for government authority.

6. Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality– Children, who have strict parents with harsh upbringing, authoritarian parenting styles, and punitive child-rearing practices, develop a rigid personality. They consciously love and respect their parents but unconsciously they are hostile to their parents, project a hostile attitude on the weaker section of society. In simpler terms, individuals who are not able to express hostility towards their parents openly; consequently they would displace their aggression /hostility (developed/ built-up inwardly in layers) towards safer targets, especially to those who are weaker or inferior like in this case ethnic minorities, civilians. They are likely to categorize people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ groups, thus seeing ‘their’ groups as superior and the ‘other’ group as inferior. They are obedient to people with high status and vice versa. So, such terrorists show intolerance to ambiguity, show excessive conformity and submission to their terrorist groups. 

7. Study on Columbian Paramilitaries– This was a study conducted on the imprisoned Columbian paramilitaries and they were asked to complete a battery of social cognitive tests which assessed moral cognition, IQ, executive functioning, aggressive behaviour, emotion recognition, and then they were compared with 66 non-criminals. Results showed that they have high aggression, lower level of emotion recognition, no difference in IQ and executive; the biggest difference in moral cognition. Terrorists are guided by abnormal over-reliance outcomes. The end justifies that ‘means’ is the hallmark of the terrorist mindset.


“Bad enough these suicide terrorists throw their own lives away, but don’t they care that they’re killing innocent people?”  This is a very common comment made by people after any suicide terrorist strike. This demonstrates that only a lunatic would do such a thing.”

There are three major forms of justification used by terrorists to counter our natural disgust at their blatant inhumanity (Butler, 2002). They are the following:-

  • First form of Justification– No target population is completely innocent, either because their own behaviour has affected innocent people, or simply because they are bad as they are associated with the enemy group, or because they demonstrate or support the hated group’s corrupt values and deeds. So, Palestinian bus bombers targeting women and children are only retaliating for the Israeli killing of Palestinian civilians. As far as we know, al-Qaeda has avoided attacking children in general and instead focused on strategic targets or at the very least adult populations, such as a marine barracks, a battleship, the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, and the other US and international targets. But the non-combatants at these locations are not innocent in the eyes of terrorists as they reflect and support the unholy invasion of Muslim nations by alien colonizers or pollution of the sacred by infidel acts and philosophies.
  • Second form of Justification – The casualties may happen to be innocent on the face, but war is hell, so there’s always collateral damage in all noble fights. This is the mindset of military forces tasked with pacifying hostile civilian populations, whether in Northern Ireland, the Gaza Strip, Baghdad, or elsewhere, as Timothy McVeigh said openly in his justification for the Oklahoma City bombing. This is unambiguously the position of paramilitary assassination teams who are tasked with eliminating hostile terrorist leaders in order to prevent further violence. They are not specifically targeting civilians, but if civilians are present in the vicinity, they die alongside the terrorists for the greater good of peace and security. So, it’s not surprising that terrorist groups would try to legitimate their actions by mimicking the political and military jargons of their stronger enemies.
  • Third form of Justification – Third, and perhaps most obscenely practical, if pure coercive terror is the goal, the more innocent people killed, the better. In fact, sophisticated terrorists realize that blame for tragedy tends to attach itself to targets of proximity and opportunity, and that if terrorist attacks continue, people will eventually blame their own government for failing to protect them. Thus, in this mindset, attacking innocent people is not a side-effect or an unfortunate necessity; rather it’s a determined strategic goal.

        Pathologizing an act of violence against us (the common population) delegitimizes whatever traces of reason that we may uncomfortably doubt to be lying beneath the act. If they were simply insane, they would have attacked us anyhow and nothing we could have done to satisfy their stated concerns that would have stopped them. But if it isn’t a disorder, and someone can commit such heinous things coldly, rationally, with full intention and self-justification, then they are more terrifying because whatever we did, even though insignificant, may be mainly responsible for our fate. It’s better to just regard them as a bunch of psychopaths. Some authorities have strongly disputed the notion that most terrorist acts are motivated by serious psychopathology (Horgan, 2003).

       Whatever anyone else could say about the terrorist lifestyle, it is certainly difficult, and being a successful career terrorist appears to necessitate a mix of various favourable psychological characteristics (Horgan, 2003a). Terrorists must be reliable, trustworthy, and loyal to the group’s ideals as well as its leaders’ commands. They must deal with the pressures of leading a double or secret existence, and they must sacrifice the gratification of typical human desires for material comfort, family, friendships, and all the other taken-for-granted pleasures of a normal life. Without exposing the organisation, they may have to endure arrest, interrogation, and torture for the allure of a massive cash reward. They may have to give their lives in the end. In this way, full-time terrorists have a lot in common with undercover cops, government secret agents, organised crime operators, witness protection program clients, and other people who live their lives in the shadows for part or all of the time (Miller).

          Terrorism research has attempted to develop a ‘psychological profile’ of terrorists, or a common personality trait that underlies all terrorist acts. Psychologists reasoned that if someone can conduct such heinous deeds (murdering women and children) without regard for morality, he must be mentally ill. It was further reasoned that they are poor, illiterate, and brainwashed and that they come from narcissistic families. However, many terrorists come from typical homes; have steady jobs, and happy, married existence, as evidenced by numerous terrorist attacks. A few years ago, Mumbai cops arrested some terrorists who used to work for high-profile software firms and were paid six figures! In numerous situations, the mental illness argument has been debunked. The majority of modern-day terrorists are well-educated and mentally sound. That is why they are so easily confused in crowds. As a result, according to Nimmi Hutnick (2004), the quest for a “terrorist personality” has been worthless. This is because “terrorism is fundamentally a group phenomenon,” she claims. Terrorist organizations are more than just a collection of individuals; they are groups that demand rigid conformity, adhere to a similar set of rules and beliefs, offer financial rewards, and punish their members harshly.’ It can be confidently concluded, that terrorists represent a psychologically heterogeneous population. Terrorism is caused by a variety of factors, including psychopathology; nevertheless, no single factor is necessary or sufficient to cause terrorism.


        The “modern” literature on terrorism is only three decades old, and the sheer quantity of attempts to define and categorise terrorist subtypes ideologically, politically, and sociologically goes far beyond the scope of this article. So, this section will review a few of the most typical terror taxonomies that have the most influence on the efforts made to understand the terrorist mind.

        Diverse members of terrorist and other extremist groups serve different positions in terrorist and other extremist groups, just as they do in any complex organisation, each with their own unique contributions to the organization’s goals and strategies (Horgan & Taylor, 2001; Pitcavage, 2003). Terrorists were classified as “crusaders, criminals, and crazies” in one early classification system.

  • Crusaders: Crusaders are the most ideologically motivated terrorists, driven by their dedication to their cause, whether it is Islamic jihad or neo-Nazism. These individuals act as the group’s focal points, gathering the group’s support and preparing strategic actions against the group’s opponents.
  • Criminals are primarily violent people looking for an excuse to show their antisocial tendencies through a supposedly good and noble cause. They are usually the least ideologically devoted members of the group, and they can easily switch venues if new and better possibilities to practise their aggressive and sadistic art reveal themselves. These are the group’s despicable, if necessary, thugs who do the dirty work for the organisation, largely because they are excellent at it and enjoy it.
  • Crazies are suffering from some sort of mental illness, which may either bind them to the group or cause severe instability in their dedication and behaviour. Individuals of this type are frequently drawn to many extreme groups’ underlying philosophical conviction, and if their psychopathology can be channelled for the group’s aims, they may play useful roles within the terrorist organisational structure.


        A question arises that if terrorists are ordinary people: how can ordinary people commit such acts? When we hear news headlines about software engineers or students committing acts of violence, we find it difficult to believe. Many people believe it is so absurd that they accuse the police of fabricating terrorists out of the innocent!

        Two prominent studies of social psychology, Milgram (1974) and Zimbardo (1979), both confirmed that ordinary people can do brutal activities in the correct circumstances (1972). These two experiments indicate that an individual can engage in a morally incorrect activity even if he believes it is bad.

        According to Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram (1974), obedience to authority liberates many people of moral responsibility, making them more prone to behave unjustly against others. Milgram found people for his “Study in Memory” by publishing advertisements in local newspaper. He gave the participants the task of quizzing an individual (his accomplice) on a memory task. If the person answers incorrectly, the participant should administer him or her electric shocks. The shocks were not real, but the accomplice pretended to be shocked. He discovered that many participants could easily apply big shocks for small memory recall errors! This study clearly shows that, under some situations, people have a strong tendency to obey an authoritative figure, even if it involves harming an innocent individual. As a result, this research may help to explain why terrorists who commit suicide bombings are open to the command of those in a terrorist cell who are seen as authority figures. Terrorist masterminds may have significant social authority and influence over their followers, and a simple request is often all that is required to carry out a terrorist act (Zillmer, 2006).

         Philip Zimbardo (1972) conducted another experiment in which he requested a group of average college students to spend time in a mock prison. He created a simulation condition (imaginary condition). Some were randomly assigned to guard duty and were given uniforms. They were instructed to follow a set of rules. The rest were made prisoners, imprisoned in cells, and forced to wear degrading garb. He saw that the simulation grew quite real after a while, as the guards became cruel and devised degrading routines. We may conclude from this research that once someone is recruited into a terror cell, it is relatively easy for them to assume the role of a terrorist.

        One of the most common responses to this topic is that terrorists are ‘pushed’ or ‘motivated’ to do it. It is best expressed by social psychologist Albert Bandura, who states that “atrocious deeds demand conducive social conditions rather than monstrous persons.” Ordinary people and descent can be persuaded to do extraordinary cruel things with the appropriate social conditions.”

         Furthermore, what drives a person to engage in extreme violence has many reasons behind it. Mostly we speak about radicalization being the basic reason. So, radicalization is a process that culminates an individual’s participation in terrorism and is often associated with an extreme ideology. Despite this reason, having extreme ideas is not the only necessary reason for involvement in political violence. One’s motivation for involvement in terrorist activities is complex, marginalized and often times unknown.

         The individuals may have witnessed a violent event, been victimized by security forces or paramilitary organizations, experience racism or ‘Islamophobia’, sought to support members of their own identity group against persecution, or in order to propagandize a particular political or religious ideology. Equally an individual may join such a group because their friends did so, or if they have a family tradition of involvement in such organizations, or because there are few new options (like employment, education, etc).

        However, the remaining involved with a terrorist group often has little to do with those motivating factors that encouraged their initial participation. The motivation is more strengthened for an individual as they build relationships with other members and increase their commitment to the group itself. More often the remaining involved with a terrorist group is linked to interpersonal dynamics of a group, keeping commitment rather than ideological reasons. 

        Even regarding the complexity of trying to understand why people join a terrorist organization, is the role of ideology. Ex- someone may have travelled to Syria to join ISIS motivated by a sense of adventure or for humanitarian reasons, and ideology may only be a secondary factor. The role of religious ideology in radicalization is unclear, but we do know that ISIS foreign fighters often have little or no knowledge of the Islamic faith. Despite the limited influence of religious ideology in radicalization, after spending time on the ground engaging with Jihadi organisation members, new recruits eventually adopt an extremist ideology into their own justification for participating in political violence.   

        In the case of Northern Ireland where youngsters joined paramilitary groups for personal reasons (witnessing bloody days, losing family members, etc), explains that an extreme ideology is not always a necessary motivator for engagement in terrorist activity and individuals can choose to become involved for both individual and social reasons.

Finally, no discussion of terrorist motivation would be complete until mental illness is addressed. In the case of mental illness and terrorism, there are two issues:-

  • It is very difficult to know if an individual has or ever had a diagnosis of a recognised mental illness prior to their involvement in terrorism.
  • Mental illness does not directly cause or motivate an individual to engage in violent/inhumane activities.

Furthermore, criminology research shows that those with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violence rather than being perpetrators.

        In effect we cannot always know why people chose to participate in terrorism. For every case of ideological motivation we will find an individual who joined out of boredom. For every young person who joined because their friends were involved we will find an individual who was enticed to participate by an online recruiter. Most frustrating of all are the cases of individuals who ended up joining a terrorist organization because they could (had the chance and opportunity to join and play). 

        The answer to why someone becomes a terrorist often results in disappointing ambiguity. We can’t attribute casualty to one factor alone, be it ideology, mental illness, group dynamics, peer networks. In order to understand the journey towards terrorism, we should not solely focus on individual factors but also on social and political factors/influences. Because, by focusing on the individual alone we are attributing terrorism to the internal state of the individual and discounting the important role of politics, history, community experiences, global narratives, etc which assists the process of radicalization into terrorism.  

After so much of discussion about psychology of terrorism, the only question that arises at the end is this:-

Is there a way to detect potential terrorists and keep them from committing terrorist acts?

        Psychologist John Horgan said that identification of potential terrorists is becoming increasingly challenging. In recent years, there has been an emotional and ostensibly intriguing discussion about who becomes a terrorist and why. And the concept of radicalization has been at the centre of these debates. One of the assumptions is that when people become radicalised, they are exposed to specific thoughts and ideas, which puts them at a higher risk of becoming involved in terrorism. More evidence, particularly from first-hand interviews with former terrorists suggests that this logic may not be as obvious as it seems in many circumstances. So, right now, it’s being discovered that the original concept of radicalization isn’t as useful as formerly assumed, and there’s a need to go back to the roots with regard to much of the present study. And it is at this point that more and more psychologists are being urged by him to step forward and engage with the many theories and methodological frameworks that are already available to professionals like us in order to cut through a lot of the vague thinking that exists in this domain.



M.A. in Psychology, 1st Division

Utkal University