Psychology of Terrorists


Terrorism can be referred to as the use of violence or force, which is unlawful to threaten the civilian population and the government on the basis of advancement of social and political goals.  According to Barton (2014), the psychosocial context of terrorism refers to “those social and psychological circumstances that encourage certain behaviors to develop and expand.”  The psychology of terrorism is significantly a matter of concern to nations. It is believed that no one can wake up and just make up his/her mind to becoming a terrorist. Thus, terrorism is typically a steady and unnoticeable process in individual terrorists. The socialization process associated with the culture makes the cognitive psychological context of terrorism. This paper examines the psychology of terrorists by identifying groups or individuals that perpetrate terrorism, definition, and characteristics of terrorism, disciplines defining the psychology of terrorism, explanation of how terrorism is organized, and how they follow criminal activities such as legal, corrective, and rehabilitative action. In this paper, Al-Qaeda (The Base), a terrorist group is used in the study of the psychology of terrorists.

Definition and Characteristics of Terrorism

Terrorism can be viewed as a method used by the weak that involves threats through force or violence, to conquer a diverse group or break the will of culture. Notably, it is mostly used as a political weapon. The United States of federal regulation defines terrorism as “unlawful use of force or violence against a person or property with the objective of intimidating the government, civilian population, or any other group, in the furtherance of social and political objectives” (Code of Federal Regulation Title 18, section 2331). Generally, terrorism mostly involves violent criminal acts according to the definition above (Perry, 2003). 

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Bartol (2014) indicates that terrorism is encouraged by certain cultural characteristics. The first characteristic is cultural devaluation; this is where a group or culture is selected by another as an ideological enemy or a scapegoat. Inequality, injustice, and relative deprivation make the second characteristic, where the powerless or weak individuals or groups are likely to join terrorist groups with the aim of getting a sense of identity. The third characteristic is a hierarchy – most of the terrorist groups have leaders who are referred to as powerful, convincing, and charismatic. According to DeAngelis (2009), a study done by the Pennsylvania State University showed that persons involved in terrorism, especially involved in the recruitment and radicalization tend to feel isolated, angry, or disenfranchised. They tend to believe that their current condition does not allow them to have the political power to effect change. Such believes make them have a tendency of acting rather than talking about the problem. Moreover, they believe that by joining the terrorist groups they achieve social and psychological rewards such as solidarity, adventure, and a sense of identity.

Disciplines Defining Psychological Terrorism

Risk Factors

Learning and situational factors are the main risk factors that influence criminal behaviors among terrorist groups or individuals. Bartol (2014) states “criminal behavior is earned” and also “traditionally, psychologists have delineated three major types of learning – Pavlovian or classical conditioning, Instrumental learning or operant conditioning, and social learning.” The human behavior can be illustrated using the social learning theory based on the sociological phenomena. Scholars such as Albert Bandura who have internalized the social learning theory believe that children and adults are not born with aggressive or violent nature, thus, this nature is adopted and learned. It is through modeling that such violent attitudes and emotional response patterns are acquired by individuals. This means those who are currently terrorists were not born to become terrorists. Thus, the act of terrorism is a learned process.

The learning perspective argues than behaviors, beliefs, and tendencies are virtually learned by humans from the social environment. For instance, a family that is full of aggressive or violent behaviors is likely to have children with the same traits as the environment facilities the learning of violent acts.

Psychological Disorders/ Mental illness

Weathertone & Moran (2003) indicate, “most authors base their analysis on individual psychology rather than any biological component.” Emphasis on the mental condition of many political terrorists has been analyzed by most authors. Most analyses indicate such terrorists abnormal. However, not all terrorists are mentally disturbed, but the majority are. Claims on the behavior indicate evidence of paranoia, psychopathic, or other psychiatric lacunae (Weathertone & Moran, 2003). In some cases, such individuals may have aggressive psychopathic behaviors that are embraced by certain extremist groups. Terrorism can also be a result of certain personality types. Weathertone & Moran (2003), states that such personality types provide the sense where many terrorist individuals are viewed as people with insignificant personalities that are drawn to terrorism using their self-deficiency. Paranoid and antisocial behaviors are influential in violence promoted by terrorism. Al-Qaisi (2012) supported this by stating “intelligence reports confirm that al-Qaeda is now using the mentally challenged because of a severe shortage of suicide bombers in its ranks.”


Motivations are complex and vary greatly. Individuals may join terrorist groups for a variety of political, economic, social and personal reasons. According to Bartol (2014), “young people lacking self-esteem and a sense of self may be primary candidates for joining terrorism.” For instance, many European terrorists claim that political violence is the reason they seek a sense of self-worth and purpose. Giving the power to powerless, revenge, and gaining a sense of significance are among the motivations for joining terrorist groups. Thus, the motivational differences in these terrorist groups when brought together bring common group interests and self-serving actions. 

Political Ideologies

 For instance, the ideology of Al-Qaeda is to free Islam from oppression. Statements from Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri among other leaders of the terrorist group display adamant dedication of these leaders to steady a political ideology focused on two goals: “the expulsion of foreign forces and influences from Islamic societies and the creation of an Islamic state ruled by Sharia law” (Bergen, 2011). The political direction outlined in the statements is deep-rooted in the Islamic principle popularly known as ‘tawhid’, which act as a unifying factor that includes the political, religious, and social systems (Blanchard, 2005).

Terrorist Profiling 

Terrorist profiles exist in a broad sense, thus, their psychological profile is found to exist across or within groups. The composition of terrorism is remarkably diverse (Horgan, 2017). Those involved in terrorist acts can be men, women, or even children who may engage indirectly. The radicalization process has profoundly advanced in both conceptual and theoretic manner. Terrorism is considered contentious and dynamic, as it is surrounded by differences when characterizing it. In radical extremist groups, aspects such as affiliation, connectedness, and a sense of belonging define individuals joining the course.

Legal and Corrective Action Defining the Terrorism Criminal Activity

The corrective action in most terrorist group activities is counterterrorism. According to the National Counterterrorism Center (2013), the goal of counterterrorism is to “lead our nation’s (United States) effort in combating terrorism at home and abroad by analyzing threats, sharing information, and integrating all instruments of national power to ensure unity of effort.” Through counterterrorism, terrorist attacks can be neutralized and the growth of Islamist terrorism can be controlled, thus, preventing further attacks.


 In the Psychological nature of terrorism, psychological services can be offered to individuals who are already radicalized or are in the process using the help of a psychologist and other mental health professionals. This can help prevent or control terrorist attacks. Additionally, Bartol (2014) states that “aggressive military action is rarely the solution unless it is in response to an imminent and documented threat to a country and its citizens.” Therefore, it is important to examine the factors in the psychology of terrorists such as the learned behavior, behavior psychology, and network theory in order to find a solution. International terrorism is not likely to be reduced to the root causes of violence, thus, solutions should be found by addressing the psychology of terrorism. These solutions should hopefully provide an insight into the increase of terrorism globally and also encourage psychologists to engage on such issues in times of social and political upheaval. Professionals such as criminologists, Homeland Security Practitioners, sociologist, and Psychologists should combine their efforts in fighting terrorism by pressing social and political psychological consequences of terrorist activities.


Al-Qaisi, M. (2012, August). Al-Qaeda recruiting mentally challenged individuals for suicide attacks. Retrieved from

Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2014). Criminal Behavior: A Psychological Approach. (Tenth Edition). Pearson Education Inc. Upper Saddle River, NJ

Bergen, P. L. (2011). The longest war: The enduring conflict between America and Al-Qaeda. Simon and Schuster.

Blanchard, C. M. (2005). Al Qaeda: Statements and Evolving Ideology. Retrieved from

DeAngelis, T. (2009, November). Understanding Terrorism. Retrieved from

Horgan, J. G. (2017). Psychology of terrorism: Introduction to the special issue. American Psychologist72(3), 199.

Perry, N. J. (2003). The Numerous Federal Legal Definitions of Terrorism: The Problem of Too Many Grails. J. Legis.30, 249.

Weatherston, D & Moran, J. (2003). Terrorism and Mental Illness: Is there a Relationship? International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 47(6), 698- 713. DOI: 10.1177/0306624X03257244

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