Psychological Motivation for Terrorism

Psychological Motivation for Terrorism


Recent researches into the wide and seemingly inexplicable topic of psychology of
terrorism have drawn wide contentions and discussions particularly on what actually motivates a
terrorist. Over time, it has been agreed that determining what drives a person to commit terrorist
acts is difficult, and forms a basis of extensive psychological, sociological, political, and
religious research(Lygreet al, 2011). Terrorists have to be understood from all these facets in
order to give a holistic conclusion of their mindset. Behavioral scientists have continually shown
an increasing interest in unraveling the mystery behind individuals who finally become terrorists,
and it is on this basis that the author of this paper develops a comprehensive research paper to
delve deeper into the psychological causes, motivation, and determinants of any sort of terrorist

Psychological Motivationof Terrorist Behavior

Many psychological researchers, just like the rest of the general public, have always
remained in perplexity about what really constitutes the notion of motivation of a terrorist. In the
society, acts of terrorism are always uncommon, but shocking once they are committed, and
sometimes entail self-destruction of the perpetrator. The latter is referred to as suicide terrorism,
which further presents more alarming intrigues to a researcher and the general public
(Victoroff&Kruglanski, 2009). Generally, such acts simply defy any logical explanation and a
more lucid and charged analysis is required to get even a pinch of the drive to terrorism. More
often than not, it is deliberate, though there are instances where an individual is under a strong
impulsion to commit an act of terrorism; instrumental; and strategic coupled with several days of

active discrete planning. It is always linked to an ideology, which could be religious, or political,
and members of a particular terrorist group must all share common belief about that ideology.
All these issues even serve to complicate further the understanding of the psychology of a
terrorist, and deter the formation of a unifying theory or ideology that offers an explanatory
statement on the same.
As aforementioned, unifying beliefs shared by members of a terrorist group are usually
guided by an ideology such as that of religion, or politics. But even with these in mind, it is still
vexing to come to a complete discernment of the ghost behind a terrorist, and explain the
motivations that justify his/her involvement in heinous and subversive activities, especially
towards innocent civilians(Saucier et al, 2009). Antique researchers predominantly worked with
the assumption that the occurrence on an aberrant behavior on an individual level, which is
prominently associated with dramatic acts of terrorism may, to a larger extent, be a reflection of
a personality or mental abnormality (Victoroff&Kruglanski, 2009). However, recent researches
based on clinical facts and methodologies have debunked that notion, and have instead,
embarked on intensive factual studies to present a solid case of clinical-based psychological
motivation of a terrorist.
Moreover, researches that have attempted to strike a relationship between terrorism and
psychopathology have unanimously agreed that abnormality and mental illness cannot be
considered as plausible drivers for a terrorist behavior. Actually, incarcerated terrorists have been
found to have higher mental acuity, accompanied by lower prevalence of abnormality than in the
general population(Saucier et al, 2009). This one point of unification between terrorists and
psychopaths, however, does not give an indication that the two are similar in other aspects. Even
terrorists that commit heinous crimes cannot, by any means, be equated as classic psychopaths

(Victoroff&Kruglanski, 2009). The former has solid backing and ideological motivation, guided
by set objectives to commit a crime.
Even up to this stage, a distinct, well-structured argument about psychological motivation
for terrorism is still lacking. Some researchers have cited the extent of vulnerabilities as a
probable cause of terrorist acts. In this context, vulnerabilities are viewed as factors that dictate a
person’s likelihood to be more engaged in a terrorist act than others (Victoroff&Kruglanski,
2009). Rather being taken as simply causes of terrorism, these factors can be viewed in a deeper
sense as motivations or as contributors to the hardening of an individual’s militant ideology
(Lygreet al, 2011). In the society, the mostly encountered vulnerabilities include: perceived
humiliation or injustice; need for a sense of belonging; and need for identity (Victoroff, 2009).
The first element identified as a vulnerability, humiliation or injustice, has been perceived as a
leading and central factor in the event of seeking an understanding about terrorism. Going back
to the antique times, Saucier et al,(2009), stated with conviction that remediable humiliation and
injustice is the principal motivation for a terrorist act. Secondly, the search and longing for
identity may lure one into crime, and ultimately, terrorist attacks. Such a person may be easily
drawn to a terrorist organization or an extremist group, such as that of an absolutist ideology of
‘black and white’ identity, where one simply becomes a member of an outlawed movement so as
define oneself. Lastly, many radical extremists often engage in terrorism as a way of finding a
sense of belonging, affiliation, and connectedness. Indeed, it is much agreeable that the initial
attraction for an individual to join an organization is its identity, and community, rather than the
ideologies which it professes.
How Individuals Connect with Violent Ideologies

The motives for, and pathways to terrorism are very diverse, as people have varied ways
through which they connect with dangerous and violent groups and ideologies for different
purposes. Thus, an individual undergoes phases of radicalization, terrorist engagement, and
ultimate disengagement (Lygreet al, 2011). It is not particularly easy to understand this process
by means of a simple sequential, linear analysis, instead, terrorism is comprises of a continuum
of intertwined dialectical processes that originate from a single decision, and gradually compels
one into engaging in a violent act over time (Victoroff&Kruglanski, 2009). Researchers have
agreed that no single concept can explain the intricate patterns of a terrorist’s mind; therefore
many suggestions and approaches have been developed in the past years.
The Conceptual Approaches to understanding the psychology of a terrorist have been
developed to articulate a proven series of events and stages that apply to divergent group types.
One of the frequently used conceptual approaches explains four continuous stages of acquiring a
terrorist mindset (Victoroff, 2009). It identifies that the mindset is usually the result, and not the
cause, of an individual’s decision to join a violent or extremist group. With a close connection to
the above discussed vulnerabilities, this concept explains how such vulnerabilities and pre-
existing grievances can be transformed into radical hatred of a particular target group; and
further extends into an impetus for violent acts. Initially, the process starts with an individual
framing an event or a grievance that is unsatisfying, such as ‘it is not fair at all’. After that,
someone, or an organization, or simply a target policy, is held culpable for the injustice, such as
‘it is your direct fault’. Once this happens, the target party or policy is demonized, or vilified; a
stage which incites moral misunderstanding between the two parties, and creates an impetus for a
violent form of aggression (Saucier et al, 2009).

On the other hand, Lygreet al(2011) developed a metaphoric ‘Staircase’ model to attempt
to explain the aspect of one becoming a terrorist. He also agrees that discontentment and feelings
of deprivation are principal root causes of the terrorist mindset development. This model
assumes that once an individual falters in his attempts to subvert adversity and/or deprivation,
feelings of aggression and frustration set in, and the victim finds a target or an agent onto which
to displace the frustrations (Victoroff, 2009). As the aggression and feeling of animosity against
that agent builds up, an individual feels increasingly sympathetic towards violent or terrorist
groups and justifications to commit crime (Victoroff&Kruglanski, 2009). As one progresses to
join a terrorist group, the barrier to commit violence is overcome, and the real act is finally
carried out.
There are numerous other conceptual theories that have been suggested, though most of
them agree that for one to become a terrorist, he/she must have either some or all of the
following attributes: feels angry, disenfranchised, or alienated; identify with victims of the
perceived injustice, or discrimination; have a belief that their current social, political, or religious
affiliation does not grant them enough powers to effect any changes in their situation; have a
mutual feeling that the only way to solve their current problem is beyond diplomacy and
therefore action needs to be taken; have some family members or friends who are sympathetic to
their cause; and believe that involving with a terrorist organization offers not only social
rewards, but also psychological satisfaction such as a sense of belonging, camaraderie, or
Kruglanski(2013), notes that individuals who join terrorist organizations usually are
social misfits in the society, uneducated, and unemployed. Boredom is a major drive for the
youths towards joining a terrorist group, especially as a cheap way of engaging in an action-

packed ordeal that fights for a cause they believe is just. Other individuals, however, are
motivated by their nagging curiosity to make use of their skills, for instance, bomb-making. The
personal pathway model, on the other hand, reiterates that terrorists came from a given at risk
population, who have in the past, suffered a blow on their self-esteem. All these suggestions
point to one thing, or at least two: terrorists were initially a frustrated lotof individuals, who
have found solace and satisfaction in a movement which they believe would them a just
opportunity to pay back, and remedy the situation for future descendants. Ina addition, a terrorist
does not rapidly commit a violent act, but develops the feeling until the justification for the
destruction of innocent property and lives, including one’s own, is found.
The Motivation of a Suicide Terrorist
In an extremist view, terrorists often engage in a self-destructive violence, commonly
known as suicide terrorism. An individual-level analysis conforms that this worst form of
violence is driven by an experience of personal trauma(Victoroff&Kruglanski, 2009). Such
incidences like disruption or destabilization of an environment; the demise of a close relative or
friend; physical wounding; and psychological mistreatment such as disgrace or humiliation serve
as strong factors that lead to a violent behavior. This tendency is heightened when an individual
or a group feels that the government or a larger group has the ability and the legal jurisdiction to
handle and adequately address a situation, and obvious clumsiness can be seen on their part.
Based on grueling experiences of frustration, loss, disenfranchising, disillusionment; bitterness,
and feelings of helplessness are likely to develop (Saucier et al, 2009). Researchers acknowledge
that irrespective of whether the experience is indirect or direct, an individual is still exposed to
the same kind of vulnerability: one loses control over one’s anger and logical reasoning due to

perceived reduction in self-esteem. As a feeling of despair sets in, an individual finds a
resolution by joining an organization that believes in one’s cause.
Supportive violent groups usually have the greater leverage on a person’s transition from
a new recruit to a suicide bomber. Extremist groups often work by offering a strong ideology
with a reasonable morel component, such as the sacredness of human life under threat by
misguided policies legalizing abortion. In addition, a clear vision for the future is usually given
by the group, which may at times be very instrumental in attracting undecided recruits. The study
of group dynamics reveals an intriguing mode of transition of a new recruit into a potential
suicide bomber. The confine of a social group alienates one from developing sound behavioral
norms, and instead, creates a new world of abject ideologies which are then legitimized,
reinforced, and rationalized (Victoroff, 2009). An individual, thus, severes his relationship with
the moral world and his ability to engage in constructive personal reflection reduces as his
dependence on the members of the extremist group heightens. This is a pint of no return, and
usually marks the point of readiness, willingness, and open confession of a person to carry out
any act, guided by a cause that he believes is far much greater than himself.


Although the understanding of the psychology of a terrorist is challenging and openly
difficult, a collective analysis of the models and conceptual approaches developed by past
researchers provide some common points which can be drawn to explain what actually
comprises of a terrorist. The root of all sorts of motivations is a feeling of injustice and/or
prejudice. Several members of a society that believe, or are affected by the same predicament
can form a strong movement that organizes itself as a crime syndicate. This explains why
Muslims, who are more united than Christians, usually find it easy to form a movement that

addresses their rights. Lastly, feelings of the need for identity and belonging have been found to
be as pressing as the aforementioned in driving an individual to commit acts of terrorism. Further
study needs to be conducted to come up with a holistic and comprehensive framework of
understanding the psychology of terrorists, since this could be crucial in forestalling the
occurrence of terrorist attacks, as enshrined within the strategic plans of predictive policing.


Kruglanski, A. W. (2013). Psychological insights into Indonesian Islamic terrorism: The what,
the how and the why of violent extremism. Asian Journal Of Social Psychology, 16(2),
Lygre, R. B., Eid, J., Larsson, G., &Ranstorp, M. (2011). Terrorism as a process: A critical
review of Moghaddam’s ‘Staircase to Terrorism’. Scandinavian Journal Of Psychology,
52(6), 609-616.
Saucier, G., Akers, L., Shen-Miller, S., Knežević, G., &Stankov, L. (2009). Patterns of Thinking
in Militant Extremism.Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4 (3), 256-271.
Victoroff, J. &Kruglanski, A. (Eds.). (2009). Psychology of terrorism: Classic and contemporary
insights. New York: Psychology Press.
Victoroff&Kruglanski, 2009).Suicide Terrorism and the Biology of Significance.Political
Psychology, 30(3), 397-400.

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