The Mind of the Terrorist is the Mind of His Mother

It is hard for Westerners to understand how completely tied in the terrorist son is to his mother as Tamerlan was to Zubeidat. The psychodynamics are similar to other shame honor cultures. We, too, have western shame honor “families” from which many of the converts are ripe for psychological jihadi recruitment.

In my previous blog — the FBI MUST TAKE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SERIOUSLY IN PROFILING JIHADIS, I discussed how the maternal relationship sets the tone for all future relationships. Herein lies the mind of the terrorist complete with its sadomasochistic bondage.

Dr. Keith Ablow on Fox News put it well that a child is molded in a crucible where there has been a pervasive denial of reality. Zubeidat was picked up for shop lifting, stealing, displaying her psychological neediness and poor reality testing.

Tamerlan’s personality was to a large part formed by this impoverished maternal experience. Like a heat seeking missile, he targeted unconsciously similar women who were vulnerable, needy and ripe for abuse. Katherine, his wife, should be considered a high functioning emotionally abused young woman at the very least (see the writings of my colleague Dr. Joan Lachkar) whose own emotional deprivation go back to her own childhood — despite the fact that her physician father and nurse mother are described in nearly picture perfect terms as an all American family. This is shallow journalism. There had to have been undetected problems in her childhood to have been captured mentally by Tamerlan. We know that a Svengali-Trilby bondage is traumatic bonding from depth psychology. This is not something that arises all of a sudden in late adolescence out of the clear blue. It is part and parcel of the character aspect of the personality.

Together mother and son formed a perverse Siamese twin-ship through their joint radicalization. He was married to his mother psychologically — he called her before he died NOT his wife. I developed a theory of imagery for the suicide attack site based on this kind of maternal bondage.

Both of Zubeidat’s daughters were married off at young ages in arranged marriages, not a far cry from the Chechen custom of bride stealing. There is the Chechen proverb — the boy is happy to move around and the girl — to sit still. The girl is to be passive, controlled. One daughter also experienced domestic violence, being brutally beaten. Rather than trying to help the daughter out of the abusive marriage, the mother thought it was better for her to submit to the abuse than divorce. The mother had NO empathy for the daughter. The daughter was merely an object to be sacrificed. Why should this be surprising since numerous Palestinian mothers have sent their children to their deaths?

Despite this horrific familial picture, one of the Tsarnaev daughters showed empathy for the Boston victims. This daughter bravely broke out of the family cycle of abuse. Rather than continue to transmit the trauma across generations, she stopped it through conscious choice.


We do not have to become the bully brother.

While FBI and law enforcement are correct to look to the open university of jihad on the Internet (elsewhere I have argued that this too, is yet another a manifestation of maternal traumatic bonding to the hard object/computer), they are however missing the root cause for radicalization:


The twinning of the mother and son gets replayed between the brothers. Twinning is a recurrent theme especially for those attracted to Al Qaeda. It is their calling card — twin bombings etc. this is because they can not stand alone, they have to have a support partner in crime. They are actually quite fragile. That is why they turn to their brothers after their mothers.

The foremost fertile soil for radicalization raises out of the maternal relationship. There has to have been chinks in the personality’s armor which perpetuates the traumatic violent bonding in all other future relationships. Internet recruitment (the radical speeches, the violent imagery, the martial jihadi music etc) merely hooks into these Swiss cheese like autistic holes in personalities such as Tamerlan’s but these holes were made from his mother’s abused status in Chechen culture.

The FBI started watching Tamerlan in 2008. In 2009 Tamerlan was picked up for domestic violence. Hindsight being 20/20, having taught FBI and law enforcement, having done prison interviews, having trained on a Human Terrain Team, holding US security clearance at the level of secret (inactivated upon my immigration to Israel), I say someone should have gone undercover with a wire to draw Tamerlan out. The attitude of domestic violence is a jihadi attribute. The mother transmitted her own terrors of abuse and murderous rage to her son unconsciously as she cradled him in her arms. They were united in hatred. Her mind set was inscribed unto his — this is the mind of the terrorist.

Finally I read yesterday about a Syrian who was apprehended fleeing the U.S. to fight jihad in Syria. Some authority said the case was not related to Boston. This is not true from a jihadi psychological point of view because they are emboldened by Tamelan’s wanton murder and maiming. Going back to fight jihad anywhere automatically joins these like minds. They feel themselves “connected,” be it Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. They are “brothers.” It is high time that we connect this dot in the global jihad. Zubeidat and Tamerlan were a marriage of jihadi minds dancing to the myth of martyrdom (to borrow the phrase from Adam Lankford’s excellent new book) Murdering others in the name of jihad is just such a good cover to act out their infantile rage.

About the Author
Dr Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin is a fellow at The American Center for Democracy and a psychoanalyst with a PhD in AljamĂ­a (Old Spanish in Arabic script). She is author of 'The Banality of Suicide Terrorism,' also in Hebrew; Penetrating the Terrorist Psyche and The Maternal Drama of the Chechen Jihadi.