The psychology of terrorism

It is challenging to ascertain what drives people to terrorism. Since the terrorists are not ready to volunteer themselves to be examined by the psychologists, forming an opinion based on the secondary texts will not be fair enough. The world has failed to define the word ‘Terrorism.’ Also, one group’s terrorist is another group’s freedom fighter. Indeed, the definition of terrorism is a fundamental and essential element for the conduct of Counterterrorism Operations.

Defining terrorism will further help to understand the psychology of terrorism to some extent. With such complexities, the psychology of terrorism is influenced more by theory than by research. However, now some psychologists are putting available data in proper perspective to conclude the Psychology of Terrorism. Many people view terrorism in the context of political and group dynamics rather than an individual aspect. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology, had stated that civilization, with its institutional restraints and the repression of human nature, guarantees discontentment. Understanding the universal psychological principles such as subconscious fear of death, our desire for a meaningful life and group significance will surely help us understand the psychology of terrorism and tackle this blot on humanity.

The psychology of terrorist does not exist: it is the only common psychology of people related to a societal object called terrorism and where “terrorism as such represents a psychologically coherent concept”, as Kruglanski and Fishman (2006) put it. Generally, the term ‘psychology of terrorism’ is used to reach an organization’s political, social, and psychological goals. Thus, terrorist psychology is embedded within the psychology of terrorism. So psychological purposes could be served by being part of the terrorists’ organization. Perse, terrorism is an ideal tool to achieve political goals (Abhrams 2008). However, how peoples indulge in violent activities is a matter of concern and further research. When we discuss and examine the psychology of terrorism in terms of social-psychological variables, it underlines the terrorist phenomenon and consequences on people and political set-up, so they are the two sides of the same coin. “Many terrorists exist, and their character has changed over time and from country to country. The endeavor to find the ‘general theory of terrorism’ explains its roots, a futile and misguiding enterprise. Terrorism has changed over time, and so have the terrorists, their motives and the causes of terrorism” (Laquer, 2003). There is a broad spectrum of terrorist organizations; each has a different psychology, motivation, decision-making mechanism and modus operandi.

Why people join terrorism? 

According to John Horgan, PhD, a psychologist and working at Pennsylvania University, USA, people join terrorists’ organizations due to the following reasons:

  • Who feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised.
  • Who believes that the current political establishment does not provide opportunities to bring effective change in society.
  • One who identifies oneself with the perceived victims of social injustice.
  • One who feels the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem.
  • Who is convinced that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral?
  • Who believe that joining the movement offers social and psychological rewards.

Neither psychological nor other types of research have revealed qualities unique to those people who are involved in the acts of terrorism. Though the terrorists’ profile exists in a broad sense, no psychological profile has been found within or across the section. There is a vast diversity in terrorists’ organizations and their activities. Across the board, men, women and children join such terrorists’ organizations through various ways and means and encounter experiences varied in nature, differing from each other’s. Presently, what is referred to as “the radicalization process” is shrouded in mysteries and uncertainties.

So, why it is difficult to ascertain the psychology of terrorism?

This is so because terrorism is very contentious and remains different in the characteristic and language. Terrorism is also incredibly dynamic; even the same group might have changed its Modus Operandi according to the environment’s changes. Presently, it can not ascertain why some people join terrorist organizations and indulge in acts of terrorism. Moreover, reviewing the existing literature on the subject indicates that this is not likely to change shortly.

Terrorism is relatively a recent topic of interest in the field of psychology. Till 1981, there was no mention of terms related to terrorism in “The Psychological Abstracts”, the most authoritative compendium of the subject of Psychology. Nevertheless, in 1982, academic psychology recognized terrorism as a subject of consideration and further investigation.

The primary objective of any terrorist organization is to maintain its survival. Its long-term success depends upon its ability to attract, indoctrinate and recruit young people. So the focus is laid on the populace’s section, whose sentiments about the perceived alienation are solid and deep-rooted and whose social networks and interpersonal relationships are conducive for the terrorists’ group to grow and prosper. Influential leaders of such organisations maintain a collective belief system, establish a routine for its members, control the flow of communication, manipulate incentives and deflect external forces. Neither all extremist ideologies facilitate violence, nor all extremists are violent. Potentially, the difference lies in activities’ direction, whether the focus is on the cause or destruction of those who oppose it.


The psychological factors play an essential role in terrorism all its appropriate analysis levels, including individual, group and organization levels. The psychological essence of terms affords suggestions for effective counterterrorism strategies. Agencies responsible for counterterrorism should exercise the utmost care and caution because counterterrorism activities may be counterproductive also. Like military action against terrorist outfit may cripple it but may antagonize a large section of the population. Again, negotiation may appear a viable option to solve the intricated problem and boost the morale of terrorist organizations. While applying the psychology in the aid to counterterrorism strategy perse, it is essential to keep in mind the trade-offs and other paradoxes. Modern terrorism differs from old age criminal activities in that it is mainly motivated by political, social, religious factors. The actions of these terrorists may resemble other everyday illegal activities, but they are just a means to achieve their larger intended goal. Terrorism works to undermine the sense of security and to disrupt every day of the targeted nation. Coping with the psychological and morale-related impact of terrorism must focus on comprehensive educational and informational policy to focus the public attitude toward terrorism and reduce irrational anxiety. Such an approach will further help boost the people’s morale and reinforce their sense of security, which is very important for any civilized, progressive nation.

About the Author
Colonel Balwan Nagial retired from the Indian Army in 2019 after serving for thirty years. Managed administration, security, project mgt throughout his service. He loves writing and contributing in newspapers and magazines in India. He loves Israeli culture.
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