What makes a terrorist?

In the wake of the bombings in Boston and the renewed desire on the part of the media to determine the root causes for why people allow themselves to become extremists, act radicalized and terrorize others let me assure you, we have a pretty good idea of the basics. Whether it is a Muslim radicals’ intent to blow up buses and cause mass casualties in the name of some misconstrued religious edict, the Boston bombing Tsarnev brothers desire to kill as many as possible in America, the Columbine shootings revenge motivation against schoolmates, Adam Lanza in Newton, Connecticut who intended and succeeded in killing as many young school children as he possibly could or Hamas and Hezbollah regulars who flaunt a credo of intolerance against anyone who does not share their worldview, they all share some commonalities. In brief, anyone studying terrorists will tell you that all active terrorists are, in a phrase, lonely, angry failures. And if you add to this profile a psychological predisposition, like a mood or anxiety disorder, some sort of internal emotional pressure that adds to the personal discomfort these people experience, then the likelihood for explosive acting out is increased. This does not mean that all people who are socially isolated, who have not succeeded at their desired activities or are perennially angry will be terrorists but it does mean that they are predisposed to becoming radicalized.

Terrorists, those individuals who actually execute acts of terror, not those who find, radicalize and plan these acts, are people who have had several specific emotional psychological or social travails.  They have experienced social skills problems such as trouble fitting in or a disability that they were bullied about or a difference that causes them to stand out regardless of how minor it may be. All of them have been exposed to some form of violence or trauma which may sometimes be a major cause for their life change or be as innocuous as moving from a comfortable community to an even nicer one where they had a difficult time making new friends. And, perhaps most important, almost all have a poor family narrative which causes them to believe that they lack a cohesive and protective family support system. Again, this may be their perception but not a completely accurate one if measured objectively. Terrorists are individuals who may have been raised in what appears to the outside as warm, nurturing and happy families that have given them access to a good education and many other resources. Still, their family may contain a tale of pain and stress that they alone have felt.

Of course many individuals have had all of these factors in their lives and only a very few become so radicalized as to deliberately and hatefully desire to harm others. Many people may use these very same life experiences to motivate them to achieve their notoriety in highly acceptable ways. The question for researchers and law enforcement alike is to find out why some chose a path of destruction, and a desire, for some a compelling need, to hurt others.

So friends, what is it? What causes some people to turn to acceptable methods to overcome their difficulties and achieve success while others turn to the notoriety of terrorism? Any ideas?



About the Author
Dr Michael Salamon ,a fellow of the American Psychological Association, is a 2018 APA Presidential Citation Awardee for his 'transformative work in raising awareness of the prevention and treatment of childhood sexual abuse". He is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York and the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications) and "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America). His newest book is called "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."