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Mind of the Terrorist

The mystery of the terrorist mind became an issue again in recent weeks as a suicide bomber in Afghanistan killed seven CIA officers; a man plowed a truck full of explosives into a playground in Pakistan, and a Nigerian man tried to blow himself up on a plane bound for Detroit.

world Updated: Jan 17, 2010 00:42 IST

The mystery of the terrorist mind became an issue again in recent weeks as a suicide bomber in Afghanistan killed seven CIA officers; a man plowed a truck full of explosives into a playground in Pakistan, and a Nigerian man tried to blow himself up on a plane bound for Detroit.

The psychology of terrorism used to be theoretical. But access to terrorists has increased and a nascent science is taking shape.

More ex-terrorists are speaking publicly about their experiences. Tens of thousands are in “de-radicalisation” programs and talking.

Terrorist propaganda floods the Internet. There are entire cable TV channels operated by extremists.

Researchers have access to hundreds of writings and “farewell tapes” of suicide bombers.

The new research has its limits.

The accounts of the extremists — generally militant Islamists — are difficult to verify. Researchers differ over the path to radicalisation. Some boil it down to religion, others to politics and power, others to an array of psychological and social influences. But patterns have been identified.


Despite the lack of a single terrorist profile, researchers agree on the risk factors for involvement.

They include what Jerrold M. Post, political psychologist at George Washington University, calls “generational transmission” of extremist beliefs, which begins early in life: a strong sense of victimisation and alienation; the belief that moral violations by the enemy justify violence in pursuit of a higher moral condition; the belief that the terrorists’ ethnic, religious or nationalist group is special and in danger of extinction, and that they lack the political power to effect change without violence.

Research shows some terrorists have a criminal mentality. Paradoxically, anxiety about death plays a significant role in terror indoctrination — an unconscious fear of mortality, of leaving no legacy. Many researchers agree there is typically a trigger to accelerate radicalisation — for example, the killing of a friend.

Ervin Staub, a University of Massachusetts psychology professor, has identified three types of


“Idealists” identify with the suffering of some group.

“Respondents” react to the experience of their own group. For example, they were raised in a refugee camp or saw relatives killed. Some may also be responding to individual trauma, like child abuse.

“Lost souls” are adrift, isolated and perhaps ostracised, and find purpose with a radical group. Lost souls are “ripe for the plucking” by recruiters.

Clark McCauley, psychologist at Bryn Mawr College, sees four general trajectories: “revolutionaries,” who are involved in the same cause over time; “wanderers,” who are involved with one extremist group after another; “converts,” who suddenly break with their past to join an extreme movement; and “compliants,” whose involvement occurs through persuasion by others.


The collective, not the individual, identity has drawn the most attention in recent years. Only in rare cases — like the schizophrenic Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Washington sniper John Allen Muhammad — have individuals acted on their own.

Most researchers agree justification for extremist action, whether through religious or secular doctrine, is either developed or greatly intensified by group dynamics.

The Internet has come to play a huge role in multiplying jihadi groups, many of them Al Qaeda inspired. Post said the Internet has given rise to what he calls a “virtual community of hatred.”

Marc Sageman, a former CIA profiler of Al-Qaeda, and others critique personality theory and say only an understanding of group impact on the individual illuminates the causes of the phenomenon.

One theory holds that when people are in groups they are more likely to make risky decisions because the risk is perceived as shared and less frightening. As the group becomes more radical, so does the individual.

A group may also provide camaraderie and a sense of significance. The group can become extremely cohesive under isolation and threat.

Most terrorist groups crumble quickly because of internal strife, many experts say. But groups that go underground and are cut off from competing groups and outside opinions develop the most intense bond.


John Horgan, terror expert at Pennsylvania State University, believes a moral dimension produces what he calls the “internal limits” of terrorists. Horgan collected the accounts of 29 ex-terrorists, many defectors from the Irish Republican Army and Al Qaeda.

He found terrorists must inherently believe violence against the enemy is not immoral, but that they have internal limits — which they often do not learn until deeply embedded in a group.

Some terrorists are comfortable with only a limited number of casualties. When an IRA man was ordered to shoot a police officer whose mother was a widow, he said he felt he “would have to pay for it.”

David C. Rapoport, political scientist at the University of California Los Angeles, said the final common pathway is a moral calculus, driven by the conclusion that the terrorists’ enemies have “done something so bad, so terrible that they can’t get away with it.” He says many terrorists believe “the pathway to paradise is straight through hell.”

And to violate their own personal moral codes, terrorists must believe they will achieve a higher moral condition for society as a whole.


Once a terrorist, it is difficult to turn back — particularly for prospective suicide bombers.

Once assigned to their fatal missions, they become known as walking martyrs. Backing down would create shame or humiliation.

Fathali M. Moghaddam, psychologist at Georgetown University, describes a “staircase to terrorism,” as a way to understand the process of radicalisation. The stairs narrow toward the top. It becomes harder to turn back with each step.

As with killing, there are varying theological views among Muslims about suicide. The Quran prohibits suicide, religious scholars say. But some insist that by classifying the bombers as martyrs, their self-destruction becomes a form of self-sacrifice and dying in battle against infidels.

Arie W. Kruglanski of the University of Maryland College Park, who has studied videotapes of suicide bombers’ final words and interviews with their mothers, argues the overarching motivation of suicide bombers is the quest for personal significance, the desperate longing for a meaningful life that appears only to come with death.


Horgan has led much of the research into disengagement — a terrorist’s departure from the organisation. He has concluded, one, terrorists can disengage from violence without abandoning their radical views and, two, some leave after becoming intensely disillusioned with the reality of terrorist life.

The reasons terrorists leave the life provides great insight into how their minds work, and their beliefs may be more subject to change than previously thought, he says

Recruits are often promised an exciting, glamorous adventure and a chance to change the world. But what they often find is groups rife with jealousies and personal competition. Also that life is boring. You end up in a safe house drinking tea. For those who maintain an existence outside the group, living a double life can be exhausting. Some also conclude that the group’s goals are unattainable or, as the group becomes more extreme, even immoral.

In one case, an ex-Al Qaeda recruit, when he arrived to fight in Afghanistan, was dismayed to find children and elderly being forced into battles. The man’s image of this all-seeing, all-powerful, all-noble movement was receiving its first hard knock, Horgan said.