Why do people become terrorists?

In order to counter terrorism effectively we need to know why people become terrorists. Are they just crazy or are there some underlying issues? Much of the public believes that it is up to our police and justice system to prevent acts of terrorism. However, in order to prevent it they need to deal with the causes. Reacting to foreign terrorists by invading other countries just creates more terrorists, as seen with the United States invasion of Iraq and the subsequent emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

There are two competing views among academics in terms of how people become terrorists; psychological perspectives, and radicalization. 

Psychological perspectives are focused on individual pathologies. They focus on what is "wrong" with these individuals, that makes them commit terrorist acts. They also want to know what makes terrorists different from other people. However, there has yet to be a successful profile for terrorists. Similarities that are found among terrorists may be coincidental factors rather than causes. The Psychopathy Checklist  (PCL-R) has been applied to several known terrorists and it has been found that many have a lack of remorse or guilt for their actions as well as a lack of empathy for those they have hurt. This does not necessarily mean that terrorists are psychopaths. The military, for example teaches soldiers how to kill not just physically but psychologically and morally as well. Terrorists training camps teach people essentially the same things. If you believe your actions are for the greater good, or that your enemy is truly evil you likely won't feel remorseful for killing them. Other studies have found that narcissistic conditions are potentially more prevalent in terrorists than the population. Some terrorists may suffer from narcissistic rage. This is a reaction to narcissistic injury, which is a perceived threat to a narcissist's self-esteem or self-worth. Narcissistic rage can occur as a serious outburst, including violent attacks, and murder. 

The psychological perspective also brings in psychodynamics. First introduced by Sigmund Freud, psychodynamics is based on the idea that our actions, in this case terrorist activity, is the result of unconscious desires brought on by real or imagined unresolved childhood conflict. Ericson, another prominent psychologist, proposed that childhood is a series of crises that must be resolved. If crises are not resolved than a person may not become a properly functioning adult, and may lack a solid identity. Many experts believe that one reason people join terrorist groups is because they are searching for an identity, and somewhere to belong. 

There are many criticisms of the psychological perspective. These perspectives deny rational individual motivations, they have several methodological weaknesses, they ignore group context, and they rely on unfalsifiable or tautological arguments (i.e. crazy people become terrorists, so terrorists are crazy people). These perspectives do not explain why there are so few terrorists and why most 'crazy' people do not become terrorists. It is argued that Governments and the media label terrorists as crazy as a way of taking any legitimacy away from their cause. It is also important to know that you cannot make accurate psychological assumptions about an individual without a clinical psychological interview. Very few of these interviews have been done with terrorists.

The second perspective is radicalization. There is no universally agreed upon definition, as violent radicalization is a relatively new term. However we believe it is best described as the process by which people come to adopt extremist political or religious beliefs that deem legitimate the use of violence as a method of effecting political or social change. Now the question is, how do people become radicalized? There are many proposed pathways of radicalization but they all share three common elements; process, ideology, and violence. Four major models of radicalization will be discussed; Borum's Four Stage Process, Wiktorowicz's Joining the Cause, Moghaddam's Staircase to Terrorism, and Sageman's Four Elements. 

Borum's Four Stage Process begins with 'deprivation' in which an individual perceives their situation as 'not right.' They are working hard but not getting ahead. Then 'inequality' where the individual see's their situation as 'unfair', specifically it is not fair that they are not doing as well as others. This leads them to blame others for their hardships, perhaps the wealthy or a specific ethnic group. The final stage is stereotyping/dehumanizing. They come to believe that those they blame for their hardships are 'evil' and they must react to them with violence. 

Wiktorowicz's Joining the Cause, focuses on the idea that most people are not susceptible to terrorist propaganda, but sometimes they can be if there is a crisis in their life (i.e. lost job, end of relationship, death in the family). Wiktorowicz says that a crisis may result in a cognitive opening, which leads to religious seeking (i.e. Why do bad things happen to good people?). Then there must be what is called 'Frame Alignment' which means that the extremist ideas make sense or resonate with the individual. Finally there is socialization, where the individual begins to interact with people who are involved in violent extremism. It is important to note that individuals may stop at any one of these stages even socialization and not commit violent terrorist acts. 

Moghaddam's Staircase to Terrorism, focuses more on groups than individuals. He believes that group deprivation can cause more people to mobilize into violent extremism. Typically people are more likely to fight for the rights of their group than for themselves (i.e. white supremacists banning together to protect the future of the white race). The steps of this process are as follows; psychological interpretation of material conditions, perceived options to fight unfair treatment, displacement of aggression, solidification of categorical thinking ( Us Vs. Them), and finally the terrorist act. 

The final pathway that will be discussed is Sageman's Four Elements. This process is thought to have a lot of credibility, because Sageman worked at countering Terrorism with the CIA for several years. The first element of his process is 'moral outrage.' There is usually an event which prompts moral outrage, perhaps a school bombing. The next element is 'frame.' These are narratives which explain the justification of violence (i.e. why is it a good cause?). Then there must be 'resonance' which is basically the same as frame alignment. The extremist views have to make sense to the person and fit with their cognitive framework. The fourth element is 'networks', which is essentially who a person knows to introduce them to the cause. They may have friends and family in the group already, or they may come across recruiters on social networks, such as forums with people who think like them. Some people are completely radicalized online, it does not have to be physical (i.e. foreign fighters who join ISIS). Even lone wolves have talked about violent acts in online forums. 

If we accept the radicalization perspective we must also accept that most terrorists are rational people, they are made not born, and mental illness may not be as big of a factor as we once thought. From these perspectives we can see that major pieces of the radicalization puzzle are grievances/crises, ideology/narratives, enabling environments, and networks. Grievances typically result from relative deprivation or inequality. Groups or individuals may feel that they are being persecuted or treated unfairly. Then there is ideology/narratives to justify violence. ISIS narratives are usually along the lines of "the West is trying to destroy Islam," "Salifis are the only true Muslims," "Islam requires that Muslims live in the Caliphate," and "Islam requires violent defense of the Caliphate." 

Networks are important, especially for illegal organizations because they need to know who they can trust. People may get brought into an extremist group due to close personal connections or they may be targeted over social media. Social media networks, particularly online forums, may draw people in over time and eventually encourage them to be violent. This is sometimes referred to as 'spirals of encapsulation'. Enabling environments still include terrorist training camps and physical recruiters, but the most important enabling environment now is the internet. Radicalization online dominates all conversations about radicalization because it offers unique opportunities for extremist groups to connect with millions of people around the world. The internet can create an 'online disinhibition effect.' It has been found that when individuals have anonymity and an audience they are more likely to say radical or controversial things than they would in person.  The internet can also create an 'echo chamber,' where like minded people can find each other. There is not a lot of open-mindedness, despite the vast amount of information on the internet. One of the most important facets of online radicalization is that online forums which promote extremist ideologies give marginalized people a sense of identity and belonging. These connections are one of the main reasons extremist groups are so appealing to some people. 




Michael King & Donald M. Taylor. (2011) .The Radicalization of Homegrown Jihadists: A Review of Theoretical Models and Social Psychological Evidence, Terrorism and Political Violence, 23:4, 602-622, DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2011.587064

Horgan, John. (2003). The Search for the Terrorist Personality. In "Terrorist,Victims, and Society: Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and its Consequences," edited by Andrew Silke Wiley.

History of Terrorism

The Zealots – Sicarii were Jewish resistance fighters active between the years 66-73A.D. Their main objective was to stimulate a Jewish revolt against their Roman conquerors, hoping to expel the Romans from Judaea. To the Zealots, the Roman presence in Judaea was an obstacle to the arrival of the Messiah. Thus, to incite revolt against the Romans, the Zealots would attack Romans and those who sympathize with them, targeting those who were well-known public figures. These murders would typically take place in large, public gatherings on days that would draw the largest crowd. The Zealots would stab their targets with a small dagger (called sicae, hence Sicarii) and disappear back into the crowd. Ultimately, the Sicarii succeeded in inciting a revolt. Unfortunately, the revolt ended in failure. The Romans sacked Jerusalem, burning the Second Temple to the ground. As the Romans cornered the last of the Sicarii, they committed suicide rather than surrender to their conquerors.

Contrary to what Assassin’s Creed might suggest, the Order of the Assassins were a Shia Islamic sect, also known as the Nizari Ismaili, or by their proper name the Fedayeen (translated as the self-sacrificers. They were active between the years 1090-1273A.D. The Fedayeen were indoctrinated to believe their sacrifice would earn them rewards in Heaven. The goal of the Fedayeen was to accelerate the coming of the Messiah by sanctifying the collective Muslim people. In layman’s terms, the Fedayeen wanted to eliminate all impurity to prepare for the Messiah. Due to their religious fanaticism, the Fedayeen, after infiltrating into the inner circles of the powerful and important Muslims and politicians of their time, would stab their targets to death and wait at the side of the corpse(s), willingly accepting the punishment of the authorities (i.e., execution). Thus, the concept of suicide terrorism was pioneered, which still inspires terrorists today. Fun fact: the word “assassin” comes from a corruption of the Arabic term for Hash smoker, which was a very twisted image of the Assassins as they were an extremely disciplined fighting force.

It might surprise many of you that the first time the word “terrorism” enters the lexicon was as a tool used by a democratic government to control their population. The French Revolution was one that entirely remade the socio-political system of France. As such, the revolution was particularly brutal and violent. To maintain control over the nation after the successful establishment of Les États-Généraux, the Jacobins commissioned a man by the name of Robespierre to consolidate power, prevent counter-revolution, and defend against foreign agitators. During the Reign of Terror (1793-1794), thousands of people were executed by Guillotine, a spectacularly gruesome beheading machine. Many of these people were simply frustrated by the lack of improvement in their livelihoods and living conditions. The wars of Louis XV and extravagant lifestyle of Louis VXI had left the people famished and angry, largely leading to the revolution itself. In defense of his killing spree, Robespierre famously said, “Terror is only justice that is prompt, severe, and inflexible.” Eventually Robespierre would grow too comfortable in his power, threatening even those in the government. This led to his own turn at the Guillotine, thus ending the Reign of Terror.

Unlike their counterparts in the UK, the Tsar in Russia had no need to answer to any of his nobles. Numerous anarchistic groups emerged resulting from years of autocratic rule, such as Land and Liberty (Zemlya I Volya, 1876), and the People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya, 1879-1894). The central contribution to terrorism of these groups was the concept of the “Propaganda of the Deed”. This concept essentially says that at some point, talking becomes useless and actual actions must be taken towards achieving their goal. True to the concept, they successfully assassinated Tsar Alexander II. The concept of Propaganda of the Deed provides ideological inspiration for anarchists and leftist groups long after the end of the People’s Will.


Unlike their anti-state counterparts, the number of victims in state terrorism is of a whole different order. Nazi Germany’s pursuit of the Aryan race, which they believed to be the most pure and dominant race, led to over 12 million deaths. Meanwhile, Stalin’s policy of forced rapid industrialization of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR)’s economy led to widespread death and starvation, with estimates anywhere between 4 – 12 million. During the famine years, Stalin also grew paranoid of fellow Communist Party members, leading to a “Purge” of Communist Party members and non-members alike. This would account for an addition 600 thousand – 1.2 million deaths. Following Stalin’s lead, Mao also introduced a policy of rapid industrialization between 1951 – 1961. During this period, deaths resulting from starvation, forced labour, and executions range from 14 million – 46 million. Following the Great Leap Forward, Mao instituted the Cultural Revolution, which was designed to eliminate all “capitalist” elements and traditional Chinese culture from society to preserve communist ideology. Approximately 36 million people were persecuted, with anywhere between 2 million to 7 million deaths.


During the late 1960s to the 1980s, terrorism begins to resurface in the West in the form of peoples demanding independence. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA; the more militaristic branch of the IRA) conducted bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations of soldiers and police officers throughout Ireland. The Basque of Spain also formed Askatasuna, committing single-shot assassinations of police and military officers. The Kurdish worker’s party (PKK) represented the Kurdish people, who are the largest stateless nation today. The PKK are still currently active, and can often be found fighting the Islamic State (IS). Prior to the IS crisis, the PKK primarily targeted cities in Turkey. This is because a large geographic swathe of the proposed Kurdish homeland, Kurdistan, forms part of modern-day Turkey.

In 1968, the hijacking of the El Al Airlines (the national Israeli Airline) was committed by Palestinian terrorists. It was following this event that hijacking airplanes became a popular terrorist tactic. The importance of this event can be explained with simply “9/11”. However, another landmark terrorist attack occurred only four years after – the Munich Olympics. Also, carried out by Palestinian terrorists, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches as well as one West German police officer were killed. This proved to be a landmark even because, in an era of few television channels and no internet, almost all news outlets would have been broadcasting the Olympics. Ultimately, five of eight terrorists were killed. This event taught future terrorists the power of utilizing mass media in spreading their message.

Left-wing terrorism became prominent and pronounced during the Cold War. These ideologies are heavily influenced by Marxism and Socialism that focuses on redistribution of wealth. Their goal is to fundamentally restructure the society via violence and wake up the mass population. In other words, terrorism is used as a precursor to revolution. The Red Army Faction in Germany organized hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 to Frankfurt and violently kidnap the President of the German Employers' Association. Shining Path in Peru utilized violence against peasants, trade union organization, elected officials, and general population. Despite their wide popularity during the cold war, their legitimacy has decreased considerably with the fall of Berlin Wall and Soviet Union in 1989.


In the early 1990s, the world began to see initial attacks carried out by Osama Bin Laden. Al-Qaeda, which is a terrorist organization formed by Bin Laden, wished a complete break of US influence on Muslim countries. Bin Laden’s offered his army, Mujahideen, to the Saudi Arabia, but it was declined in favor of US army. Bin Laden was outraged by the fact that holy city of Muslim, Mecca, was being protected by foreign army. This led to series of bombings like Yemen Hotel Bombings, first attempt to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993, and US embassy bombing in Kenya in 1998. 


The world was terrorized after the September 11 attacks by Al-Qaeda that bombed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. This event killed 3,000 individuals, injured 6,000, and caused ten billion dollars of property damage. United States, in response, declared a “war on terrorism”. In addition, they opened up new discussions about privacy and religious rights and the appropriate response to fight terrorism. The world, however, is still living in fear. As of today, the world is facing religious extremists, right-wing white supremacists, and Syrian crisis. The threat is imminent and we need collective actions to combat extremism.