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.