The Psychological Underpinnings Of Terrorism And The Knowledge Deficit In Unravelling It

ISIS flags being displayed in Kashmir (Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
  • It is time to delve deeper into how this vicious circle of terrorism is perpetrated so that there are better ways to augment security solutions.

Is there a way to understand the psychology behind terrorism and should we attempt to even understand it? The attractiveness of terrorism as a tactical tool for some, can be easily understood. It is more or less a calculated exploitation of people’s emotional reactions due to the ‘causing of extreme anxiety of becoming a victim of (what appears to be) arbitrary violence’.

Terrorism is a method to inspire anxiety and fear through violent action, employed by individuals, group, or state actors, for ideological or political reasons. In contrast to, say, assassinations the direct targets of violence are not the primary audience. The immediate human targets of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators.

Threat and violence based communication processes between terrorist (organisations) and their victims are used to manipulate the primary audience. The communication process is turned into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought.


One aspect which has been studied in a very limited amount is the degree of willingness that each individual is capable of having leading to a tolerance of extremist and radical views. This would be crucial to understand the mental make-up which goes into tolerating and even practising violence. While some of today’s terrorism has evolved completely since the early 1990s, the positive image of the traditional ‘revolutionaries’, capture and hold people’s impressions, and shape their image of the individuals involved in terrorism.

These personalities perhaps typified by Che Guevara or Bobby Sands (a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who went on a hunger strike, and achieved fame and status in death never attained in life) defined for many the process and nature of terrorism and political violence. The reality of death and injury and the legal and moral offences which terrorism necessarily involves, rarely impinges on the public image of terrorism, or the terrorists.

Over the years, there have been attempts to brand the terrorists as psychopathic. The psychopathic individual is one whose behaviour is marked by specific and consistently observed traits, but perhaps typified at the broadest possible level by an unwillingness to conform to social or communal rules. Not all psychopathic individuals engage in violent behaviour, but violence is often an outlet for aggressive tendencies in psychopathic behaviour. Of particular interest to analogies with terrorism are the psychopath’s lack of remorse or guilt for his/ her activities and a selfish, egotistical worldview that precludes any genuine welfare for others.


Their nature, traits and the way of working of terrorists are not that easy to comprehend. The cobweb tactics and persistent networking that they get engaged with, cast a sturdy problem in decoding their minds and gestures. In addition to that, we have very limited accounts available to decrypt their psychological behaviour and purpose. This broad conclusion concerning terrorist psychology generally is drawn from sources other than the terrorists themselves. Belonging to closed secretive groups, fleeing from the law, terrorists are not readily available for interview. Even in the absence of enough accounts, three very specific approaches to understanding the terrorist psyche can be found in literature.

These approaches include frustration – aggression, narcissism (and narcissism-aggression) and psychodynamic influences. Take the case of minority groups indulging in terrorist activities emanating from social and political conflict, and the ensuing (although not necessarily consequential) resolve is to turn to violence. This can be seen as the application of frustration – aggression emanating from real or imagined underprivileged, disadvantaged status and an aggression resulting from a failure to have their grievances resolved.

Narcissism may be viewed as a range of psychoanalytic orientations, impulses, or behavioural patterns either completely or overwhelmingly subject to ego concern, as opposed to object concern. The origins of psychodynamic psychology lie in the work of Sigmund Freud. It essentially posits a view of human behaviour heavily influenced by a range of latent, unconscious desires, the origins of which are argued to have developed as a result of real or imagined unresolved childhood conflicts.


Terrorist organisations often claim to represent legitimate grievances of a broader community. Often when the state is seen to react to the terrorist threat with a heavy-hand, there are waves of sympathy in some quarters. This happens because there is an accepted view that there is a ‘root cause’ for terrorism, which is leading people to make the choice of moving towards violence.

We must not assume that the identification of such root causes makes terrorists, passive actors. We know terrorism can be, and often is, based on imagined or ‘virtual grievances’. Whatever perceived ‘real’ grievances are identified as having existed at one time or another, terrorist organisations can be remarkably adept at changing the identity and nature of such grievances, all the while presenting them in a positive light.

Any attempt at critically assessing the utility and relevance of identifying root causes of terrorism must be focused at solving them in their own right, and not as a consequence of being associated with terrorism. Discussions that attempt to root terrorism in poverty or civil strife miss the fundamental attributes of terrorism. A more appropriate way might be to look at pre-conditions and potential triggering factors behind terrorism.


Notions of causality are unhelpful and imply a sense of predictive value that belies the complexity of terrorism as well as the strategic factors underpinning decisions to adopt terrorism either as a specific tactic or as (or part of, via the former) a broader strategy of violent protest. We must begin to think of involvement in terrorism as a process that is susceptible to, and limited by, among other things, strategic and psychological factors at whatever stage or degree of involvement we are examining.

The common personal, situational and cultural factors across accounts that reveal issues relating to why and how people become involved in terrorism, are usually quite broad and seem unrelated in a practical sense. There is often no clear, and certainly no singular, involvement catalyst seen. What seems common though is a gradual socialisation into terrorism. This begins with an increase in commitment to a worldview or an ideology.

Combined with this, group factors are critically important in steering initial engagement in terrorist activities. A sense of premium gets attached to membership in organisations and even to particular roles. Apart from this, comes the positive self-worth of the terrorist when associated with a new organisation. This comes from acquiring some sort of skill or skills, an increased sense of empowerment, a sense of purpose and self- importance, an increased sense of control and an increased acceptance within the group and subsequently the broader community. Again, we must note that each and every one of these factors can be brought to influence the individual at any stage of his or her involvement.


Three things become clear after this discussion. The first is that a terrorist indeed is different from the general masses is psychologically different. The second is that the idea or perception of terrorism that the general populace has, is skewed by aspects like root cause and personality. And the third and final aspect is that ‘we don’t really know enough’ – but still assume that a core ‘causal’ factor.

All of these issues, point towards a pressing problem that is endemic to issues of counter-terrorism. There is a difficult conundrum – the political process is almost completely ineffective in so many ways in dealing with terrorism, so it looks to locate the solution to the problem elsewhere, for example, in the intelligence services or in law enforcement.

A vicious circle then emerges where the police accept a sense of ownership of the problem as a means of reaching increased resources and importance, but eventually find that they too cannot ‘solve’ the problem of terrorism. Because law enforcement does not admit to not being able to solve terrorism, the search for the solution is then pushed back onto the structural and systems- level weaknesses. May be, it is time to delve deeper into how this vicious circle of terrorism is perpetuated so that there are better ways to augment security solutions.


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