Sociology Index

What Motivates Terrorists?

Books on Sociology of Terrorism, Terrorist Groups, Abstracts, Syllabus, Sociology of Terrorism

Who becomes a terrorist? and what kind of individuals join terrorist groups and commit public acts of shocking violence? is a common question asked often. So, What Motivates Terrorists?

Psychological analyses of terrorists and terrorism, according to psychologist Maxwell Taylor, have attempted to address what motivates terrorists or to describe personal characteristics of terrorists, on the assumption that terrorists can be identified by these attributes. An understanding of the terrorist mindset could be the key to understanding how and why an individual becomes a terrorist, but psychologists have been unable to adequately define it.

"Terrorist mindset" was the topic discussed at a Rand conference on terrorism coordinated by Brian M. Jenkins in September 1980. The observations made about terrorist mindsets at that conference considered individuals, groups, and individuals as part of a group. The discussion revealed how little was known about the nature of terrorist mindsets, their causes and consequences, and their significance for recruitment, ideology, leader-follower relations, organization, decision making about targets and tactics, escalation of violence, and attempts made by disillusioned terrorists to exit from the terrorist group.

Although the current study has examined these aspects of the terrorist mindset, it has done so within the framework of a more general tasking requirement. More research and analysis would be needed to focus more closely on the concept of the terrorist mindset and to develop it into a more useful method for profiling terrorist groups and leaders.

The personality dynamics of individual terrorists, including the causes and motivations behind the decision to join a terrorist group and to commit violent acts needs attention. Of particular interest to researchers are the terrorists' decision-making patterns, problems of leadership and authority, target selection, and group mindset as a pressure tool on the individual.

Explaining terrorism in purely psychological terms ignores the very real economic, political, and social factors that have always motivated terrorists and radical activists, as well as the possibility that biological or physiological variables may play a role in bringing an individual to the point of perpetrating terrorism.

Knutson (1984), Executive Director of the International Society of Political Psychology until her death in 1982, carried out an extensive international research project on the psychology of political terrorism. The basic premise of terrorists whom she evaluated in depth was "that their violent acts stem from feelings of rage and hopelessness engendered by the belief that society permits no other access to information-dissemination and policy-formation processes."

The social psychology of political terrorism has received extensive analysis in studies of terrorism, but the individual psychology of political and religious terrorism has been largely ignored.

There is a lack of data and ambivalence among many academic researchers about the academic value of terrorism research contributing to the relatively little systematic social and psychological research on terrorism.