Why People Become Terrorists

Terrorism is like anything else, there are as many different reasons why people are terrorists as there are terrorists themselves.  There have been efforts to construct profiles of typical terrorists, but so far this effort has been unsuccessful.  Even efforts to establish a psychological profile of terrorism has failed, social scientists have found that terrorists are typically psychologically normal.[1]  This finding has gotten rid of an easy explanation for terrorism, that terrorists are crazy or psychopaths.  Professor James Forest has developed a model that shows different overlapping causes and facilitators of terrorism.  In this model, individual and organizational characteristics form the first level of risk for terrorist activity.  For a person to become involved in terrorism, they must both have a personal motivation (such as revenge or political beliefs) and access to a group that is capable of meetings these motivations and using manipulating them so that the individual is willing to be involved in terrorism.  The next two rings are formed by precipitant conditions and environmental triggers.  Precipitant conditions are the socio-economic environment that allows the terrorist groups ideology to resonate with the individuals it is recruiting, such as ethnic discrimination in Sri Lanka that led to the formation of the Tamil Tigers or political concerns such as the fight against capitalism that inspired several left wing terror groups in Europe.  An environmental trigger is a specific event or policies that result in terrorist attacks as a reaction, such as church bombings in the U.S. carried out by racist groups during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.  These four connected and overlapping rings show that engaging in terrorism is based on an array of interconnected factors rather than there being a single reason for terrorist group formation and recruitment.[2]

One interesting approach to understanding individual characteristics of terrorists is actually interviewing them, an approach that John Horgan has taken.  One interesting theme that emerges from Horgan’s interviews with currently disengaged terrorists is that many of them join terrorist groups out of personal reasons rather than due to political ones. In one interview, Horgan talked to a Norwegian man who had been involved with a right wing terrorist group whose initial recruitment involved an outdoor barbecue rather than political indoctrination.  Throughout Horgan’s book, “Walking Away from Terrorism,” one recurring theme is that the terrorists appreciated the group identity that terrorism provided, and in some cases the actual acceptance of radical political beliefs came later, or was unimportant compared to personal loyalties within the group itself.[3]

In order for a terrorist group to recruit an individual they have to find a way to communicate the group’s message and approach potential followers.   The internet has made this process much easier, enabling terrorist groups to spread their message worldwide cheaply and effectively, it is not surprising that many groups like Hamas, Hizbollah, Al Qaeda or even the Earth Liberation Front have their own web pages.  Internet radicalization has played an important role in do it yourself terrorist attacks, with individuals in the United States accessing radical messages through youtube videos, chat boards and propaganda sites.  Al Qaeda has managed to leverage this tool effectively, it has developed an online magazine called “Inspire” that provides its ideology as well as articles detailing how to construct bombs and tactical advice about not being caught.  In one infamous case, Nidal Hasan, an army psychiatrist killed 13 people in a mass shooting on the Fort Hood military base after exchanging emails with Anwar al-Awlaki, a spokes person for Al Qaeda in Yemen.  With what we now know about terrorist recruitment and radicalization we should focus less on developing an encompassing theory of terrorism and more on looking at signs that show a person might be involved with terrorism and implementing strategies to promote disengagement.


[1] McCauley, C., ‘Psychological Issues in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism’, Psychology of Terrorism, ed. Stout, E. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004) 36.

[2] James J.F. Forest, Terrorism as a Product of Choices AND Perceptions, (accessed on May 3, 2014); available from http://www.jamesforest.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Forest-CATO-Essay-Jan-091.pdf.

[3] John Horgan, Walking Away from Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements, (New York: Routledge, 2009), Kindle file.

About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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