The Mind of a Terrorist











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George Ackerman

28, 2017










What do terrorist think about before they are
going to carry out an attack within the United States or any part of the world
and what are the impacts that it has had on the past and the impacts that it
might have in the future?





















Understanding the mind of a terrorist and why
they are willing to do the actions they do is something that at times may not
be easy. Many attacks have been carried out for many years by many different
terrorist groups and for many different reasons. This is something that
researchers have been working on for many years. There are many different
reason for this that range from either the terrorist are not willing to sit
down and do an interview or the fact that they had been killed during an
attack. With that many of the studies have been done from the outside looking
in at that can give a false or very opinionated view of the situation, so not
all the information is fully accurate. It has also been noted that when major
attacks happen and catch media attention there is also an increase in the
social media and Internet world as well. 














In the last fifteen years there has been another of terror attacks that
have been committed by many different people and in many different countries.

It is important as a first step to stopping this is to understand where it is
coming from and why it is happing. First it is important to define what using
the word terrorism and terrorist means. Many Americans and even Europeans think
of it as the radical Muslim extremists. It was noted that after the attacks on
the Boston Marathon and the Paris attacks the Internet searches for “terrorist”
increased three to sic fold the times then they had been in the past (Bruneau,
2016). In the term of terrorism there must be two key points that are noted in
order to fall into the term. A group of terrorist needs to be under the same
ideology to carry out attacks and second it must use the violence in the
service of the group’s ideology. Terrorist is defined as “a person, usually a
member of a group, who uses or advocates terrorism” (Dictionary.com)

There are many ways to look at this but one
way to understand why a terrorist or a group will carry out an attack would be
trying to understand what is going on inside the brain and why it works the way
that it does. This is not something that is easy and something that has been
going on for many years now. One of many reasons on what this is not something
that is easy to understand it the fact that terrorist are not very likely to
volunteer themselves for a study like this. It also makes it hard to study
these types of people from afar because it can lead to conclusions that could
be false. What is also another issue with trying to understand terrorism is
that some groups do not look at themselves as terrorist but rather look at
themselves as freedom fighters.

Researchers are working to build a better model
on how the brain works and what the human mind represents sacred values. Some
other proposals that have been looked at are managing catastrophic terror
threats, recognizing state thinking and addressing it, and the psychology of
terrorism. If a catastrophic is successful it is one that is going to result in
a lot of civilian deaths and is going to have a major impact on society. “Psychoanalysts
have interlinked theories of thinking, individual and group identity and human
development based on the significance of impulses and affects – especially
excitement and anxiety” (Burns, 2010). The third is understanding the  psychology of terrorism.

In the terms of psychology this is something
that is very complex and hard to understand. It is said by many researchers
that it is based more on theory and opinion then that of actual good research
and science. With that they are starting to put together data that is updated
and reliable. Researchers have also found that it is now better to look and
terrorism within the terms of the political and group dynamics and no look at
it in the terms of what the individual wants or needs. It has also been thought
by many that to understand the mind of a terrorist is something that if it is
understood better it could help in the quest to prevent terrorism all together.

This is something that is going to be a very complex quest. “Psychologists’
findings suggest that assuaging people’s fear of cultural annihilation,
highlighting our common humanity or demonstrating the discrepancy between the
dream and realty of terrorist involvement could keep would-be terrorists from
turning to violence, for instance” (DeAngelis, 2009). This says that in order
to prevent it terrorism that there must be an understanding between everyone.

It is thought that what some saw as a dream but actually a step closer to

There are a number of programs that are going
on worldwide that are working to a point of de-radicalization. While these
programs still do need some work there appears to be some steps that are going
in the right direction. Dr Arie Kruglanski has stated, “while there is still a
big need to assess these programs, in some cases, there appear to be some
authentic successes” (DeAngelis, 2009). A terrorist mind is one in which they
are going to remain in a disciplined, meticulous, and logical. These traits are
one that makes them so dangerous.

Another tactic that is in the works in
countries like Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom is
to soften the hearts of terrorist. This is something that is been done in a
three-step process. Those steps are an intellectual component, an emotional
component, and a social component. In the intellectual component it is used as
a teaching tool. Here Muslim clerics are holding teaching for detainees and
teaching them the true violence and jihad as it is spelled out in the Qur’an.

In the emotional component it is tried to help defuse their anger and
frustration. Showing a true concern for family does this, some steps used are
help with their children’s education and offering training for their wives. The
social component brings in other old terrorists whom are now law-abiding
citizens to talk to them and try and help them to understand the importance of
being a good citizen. A fear is once they get out they might return to the ways
of before. Some of these steps and efforts have started to already should some
good promise.      

There was a study that was done by Dr John
Horgan, in which he had interviewed 60 former terrorists. During those
interviews he found many reasons on why a person may be more open to terrorist
recruitment and radicalization. Those reasons were that the “felt angry,
alienated, or disenfranchised, believe that their current political involvement
does not give them the power to effect real change, identify the perceived
victims of social injustice they are fighting, feel that they need to take
action rather then just talking about the problem, believe that engaging in
violence against the state is not immoral, have friends or family who are
sympathetic to the cause, and believe that joining a movement offers social and
psychological rewards: (DeAngelis, 2009). It was also found that it is more
important to look at how a person has changed because of terrorism rather then just
asking them why they decided to enter into it in the first place.

Terrorism is all about getting the attention
of the public. They want the scenes of carnage and to instill the fear and
horror to the public view. They understand that others react to scene of others
seeing bodies mangled. The terrorists try to exploit the compassion of the
viewers just as much as they try and exploit the victims. Some people might
consider them brave in a very primitive way. They know they will become a
hunted man. With that they are willing to except death as much as they are will
to deal it out. They are considered brave, however not courageous. By
definition courage requires persevering in the face of danger. There are
different facets of that and they are, physical, psychological, moral, and
spiritual. “Redefining danger contrary to fact to lesson its psychological
impact is not courage but a distortion of reality”  (Wilder, pg2).   

Another case that many looked at and many
joked about was a case by an Al Qaeda operative that was foiled in May of 2012.

In this attempted attack the operative tried to plot an attack in which he
tired to conceal a nonmetallic bomb of his clothing. The way that he did this
was he created and wearing an underwear bomb, this was actually his second
attempt to carry out such an attack like this. “This bomb maker is a shadowy,
enigmatic, compelling figure, who is both fascinating and repellent” (Wilder,
pg 1).

This bomb maker was one who had skills that
were highly developed and technical. It is thought that his irrespective
ideology might have overshadowed his view on the world. Researchers and
investigators also believe that “in relation to his craft he is firmly grounded
in material reality” (Wilder, pg2). This was actually his second attempt at
making an underwear bomb.  His
first attempt failed so he made improvements, with that it showed he learns and
adapts to his failures and is persistent in his cause. This also shows how the
imagination can work to think up new and improved ideas. The bomb maker also
took the time to understand human nature, privacy and dignity. The groin region
is one that many people respect and at times will over look. So he used these
limits as a goal. He took the time to understand these limits of decency of a person
but did not show any of them himself.

Terrorists do not relate human physicality in
the way that a normal person does. They look at their bodies and the bodies of
the victims as a tool. They are the means to the end and are not looked at as a
person. A terrorists looks at their bodies as part of the weapons system that
they have designed just as a solider would look at his weapons systems. They
also look they bodies of their victims as propaganda and a way to get the
message across. They want to ensure that they are able to get the most out of
their message. The dead are not luckier then those who survive.      

 It is important to understand the mind of a terrorist in
order to combat and have effective counter-terrorism strategies. The motive of
these groups’ is one of the first and most important things to understand. This
is something that is always easy to do. It can be hard because in many cases
the terrorist many not be around to explain themselves after the fact. Sacred
values are also something that can motivate terrorist. Researchers and
policymakers do not have a good model to study and look at for these so called

In order to combat terrorism we understand
it. This is something that is a tough task to complete. While there have been
some studies done on it but other researchers for the most part terrorists will
not volunteer for any types of study. Also terrorism experts will differ on the
understandings and motivation that drive them.  There are three main different opinions none of which have
been proven to be better then the other.

One of those thoughts is that they have anger
without the possibility of having guilt. Rona Fields a Washington, D.C.

psychologist, says, “Their definition of right and wrong is very black and
white.” It is to the point that the limitation to think for themselves. Another
thought is that they are highly rational. This is something that is seen by
many different researchers. They are being effective on pursuing the goals that
they have set out to complete. It is said that they are rational and not that
they are insane. Third is the bloody history, which they have lived though.

They use it as a way of life. More many it is all that they know. It is a
symbol of power.   

There was a study that was conducted by Agustin
Ibanez and Adolfo Garcia conducted a studied the moral judgment of 66
terrorist. All of the 66 people were members of an illegal paramilitary group
that was designated a terrorist organization by many countries. They had these
66 terrorists complete a host of test, assessments designed to test aggression,
an emotion recognition assessment, and moral judgment task. The group of
terrorists had an average of 33 victims.

Though out the research they found that the
intellect and executive function that was no different then that of the rest of
us. As well as that they were not more reactively aggressive. It was found
tough out the research that they were more proactively aggressive. They acted
in a way that showed they expected a reward for the actions. The study also
showed that they subjects were not good at the analyzing of the emotions of
others. It is thought that it is not the fact that they did not care about it
but rather they did not register. This is almost the same as thinking about a
toddler and how they interact with others.

Ibanez stated “Multiple studies across the
world have systematically shown that in judging the morality of an action,
civilized individuals, typically attach greater importance to intentions than
outcome” (Pierre-Louis, pg 2). An example of this is if we as what is
considered a normal human is that if we do something and not mean to we feel
worse do something and we do it. An example of this would be pushing someone to
the ground. However terrorists looked at these actions different. They rated it
as accidental harm as worse as the failed intentional harm. This is because in
one situation someone got hurt and in the other someone does.

Terrorists would rather focus on the outcome
rather then the people themselves. Terrorists like to focus on a behavior that
is goal directed. They look at the outcome of their actions then on the actions
that they are carrying out. Terrorism is thought to be the world’s worst
productivity system. This is because when it is used with the rational choice
theory of terrorist it says that killing a lot of people to get your goal heard
and absent moral stigmas it all starts to make sense. Though out this study
they were surprised to find that there was not an abnormal moral judgment in
the terrorist. They completed a study with over 20 different test and measures
and though out it was found that moral judgment was the one factor that or
variable that was best discriminated between the groups.  It was also found that the possibility
of social isolation was another factor that played into the radicalization and
can lead someone into the person that would join a terror origination.   

During the study Garcia found that religion
and ideology was not the most common factor, it was however that of economic reasons
that played a large factor on it. It was only thirteen percent joined for
ideology reasons. Thus it shows that people for there own ideological reasons
carried out these acts or attacks. “Many terrorists are not ideologues or deep
believers in an extremist doctrine,” Garcia stated.    

There are many different terrorist groups
around the world today. One of the most well know of those groups is the
Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS. It is thought that there are two
categories of ISIS recruits. Those are the ones who are born in Iraq, Syria,
and the Levant. This group of recruits fights for the local cause. There are
also the recruits who come from other parts of the world. Many of these
recruits join for the camaraderie. They are mostly educated but fall in the
social realm of empathy, compassion, idealism, and the wanting to help.

Scott Atran, who is an anthropologist, who
has been studying the psychology behind terrorism ha found reason for this. In
the first group that are born in Middle East they are inspired less by the
religion and more by the endless violence that their areas have been facing for
years. He has interviewed terrorists, combed though training manuals and has
been able to form a broad understanding on what terrorist are thinking before,
during, and after an attack. Scott Atran was also able to find out during his
interviews that many of the ISIS members that he had interviewed in Iraq had
much more than a primary school education. Many of them did not understand the
Quran or Hadith. This just showed that the religious beliefs were something
that was not a strong factor.    

As it was stated earlier this was not the
case for the fighters who join from other countries. Most of those came from a
European country. The reason for this while yes they are educated they are
looking for a change. Many of the fighters coming from those countries are
youth and are looking for a new bunch of friends and family who they can
significance with. However though out Europe Atran found that it was not as
much as the religious beliefs that caused many of the youth to join but the
thrill. It could be thought of the promise of self-esteem and glory. As well as
the senses of belong, fast breaking, glorious, and persuasive. While this is
the cause for most of Europe there is a bit of a difference in France.

In France the type of radicalization might be
of both types. This is because unlike some other countries, especially the
United States, they are less likely to be able to achieve the status that they need.

In those areas and after many generations they are still up to nineteen times
more likely to be less educated and poor. Atran took his findings to the United

In the speech that Atran gave to the United
Nations the stated that the only way to fight against terrorism is to join them
in the way that they do things. By that what he meant was they needed to barrow
the way that they thought psychological. They need to give the youth something
to dream about and offer a life of significance though struggle and sacrifice
and give them ownership. The youth something that is just as exciting and
social science can help that. He ended with a comment that said, “The first
step to combating ISIS is to understand it and we have yet to do so” (Krisch,
pg 3).

 For many it is hard to understand why someone would want to
carry out terrorist attacks on others. For many there are many different
reasons on why they would do such a thing and it has to do with the drive of
that person. Terrorism is something that has been around for many years so for
many of them it is all that they know or have ever known. It comes from a drive
to belong and have voice in a cause. Combating terrorism it is not an easy task
to do. Understanding their brain and why do doing what they are doing to carry
out the cause is the most important part.   






Berns, G.

(2010). Using Neuroscience to Understand the Mind of a Terrorist — Global
Economic Symposium. Retrieved from http://www.global-economic-symposium.org/knowledgebase/the-global-polity/the-psychology-of-terrorism/proposals/using-neuroscience-to-understand-the-mind-of-a-terrorist

Bruneau, E.

(2016, November 1). Understanding the Terrorist Mind. Retrieved from

DeAngelis, T.

(2009, November). Understanding terrorism. Retrieved from

Devitt, T.

(2001, September 20). The Psychology of Terrorism. Retrieved from https://whyfiles.org/140terror_psych/

Hénin, N. (2017). We
can’t beat terror until we understand why it happens | Nicolas Hénin. online
the Guardian. Available at:
Accessed 23 Dec. 2017.

Krisch, J.

(2015, November 16). Behind The Psychology Of A Terrorist: How ISIS Wins Hearts
And Minds. Retrieved from

Pierre-Louis, K.

(2017, May 26). Scientists are trying to get inside the mind of a terrorist.

Retrieved from https://www.popsci.com/mind-terrorist-moral-compass

Schaefer, A.

(2007, December 1). Inside the Terrorist Mind. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/inside-the-terrorist-mind/


(n.d.). Retrieved December 26, 2017, from

Wilder, U.

(2012, June 5). Inside the Mind of a Terrorist. Retrieved from


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