Pathway To Terrorism.

Psychology of Terrorism

Last week, we explored the reasons for people join and stay in terrorist organization. This week, we will continue with the process of joining a terrorist group. As important as motivational factors may be, as Bruce (1997) observes, to understand fully the process of becoming a terrorist, “motive cannot be taken in isolation from opportunity.” The pathway to become member of terrorist group may be different for different people and can be affected by a wide range of factors. Bandura (1990) observed that “the path to terrorism can be shaped by fortuitous factors as well as by the conjoint influence of personal predilections and social inducements” (p. 186).

The transition into becoming a terrorist is rarely sudden and abrupt. “What we know of actual terrorists suggests that there is rarely a conscious decision made to become a terrorist. Most involvement in terrorism results from gradual exposure and socialisation towards extreme behavior” (Horgan & Taylor, 2001). Luckabaugh and colleagues (1997) view this as one of the few general points of agreement in the field of terrorism studies, stating “it is generally accepted terrorists do not become terrorists over night. They follow a general progression from social alienation to boredom, then occasional dissidence and protest before eventually turning to terrorism.” Individuals who become terrorists often are unemployed, socially alienated individuals who have dropped out of society. Those with little education, such as youths in Algerian ghettos or the Gaza Strip, may try to join a terrorist group out of boredom and a desire to have an action-packed adventure in pursuit of a cause they regard as just. Some individuals may be motivated mainly by a desire to use their special skills, such as bomb-making. The more educated youths may be motivated more by genuine political or religious convictions. The person who becomes a terrorist in Western countries is generally both intellectual and idealistic. Usually, these disenchanted youths, both educated or uneducated, engage in occasional protest and dissidence. Potential terrorist group members often start out as sympathizers of the group. Recruits often come from support organizations, such as prisoner support groups or student activist groups. From sympathizer, one moves to passive supporter. Often, violent encounters with police or other security forces motivate an already socially alienated individual to join a terrorist group.

Although the circumstances vary, the end result of this gradual process is that the individual, often with the help of a family member or friend with terrorist contacts, turns to terrorism. Membership in a terrorist group, however, is highly selective. Over a period as long as a year or more, a recruit generally moves in a slow, gradual fashion toward full membership in a terrorist group. An individual who drops out of society can just as well become a monk or a hermit instead of a terrorist. For an individual to choose to become a terrorist, he or she would have to be motivated to do so. Having the proper motivation, however, is still not enough. The would-be terrorist would need to have the opportunity to join a terrorist group. And like most job seekers, he or she would have to be acceptable to the terrorist group, which is a highly exclusive group. Thus, recruits would not only need to have a personality that would allow them to fit into the group, but ideally a certain skill needed by the group, such as weapons or communications skills.

However, what is the exact nature and progression of that pathway? There may be no single pathway or general answer to that would apply to all types of groups or to all individuals. One early model developed by Frederick Hacker (1983) framed the progression in three stages. The first stage involved an awareness of oppression. The second stage marked recognition that the oppression was “social” and therefore not unavoidable. The third stage was an impetus or realization that it was possible to act against the oppression. Ultimately, at the end point of that phase, some conclude that working through advocates/ intermediaries (e.g., elected officials) or within the system to “reform” or improve it is not going to work and that self help by violence is the only effective means for change. Psychologist Eric D. Shaw (1986:365) provides a strong case for what he calls “The Personal Pathway Model,” by which terrorists enter their new profession. The components of this pathway include early socialization processes; narcissistic injuries; escalatory events, particularly confrontation with police; and personal connections to terrorist group members, as follows:

The personal pathway model suggests that terrorists came from a selected, at risk population, who has suffered from early damage to their self-esteem. Their subsequent political activities may be consistent with the liberal social philosophies of their families, but go beyond their perception of the contradiction in their family’s beliefs and lack of social action. Family political philosophies may also serve to sensitize these persons to the economic and political tensions inherent throughout modern society. As a group, they appear to have been unsuccessful in obtaining a desired traditional place in society, which has contributed to their frustration. The underlying need to belong to a terrorist group is symptomatic of an incomplete or fragmented psychosocial identity. (In Kohut’s terms—a defective or fragmented “group self”). Interestingly, the acts of security forces or police are cited as provoking more violent political activity by these individuals and it is often a personal connection to other terrorists which leads to membership in a violent group (shared external targets?) (Shaw, 1986).

Increasingly, terrorist organizations in the developing world are recruiting younger members. The only role models for these young people to identify with are often terrorists and guerrillas. Abu Nidal, for example, was able to recruit alienated, poor, and uneducated youths thrilled to be able to identify themselves with a group led by a well-known but mysterious figure. Furthermore, members of terrorist group also include female. Deborah M. Galvin (1983) notes that a common route of entry into terrorism for female terrorists is through political involvement and belief in a political cause. Some women are recruited into terrorist organizations by boyfriends. A significant feature that Galvin feels may characterize the involvement of the female terrorist is the “male or female lover/female accomplice... scenario.” The lover, a member of the terrorist group, recruits the female into the group.

There is no easy answer or single motivation to explain why people become terrorists. Similarly, the processes and pathways of how that happens are quite varied and diverse. The paper has just figured out general process which the one may become terrorists. Decision to become a terrorist can not be made overnight, it is a result of a long progression and opportunities. There are models which provided by Hacker and Shaw may suit to explain the path to terrorism of many terrorists. Finally, the paper also recognized that there is existence of young members, both male and female in terrorists groups. And their procession to terrorists may differ from each others.

Next week, the series will continue with terrorists’ personality.


Bandura, Albert. (1990), "Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement." Pages 161-91 in Walter Reich, ed., Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Galvin, Deborah M. (1983), “The Female Terrorist: A Socio-Psychological Perspective,” Behavioral Science and the Law, 1, 19–32.

Hacker, Frederick J (1983), "Dialectical Interrelationships of Personal and Political Factors in Terrorism." Pages 19-32 in Lawrence Zelic Freedman and Yonah Alexander, eds., Perspectives on Terrorism. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources.

Horgan, J. and Taylor, M. (2001),The making of a terrorist . Jane's Intelligence Review . 13(12):16-18.

Luckabaugh, R.; Fuqua, H. E.; Cangemi, J. P., and Kowalski, C. J. (1997), Terrorist Behavior and United States Foreign Policy: Who Is the Enemy? Some Psychological and Political Perspectives. Psychology. 34(2):1-15.

Shaw, Eric D. (1986), “Political Terrorists: Dangers of Diagnosis and an Alternative to the Psychopathology Model,” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 8, 359–68.

How and why people enter and stay in terrorist organization?

Psychology of Terrorism

Why individuals become a terrorist and engage in terrorism? Implicit in the “Why” question was an assumption that becoming a terrorist involved a discrete choice to change status. However, after observing numerous terrorist and extremist groups, there is suggestion that recruitment and involvement typically do not occur in that way. It means that becoming terrorists may not be a choice of individuals. Horgan and Taylor (2001) have noted: “What we know of actual terrorists suggests that there is rarely a conscious decision made to become a terrorist. Most involvement in terrorism results from gradual exposure and socialization towards extreme behavior.” In order to understand whether, how and which individuals in a given environment will enter the process of becoming a terrorist, this paper is going to explore three factors justice, identities and belonging which have been found often to co-occur in terrorists and to strongly influence decisions to enter terrorist organizations and to engage in terrorist activity.

Injustice is recognized as a central factor in understanding violence generally and terrorism specifically. Hacker (1976) concluded that “remediable injustice is the basic motivation for terrorism”. A desire for revenge or vengeance is a common response to redress or remediate a wrong of injustice inflicted on another. These grievances may be economic, ethnic, racial, legal, political, religious, and/or social, and that they may be targeted to individuals, groups, institutions or categories of people who thought to be responsible for injustices (Crenshaw, 1992). For example, terrorists chose USA as their target because USA may be a symbol for modernization which produces disharmony in society in term of unbalanced economic growth, communication structure, and lack of political opportunity etc. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine that “one of the strongest motivations behind terrorism is vengeance, particularly the desire to avenge not oneself but others (Crenshaw, 1992).

Identity is the answer to the question “who am I really?”. One’s psychological identity is a developed, stable sense of self and resolved security in one’s basic values, attitudes, and beliefs. Some individuals are unable or unwilling to identify with any body or anything intensively or for long period of time. This unsatisfied identity needs may be manifested in many ways; one is that individuals adopt someone’s identity without personal and critical examination. And according to Crenshaw (1986) the absolutist, “black and white” nature of most extremist ideologies is often attractive to those who feel overwhelmed by the complexity and stress of navigating a complicated world. As a result of that, individual may draw him/ her to extremist and terrorist organizations on the way to search for his identity. Under desperate quest for personal meaning, individual may easier to adopt a role. They identify them as “terrorist” or “freedom fighter’ to answer the question “who am I?”. Taylor and Louis (2004,p178) describe a classic set of circumstances for recruitment into a terrorist organization: “These young people find themselves at a time in their life when they are looking to the future with the hope of engaging in meaningful behavior that will be satisfying and get them ahead. Their objective circumstances including opportunities for advancement are virtually nonexistent; they find some direction for their religious collective identity but the desperately disadvantaged state of their community leaves them feeling marginalized and lost without a clearly defined collective identity”. There are some individuals on the way to find an answer for “who am I?” they may define their identity through group membership. Essentially, one’s personal identity is merged with a group identity, with no sense of (or need for) individuality or uniqueness. As Johnson and Feldman (1992) suggest, "membership in a terrorist group provides a sense of identity or belonging for those personalities whose underlying sense of identity is flawed.” For these individuals, “belonging to the terrorist group becomes … the most important component of their psychosocial identity” (Post, 1987).

In radical extremist group, many prospective terrorists find not only the sense of meaning but also the sense of belonging, connectedness. Luckabaugh and colleagues (1997) argue that among potential terrorists “the real cause or psychological motivation for joining is the great need for belonging.” You belong; therefore, you exist (Hacker, 1976). Those individuals have experienced lifetime of rejection; for instance family rejection, social rejection, peer rejection etc, joining terrorist organization give them a new sense of belonging. Terrorist group may become new family for those people (Post, 1984). After observation many extremist groups, Crenshaw (1988) found out that “for the individuals who become active terrorists, the initial attraction is often to the group or community of believers, rather than to an abstract ideology or to violence”. Thus, the image of such strong cohesiveness and solidarity among extremist groups makes them more attractive than some prosocial collectives as a way to find belonging (Johnson & Feldman, 1982).

From what this paper explore above, now it can conclude that injustice, identity and belonging can be seen as strong influence, real causes and psychological motivation for individual joining and staying with terrorist groups.

This paper has just tried to find an answer for question “how and why people enter and stay in terrorist organization?”. Next post, we are going to discuss the pathway to terrorism which is mostly about which opportunities people become terrorists.


Crenshaw, M. (1986). The psychology of political terrorism. In M.G. Hermann (Ed.) Political psychology: contemporary problems and issues (pp.379-413). London: Josey-Bass

Crenshaw, M. (1988). The subjective reality of the terrorist: Ideological and psychological factors in terrorism. In Current Perspectives in international terrorism, edited by R. O. Slater and M. Stohl. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan.

Crenshaw, M. (1992). How terrorists think: Psychological contributions to understanding terrorism. Howard, L., Ed. Terrorism: Roots, impact, responses (pp. 71-80). London: Praeger.

Hacker, F.J. (1976). Crusaders, criminals, crazies: terror and terrorism in our time. New York: W.W. Norton.

Horgan, J. and Taylor, M. (2001). The making of a terrorist . Jane's Intelligence Review. 13(12):16-18

Johnson, P. W. and Feldman, T. B. (1992). Personality types and terrorism: Self-psychology perspectives . Forensic Reports . 5(4):293-303.

Johnson, P. W. and Feldman, T. B.(1992) Personality types and terrorism: Self-psychology perspectives . Forensic Reports . 5(4):293-303.

Luckabaugh, Robert, Edward Fuqua, Joseph Cangemi and Casimir Kowalski. (1997). Terrorist behavior and US foreign policy: Who is the enemy? Some psychological and political perspectives. Psychology 34 (2): 1-15.

Post, J.M. (1984). Notes on a psychodynamic theory of terrorist behaviour. Terrorism, 7, 241-256.

Post, J.M. (1987). “It’s us against them”: the group dynamics of political terrorism. Terrorism, 10, 23-35.

Taylor, D. M. and Louis, W. (2004). Terrorism and the quest for identity. Moghaddam, F. M. and Marsella, An. J., ed. Understanding terrorism: Psychosocial roots, consequences, and interventions (pp. 169-185). Washington , DC: American Psychological Association.

What is terrorism? And who are terrorists?

In order to understand terrorism, it is necessary to know “what is terrorism? And who are terrorists?” For this reason, I am going to use this first post of series about terrorism to give the public ideas of what terrorism is and who terrorists are by defining terrorism and terrorists. First of all, the paper will explore the difficulties of defining the term “terrorism”, and give some definitions of terrorism, then who are considered as terrorists. Finally, it will discuss types of terrorists.

One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Some Palestinians suffering under Israeli oppression view Osama bin Laden or members of such groups as Hizballah, Hamas, and al-Qaeda to be freedom fighters, martyrs, revolutionaries, and guerillas; however, Israel and the United States regard them as terrorists (Marsella,2004). According to Taylor (1988, p 3) we all righteously condemn it—except where we ourselves or friends of ours are engaging in it. Then we ignore it, or gloss over it, or attach to it tags like “liberation” or “defense of the free world” or national honor to make it seem like something other than what it is.” It may be hard for someone to judge other people, if there are engagements or relationship between them. Furthermore, an act of violence that is generally regarded in the United States as an act of terrorism may not be viewed so in another country. Thus, there are many problems involving to define the term “terrorism”. Miller and File noted four problems associated with efforts to define terrorism today: (a) There have been historical changes in the definition, (b) media and states have been inconsistent in their use of the term, (c) there are multiple definitions across agencies even within a single country such as the United States, and (d) there is international disagreement on the definition of the term (2001, p. 13). They observed that all contemporary “terrorist” organizations “liken themselves to armies or instruments of liberation or defense” (Miller & File, 2001, p. 13). It is difficult to have exactly definition of terrorism; however, it generally can describe terrorism as:

Unable to achieve their unrealistic goals by conventional means, international terrorists attempt to send an ideological or religious message by terrorizing the general public. Through the choice of their targets, which are often symbolic or representative of the targeted nation, terrorists attempt to create a high-profile impact on the public of their targeted enemy or enemies with their act of violence. In doing so, they hope to demonstrate various points, such as that the targeted governments cannot protect their own citizens, or that by assassinating a specific victim they can teach the general public a lesson about espousing viewpoints or policies antithetical to their own. Carr (2002, p 6) defined terrorism as “the contemporary name given to, and the modern permutation of, warfare deliberately waged against civilizations with the purpose of destroying their will to support either their leaders or policies that the agents of such violence find objectionable” The U.S. Department of State defines terrorism as it is defined in Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f (d): It is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience”. In order to find an answer for the question what terrorism is is a difficult task, so then who are considered as terrorists? Is everyone in terrorist organizations are called terrorists? “Terrorists” do not necessarily refer to everyone in terrorist organization. For example, estimates suggest that Al-Qaeda consists of approximately several thousand members. Among those members, they must have someone in charge of accountants, cooks, fund-raisers, logistics specialists, medical doctors. Those people may not be considered as terrorists, they just play a passive support role. The term “terrorist” may better suit with the leader(s) of terrorist groups and the activists or operators who personally carry out a group’s terrorism strategy.

Above, the paper has just given general ideas about terrorism. Now, it will continue with types of terrorism. Hacker (1976) divided terrorists into three types according to motivation: the crazy, the criminal and the crusading. These terrorists are called crazy because the emotionally disturbed are driven by reasons of their own that often do not make sense to anybody else. Criminal terrorists want nothing different from most other people want, but they are willing to resort to socially disapproved methods in order to achieve their goals. Crusading terrorists are idealistically inspired. They seek, not personal gain, but prestige and power for a collective goal; they believe that they act in the service of higher cause (Hacker, 1976).

Above, the paper tried to give the public a general knowledge about what terrorism is, and who terrorists are. Besides, it also discussed types of terrorists. Those ideas are the basic knowledge for one to understand terrorism. Next post, it will be express the reason why people enter and stay in terrorism.


Carr, Caleb. (2002). The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians, Why It Has Always Failed and Why It Will Fail Again. New York: Random House.

Fathali,M. Moghaddam and Anthony, J. Marsella.(2004) Understanding terrorism: psychosocial roots, consequences, and interventions. American Psychological Association. Washington, DC.

Hacker, Frederick J.(1976). Crusaders, Criminals, Crazies: Terror and Terrorism in Our Time. New York: W.W. Norton.

Miller, Marc, and Jason File. (2001). Terrorism Factbook: Our Nation At War. Bollix Books.

Taylor, M. (1988). The Terrorist. London: Brasseyy’s

United States. Department of State. Patterns of Global Terrorism, 1998. Washington, D.C.: 1999