Terrorist personality and life experience

Psychology of Terrorism

I stated on last post that I will discuss terrorist’s personality in this post. However, after doing research, I found that many researchers such as Crenshaw (2001), Borum (1999), Taylor & Quayle (1994) explored that there is no terrorist personality, nor is there any accurate profile – psychologically or otherwise – of the terrorist. Moreover, personality traits alone tend not to be very good predictors of behavior. The quest to understand terrorism by studying terrorist personality traits is likely to be an unproductive area for further investigation and inquiry. Therefore, instead of discussing terrorist’s personality in this post, I will supply some experts’ ideas about terrorist’s personality. Besides, last week my post had mentioned that “most involvement in terrorism results from gradual exposure and socialisation towards extreme behavior” (Horgan & Taylor, 2001), thus I will continue to discuss more about this by looking at an individual’s life experiences relevant for understanding terrorism.

First of all, what experts tell about using personality trait to explain terrorist behaviors?

Crenshaw (200), for example, has argued that “shared ideological commitment and group solidarity are much more important determinants of terrorist behavior than individual characteristics.” Bandura seems to agree, as reflected in his more general conclusion that “It requires conducive social conditions rather than monstrous people to produce heinous deeds."

Although the possible existence of a “terrorist personality” holds some intuitive appeal, it lacks of evidential support. Psychologist John Horgan (2003) examined the cumulative research evidence on the search for a terrorist personality, and concluded that “in the context of a scientific study of behavior such attempts to assert the presences of a terrorist personality, or profile, are pitiful.” This appears to be a conclusion of consensus among most researchers who study terrorist behavior. “With a number of exceptions (e.g., Feuer 1969), most observers agree that although latent personality traits can certainly contribute to the decision to turn to violence, there is no single set of psychic attributes that explains terrorist behavior” (McCormick, 2003).

Furthermore, there is the fact that terrorists can assume many different roles – only a few will actually fire the weapon or detonate the bomb. The “personality” of a financier, may be different from that of an administrator or strategist or an assassin. Taylor and Quayle’s research (1994) explored whether some systematic differences might be discerned between those who engage in terrorism and those who do not; yet their search led them to the conclusion that “the active terrorist is not discernibly different in psychological terms from the non-terrorist; in psychological terms, there are no special qualities that characterize the terrorist.”

Just as there is no single terrorist personality or profile, a specific constellation of life experiences is neither necessary nor sufficient to cause terrorism. In previous weeks, I have mentioned many reasons and pathway which lead people to terrorism. And the role of life experience can also be understood as another pathway to terrorism. In the contemporary literature there are three robust experiential themes: Injustice, Abuse, and Humiliation on life experience which may cause to terrorism. They often are so closely connected that it is difficult to separate the effects and contributions of each. By definition, most abuse is unjust. Humiliation often results from extreme forms of abuse.

Field (1979) on her studying about terrorism and the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, where she found “the children there have suffered severe disruption in the development of moral judgment-a cognitive function-and are obsessed with death and destruction about which the feel helpless, and against which they feel isolated and hopeless.” She apparently was not surprised by the findings: “common sense and experience can tell us that people who are badly treated, and/or unjustly punished, will seek revenge. It should be not be surprising, then, that young adolescents, who have themselves been terrorized, become terrorists, and that in a situation where they are afforded social supports by their compatriots reacting against the actions of an unjust government, the resort to terrorist tactics becomes a way of life” (Field, 1979). Moreover, Akhtar (1999) concludes that “evidence does exist that most major players in a terrorist organization are themselves, deeply traumatized individuals. As children, they suffered chronic physical abuse, and profound emotional humiliation. They grew up mistrusting others, loathing passivity, and dreading reoccurrence of a violation of their psychophysical boundaries.”

Inn addition, many researchers and terrorist case histories have noted that periods of imprisonment and incarceration often facilitated experiences of injustice, abuse and humiliation (Ferracuti & Bruno, 1981, della Porta, 1992). Post and colleagues (2003) offer a rich account of the impact of such experiences among the 35 incarcerated middle-eastern terrorists whom they interviewed. They found that “the prison experience was intense, especially for the Islamist terrorists. Thus, the injustice of prison experience also reinforced negative perceptions of terrorist groups.

Taken together, there is no terrorist personality; however certain life experiences tend to be commonly found among terrorists. Histories of childhood abuse and trauma appear to be widespread. And themes of perceived injustice and humiliation often are prominent in terrorist biographies and personal histories.


Akhtar, S. (1999). The Psychodynamic Dimension of Terrorism. Psychiatric Annals, 29(6), 350-355.

Borum, R., Fein, R., Vossekuil, B., & Berglund, J. (1999). Threat assessment: Defining an approach for evaluating risk of targeted violence. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 17(3), 323-337.

Crenshaw, M. (2001). The psychology of terrorism: an agenda for the 21st century. Political Psychology, 21, 2, 405-420.

Della Porta, D. (1992). Political Socialization in Left-Wing Underground Organizations: Biographies of Italian and German Militants. D. Della Porta (Ed), Social movements and violence: participation in underground organizations. Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI press.

Ferracuti, F., & Bruno, F. (1981). Psychiatric aspects of terrorism in Italy. I. L. Barak-Glantz, & C. R. Huffs (Eds), The mad, the bad, and the different: essays in honor of Simon Dinitz (pp. 199-213). Lexington, MA: Heath.

Field, R. A. (1979). Child terror victims and adult terrorists. Journal of Psychohistory, 7(1), 71-75. Ibid

Horgan, J. (2003). The search for the terrorist personality. Silke, A., Ed. Terrorist, victims, and society: Psychological perspectives on terrorism and its consequence (pp. 3-27). London: John Wiley.

Post, J., Sprinzak, E., & Denny, L. (2003). The terrorists in their own words: Interviews with 35 incarcerated middle eastern terrorists. Terrorism and Political Violence, 15(1), 171-184.

Taylor, M. and Quayle, E. (1994). Terrorist lives. London: Brassey's.

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