The Psychological and Behavioral Factors of Terrorism

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The Psychological and Behavioral Factors of Terrorism

Terrorism and the emergence of radicalized political groups comprise an ever-increasing section of global news. While mainstream media tend to focus mainly on the atrocious acts of terrorism and the devastation thereof, the public understands little about what encourages individuals towards becoming violent, radicalized extremists. As such, this discussion seeks to explore the possible psychological and behavioral factors that tend to have the greatest impacts on the radicalization of individuals. It then extends to argue that the existence of such psychological factors could perhaps be the key to preventing radicalization, and suggests some of the formidable ways through which government and the international community might employ to counter radicalization.

The concept of terrorism is by no means new. Yet, modern events such as the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center have been the hallmarks of a new era of terrorism in which terrorist groups have been able to recruit, train and unleash armies of radicalized fighters faster than ever before, making them very difficult to contain. Contrary to what many may believe, research has shown that almost all members of terrorist groups have no signs of abnormal psychological conditions since the organizations extensively screen their recruits for any instability that may compromise their course. As observed by Gorzig and Al-Hashimi (2014), abnormal psychopathology has proved to be an inaccurate predictor of an individual’s predisposition to become a radicalized extremist. On the contrary, such psychological factors as the quest for identity and significance remain highly influential in prompting an individual to join an extremist group.

Studies have shown that for individuals in need of social connections, extremist groups tend to provide well-knit, loyal and highly intimate groups. For instance, Abrahams (2008) found sufficient evidence that the quest for social relations and solidarity is the primary reasons for which individuals join terrorist organizations. Often, recruits tend to show exceptionally high levels of social alienation, which means that their perceived discrimination was the motivating factor. Gorzig and Al-Hashimi describe radicalization as an intersubjective process in which peer groups, leaders and recruitment specifics are at the core. As such, the transmission of radical ideas occurs within social networks in which such social connections as bonding, peer pressure and indoctrination gradually influence the individual’s perception of the world.

The Psychological and Behavioral Factors of Terrorism

Perverse perception of fairness is another factor that compels individuals to embrace the discourses of radical and extremist organizations. Perception of injustice and morality split within disconnected people are likely to mobilize and eventually unify them around a given grandiose cause. According to Hogan (2008), morality split for both in-group and out-group members alongside identification with victims precipitate an inclination towards terrorist organizations. The premise of split morality is that what is just and fair for an individual’s group may not be so for an outsider, which in turn justifies and deems as fair any aggression against the outsider. Drawing from the humiliation and revenge theory of behavior, terrorists tend to have the conviction that their reaction is always against unjust situations as opposed to being the oppressors themselves. The perception of unfair treatment, therefore, makes the individual part of a bigger moral cause that they perceive as aimed at correcting the unjust situation.

Within the context of religious radicalization, Islamic radicalization in particular, the promise of martyrdom emerges as an attractive incentive for individuals. While leaders of terrorist organizations draw their motivation from intimidating and demoralizing governments, often with the objective of forcing them to give in to their political demands, individual terrorists do not necessarily share such goals. Instead, the leaders ensure that members’ attachment to the organization is via value and norm creation. Moghadam (2009) argued that the hallmark of Islamic extremism is the creation of a cult of martyrdom and glorification of death. The glorification, according to Moghadam, serves two interrelated purposes. The first is that of convincing the individuals that their deaths are sacrifices for a higher cause and that such death contributes to the continuity of the cause for which they are fighting. The second is that through martyrdom the individual will have access to more benefits in the afterlife compared to what is available in the current life.

The fact that no terrorists tend to show abnormal psychopathic conditions does not imply the absence of others that may well pass for normal behaviors, such as narcissism. Narcissistic injuries emanating from difficult or problematic childhood or adolescent stages of development or due to parental inadequacies, may result in altered self-perceptions. Such damage may lead the individual towards grandiose fantasies, the type often promised by extremist organizations. Alternatively, such traumas, when experienced during early childhood, might re-emerge in adulthood through such dissociated behaviors as excessive paranoia or absolutist thinking, resulting in behaviors exhibited by extremists. Secondly, as explained by Routledge, Juhl and Vess (2010), individuals also develop varied, at times problematic reactions to the external world, which is often the result of cognitive rigidity, defined as the need for clarity and certainty and intolerance to ambiguity. In this case, the individual is unable to develop behaviors that fit the outside conditions such as life’s uncertain and mundane nature.

The fact that terrorist organizations employ conventional means to attract and recruit new members implies that countering such initiatives must employ conventional, yet imaginative and adaptive means. For instance, counterterrorism campaigns must seek to interrupt strong group relationships that define these organizations. To tackle the quest for significance, for instance, governments, the society and interest groups must focus on morally acceptable goals achieved through non-violent means that eventually reassign one’s beliefs and disengages the individual from violence. Another remedy could be through initiatives that challenge the group’s collective identity. These include strategies that inhibit potential members from joining the radicalized groups, cultivating dissent within the group, crafting and facilitating exist from the group and reducing the group’s support and delegitimizing its leaders.

Another formidable strategy for de-radicalizing individuals entails disproving the propaganda spread by the terrorist group(s). Here, the society must seek to leverage modern technology, the very ones used by terrorist groups to spread propaganda, to counter their messages. Propaganda is only effective if people see the issuer as reliable or possessing some legitimacy. As such, initiatives that discredit the propaganda churned out by terrorist organizations can be crucial in reducing the number of recruits that such can harness. The key element here lies in demonstrating to the public the extent to which involvement with the group can bring devastation to the individual or the individual’s family members and friends, hence discarding the notion that terrorism could be a means to a given end, real or perceived.

Based on the careful analysis presented in this discussion, one can conclude that appeals to radicalization are the result of the need for social connections, perverse perception of fairness, the promise of martyrdom within the context of Islamic extremism as well as subtle psychopathic problems as narcissism. The insidious nature of terrorist actions not only make them detestable, but also difficult to counter. To that end, this study suggests such means as interruption of strong group relationships, focusing on morally acceptable norms to address the inherent quest for significance, challenging the group’s collective identity and using the media to disprove the propaganda spread by the terrorist groups.


Abrahms, M. (2008). What terrorists really want. Journal of International Security, 32(4), 78-105.

Gorzig, C. & Al-Hashimi, K. (2014). Radicalization in Western Europe: Integration, public discourse and loss of identity among Muslim Communities. London: Routledge.

Hogan, J. (2008). Pathways to radicalization. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 618(1), 80-94.

Moghadam, A. (2009). Motives for martyrdom: Al-Qaida, Salafi Jihad, and the spread of suicide attacks. Journal of International Security, 33(3), 46-78.

Routledge, C., Juhl, J., & Vess, M. (2010). Divergent reactions to the terror of terrorism: Personal need for structure moderates the effects of terrorism salience on worldview-related attitudinal rigidity. Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 32(3), 243-249.

A fundamental issue established at the outset of this course is the fact that becoming involved in terrorist activities is a process, where numerous factors can affect the mindset and actions of an individual. We have covered many of these issues and influences, so concerning this matter, relay what you feel are those psychological and behavioral factors that have the greatest impact on the radicalization of an individual. Conversely, what efforts do you feel might be effective in countering them in a proactive manner?

The body of your report is to be five pages in length (points will be deducted if the minimum page requirement is not met) and is to contain the following:
A brief introduction, conveying what the report is about
A main body, containing the ”meat” of the report, where you provide the requested information
A conclusion, summarizing the content of the report clearly and concisely
Include an appropriate title page
Typewritten in double-spaced, Times New Roman 12-point font, 1” margins.
A minimum of five (5) academically acceptable sources are to be utilized. Use those provided to you throughout the course, as well as other material obtained from conducting your own research to support your work. However, such information is to supplement your work, not replace or serve as the major part of it. Therefore, assignments will be automatically submitted for review through Turnitin and will be graded in accordance with the writing assignment grading rubric. Freely utilize appropriate sources, summarize in your own words and cite accordingly, but be mindful of excessive direct quotes, as they should not make up more than 10% of your report.
Sources utilized are to be cited and listed in accordance with the APA writing style.

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