This article is from the In-Depth Report Combating Terrorism with Science

Inside the Terrorist Mind

Scientists are probing the psyches of terrorists to reveal what motivates their monstrous acts. Far from being crazed killers, terrorists are gunning for the greater good-as they see it

In Brief

Dissecting Terror

  • Whereas earlier researchers focused on the political roots of terrorism, many of today’s investigators are probing the psychological factors that drive adherents to commit their deadly deeds.
  • Most terrorists are not mentally ill; rather they rationally weigh the costs and benefits of their actions and conclude that terrorism is profitable.
  • Group dynamics and charismatic leadership play powerful roles in convincing people to embrace the expansive goals of terrorism. Terrorist groups often provide their members with a sense of belonging and empowerment.

On June 30 two men drove a dark green Jeep Cherokee into a set of doors at the Glasgow airport in Scotland, producing a burst of flames that officials deemed an act of terrorism. They linked the crash to a broader plot that included two cars in London that contained explosive materials.

The foiled plan is just one of the tens of thousands of terrorist pursuits that have pockmarked the globe in recent decades--including the 1972 murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, the 1975 hostage taking at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna, the 1995 sarin gas attacks in Tokyo, and the September 11, 2001, strikes in the U.S. Although terrorism includes a diversity of actions, all of them, by definition, are intended to harm innocent civilians--and perpetrate fear--in the name of political, religious or other ideological goals.

Terrorism is an ageless scourge. But the ferocity of the 9/11 assaults and the upsurge in unrestrained activities by al-Qaeda and other groups have elicited heightened interest in unraveling the underpinnings of terrorism. Accompanying this brand of audacious intimidation is a new tactic for studying it--and perhaps curtailing it. Whereas earlier generations of researchers focused on the political roots of groups such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), many of todays investigators are probing the minds of adherents to discover what drives them to carry out their demonic deeds.

Literature on this approach abounds. Amazon.com offers more than 800 books on "psychology and terrorism." According to the psychology database PsycInfo, more articles on terrorism have been published since 2001 than in the previous 120 years. Meanwhile the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has doled out $12 million to establish the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), a research consortium of more than 30 scientists charged with investigating the origins, dynamics and psychological impacts of this devastating pursuit.

The latest research suggests, for example, that the vast majority of terrorists are not mentally ill but are essentially rational people who weigh the costs and benefits of terrorist acts, concluding that terrorism is profitable. The advantages accrued, however, have value only in a particular social context. Group dynamics, often driven by charismatic leadership, play a powerful role in convincing individuals to embrace expansive goals and use violence to attain them. Personal factors also draw people toward terror. Terrorist groups provide their members with a feeling of belonging and empowerment and, in some cases, a means of avenging past wrongs.

To be sure, many of the psychological explanations of terrorism rest on shaky ground, because empirical studies of the terrorist mind are relatively scarce, partly because of the difficulty in conducting them [see box on page 77]. "The number of suggested theories far outstrips the number of empirical studies in the literature," says psychiatry professor Jeff Victoroff of the University of Southern California. Nevertheless, researchers hope that the insights gained will help them thwart terrorism by dissolving the psychological glue that holds these rebel groups together.

Rise of Religion
Modern-day terrorism can be traced back as far as the first century A.D., when the Zealots of Judea secretly assassinated Roman occupation forces and collaborators because they felt that Roman rule was incompatible with Judaism. Like other religious extremists, the Zealots rejected the authority of a secular government and laws that did not incorporate their beliefs.

Centuries later the rise of nationalism engendered a new breed of terrorist, exemplified by the IRA, loyal to a collection of people who share the same culture and values. Most such nationalists aim to create or reclaim a homeland; their actions are designed to garner international sympathy for their cause and to coerce the dominant group to concede to their wishes. Social revolutionary terrorists such as the German Red Army Faction (RAF) and the Italian Red Brigades, on the other hand, seek to overthrow capitalism and the current social order.

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