The Psychology of Terrorism

Understanding how criminals think can help prevent violence


Is a terrorist a criminal who pulls the trigger to slaughter an important figure in broad daylight? Or, is he an extremist issuing fatwas to permit the spilling of innocent blood? Or, perhaps, he is a political strongman who doesn’t hesitate to brutally persecute his opponents.

We define a terrorist as anyone who commits himself to, participates in or organizes others to perform terrorist acts. In addition, we must include those who intentionally commit terrorist acts on behalf of a person or group that works for the purpose of expanding terrorism.

The concept of the terrorist is not limited to murderers who carry out assassinations and detonate bombs, but also includes those who participate in or plan to commit terrorist acts.

It is worth noting the falsehoods terrorist groups use to justify their crimes, claiming that they are defending freedom or struggling for peace and independence. Nearly all terrorism experts agree that a terrorist is a criminal and that acts of terrorism cannot be justified under any circumstances, whether political, religious or ideological. The killing of innocents, the destruction of archaeological sites and human history, and the disruption of security are all crimes for which the perpetrator must be brought to justice.

As researchers in the field of terrorism, we must admit that there is a small group of terrorists who operate on the world’s stage with one goal in mind: adventure. Just as there are trips offered to wealthy adventurers to hunt big game, so, too, are there trips organized in tumultuous regions of the world — and sometimes even in stable countries — where one can kill real human beings or set off real bombs, all to satisfy these sick souls’ love of adventure.

Though terrorists are classified as a criminal group, the terrorist is a different sort of criminal. He has psychological characteristics and criminal patterns that make his personality worth studying. He uses modern methods to plan terrorist operations. He also uses inventive and modern methods to execute those operations. From a psychological standpoint, you can view him as more stable and in control of his emotions. His psychology manifests itself during a negotiation. When one talks to a terrorist directly, one can see him try to hide his criminal personality behind a curtain of morality and religion. However, that mask is quickly dropped, revealing his sick, bloodthirsty personality, which aims to spread fear among people.

The different types of criminals are as follows:

Terrorists by inclination: This type of terrorist is characterized as having a cruel heart and ignoring the prick of conscience. They see crime as a good thing and feel happy each time they succeed in committing one. These criminals are known and documented in the criminal records of the Ministry of the Interior. They usually have several previous criminal convictions and should be pursued immediately after a crisis.

Terrorists by chance: This type does not have a criminal mindset. They live mostly normal, honorable lives, but sometimes suffer from weak morals. Their resistance weakens when personal circumstances change, such as unemployment or poverty. They become entangled in a terrorist act only after much reservation, hesitation and encouragement. Afterward, in a return to normal, there’s the sting of regret for what has been done. Such a person will often surrender to security forces.

Semi-criminals: They commit unintentional crimes or crimes in defense of another person, honor or their family.

Habitual criminals: They are born without having any criminal inclination, but external circumstances lead them to commit crimes. After that, they repeat the crime again and again, thereby enabling themselves to do more of the same. Often, they are unable to leave behind the life of crime.

Criminally insane: This type suffers from a mental disease that strips the person of an ability to realize the nature and consequences of actions. They commit crimes under the influence of the disease.

Criminals by passion: They can be good, upright, pure-hearted people, often considered the salt of the earth. At the same time, however, they are extremely sensitive and quickly moved by emotions. They suffer from a nervous demeanor and passionate nature, which leads them to commit crimes in defense of love or honor, or crimes out of anger and jealousy. Their crimes are the most predominant against other people, including murder out of jealousy or beating someone in response to an insult. These criminals are quick to regret. They withdraw after committing the crime and censure themselves. They will seek to repent and find forgiveness, which sometimes leads to suicide. If they are punished, they surrender calmly as a just reward for their sins.

In conclusion, it is clear from security studies that there are general characteristics for terrorist personalities. These characteristics manifest themselves as general features, though one can also notice them through a terrorist’s behavior and psychological conditions.

During crises, when every minute counts, security forces should acknowledge these characteristics in opening lines of communication with terrorists. These personality traits do not necessarily apply to every terrorist, but security forces on the ground can use these guidelines in assessing criminals.