Unravelling a Terrorist’s Mind


Hearing of a terrorist attack on the news can be very disturbing, but not so surprising anymore because they’re not a new phenomenon in geopolitics. Tackling terrorism, whether it was from the IRA yesterday, or Daesh today has been a top priority for governments to save as many lives as possible. But this article will dig a bit deeper into what terrorism is, why people become terrorists, and how it shapes our view of an “enemy”.

Terrorism, before it is studied, must be differentiated from other humanitarian crimes, like genocide or murder. Murder is always targeting a specific individual, whilst genocide usually targets an “entire” race or ethnic group. Terrorism does neither. According to terrorism expert Brian Jenkins, “terrorism is theatre”. What this can be interpreted as, is that terrorism, by not targeting a specific victim, is instead trying to trigger fear and panic among the “audience” watching, whether that’s on television or as a witness at the actual scene. Somehow, even if it leads to the suicide of the terrorist, it is still used by terrorist groups to advance their agenda. The willingness of terrorists to become “martyrs” is still rather mysterious and can vary from context to context, but what’s clear is that there are psychological realities working behind the scenes that lead to terrorism.

When it comes to forming psychoanalytic theories on behaviour, two distinctions known among psychologists is the famous distinction of “dispositionist” behaviour (which is motivated by a person and his/her personality) and “situationist” behaviour (which is motivated by external factors, like the political context for example). Both categories have different explanations for terrorism, but can sometimes be inter-linked. The first

The first dispositionist argument I will discuss is the frustration-aggression theory. The primary point of this theory is that when a person is deeply frustrated, negative emotions can strongly impact one’s decision-making process, which then leads to him/her committing actions out of this frustration or anger. Suppose Person A (for the sake of a contextual-based example) has lost his job, goes back home in a very cold and rainy day. He will, understandably, be very frustrated. When Person A arrives home, he begins behaving aggressively with his children, or his pets or his partner to vent his anger, even though it isn’t their fault. In the same way, let’s suppose Person B has come home from work in Yemen to see his home has been bombed by a Saudi air-strike and all his family has died. Will the incomprehensible anger and distress potentially encourage him to join the Houthi terrorists because he is desperate to avenge the murder of this family?

Another dispositionist theory, like the one above, can be called the narcissist-aggression theory. The chain of events here, in summary, begins when a person who is apparently a narcissist and holds himself in high regard. But when he realises that the people surrounding him do not, purely because they don’t see a logical reason to do so, this leads to “narcissistic rage” developing in him/her, which then leads to a disregard of other people, and an urge to vent this rage onto others through an act of terrorism. Although this theory initially sounds abstract, supporters of this theory cite the link between a person’s low self-esteem and sense of failure, to terrorism. But one drawback to this idea, (and a major drawback in my opinion), is the fact that there are many narcissists around us who are clearly not terrorists or even close. Other dispositionist theories are based more on Freudian accounts, which resemble the frustration-aggression theory. But the underlying causal factor in these theories is that they are all dispositionist, mainly citing the root cause of terrorism to a person’s personality traits or emotions.

Many contemporary psychologists, however, don’t always accept the above theories as sufficient explanations to terrorism. This is due to several reasons, but one common drawback to dispositionist theories is that they fail to consider the changes of behaviour that take place when a person’s disposition is elevated to a “group-level”, because terrorist organisations are obviously large groups, and therefore are a combination of many different dispositions. There is no guarantee that a person when in a group, will really behave the same as he would alone, dictated solely by his disposition. This is where situationist arguments come into play.

Studies on situationist theories are based on the external environment and how that can drive people towards terrorism, independent of an individual’s disposition. Situationist factors could range from things like human rights abuses to foreign invasions, and many more. It is these pressing and desperate situations that lead perfectly “sane” people towards terrorist attacks. This basically means that people don’t initially hold a “terrorist personality”, but can become terrorists due to pressing external forces. It could well be the case that the instability, sectarian conflict and failed governments in Iraq contributed to the rise of a very monstrous organisation, Daesh. Similar parallels can be found in countries like Saudi Arabia, where civil liberties are heavily suppressed. Studying the geography of which countries Daesh fighters have come from is revealing, to say the least. The western European country which has had the most fighters originate from is France, followed by Germany and then the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, France’s numbers of total fighters (1,700) is over double the UK’s (760). France is also known for having less tolerance towards Muslims, with legislations banning certain Islamic clothing in public places. The UK doesn’t have such laws (yet), but can be argued to be among the most tolerant countries in Europe for Muslims. Let’s not forget the Mayor of London!

The situation here, therefore, seems to show a proportional link between Muslims “disenfranchised” by a country’s society, and the number of Muslims radicalised. Situationist arguments can be said to be superior to many dispositionist ones because dispositionist arguments consist of the underlying assumption that all terrorists are mentally or psychologically disturbed, which is a generalisation. If that was the case, then surely terrorist organisations wouldn’t be so organised and secretive? Counter-terrorism author Andrew Silke also suggests that those who claim that terrorists are psychologically disturbed actually have less contact with terrorists than those who argue the opposite. This isn’t to say that situationism solves the puzzle, but it certainly can fill in gaps left by dispositionalism.

Moreover, when it comes to psychology (and many other fields), simplifying phenomena into different “schemas” can often create many inaccuracies. This is because generalising can ignore many specific details and differences that arise in each case. My opinion drifts towards the “process model”, crafted by John Horgan, which incorporates elements of both the situation and the disposition. To put it simply, the situation acts like the fuel for terrorism, whilst the disposition acts as the spark which sets off the fire, so the situations which are known to be a cause for terrorism interact with a specific disposition in a person, to then create a terrorist.

A better understanding of such causal mechanisms could lead the way to a more effective counter-terrorism policy because if we wish to get rid of a tragic occurrence, it is absolutely crucial to know where it stems from and how it grows and survives.


Leave A Reply