Terrorist psychology

Every day we hear about new terrorist attacks that seem to be not only more violent and frequent, but more widespread, dragging everyday millions and millions of innocent and vulnerable people in their dramatic and deadly spiral of terror.

How can the leaders of terrorist groups be able to use  psychological and social dynamics of persuasion so efficiently, as to encourage normal people to abandon every instinct of survival and individuality, often leading them into martyrdom?

ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) offers prizes and answers to those who need guarantees. Embracing IS’ ideology and taking part to its war might appear as a mere acceptance of a religious-based worldview, but it  deep roots can actually be found in other altogether different psychological facets.

These groups uses people’s frailties as means to pursue their own interest. The most common psychological profile of a terrorist is the one of a  smart, cultivated young person, bred in wealthy families (for example, the boys involved in the Dhaka attack in Bangladesh), who is fully integrated in the very fabric of Western society. The average ISIS militant is a determined, motivated human being with great expectations, power lust and omnipotence deliriums. terrorist-inside-article

For years, psychologists studied terrorists’ individual characteristics to explain the reasons driving a man to join terrorists forces.

On this topic, studies led by American researcher John Horgan have shown that people who are more inclined to terrorist recruitment and radicalization tend to be particularly prone to anger; they believe that the system in which they are living does not give them any chance to improve their condition,  leading them to identify themselves as victims of social injustice. This approach to reality makes these people angry and violent individuals, perfectly fit for being brainwashed and persuaded by extremist recruiters.

As a matter of fact, scientists claim that mental illness can not be used to explain terrorist behavior. Sometimes in criminal biographies, you can find stories about childhood traumas and themes linked to injustice but these elements do not entirely explain the motivations of the criminal act.

Fanaticism (shaid), according to criminologist De Luca, is possible because terrorists are ready to become martyrs to reach the “idealized heaven” and to sacrifice their lives in the name of God (الله أَكْبَر Allahu Akbar)[1].

A terrorist group is led by a charismatic leader who uses his language, his moral code to train the followers and presumes to be the one with the most power that all the other members have to respect (whoever goes against his “dogmas” must be made punishable).

inside-article2The leader is able to turn one’s mind in a sort of “collective consciousness” and the members, little by little, will psychologically isolate themselves from the society they used to be part of , becoming more and more hateful and aggressive fanatics.

Obviously, leaders use religion as “promotion of their campaigns”, therefore, if a critic and individualistic thought could spread across society and rationality could supersede superstition, terrorism would lose its own psychological prima materia , consequently losing power, recruits, importance, and, in the end, withering .

All things considered we are nowhere near to discovering the real nature of a terrorist brain, but ultimately we are building the basis to understand the intricate structure that surrounds this reality.

Today’s policy makers, international state and non-state actors, may be able to stop a terrorist attack – but not to successfully fight the phenomenon.

Nevertheless, I do not want to be pessimistic about our future.

We have to start working from our realities, using our common sense, and, as Gandhi said, we have to be “the change that we want to see in the world”.

That inspirational quote reminded me the slogan used by Barack Obama in his 2008 Presidential campaign which had become very popular: “YES; WE CAN”.

Uniting and collaborating, we can create a more suitable world.

Sophia Rita Jadda


[1] This expression literally means “God is the greatest” and it is commonly used by Muslims to remind God vastness and power in opposition of the ugliness of this world.