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The Making of a Terrorist
John Horgan and Max Taylor

1 December 2001
Jane's Intelligence Review

Copyright Jane's Information Group Limited 2001

If anything concrete has been learnt about terrorism since 11 September, it
is that a systematic psychological approach to the phenomenon is almost
non-existent. John Horgan and Max Taylor argue that an understanding of the
psychological factors involved in the formation and dissolution of terrorist
organisations may be more useful than the profiling of individual

In order to understand terrorism, there is a need to appreciate the ethnic,
religious, political, social and economic context in which it takes place,
and the individuals who organise attacks and those who ultimately conduct

This must be placed within a coherent conceptual context that can inform
both current understanding and future analysis. Regrettably, we lack this
solid basis and, in consequence, our operational and policy interventions
are often poorly structured, weakly conceptualised and frequently

In particular, the psychological basis of terrorist behaviour remains poorly
understood, as are the ways in which the conditions for generating conflict
impact on the individual. The 11 September attacks emphasise the need to
better understand the relationship between the continuously changing context
of regional and global conflict and the individual factors that drive and
sustain involvement in terrorist activity.

Security services, policy-makers and analysts often have little conceptual
understanding of how the factors that contribute to terrorism actually
impinge on the individual terrorist and terrorist organisation. The reason
for this is that the academic community has largely failed to develop the
conceptual structures to enable this to occur.

Terrorism per se is not caused by any single factor; it is a complex
phenomenon, and the individual terrorist is always subject to an array of
influences related to self-perception, family, community and identity. Nor
is the typical terrorist (fundamentalist or otherwise) 'mad'. While their
acts are often horrific, there is a continued absence of any identifiable
psychopathology in terrorists (not just within groups, but across various
terrorist organisations). Despite some failed and unfounded attempts to
support the contrary, there remains no systematic evidence to support the
view of terrorists being psychologically different from non-terrorists.
Terrorism exists within societies and communities. As such, it is in the
nature of the terrorist's rhetoric to present his actions as representing
community interests. An uncomfortable truth in the wake of 11 September is
that while in a specific sense those 'represented communities' tend to
reject individual atrocities, they often remain supportive of the terrorist
in a general sense. This is particularly evident whenever the role of
religion is used by terrorist leaderships as representing the basic
justification and methodology of their violence.

The concept of religious terrorism has spread among the public as something
frightening and once distant that now threatens to affect everyone, but it
does little to explain the motivations of terrorists or to inform
policy-makers of suitable responses. In strategic and tactical terms, the
'religious' dimension can be isolated to much more mundane organisational
issues that terrorist leaders have to consider: how to employ specific
psychological tactics to recruit potential members and promote moral and
other justification to the point that not only will such a grouping have
people willing to die for it, but they may even have members who will want
to die. Religious ideology should, therefore, be seen as a tool, among
others, used for the terrorist's purposes.

A negative consequence of the current focus on religious terrorism can be
seen in the way in which the political dimensions of Al-Qaeda's activities
continue to go largely unaddressed. Few commentators seem to appreciate
Osama bin Laden's primary short-term political aspirations for the
destabilisation of regimes in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia.
This may not work (and many would say that it still seems a rather naive
goal), but the conservative nature of terrorism was demonstrated, not only
by the nature of the 11 September attacks (they were first and foremost
hijackings amid lacklustre security), but also by the undeniably political
nature of what is behind these attacks.

Academia and policy-making

A popular approach to terrorism by academia has been to attempt to profile
terrorists, either in a psychological sense or across socio- political
dimensions. The notion of 'profiling' has a strong appeal to law-enforcement
and intelligence services, but experience suggests it has little value in
the case of terrorists. The consistency of behaviour, and presumed invariant
qualities which profiling necessarily assumes, simply does not exist.
Terrorism is a diverse and broad phenomenon, and the concept itself is prone
to inconsistent use and labelling. Even within specific terrorist groups,
there is often a considerable diversity of people, roles, functions and

Research aimed at understanding psychological aspects of terrorist behaviour
has been perennially preoccupied with establishing differences between
terrorists and non-terrorists. An underlying, and essentially flawed,
assumption is that there are relatively static personal qualities that can
in some sense predict or be identified as essential properties of the
terrorist. This has involved a search for specific personality types across
various groups. From a conceptual point of view, this practice is pointless.
Given the diversity of terrorist behaviour and function, there can be little
or no predictive utility in using personality traits to understand
terrorists. Even if one could establish that an individual in a terrorist
group had a specific trait (say, paranoia), one could not use this for any
proactive 'search' for those likely to become terrorists.

Assumptions about what terrorists are 'like' in a psychological sense still
largely draw on a research base from the early 1980s which includes, first
and foremost, the rather confusing results of assessments of ideological
terrorists examined by psychiatrists in prisons. This has distracted
attention from a focus on decisional choices that might be made by
terrorists, and the social and cultural context to those choices. In fact,
what we know of actual terrorists suggests that there is rarely a conscious
decision made to 'become' a terrorist. Most involvement in terrorism results
from gradual exposure and socialisation towards extreme behaviour.
Given these difficulties, a role for personality might be better identified
when examining more specific issues in the decision-making processes, for
example, in analysing how disaffected youths become influenced by
'perverted' fundamentalist thinking to the point of eventually expressing a
willingness to die for a cause. Relevant to this, however, is that a
critical distinction needs to be made between why people join terrorist
groups in the first place, how they develop into specific roles or
functions, why they remain involved and, ultimately, why they leave. An
important point is that the factors influencing decision-making for the
individual at any of these stages are not necessarily related to one

An approach taken by psychologist FM Moghaddam can be used to illustrate how
a shift in focus can have very different implications for thinking about
terrorist behaviour. It has been shown by psychologists that specific social
roles and kinds of behaviour are associated with specific kinds of work.
According to Moghaddam, this forms the basis for how we use stereotypes and
social categorisation from day to day. For example, in the process of
'becoming' a police officer, new recruits to the profession will learn about
the 'appropriateness of different types of behaviour and conform to what is
both appropriate for their role and for themselves in that role'. In some
very fundamental ways then, through training, socialisation, conformity,
compliance and obedience, aspirant police officers shape their own
behaviour, attitudes, and perceptions to fit the expectant socialised role
or function of 'police officer'. Moghaddam stresses that this is relevant to
understanding how people change as a result of adopting specific roles or

Approaching psychological issues from this perspective has implications for
the understanding of how terrorist recruits can come to perform extreme acts
of violence. There are various types of specialisation frequently found in
large terrorist organisations, where the leadership delegates roles and
functions to members who display some specific technical, financial or
educational acumen. However movement between roles and functions also occurs
in terrorist groups for a variety of pragmatic reasons. The Provisional
Irish Republican Army (PIRA), for example, has always been overestimated
with respect to its organisational proficiency, where despite a formalised
command and functional structure, a number of members have frequently
occupied more than one function. There are extremely few 'full-time'
terrorists, but members have moved into and out of roles that only sometimes
directly contribute to death, injury or other dramatic events that we
associate with terrorism. The point here is that very often, the shift to
extreme behaviour is gradual and slow even for a member of a relatively
formalised terrorist structure, and indeed may only intermittently be

A fundamental distinction can be made then in analysing the factors at work
at the different stages of 'becoming', 'remaining' and 'leaving', or
terminating involvement. Rather than thinking about 'what kind of person
becomes a terrorist?' it may be much more useful to consider the 'pull'
factors that attract people to involvement in extremist groups in the first
place. One can then examine the processes by which a person may be
encouraged into fulfilling a specific role or function (brainwashing is an
inappropriate term because it implies some physical or overt psychological
coercion), and what leads to some people remaining in the organisation while
others leave (voluntarily or otherwise).

Successful terrorist groups place a psychological premium on membership.
Eventual acceptance into a group is not just seen as a significant
aspiration and subsequent major milestone in a person's life, but there is a
common tendency across terrorist groups for the leadership to want to see
some 'return' on their investment. The range of subtle psychological
pressures that sustain involvement within a terrorist organisation and
sustain a shift towards increasing isolation from mainstream society and
towards extreme behaviour are immense. Given this, the behaviour that
culminates in the planting of a bomb does not lend itself to explanation in
easy, categorical terms. Considering terrorism within a fluid, dynamic group
and organisational context leads away from profiling individuals and towards
identifying functions, roles and the effects of organisational dynamics on
recruitment, sustenance of membership, safeguarding against exit, and so on.

Counterterrorism has been preoccupied with military and law- enforcement
responses, often with a focus on simple analysis and technical solutions,
rather than generating understanding. We have lacked to date the investment
in conceptual understanding of terrorism, and the processes that underpin

It is in this sense that comparative studies of terrorist movements would
benefit from process approaches, for example comparing the movement into and
out of violence, with respect to tactical, strategic and other types of
escalation and de-escalation and the types of organisational issues that
emerge for the 'followers' as a result. It is only now, for instance, that
we are in a position to be able to assess the psychological consequences of
disengagement from Irish Republican terrorism and to generate comparative
hypotheses accordingly.

Up close and personal

One of the reasons that psychological research on terrorists has remained
unimpressive and of little practical value, is that there has been little
effort to test hypotheses and theories using anything but long-distance
profiling attempts or a plethora of secondary sources (for example,
terrorist autobiographies, internal communiques).

While the latter may represent an under-utilised source of material for
researchers, our knowledge of why people become terrorists is hindered by a
persistent reluctance for researchers to talk to terrorists. Unappealing as
this might be, it is a necessary step to listen to what terrorists have to
say first hand. It is a myth that such research is not possible. Not only is
it possible, but the experiences of researchers who have researched
terrorists first hand is that these individuals and groups do generally tend
to be facilitative and co-operative, insofar as the researcher is seen to
serve some purpose, for example in facilitating a broader hearing of the
terrorists' aims , and so on.

It is not difficult to formulate an appropriate research framework within
which first-hand behavioural research on terrorists can develop and bear
fruit, especially when drawing on qualitative analyses of terrorist
communication, rather than depending on limited positivist methodologies. It
is in using such methodologies to address the same core questions to members
of different groups that comparative process-based studies can take on a new
lease of life and a renewed sense of importance.

Future developments

There is little evidence of systematic forward planning in thinking about
the broader factors that contribute to the emergence of terrorism. In the
wake of the attacks in the USA, policy-makers and law-enforcement agencies
will inevitably remain focused on the immediate threat and its management
because of its operational and political significance, but the medium and
long-term prospect for terrorist violence also needs to be more adequately
brought within analytical frameworks. However, the lack of longer-term focus
also has a consequence in terms of poor conceptual development in terrorism
research. A related important issue here is that law-enforcement and
intelligence agencies generate immense amounts of information about
terrorism and terrorists, but access to that information is often limited by
secrecy constraints. In some cases, this is appropriate, but very often the
lack of openness relates more to power and control than to national (or
international) interest or protection of sources. Given the events
surrounding 11 September, it might be argued that in terms of understanding
possible future developments in terrorism - rather than preventing further
immediate attacks - detailed operational information is of less importance
than information on the broader processes that give rise to the development
of terrorism.

While the academic and intelligence communities have very different agendas,
and the issue of trust may be problematic on both sides, identifying areas
of mutual interest would represent a tangible step forward, particularly now
in the context of a responsible international initiative. Above all, the
emphasis needs to shift from not only understanding and fighting past
terrorist incidents and campaigns, to looking to what the future might

The array of tools open to the counterterrorist specialist do not simply
include military interventions - they include psychological tools or, more
specifically, the responsible and informed use of psychological principles
in developing operational policy, educating the public about terrorism and
informing people in such a way that support for counter-terrorist operations
are guaranteed. It will be disappointing to many readers that there is no
possibility of answering the question: 'what makes a terrorist?'
Conceptually and practically, it is impossible.

However while straightforward answers may not be possible, systematic
analysis can lead to positive outcomes and there is still no shortage of
research areas to be explored, many for the first time, many related to
comparative analyses, and many so obvious that we can only wonder why there
is not more systematic effort.

Yet another popular myth, even among terrorism researchers, is that we need
not concern ourselves with terrorist organisations whose campaigns of
violence no longer pose a threat to society. A good current example is that
of the PIRA. It would be foolhardy to neglect the valuable opportunities to
examine a variety of issues related to our understanding of terrorists and
the broader processes that influence their behaviour. These include the
psychological and other effects of organisational disintegration, the
formation of splinter groups, the increased movement into politics and its
implications for members whose sole involvement lay in organising and
overseeing violent activity, and so on.

If anything, terrorism can appear even more relevant during the 'peacetime'
of terrorist groups due to the valuable opportunities open to the research
community not least as this applies to 'getting access' to men and women
previously involved in terrorist activity. The men and women of Irish
Republican terrorist groups now regularly grant audiences to journalists
aspiring to gain some insight into how negotiations were directed and
perceived from the 'inside' during the various strands of the peace process.
If understanding and attempting to predict how terrorists react to
negotiations or attempts to combat them form the crux of policy-making, we
would do well to listen to what terrorists and former terrorists have to say
about it.

There are many other significant issues to form the basis of a systematic
academic research agenda to benefit all concerned, but there are wider
issues, as always, at stake here and ones that we need to confront if we are
to be truly honest. On 31 October, the Pentagon released a statement to the
public calling for 'ideas on combating terrorism'. Has anybody asked about
what co-ordinated and devoted academic research might have to offer? The
need for this community to provide a forum whereby fundamental conceptual
and strategic issues can be discussed is a crucial first step. When
researchers and policy-makers agree that long-term research has merit and
has deliverable products, then perhaps the perceptions of both bodies might
change for the better in thinking about the 'academic' role in understanding

Dr John Horgan and Professor Max Taylor are at the Department of Applied
Psychology, University College, Cork, Ireland. Their books include The
Future of Terrorism (2000) and The Psychology of Terrorism (forthcoming),
both published by Frank Cass and Co, Portland and London.

Photograph: Ayman al-Zawahiri as a young boy, now leading ideologue of
Al-Qaeda. (Source: PA News) Photograph: Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum
Shinrikyo doomsday cult (Source: PA News) Photograph: ETA fighter Manex
Zubiaga Bravo (Source: PA News) Photograph: Ulrike Meinhof, founder and
leader of the Red Army Faction in Germany (Source: PA News) Photograph:
Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. (Source: PA News)

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