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Psychology of Terrorism

NCJ Number
Date Published
79 pages

This report analyzes and synthesizes what has been reported from the scientific and professional literature about the psychology of terrorism. By attempting to identify, describe, and evaluate what contribution psychological theory or research may have made to understanding terrorists and terrorism.


One of the gravest threats to the national security environment is without question, terrorism. In order to better understand the causes, motivations, and determinants of terrorist behavior, this report identifies and analyzes the scientific and professional social science literature pertaining to the psychological and/or behavioral dimensions of terrorist behavior. The objective is to explore what questions pertaining to terrorist groups and behavior had been asked by social science researchers, to identify the main findings from that research, and attempt to distill and summarize them within a framework of operationally relevant questions. Highlights of key findings on the psychology of terrorism include: (1) people become terrorists in different ways, in different roles, and for different reasons; (2) mental illness is not a critical factor in explaining terrorist behaviors and most terrorists are not psychopaths; (3) histories of childhood abuse and trauma and themes of perceived injustice and humiliation often are prominent in terrorist biographies, but do not help to explain terrorism; (4) not all extremist ideologies promote violence, nor are all extremists violent; (5) terrorist groups have certain internal and external vulnerabilities to their existence; (6) little research has been conducted on terrorist recruitment; (7) effective leaders of terrorist organizations must be able to maintain a collective belief system, establish and maintain organizational routines, control the flow of communication, deflect conflict to external targets, manipulate incentives for followers, and keep action going; and (8) research on the psychology of terrorism largely lacks substance and rigor. References

Date Published: January 1, 2004