There has been much research, writing, and
theorizing about what causes or motivates people to become terrorists. The
one consistent finding based on extensive empirical research is that there
is no "terrorist profile" that can be used to predict who or even what
type of person might become a terrorist. Research clearly rules out the
early theory that participation in terrorist actions is associated with
some sort of personality or mental disorder, that only "crazy" people
commit horrible acts of terrorism. Studies have shown that the prevalence
of mental illness among incarcerated terrorists is as low or lower than in
the general population. Although terrorists commit horrible acts, they
rarely match the profile of the classic psychopath. They are also not
necessarily from a lower socioeconomic status or less educated than their
Social scientists, law enforcement
organizations, and intelligence agencies all agree that terrorists are the
product of a dynamic process called radicalization. Brian Jenkins, one of
our country's most senior terrorism scholars, defines radicalization as
"the process of adopting for oneself or inculcating in others a commitment
not only to a system of [radical] beliefs, but to their imposition on the
rest of society."2
The compulsion to use violence to impose their beliefs on the rest of
society, or to punish others for their "evil" actions or beliefs is the
final stage in the radicalization process.
The commitment to violence is what
distinguishes a terrorist from other extremists. This process occurs over
time and causes a fundamental change in how people view themselves and the
world in which they live. The exact nature of this process is still poorly
understood. Researchers have developed a number of different theories and
conceptual models that seek to explain the process by which an individual
becomes radicalized, but these theories have not been empirically tested.
Most see three to five stages from beginning to end of the process, from
initial exposure through indoctrination, training, and then violent
action. However, different researchers conceptualize these stages
differently and use different terminology to identify or explain them.
There is broad agreement, however, that many people
who begin this process do not pass through
all the stages and become terrorists. Many people who become extremists
stop short of the violence that is typical of militant jihadists.
Our focus here is on violent jihadism, and
specifically on several aspects of the radicalization process about which
there seems to be some consensus. While the researchers have not
identified causes of terrorism, they have identified three vulnerabilities
that may provide sources of motivation or make one more likely to endorse
violence. These vulnerabilities are:
Injustice or Humiliation: Violent attack may be perceived as an
appropriate remedy for injustice or humiliation.
An individual's search for identity may draw him or her to extremist or
terrorist organizations in a variety of ways. The individual may be
searching for a purpose or goal in life that defines the actions
required to achieve that goal. A violent act may be seen as a way to
succeed at something that makes a difference. The absolutist, "black and
white" nature of most extremist ideologies is often attractive to those
who feel overwhelmed by the complexity and stress of navigating a
complicated world. Without struggling to define oneself or discern
personal meaning, an individual may choose to define his or her identity
simply through identification with a cause or membership in a group.
- Need for Belonging: Many
prospective terrorists find in a radical extremist group not only a
sense of meaning, but also a sense of belonging, connectedness, and
affiliation. One researcher argues that "for the individuals who become
active terrorists, the initial attraction is often to the group, or
community of believers, rather than to an abstract ideology or to
There is also some consensus on two factors
that facilitated the radicalization process.. These are:
- Spiritual Mentor: About 20% of
the homegrown terrorists examined in one study had a spiritual mentor, a
more experienced Muslim who gave specific instructions and direction
during the radicalization process. Such a mentor might be associated
with a mosque or be accessed via the Internet. The mentor keeps the
radicalization process on track. About a quarter of the terrorists in
one study had a perceived religious authority who provided specific
theological approval for their violent activity. 4
- Internet: The increased
radicalization of American Muslims is driven in part by a wave of
English-language websites designed to promote the militant jihadist
doctrine. These websites are not run or directed by al-Qaida, but they
provide a powerful tool for recruiting sympathizers to its cause of
jihad, or holy war against the United States, according to experts who
track this activity. Jihadist websites and chat rooms provide
indoctrination and training to aspiring jihadists and enable them to
establish contact with like-minded individuals in the United States or
with terrorist groups abroad. "The number of [active] English-language
sites sympathetic to al-Qaida has risen from about 30 seven years ago to
more than 200 recently," according to the head of a Saudi government
program that works to combat militant Islamic websites.5
Terrorism is not random violence for
its own sake. It is violence guided by an ideology that provides the
rules for one's behavior. "Ideology is often defined as a common and
broadly agreed upon set of rules to which an individual subscribes, and
which help to regulate and determine behavior."6 The
rules often link behaviors to anticipated long-term positive outcomes
and rewards. This is the basis for the suicide attacks that are
characteristic of violent jihad. By fulfilling one's duty to God by
killing infidels, one allegedly gains access to paradise.
The ideology that supports militant jihad is very different in its
substance from other forms of extremism or terrorism such as white
supremacy groups or eco-terrorism, but they all have four features in
common. All terrorist movements are: 5
They have an "us vs. them" mindset.
The beliefs are regarded as truth in the absolute sense, sometimes
supported by sacred authority. This squelches questioning, critical
thinking, and dissent. It also adds moral authority to framing us vs.
them as a competition between good and bad (or evil).
External threat causes in-groups to cohere. Good leaders know this
intuitively. They persistently remind adherents that the "us" is at risk
from "them." Because the "us" is seen as being good and right in the
absolute sense, this works not only to promote internal cohesion but
also opposition to all nonbelievers.
- Hateful: Hate energizes violent
action. It allows principled opposition to impel direct action. It also
facilitates various mechanisms for moral disengagement, or
dehumanization, which erode the normal social and psychological barriers
to engaging in violence. This is an important point, as it is the active
support for violence that distinguishes the simple extremist from the
The section on
The Militant Jihadist Terrorism
Threat describes the threat. One empirical study of 117 homegrown
jihadist terrorists in America and the United Kingdom has identified the
following observable manifestations of the radicalization process. This
may be useful for identifying how far along individuals are in the
radicalization process. 4
At an early
stage, one comes to trust only the interpretations of an ideologically
rigid set of religious authorities. These role models and scholars one
looks to as guides have a significant impact on how others interpret
what their faith demands of them.
Also at an
early stage, one adopts a legalistic interpretation of the Muslim faith.
There are rules that must be followed, not just for practice of the
faith, but also for virtually every aspect of one's daily life. For
example, playing music, taking photographs, or women laughing in the
street may be considered sinful. At the final stage of radicalization,
these rules include an obligation for all believers to undertake
violence against infidels in order to advance the faith.
radicalize, Muslims come to perceive a fundamental conflict between
Islam and the West. The idea of loyalty becomes critical: they have
obligations to Islam alone and cannot have any kind of duty or loyalty
to a non-Muslim state. Even participation in the democratic process in
one's own country violates religious principles that the rules are made
by Allah, not by man.
interpretation of Islam leads to a low tolerance for any alternative
interpretations or practices. After changing one's own beliefs and
practices, one feels compelled to impose the newly found beliefs on
other family members and close friends. Any deviation by others from
this rigid interpretation is seen as a personal affront. This is usually
expressed by telling others that they are not good Muslims, which can
sometimes lead to violence. It causes some individuals to separate
themselves from and come to hate other Muslims who previously had been
an important part of their lives.
- In the latter stages, radicalization
usually includes political as well as religious beliefs. Radicals
believe the Western powers have conspired against Islam to subjugate it
politically and corrupt it morally. They want to restore the caliphate
that once united the Muslim world and ruled according to Allah's
Remember that in the United States,
expression of radical or extremist views is not illegal. It is illegal
only when it reaches an advanced stage of supporting or engaging in an
act of violence or other illegal behavior. For an individual who holds a
U.S. Government security clearance or some other position of public
trust, however, a stricter standard of allegiance to the United States
applies. Advocacy of militant jihadist views as described in
Militant Jihadist Terrorism Threat is clear evidence of an absence
of loyalty to the United States and is grounds for denial or revocation
of a security clearance or access to other sensitive information or
Randy Borum, "Understanding Terrorist Psychology," in Andrew Silke, ed.
The Psychology of Counter-Terrorism. Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2010.
2. Brian Michael Jenkins, "Outside Experts View,"
preface to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Laura Grossman, Homegrown
Terrorists in the U.S. and U.K.: An Empirical Examination of the
Radicalization Process. Washington, DC: FDD's Center for Terrorism
3. Martha Crenshaw, "The Subjective Reality of
the Terrorist: Ideological and Psychological Factors in Terrorism," in
Robert O. Slater & Michael Stohl, eds.,
Current Perspectives in International Terrorism. Hampshire, UK:
Macmillan, 1988, p. 59.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Laura
Grossman, Homegrown Terrorists in the U.S. and U.K.: An Empirical
Examination of the Radicalization Process. Washington, DC: FDD's
Center for Terrorism Research, 2009.
5. Randy Borum, ibid.,
6. Randy Borum, ibid., pp. 10-11.
7. Donna Abu-Nasr & Lee Keath, "200 Web sites spread
al-Qaida's message in English, The Washington Post, November 20,