The Darker Minds of Society: A Psychological Analysis on Terrorists

Photo of police in Indonesia at site of failed attempted suicide bombing, New York Times/Getty Images

By: Sarah Kaster, UCLA student who interned with the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Joel D. Parker, Ed. April, 2017

Editor's Note: The following article was begun in 2016, and has since proven to hold water, despite the intense and ongoing debate over the connection between psychological illness and terrorism (or the lack thereof). Moreover, following attacks, such as the Christmas market attack in Berlin last December, and the attack near the British Parliament in March of this year (in addition to many others in Turkey, Iraq, and elsewhere in recent months), the evidence increasingly suggests that most terrorist attacks that appear to be a solo act are in fact organized and coordinated, and can no longer be considered purely 'lone wolf' attacks. In fact, while just a year ago, some argued that lone wolf attacks were among the most pressing issues facing Western governments, articles have appeared recently by veteran analysts suggesting that the term itself is so misleading as to be best left unused. That said, few have really delved into the matter from a psychological perspective, and so this post is meant to start the discussion with helpful definitions of terms from the field of psychology, in an effort to escape the murky waters of popular psycho-babel that often pervades the discussion on sanity and violence.

After an individual commits an act of extreme violence, they are often labeled as much more than just a terrorist. In an attempt to rationalize the loss of so many innocent lives, the public quickly concludes that the perpetrators are crazy, insane, or even psychopaths. Despite these common perceptions, studies involving direct contact with captured terrorists over the past two decades have gradually led researchers to conclude that “the outstanding characteristic of the terrorists is their normality.” Yet, the perpetrator responsible for the Bastille Day terrorist attack last year in Nice, France, which led to the death of 86 people and injured nearly 500, has been described in a manner that clearly contradicts this notion. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, identified as the man who drove the 19-tonne truck into the crowded promenade in Nice, was described by those who knew him as “aggressive,” “having an altered perception of reality” and “narcissistic.”  
The discrepancies between the public opinion, past researchers, and first-hand reports in describing the mental stability of a terrorist prompt important questions germane to the psychology behind the phenomenon of terrorism. From a psychological perspective, people will often equate the extreme violent behavior perpetrated by a terrorist with mental illness and the inability to engage in rational behavior. However, collective research has shown that maladaptive personality traits are most common in lone wolf terrorist attacks, while those involved in organized attacks often show no psychological abnormalities. This paper explores the different psychological profiles that have been identified among terrorists, and dispels the misconceptions often associated with terrorist psychology.

Misconception #1: All Terrorists are Psychopaths  
First, let’s address a leading misconception that tends to influence public perception in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. The notion that the violence perpetrated by a terrorist must be the result of antisocial behavior like psychopathy, while intuitive, is not supported by scientific evidence. When facing the devastation that follows the aftermath of an attack, in a quest to make sense of the tragedy of loss and despair, there is a natural tendency to pathologize the perpetrator. Likewise, in light of the victims, casualties, and damage that is left behind-- how could one not conclude that the agent responsible is a remorseless, “cold-blooded killer”? But when making these assumptions, people often do not have an accurate understanding of the term “psychopath”. Psychopathy is defined as a personality disorder that is characterized by the presence of antisocial behavior (e.g. irresponsibility, impulsivity) and “deficient affective experience” (e.g. callousness, grandiosity, lack of empathy). Like many mental illnesses, psychopathy occurs on a spectrum. This means that a person can meet the criteria of being a psychopath while only having a few psychopathic traits that vary in severity. Dr. Jennifer Skeem, Professor of Psychology at UC Irvine delineates that psychopathy is not inherently violent. According to Dr. Skeem, “psychopathic individuals often have no history of violent behavior or criminal convictions...nor is it clear that psychopathy [or general antisocial traits] predicts violence much better than a past history of violent and criminal behavior.” Contrary to the public notion that terrorism and psychopathy are correlated, Skeem and her experience researching psychopaths illustrate that this is not the case.
Misconception #2: Every terrorist must have the same psychological diagnosis
Back in 1981, researcher Marsha Crenshaw concluded that "the outstanding common characteristic of terrorists is their normality.” Like Crenshaw’s findings, Andrew Silke, described that “research on the mental state of terrorists has found that they are rarely mad or crazy; very few suffer from personality disorders.” Yet, in the wake of more recent attacks, it is common that the terrorists who are described in the media do not fit these descriptions. In a CNN report that covered the Orlando nightclub shooting, the wife of the terrorist attacker claimed that “she [thought] he was mentally ill.” It has become routine for people to blame mental illness as the origin of terrorist attacks, despite the fact that experts in psychology have found no causal relationship between mental illness and terrorism.
These contradictory portrayals demonstrate that when examining the phenomenon of terrorism through a psychological lens, it is important to first classify the type of attack that the perpetrator was involved in. While the above assertion by Crenshaw still holds credibility, it generalizes all terrorists as perpetrating similar attacks. Before making any generalizations on the psychological state of a terrorist, one needs to be familiar with the type of attack that was carried out. Those who are deemed psychologically normal, and have been studied by researchers like Crenshaw and Silke, are often involved in organized attacks. However, emerging research on lone wolf terrorists—such as the Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, has identified a divergent trend.

Before introducing the psychological nuances in terrorist attacks, it is important to understand the distinction between organized versus lone wolf attacks. Organized attacks are “initiated, planned and carried out by members of a terrorist organization.” The 9/11 attacks on America, executed by al-Qaeda suicide attackers in 2001, are an example of organized structured terrorism. In contrast, lone wolf attacks are carried out by an individual with a “personal initiative who underwent a personal radicalization process either via acquaintances or through the Internet.” Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the man responsible for the 2009 Fort Hood shooting in Killeen, Texas, is an example of a lone wolf attacker. Without outside guidance and in order to advance his own ideological perspective, Hasan killed thirteen fellow soldiers at a military base using two semiautomatic pistols.

Psychological Overview: Organized versus Lone Wolf Attackers
Regarding organized terrorist attacks, the conclusions obtained through research have frequently revealed that the individuals involved are not psychologically or mentally abnormal. This conclusion is found among the researchers who have had the rare opportunity to conduct direct interviews with the perpetrators behind such attacks--allowing them to best understand the mental state of the terrorists. Israeli psychology professor Ariel Merari found no risk factors associated with mental pathology or mood disorders in his study of suicide terrorism.
Since suicide attacks are one of the most contemporary tactics of organized terrorism, findings that they are driven by individuals with stable personalities warrant further explanation. Unlike the phenomenon of suicide itself, which is clinically associated with risk factors that are present among lone wolf terrorists, organized suicide attackers have the goal of more than just ending their own lives. The motivations behind suicide attacks are guided both by rational incentives and logical reasoning. In many cases, suicide attackers believe that they are performing an act of martyrdom, “whether for their faith, their people, or their cause.” For example, “jihadists” carry out such attacks because “they see themselves as having a higher purpose.” Besides wanting to further their ideological or political cause, the perpetrators responsible for suicide attacks might do so because of the logistical advantages that it holds for their terrorist organization. Since the suicide attacker involved in the operation will unlikely survive and be captured, the security of the terrorist organization has a less chance of being compromised. In addition to security measures, the nature of such operations can inflict maximum physical and psychological damage to the target at a minimum cost to the terrorist group. Collectively, available research clearly suggests that organized suicide attacks are guided by rational reasoning--whether they stem from a drive to carry out ideological and political goals or the tactical advantages that benefit the terrorist organization.
In contrast to the research on organized terrorists, recent findings related to lone wolf terrorists have revealed a trend of psychological abnormalities. In a 2010 study on fourteen American lone wolf terrorists, researcher Chris Jasparro found that “at least six suffered from mental illnesses.” In another series of case studies, one researcher found that three out of the five lone wolf terrorists had been diagnosed with personality disorders. Further, four out of the five struggled with severe depression throughout their lifetime. Ted Kaczynski, a more notorious lone wolf attacker known as The Unabomber, was known to have struggled with mental illness throughout his life. His extreme social anxiety caused him to live a life of a recluse, emerging from his home only to deliver bombs. Before he resorted to living in isolation, Kaczynski sought psychiatric help and was described as struggling to win “battles with depression.” Since his days of terrorizing the public, there have been numerous other lone wolf attacks that have occurred in America. Such attacks, like in the case of the 2013 Boston Bombers or Orlando nightclub shooting, were instigated by individuals reported to have problematic personality traits.
In the end, the research on terrorism has found that terrorists involved in lone wolf attacks are often psychologically abnormal, while those involved in organized attacks show no signs of psychological deviance. Yet after every violent attack, we find a reason to focus on mental illness as the explanation for why an individual becomes involved in terrorism. Given that researchers have found no evidence that supports the claim that organized terror is connected to mental illness, security and government agencies would benefit from exploring other strategies that analyze the extent to which an attack may have been planned by a larger network. Additionally, by recognizing the misconceptions that come with every terrorist attack, and observing the psychological nuances that are distinct to each attacker, we can gain more accurate insight into their personality and behavior. As our perceptions and insight into terrorist attackers become more defined, so will our ability to effectively understand and stop them.


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Diwaniyya Contributor