Terrorist Motives and the Psychology of the Individual Essay

Terrorist Motives and the Psychology of the Individual

            The psychology of individual terrorists is the driving force behind heinous, violent actions that indiscriminately take innocent lives across the world.  Terrorists, those who use fear and violence to forward their warped causes and beliefs, justify their horrible actions with flawed and lofty motivational goals and desires.  Religious fanaticism, martyrdom, jealousy and victimhood fuel the devastating attacks of hell-bent jihadists while logic, compassion and empathy for innocent victims are ignored or viewed as inconceivable.  Terrorists see their victims as deserving, sub-human vermin, while it is the terrorists who actually deserve the fate of extermination.  Their warped motives and their belief in what they are doing are no excuse, and the terrorists must be stopped before they can strike again.

            Terrorists have “routinely used lethal violence to instill fear” (Wilkinson, 2003, p. 132).  No terrorist incident is more iconic or illustrative of the lengths that terrorists will go to than the devastating September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.  It is difficult to imagine the depth of depravity required to hatch and carry out a plan that kills approximately three thousand innocent people until one realizes the individual psychological mindset that terrorists possess.  First, one must realize how the terrorist views his enemy as subhuman and deserving of the fate of death.  Once the evil terrorist minimizes the stature of his enemy, cruel and unimaginable acts of violence become easier in the terrorist’s deranged mind.

            It becomes easy and simple to kill innocents “as long as that enemy does not have a face, a wife or child, a home, grieving parents or friends, the destruction of that enemy is a simple matter, requiring little or no justification beyond the enemy status” (Combs, 2003, p. 45).  An elevated, noble image of themselves also enables terrorists to plot and carry out monstrous and vicious attacks, indiscriminately, on innocent victims.  The wicked killers see themselves as elite and enlightened purveyors of a warped justice.  This dubious psychological mindset gives them feelings of power and confidence and makes their horrible deeds seem righteous and just.

            While traditional soldiers seek to protect their homeland and are willing to sacrifice for their countrymen and their allies, terrorists are more selfish and individualistic in their thinking.  This depraved mindset makes suicide bombings a grave concern today.  “The motives for suicide terrorism do not appear to differ significantly from the general motives for terrorism, which include revenge, retaliation, and provocation of government over-reaction” (Anti-Defamation League, 2002).  Also according to the ADL article, “the individual terrorist’s willingness to face not just high risk but certain death requires a psycho-cultural explanation.”  Thus rational, empathetic and compassionate thoughts and feelings are easily jettisoned or ignored by the evil terrorists as they ply their murderous trade.

            Fanatical religious beliefs are also a prime contributor to terrorist activities.  The heinous disciples believe that their religion implores them to find and slay their enemies.  This selfish, delusional mindset can have terrible and lasting repercussions as terrorist murderers search for their next mission and strive to kill as many of their enemies as possible.  “The characteristics, justifications, and mind-sets of religious and quasi-religious terrorists suggest that they will be much more likely than their secular counterparts to use weapons of mass destruction–that is, nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. (Hoffman, 1998).  Mr. Hoffman was unfortunately and painfully correct and prescient as he wrote those words before the attacks of 9/11.  Islamic fanatics carried out suicide jetliner attacks in the name of their religion, and the world’s free countries have rightly waged a determined war on terror following that iconic attack.  It is good to understand the psychological makeup of our terrorist enemies, but our resolve must be pure and unyielding as the United States and our allies hunt the killers and bring them to justice.


Anti-Defamation League. 2002, April 17. The Motives for Suicide Terrorism. adl.org.

Combs, C.C. (2003). Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice Hall. p. 45.

Hoffman, B. (1998). Old Madness, New Methods. rand.org.

Wilkinson, P. (2003). Why Modern Terrorism? Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. p.132.