The Psychology of a Terrorist


What makes terrorists tick – a real understanding of what drives terror

The Paris terrorist attacks have generated a wave of fear throughout the Western world. Fear has been compounded when it was discovered that at least one of the terrorists made his way to Paris using a Syrian passport and coming to the West as a refugee. This has created a knee-jerk reaction within the United States where some politicians are calling for the restriction of the Syrian refugee program to Christians, excluding Muslims. Governors in nearly 30 states from both parties – from Maine to Arizona – are saying that they will not take in Syrian refugees for fear of terrorists settling in their state.

The question that everyone is asking is what to do with the Syrian refugees? And perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Perhaps we need to think about what makes a terrorist?

Terrorists don’t start out being terrorists.

Some come from middle-class backgrounds with a good education. Many are Muslims who have seen time and again other Muslims being killed all over the world such as in Bosnia, Iraq, Syria or Kashmir. They begin to feel that the world has chosen one side and the terrorist will now choose their side. There have been many recruits who have never held a job, a position of power, or even a girl’s hand. When you offer a wife a salary and a pathway to have power, you have now created a situation which lures these young men toward radicalism.

These radical groups – ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, Hamas – are equal opportunity organizations and attract everything from the sadistic psychopath to the humanitarian to the idealistically driven. These individuals have a need to belong, at least in their eyes, to something special. People seek actions that give meaning for their life. Some are thrill-seeking and some are seeking redemption.  Some terrorists believe their reward lies in the afterlife. All are disconnected.

In a speech at the United Nations, anthropologist Scott Atran suggested that the only way to fight back against radicalization is to borrow psychological strategies straight out of ISIS’s playbook. Any successful plan must “offer youth something that makes them dream of a life of significance through struggle and sacrifice in comradeship.”

As more anthropologists and psychologists begin chipping away at what makes terrorists tick, perhaps a real understanding of what drives terror will help us combat it in the future and prevent these unspeakable tragedies.

Dr. Eileen Borris is a licensed psychologist and has conducted conflict resolution in nine (9) foreign countries.  She has addressed the United Nations General Assembly, appeared in numerous media interviews and is the author of the bestseller Finding Forgiveness (McGraw Hill). 

Contact Dr. Borris at  Twitter @ERBorris