Essay Sample: Psychological and Behavioral Factors of Individual Terrorists

Published: 2022-11-09
Essay Sample: Psychological and Behavioral Factors of Individual Terrorists
Type of paper:  Research paper
Categories:  Terrorism Human behavior
Pages: 5
Wordcount: 1357 words
12 min read

Terrorism is a major concern for many countries globally. The issue has attracted considerable attention from security agencies across the world in recent years due to the scale of destruction and fatalities caused by activities of terrorists. What is even more worrying is that current terror attacks are being carried by individual actors and not members of groups that have been traditionally considered as merchants of terror. In other words, the terrorism of today is not perpetrated by individuals with formal connections with terror groups such as Al-Qaida or ISIS but by persons who act alone to advance an agenda similar to that of terrorist organizations (Webber & Kruglanski, 2018; Culpepper, 2016). The question that then arises is: what drives this individual into engaging in terrorism? Individual personality, individual motivation, learning, attitudes and beliefs, and environmental factors may contribute to an individual's participation in terrorist activities.

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Motivation as a psychological factor creates private needs which such individuals feel that they would be satisfied after engaging in terrorist actions. Motivation is the force that drives a person towards a given goal and reflects the internal process of thoughts that takes place within the person. Hence, it evolves risking achieving the goal which is often considered to be the ultimate reward (Lai, 2011). In the context of terrorism, motivation is what makes an individual plan, prepare and eventually commit terrorist acts. The motivation to harm or kill others is considered to be an outcome that has benefits that are private to the persons involved (DeAngelis, 2009). Accordingly, Schuurman, Bakker, Gill, and Bouhana (2017) argue that individual terrorists are not mentally ill; they are rational individuals who weigh the costs and benefits of their actions and act based on how profitable they perceive their actions would be. As such, involvement in acts of terror is not done for the cause of a particular organization but to satisfy emotional and cognitive forces that drive their goals in life.

For motivation to be translated into an act of terrorism, cognitive aspects of the individuals involved are critical. One's thinking process and confidence about themselves regarding personal achievement. Carrying out acts terrorism requires careful planning and preparations. The individual taking part in this needs some technical know-how on how to execute their plan as well as in the use of weapons such as explosives or guns (Gill, Horgan, & Deckert, 2014). Learning of ideas and concepts is an essential ingredient in this case and language can be said to be the medium through which terrorist wanting norms are forged amongst individuals and necessary skills and knowledge are acquired to act (Kruglanski & Fishman, 2009). For terrorists to carry out their activities successfully, they must have the conviction that what they are planning is doable otherwise many aspiring terrorists would not sustain the drive into action (Schuurman et al., 2017). As such, individual actors must have the requisite skills to inspire confidence that they would carry out attacks successfully.

Attitudes and beliefs have been further suggested as some of the factors that define individual terrorists. Attitudes and beliefs affect the willingness of an individual to engage in terrorist activities. The significance of attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions is that it allows people to construct an ideology that favors terror. For instance, some religious beliefs in Jihad give sympathy to terrorist activities and may, therefore, motivate individual actors to engage in terror on their own. This is because beliefs and attitudes create perceptions that are appealing to terror (Cherney & Murphy, 2017). Attitudes and beliefs of family members can also make individuals engage in terrorist activities. Some studies have shown that some immediate family members' attitudes and beliefs about terror have a significant role to play in motivating young people into engaging in actions of terror (King, Noor, & Taylor, 2011). Given the importance of beliefs, perceptions and attitudes in an individual's life, how these individuals construct them vis-a-vis terrorism plays a critical part in motivating them into terror activities.

Addicting to the attitudes and beliefs are social, environmental factors. The social factors affect the behavior of an individual through socialization. According to Bruneau (2016), the psychological processes that motivate people to engage in terrorist activities reside in every human being and cut across all cultures. That is, all peoples have the potential to become deadly terrorists. However, environmental factors such as social conditions trigger this innate characteristic, resulting in participation in terrorist activities. This means that social factors, coupled with historical circumstances, predispose some individuals to engage in terrorism more than others hence the need for the understanding of the role of socialization in promoting individual or lone acts of terror (Mink, 2015).

A critical social factor is the shared construction of reality. How individuals construct reality depends on their social environment. That is to say, the reality is socially constructed and therefore, what is regarded as reality in Japan may not be considered as reality in the United States (Berger, & Luckmann, 1991). When people a given environment construct a shared reality, they are likely to be influenced to commit terrorist acts by social factors. Over centuries people have tended to develop the 'us' and 'them' in social settings. When people begin thinking in terms of them and us, it triggers a motivation in such individuals to act in a way that seeks to promote the interests of the group (Bruneau, 2016). The consequence of such distinctions is that it encourages group thinking which creates social networks that have been blamed for acts of terrorism that are committed by individual actors. Although the individuals committing terror acts may not be formally connected an officially recognized terrorist group, they are likely to engage in terror to satisfy their emotions in regards to promoting the identity of a given social group.

The nature of terrorism continues to mutate every day. From the discussion, it can be seen that the 'trait' responsible for people to engage in terrorist activities. Motivation on the risks and benefits of committing terrorist acts is a major defining feature of individual terrorists. Cognitive characteristics of the individual also have a bearing the propensity of one participating in terror-related activities. Attitudes and beliefs of an individual affect their perceptions which can, in turn, motivate individuals in terror engagements. Most importantly, social factors create an enabling environment for people to develop shared reality behaviors that drive them to act in a way that seeks to promote interests. However, it is important to note that psychological and behavioral factors must interact with other variations to trigger the urge to participate in individual terrorism.


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Bruneau, E. (2016). Understanding the terrorist mind. Cerebrum, 13(16), 1-14. Retrieved from

Cherney, A., & Murphy, K. (2017). Support for terrorism: The role of beliefs in Jihad and institutional responses to terrorism. Terrorism and Political Violence, 1-21. doi:10.1080/09546553.2017.1313735

Culpepper, L. D. (2016). The Psychological Development of the Terrorist Mind Set: Pertinence in the Sentencing Phase of Capital Trial. Journal of Psychology and Clinical Psychiatry, 5(4), 2-6.

DeAngelis, T. (2009). Understanding terrorism. American Psychological Association, 40(10), 60.

Gill, P., Horgan, J., & Deckert, P. (2013). Bombing alone: Tracing the motivations and antecedent behaviors of lone-actor terrorists,,. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 59(2), 425-435. doi:10.1111/1556-4029.12312

King, M., Noor, H., & Taylor, D. M. (2011). Normative support for terrorism: The attitudes and beliefs of immediate relatives of Jema'ah Islamiyah members. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 34(5), 402-417. doi:10.1080/1057610x.2011.561471

Kruglanski, A. W., & Fishman, S. (2009). Psychological factors in terrorism and counterterrorism: Individual, group, and organizational levels of analysis. Social Issues and Policy Review, 3(1), 1-44. doi:10.1111/j.1751-2409.2009.01009.x

Lai, E. R. (2011). Motivation: A literature review. Person Research's Report.

Mink, C. (2015). It's about the group, not God: social causes and cures for terrorism. Journal for deradicalization, (5), 63-91.

B., Bakker, E., Gill, P., & Bouhana, N. (2017). Lone actor terrorist attack planning and preparation: A data-driven analysis. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 63(4), 1191-1200. doi:10.1111/1556-4029.13676

Webber, D., & Kruglanski, A. W. (2018). The social psychological makings of a terrorist. Current Opinion in Psychology, 19, 131-134. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.03.024

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