Oct 3, 2018 in Sociology

Acts of terror have become a common phenomenon across all continents, especially those in which there are rifts between communities, religious groups, or even between state and a terrorist group. Terrorism activities have been on the rise despite of the harsh punishments that countries all over the world are putting in place to ensure that terrorism is reduced. The number of suicide bombers has kept on increasing involving all kinds of people: young and old, women and men. However, the fact that amazes psychologists the most is how these terrorists are manipulating the public to instill fear and create chaos. Psychologists argue that terrorists have found a point in the construct or human being that can be manipulated. They use this point to cause terror among people and thus receive support from the population that once did not approve their actions. This paper discusses psychological motivation of terrorism and how this psychological exploitation affects both terrorists and the public.

Acts of terror have become frequent in most of the regions of the world, including parts of Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq, and more recently Somalia due to the riot of Al Shabaab. Most of these terror acts have been executed by suicide bombers, majority of whom have ended up dying. As such, sociologists and psychologists are questioning the rationale behind individual’s commitment to die for the course which should officially be done by others. Until this point, skeptics have emphasized hopelessness and desperation of individuals who are guided by brutal instincts. Still, others point to unusual psychological conditions which drive people to engage in terror activities. However, most of terrorists are described as desperate people who have been driven by their own brutality and humiliation and who will be deprived of humanity and hope in future. This paper looks at these issues with the aim of researching the question about the psychological motivation of terrorism.

Psychological Perception of a Terrorist

In his research Hudson (2001) found out that for any terrorist act to be implemented, a number of factors have to work either independently or in collaboration to drive a person to commit the act of terror. For example, the terrorist must be motivated to carry out a terror attack. That is, his intention must be influenced by criminal elements. Such elements include the possibility of being recruited into a terrorist group, mentally ill people, people who are suicidal fanatics, the pressure to conform, pressure to commit acts of violence, terrorism justification, and the ideological perception existing among people of the same faith. As such, Hudson (2001) argues that terrorists themselves are sometimes driven by the social perception that is attached to them by the system or society where they are living. For instance, existence of several terror groups in a region is likely to force people to join them and participate in criminal activities.

Public perception that terrorist activities are a result of clinical pathology not only reduces the impact of one's participation in such attacks, it also represents the transfer of the reason for the attack from group’s violent desires of attacking a perceived enemy to a personal desire to escape from unbearable individual suffering. Hudson (2001) suggests that by defining terrorism as a psychological disorder or a form of illness, terrorists are relieved from any individual responsibility for the behavior. This perception of terrorism, therefore, takes away the responsibility for any terror activity from the terrorist, whose commitment is perceived to have been influenced by environmental circumstances.

Studies have shown that psychological motivation for terrorism can be viewed from three angles (Hudson, 2001). First, the motivation can be viewed from a frustration-aggression angle. This is defined as a reactionary measure caused by frustration people go through in the society. People, who are psychologically motivated by the frustration they go through, normally resort to terror activities. Secondly, the motivation can be viewed from a negative identity angle. Findings have shown that as economic, political, and social status continue to be affected by urbanization and globalization, some people tend to develop negative identities which significantly affect their psychological mood about security. In essence, people with a negative identity tend to view security as a threat and thus engage in activities that destabilize security.

A third view of psychological motivation behind terrorism focuses on narcissistic rage. According to this view, terrorists are environmentally inclined towards acts of terror as an inherent activity. For instance, children who are brought up in war zone areas are likely to develop a combative attitude to security and, therefore, they experience delight while joining and executing terror activities. For instance, studies have shown that children who grew up in West or East Germany during the conflicting period are more likely to join a terror group than children who grew up in Oslo, Norway at that same time. Similarly, the unification of West and East Germany led to emergence of terror groups because young men of the two sides were used to terror activities and, therefore, were psychologically compelled to join terrorist groups.

Motivation behind Terrorist Attacks

According to Mansdorf (2003), most of the people who participate in terrorist activities are young men, especially those who are not married and are unemployed. Nevertheless, the number of women and children participating in terrorist activities is increasing day by day. What is not clear from this observation is whether women and children are forced to participate in terror activities or they are motivated by psychological factors. This question has led to some psychologists theorizing that most young men in countries that are at war feel the duty to protect their country at all costs. This notion has been described as personal psychology because, in spite of being executed by an individual, it is practiced by masses within a society that is full of desperate and hopeless young men. This is equally important, especially when people with nothing to lose feel the duty to protect the society from a perceived danger even if takes to sacrifice their lives to do so.

However, questions have arisen about the description of personal psychology, especially when more and more terror activities are targeted at people that terrorists are supposed to protect. That is, if terrorists’ motivation is to protect community interests, why are there increasing cases of terrorist suicide bombers directed at mothers and sisters of those terrorists? An illustrative case is the Mogadishu terror attack in 2011, during which a terrorist exploded a bomb in a Turkish embassy where hundreds of Somali young men and women had gone to get their visas to study in Turkey. Most of the terrorists in this attack were Somalis. Another illustration is the on-going terrorist attacks in Nigeria, where a terror group is terrorizing a part of the country on religious grounds. Mansdorf (2003) points out that these acts cannot be justified by the claims of personal psychology that drives interests of the community.

Evidently, Mansdorf (2003) notes that motivation to perform terrorist acts can be explained in terms of political, social, and economic status of those people who engage in terror activities. Apart from the fact that most of the terrorists are hopeless and desperate, this hopelessness and desperation is indirectly linked to socio-economic and political circumstances that are prevailing in that society. For instance, there have been terror attacks that were socially motivated in terms of differences in culture, religion, and even artistic expression. In terms of culture people are motivated to engage in terrorist activities when they feel that their culture is threatened by another culture or when they feel that manifestations of a certain culture are not desirable. An illustrative case is the terror attacks committed in middle of 20th century by the autonomous Basque region when they felt that their Basque language was at the edge of extinction due to the influence of foreign languages such as Spanish, French, and German. Similarly, Jews were persecuted by Hitler partly because of their culture that the Nazi Germany perceived to be undesirable in that region. These views propagated by Hitler were picked up by his soldiers who went ahead to perform terror attacks on Jews and other people who were perceived to support the Jewish culture.

Politically, terrorists are psychologically motivated by their patriotic duty to defend their political borders with their lives as an illustration of self sacrifice and nationalism. Although most of the terrorist activities tend to claim political responsibility as the cause of terror activities, only few cases can fully be attributed to psychological responsibility as defined by prevailing political conditions. For instance, Japanese Kamikaze pilots’ attack on American war ships during the World War II is one classical example where political responsibility was a motivating factor for these pilots’ deadly actions. Their readiness and motivation before and during the execution of these fatal assignment show how political will can motivate people to carry out terror acts. A study of letters that were written by these pilots indicated that the political responsibility has calmed and provided extraordinary feeling of responsibility to these pilots that they would be persuaded to abandon their mission to execute the attacks. Surprisingly, and this is the case with current terror attacks, they believed in and were motivated by a higher reward for their country after their death. In fact, they believed that their lives were necessary to bring peace to their people and country and were more than willing to give them up. Ultimately, self-sacrifice becomes a powerful weapon that terrorists use against their enemies.

Mansdorf (2003) observes that socially, motivation for terror acts emanates from differences in sociological views concerning religion and other practices. For instance, many terrorists in Nigeria, Somalia, Iran, and Iraq are motivated by the fact that it is Islamic religion that is supposed to enlighten the country in terms of Shariah Laws. Moreover, Mansdorf (2003) argues that psychologically, some people feel that they have a religious duty to defend these laws in countries that are culturally Islamic. However, the negative part in this kind of motivation is that, in the end, terrorists end up killing people with liberal views on the topics such as religion. Religious motivation for terrorism is one of the most powerful forms of motivation because it involves a higher sprit, which makes the prevention of terrorism difficult since terrorists claim to have received instructions from a higher authority.

According to Hudson (2001), most of the people who engage in fatal terror activities have the intention of instilling fear among people as well as exposing the flaws of the system in place. Most of them want to show the vulnerability of their target to the world disputing its claim of immunity to attacks. This was part of the motivation for the fatal attack on the trade center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 in the United States. In as much as terror attacks were motivated by the need to defend what has been described as “America’s influence in the Muslim world”, they also wanted to prove to the world that the US was not secure after all. Another illustration of revenge being the motivation for terrorist activities was the attack against the US army in Iraq before they were withdrawn from there and later transferred to Afghanistan. This kind of attacks was motivated by the need to expose the vulnerability of the enemy, who claimed to be indispensable. This has been the main motivation of attacks against the United States, which claimed to be a world superpower.

Hudson (2001) further suggests that most terrorists become psychologically convinced to participate in terrorism after they are promised power or money. A number of cases that have occurred indicate that terrorism thrives on materialism, where people who agree to carry out deadly terror attacks are promised to be rewarded with substantial material wealth. Those who are aware that they can or will die due to their actions make agreements to transfer the money to their families before or after they die. This materialism and power seem to be two major psychological motivations due to the fact that most of people who engage in terrorism are young unemployed people with love for money.

Another psychological motivation behind terrorism, especially for female terrorists, is the desire to be reunited with their loved ones. For instance, Hudson (2001) observes that companionship was the main motivating factor for Susanna Ranconi and Ulrike Meinhof to join a terror group because their partners were members of that group. Similarly, feminism and protection of female rights have been motivating factors for women in countries where women are discriminated by a patriarchal social order or ideology which oppresses them. Such countries where more and more women are joining terror groups include Middle East countries, North Korea, Latin America, Spain, and Ireland among others. A good illustration is the Baader-Meinhof terror group that was formed in Germany during a period of women’s repression (Hudson, 2001).


In conclusion, it is evident that psychological motivation to join a terror group can be based on a number of issues. An important conclusion from this study is that terrorism can be better understood from a psychological point of view since it touches on almost all aspects of life, including those of the political and economical environments. However, there is a need to provide a clear outline in identifying motivation behind terrorism since each act of terror can be caused by a new unique motivation. For instance, since technological advancements are readily available to people, it is easy for them to become motivated by curiosity to perform a cyber attack as a new form of terrorism.

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