The Psychology of Terrorism


Randy Borum, Psy.D.

Twin Towers on fire. 9/11.
Photo courtesy FEMA (Public Domain)

A continuing education course for 4 ces consisting of reading and taking a post-test on:

Psychological Vulnerabilities and Propensities for Involvement in Violent Extremism


Psychology of Terrorism

Randy Borum, Psy.D.


Psychological Vulnerabilities and Propensities for Involvement in Violent Extremism

Randy Borum, Psy.D.

Research on the psychology of terrorism has argued against the idea that most terrorist behavior is caused by mental illness or by a terrorist personality. This article suggests an alternative line of inquiry – an individual psychology of terrorism that explores how otherwise normal mental states and processes, built on characteristic attitudes, dispositions, inclinations, and intentions, might affect a person's propensity for involvement with violent extremist groups and actions. It uses the concepts of "mindset" – a relatively enduring set of attitudes, dispositions, and inclinations – and worldview as the basis of a psychological "climate," within which various vulnerabilities and propensities shape ideas and behaviors in ways that can increase the person's risk or likelihood of involvement in violent extremism.

Randy Borum. "Psychological Vulnerabilities and Propensities for Involvement in Violent Extremism" Behavioral Sciences and the Law Vol. In Press (2014)


Psychology of Terrorism
Executive Summary

Randy Borum, Psy.D.

As part of the ongoing effort to better understand the causes, motivations and determinants of terrorist behavior, based on a comprehensive review of the scientific and professional literature, this report analyzes key findings on the “psychology of terrorism.”
• Although early writings on the “psychology of terrorism” were based mostly in psychoanalytic theory (e.g., narcissism, hostility toward parents), most researchers have since moved on to other approaches.
• People become terrorists in different ways, in different roles, and for different reasons. It may be helpful to distinguish between reasons for joining, remaining in, and leaving terrorist organizations.
• Perceived injustice, need for identity and need for belonging are common vulnerabilities among potential terrorists.
• Mental illness is not a critical factor in explaining terrorist behavior. Also, most terrorists are not “psychopaths.”
• There is no “terrorist personality”, nor is there any accurate profile – psychologically or otherwise – of the terrorist.
• Histories of childhood abuse and trauma and themes of perceived injustice and humiliation often are prominent in terrorist biographies, but do not really help to explain terrorism.
• Terrorist ideologies tend to provide a set of beliefs that justify and mandate certain behaviors. Those beliefs are regarded as absolute, and the behaviors are seen as serving a meaningful cause.
• Not all extremist ideologies promote violence, nor are all extremists violent. One might ask whether the ideology is driven more by promotion of the “cause” or destruction of those who oppose it.
• The powerful, naturally-occurring barriers that inhibit human killing can be eroded either through outside social/environmental influences or by changing how one perceives the situation.
• Terrorist groups, like all social collectives, have certain internal (e.g., mistrust, competition) and external (e.g. support, inter-group conflict) vulnerabilities to their existence.
• Surprisingly little research or analysis has been conducted on terrorist recruitment. Recruitment efforts do appear concentrated in areas where people feel most deprived and dissatisfied. Relationships are critical. Effective recruiters create and exploit a sense of urgency and imminence.
• Effective leaders of terrorist organizations must be able to: maintain a collective belief system; establish and maintain organizational routines; control the flow of communication; manipulate incentives (and purposive goals) for followers; deflect conflict to external targets; and keep action going.
• Research on the psychology of terrorism largely lacks substance and rigor. Cultural factors are important, but have not been studied. Future research should be operationally-informed; maintain a behavior based focus; and derive interpretations from analyses of incident-related behaviors.

Fires still burn amidst the rubble and debris of the World Trade Centers in New York City in the area know as Ground Zero two days after the 9/11 terrorists attacks.
DoD photo by: PH2 JIM WATSON, USN Date Shot: 13 Sep 2001

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The Psychology of Terrorism
In this 4 unit course, Learning Objectives are:

1. Review psychological approaches to understanding violence
Describe how and why people enter, stay in, and leave terrorist organizations
3. Explain the extent psychopathology, individual personality and life experiences are relevant for understanding or preventing of terrorism
4. Describe the role of ideology in terrorist behavior
5. Compare what distinguishes extremists who act violently from those who do not
6. Describe how terrorist organizations form, function, and fail




In the current national security environment, there is little question that terrorism is among the gravest of threats. Massive resources throughout the government and private sectors have been allocated and re-allocated to the task of preventing terrorism. These efforts, however, often lack a conceptual - let alone empirically-based – foundation for understanding terrorists and their acts of violence. This void creates a serious challenge at many levels, from policy-level decisions about how a state should respond to terrorism, to individual-level decisions about whether a given person of interest, who espouses extremist ideas, truly poses a serious threat to U.S. personnel, assets, and interests.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze and synthesize what has been reported from the scientific and professional literature about the “psychology of terrorism.” This focus is not intended to suggest that the scientific discipline of psychology provides the only, or even necessarily the best, analytic framework for understanding terrorism. Like all approaches to understanding or explaining human behavior, a psychological approach has advantages and limitations. Nevertheless, as psychology is regarded as “the science of human behavior,” it seems a reasonable, and potentially productive, line of inquiry.

Although the basic question of how best to define terrorism has itself been a vexing problem, for purposes of this analysis, we are concerned generally with acts of violence (as opposed to threats or more general coercion) intentionally perpetrated on civilian non-combatants with the goal of furthering some ideological, religious or political objective. Our focus on psychological dimensions, de-emphasizes analysis of sociologically-based explanations (sometimes referred to as “root causes”) or macro-level economic and political theories. Moreover, our focus on terrorist acts de-emphasizes analysis of the psychological effects, consequences or amelioration of terrorism.

In many ways, our basic aim is rather modest. We do not anticipate identifying or discovering THE explanation for all terrorism. Rather, we hope to identify, describe, and evaluate what contribution – if any – psychological theory or research may have made to understanding terrorists and terrorism. In approaching this task, we are mindful of Walter Laqueur’s incisive conclusion based on more than a quarter century of personal research on the topic: “Many terrorisms exist, and their character has changed over time and from country to country. The endeavor to find a "general theory" of terrorism, one overall explanation of its roots, is a futile and misguided enterprise. ..Terrorism has changed over time and so have the terrorists, their motives, and the causes of terrorism.” (Laqueur, 20031). Psychiatrist Jerrold Post makes that caveat even more directly applicable to an exploration of the psychological dimension of terrorism. He cautions that “there is a broad spectrum of terrorist groups and organizations, each of which has a different psychology, motivation and decision making structure. Indeed, one should not speak of terrorist psychology in the singular, but rather of terrorist psychologies” (Post, 20012). With that cautionary note, we offer the following review.


Executive Summary


Aims & methodology

Psychological approaches to understanding violence
Instinct Theories
Drive Theories (Frustration – Aggression)
Social Learning Theory
Cognitive Theory
Biological Factors
Raw Empirical Approaches

First generation psychological research on terrorism
Psychoanalytic Theory
Early Typologies

Contemporary psychological research on terrorism
How and why do people enter, stay in, and leave terrorist organizations?
To what extent is psychopathology relevant for understanding or preventing terrorism?
To what extent is individual personality relevant for understanding or preventing terrorism?
To what extent are an individual’s life experiences relevant for understanding or preventing terrorism?
What is the role of ideology in terrorist behavior?
What distinguishes extremists who act violently from those who do not?
What are the vulnerabilities of terrorist groups?
How do terrorist organizations form, function, and fail?

Conclusions on the state of research



This course consists of reading and taking a post-test on:

The Psychology of Terrorism

All material appearing in this volume except that taken directly from copyrighted sources is in the public domain and may be reproduced or copied without permission from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) or the authors. Citation of the source is appreciated.

Dr. Randy Borum is a Professor in the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences at the University of South Florida, where he holds a joint appointment the College of Public Health. He recently served on the Defense Science Board Task Force on Understanding Human Dynamics, and as a behavioral scientist and Board-Certified Forensic Psychologist researching national and global security issues, he regularly teaches and consults with law enforcement agencies, the Intelligence Community, and DoD, and has authored/ co- authored more than 120 professional publications.

Dr. Borum has been an instructor with the BJA State & Local Anti-Terrorism Training (SLATT) Program since 1999, and worked as a Senior Consultant to the U.S. Secret Service for more than a decade helping to develop, refine and study behavior-based protocols for threat assessment and protective intelligence. He has previously served as a sworn police officer, Forensic Coordinator for a regional state psychiatric facility, and as full-time faculty at Duke University Medical School.

He has taught at the FBI Academy, FLETC; JFK Special Warfare Center and School (Ft. Bragg); Joint Special Operations University; CIA; and the US Army Intelligence Center and School (Ft. Huachuca). He was Principal Investigator on the Psychology of Terrorism initiative for an agency in the US Intelligence Community. He serves as an advisor to the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit and FLETC Behavioral Science Division, and is listed on the United Nations' Roster of Experts in Terrorism. He is also consultant to the DIA's Defense Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence Center.

Dr. Borum is a Past-President of the American Academy of Forensic Psychology, and currently serves as Associate Editor of the Journal of Strategic Security, and on the editorial boards of the American Intelligence Journal; Behavioral Sciences & the Law and Red Team Journal (online)

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Cost of the 4 unit course is $55

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