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Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why?

NCJ Number
Rex A. Hudson
Marilyn Majeska
Date Published
September 1999
186 pages
In focusing on the types of individuals and groups that are prone to terrorist acts, this study aims to assist in improving U.S. counterterrorist methods and policies.
The study defines "terrorism" as "the calculated use of unexpected, shocking, and unlawful violence against noncombatants ... and other symbolic targets perpetrated by a clandestine member(s) of a subnational group or a clandestine agent for the psychological purpose of publicizing a political or religious cause and/or intimidating or coercing a government(s) or civilian population into accepting demands on behalf of the cause." This study first examined the relevant literature and assessed the current knowledge regarding the dynamics of terrorism. The researchers then developed psychological and sociological profiles of foreign terrorist individuals and selected groups to use as case studies in assessing trends, motivations, likely behavior, and actions that might deter such behavior and reveal vulnerabilities to be targeted by countermeasures. The study focused on four terrorist groups most likely to use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) (one group already has used a chemical weapon in the Tokyo subway). Two guerrilla/terrorist groups are the Liberation Tigers of Famil Ealam (LTTE) and Hizballah; the terrorist group is al-Qaeda, and the terrorist cult is Aum Shinrikyo (the group that launched the chemical attack in the Tokyo subway). The contrast between key members of religious extremist groups such as Hizballah, al-Qaeda, and Aum Shinrikyo and previous conventional terrorist groups shows a general trend that relates to the personal attributes of terrorists likely to use WMD in coming years. Unlike the average political or social terrorist, who has a defined mission that is somewhat measurable in terms of media attention or government reaction, the religious terrorist can justify the most heinous acts "in the name of Allah," or "in the name of Aum Shinrikyo Shoko Asahara." Religious terrorists are consumed by the goal of inflicting the greatest possible damage on nations and groups that do not adhere to their religious tenets and who engage in opposing lifestyles. The world is divided into "us" and "them," and "them" must be punished, harmed, and weakened by any means possible. Increasingly, terrorist groups are recruiting members with expertise in fields of communications, computer programming, engineering, finance, and the sciences, which assembles an expertise with the potential to plan and execute a WMD attack. The threat to U.S. interests posed by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists is clear by the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. A review of the literature suggests that the psychological approach by itself is insufficient to understand what motivates terrorists; an interdisciplinary approach is required to understand terrorist motivation. Terrorists are motivated not only by psychological factors but also by political, social, religious, and economic factors, among others. These factors vary widely. Each terrorist group must be examined within its own cultural, economic, political, and social context in order to better understand the motivations of its individual members and leaders, along with their particular ideologies. The mindset of a terrorist group reflects the personality and ideology of its top leader and other circumstantial traits. Such mindsets determine how the group and its individual members are conditioned to view the world, their purpose in life, and their means of pursuing that purpose. Some counterterrorist measures proposed are psychological warfare to divide political and military leaders and factions, the identification and capture of a top hard-line terrorist or guerrilla leader, and the avoidance of actions that will fuel recruitment. The latter recommendation means that legal, political, diplomatic, financial, and psychological warfare may be more effective than retaliation against terrorists with bombs or cruise missiles. Appended detailed sociopsychological profiles of individual terrorists and groups, 6 tables, a glossary, and a 210-item bibliography