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Causes of Terrorism -- Guide to Studies on Psychological Causes of Terrorism

Psychological Profiles are Inconclusive


National Institute of Health

The psychological causes of terrorism have been a topic of interest to researchers since the 1970s, when they began trying to create psychological profiles of terrorists. Their task has been an uphill battle, since most terrorists are not available for psychological testing. Nevertheless, some relatively major studies have been produced.

Overall, the results of this handful of studies are inconclusive. It only takes a little poking to see that researchers in different periods are working with different definitions of terrorism. Also, until recently there hasn't been much attention paid to the different roles that people play in a terrorist group. People who found, lead, or drive a group forward intellectually or strategically are likely to be different sorts than those that follow. In the first studies, you can also see shadows of similar studies of criminals generally, as well as a view that has held sway since Victorian times of violent criminals as social deviants.*

* The summaries here are drawn from an article by Jeff Victoroff, a professor in the department of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Southern California School of Medicine,"The Mind of the Terrorist: A Review and Critique of Psychological Approaches," Journal of Conflict Resolution, February 2005.

1971: David Hubbard's The Skyjacker*

In 1971, American psychiatrist David Hubbard produced an influential study, The Skyjacker (as hijackers were called), based on unstructured interviews with them. Hubbard concluded that hijackers were psychically unstable, or ill, and that all shared five traits:

  1. A violent, often alcoholic father
  2. A deeply religious mother
  3. Sexually shy, timid and passive
  4. Younger sisters toward whom the terrorist acted protectively
  5. Poor social achievement

1981: Ferracuti and Bruno, Psychiatric Aspects of Terrorism in Italy

This study was based on second-hand material about 908 right-wing terrorists in Italy. It concluded that terrorists do not have a particular psychopathology that sets them apart from everyone else. The researchers did conclude that there are nine characteristics that appear to be widely shared among right-wing terrorists:

  1. Ambivalence toward authority
  2. Defective insight
  3. Adherence to convention
  4. Emotional detachment from the consequences of their actions
  5. Sexual role uncertainties
  6. Magical thinking
  7. Destructiveness
  8. low education
  9. adherence to violent subculture norms and weapons fetishes"

1983: West German Interior Ministry Study

This conclusions of this study were based on interviews with 227 left-wing terrorists and 23 right wing extremists. Some psychological factors appeared with high frequency, such as that:

  • "Twenty-five percent of leftist terrorists had lost one or both parents by age fourteen"
  • "Thirty-three percent reported severe conflict with parents"
  • "Thirty-three percent had a history of juvenile court conviction"

2001: Nasra Hassan Reports on Palestinian Suicide Bombers

United Nations relief worker Nasra Hassan interviewed about 250 Hamas and Islamic Jihad members from 1996 to 1999. She offered her results in a New Yorker article in 2001. Hassan offered that:

  • Suicide bombers ranged from 18 to 28 years old
  • Two were sons of millionaires
  • None were depressed

2004: Marc Sageman Study of "Salafi Mujahedin"

Psychiatrist Marc Sageman "compiled data from public sources on 172 individuals he identified as members of a "global Salafi mujahedin, meaning Muslims engaged in terrorist acts against the "far enemy" in the service of a new Islamic world order … Sageman excluded terrorists engaged in local jihads, such as Chechnyans, Kashmiris, Afghans and Palestinians" (Victoroff) Sageman drew a number of impressionistic conclusions, which he admits are of limited statistical value, because the sample group was so small and not controlled as a scientific study would be. Of the 61 cases including some childhood information, Sageman found that:

  • "Only four had histories suggestive of conduct disorder"
  • "Only 1 case (Habib Zacarias Moussaoui) was suggestive of a childhood trauma"
  • "One-quarter of the group had histories of petty crime"
  • On the evidence of ten of the cases, "Sageman claims that he found 'no evidence of pathological narcissism' and 'no pattern of paranoid personality disorder' . . . with the exception of possible traits of al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri."

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