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Teaching & Understanding Sept 11: Mark Hamm & Paul Leighton 

Are Terrorists Psychotic or Psychopaths?

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Understanding the causes of mass violence is difficult because people assume that the perpetrators are monsters and evil, based on the fact they have perpetrated an evil and monsterous act. This explanation, however, is circular and does not result in any greater understanding of why terrorists behave as they do and what the important stepping stones were in their life history. A closely related explanation is that terrorists are psychotic, psychopaths, or suffering from some other mental illness. The following brief reading is meant to present a short summary of the research and argument on this point, and suggest some fruitful lines of inquiry. See also Teaching About 'Terrorist Assholes' and anti-Americanism

From Rex Hudson, The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why? (Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1999). 

Psychiatrist W. Rasch (1979), who interviewed a number of West German terrorists, determined that "no conclusive evidence has been found for the assumption that a significant number of them are disturbed or abnormal." For Rasch the argument that terrorism is pathological behavior only serves to minimize the political or social issues that motivated the terrorists into action. And psychologist Ken Heskin (1984), who has studied the psychology of terrorism in Northern Ireland, notes that "In fact, there is no psychological evidence that terrorists are diagnosably psychopathic or otherwise clinically disturbed."

Although there may have been instances in which a mentally ill individual led a terrorist group, this has generally not been the case in international terrorism. Some specialists point out, in fact, that there is little reliable evidence to support the notion that terrorists in general are psychologically disturbed individuals. The careful, detailed planning and well-timed execution that have characterized many terrorist operations are hardly typical of mentally disturbed individuals.

There is considerable evidence, on the contrary, that international terrorists are generally quite sane. Crenshaw (1981) has concluded from her studies that "the outstanding common characteristic of terrorists is their normality." This view is shared by a number of psychologists. For example, C.R. McCauley and M.E. Segal (1987) conclude in a review of the social psychology of terrorist groups that "the best documented generalization is negative; terrorists do
not show any striking psychopathology." Heskin (1984) did not find members of the IRA to be emotionally disturbed. It seems clear that terrorists are extremely alienated from society, but alienation does not necessarily mean being mentally ill.

Maxwell Taylor (1988) found that the notion of mental illness has little utility with respect to most terrorist actions. He points out several differences that separate the psychopath from the political terrorist, although the two may not be mutually exclusive. One difference is the psychopath's inability to profit from experience. Another important difference is that, in contrast to the terrorist, the purposefulness, if any, of a psychopath's actions is personal. In addition, psychopaths are too unreliable and incapable of being controlled to be of use to terrorist groups. 


Fried, Risto. 1982. “The Psychology of the terrorist” in Brian Jenkins (ed) Terrorism and Beyond: An International Conference on Terrorism and Low Level Conflict. Santa Monica: Rand.

Heskin, Ken. 1984. “The Psychology of Terrorism in Ireland” in Yonah Alexander and Alan O’Day (eds) Terrorism in Ireland. New York: St Martin’s Press.

Rasch, W. 1979. “Psychological Dimensions of Political Terrorism in the Federal Republic of Germany” International Journal of Psychiatry and Law v 2, pp 79-85.

Taylor, Maxwell. 1988. The Terrorist. London: Brassey’s. see also Fanatics: A Behavioural Approach to Political Violence

Taylor, Maxwell and Ethel Quayle. 1994. Terrorist Lives. London: Brassey’s. 

Teaching about 'Terrorist Assholes'

DC Sniper & Terrorism

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Taylor notes that terrorist groups need discreet activists who do not draw attention to themselves and who can merge back into the crowd after executing an operation. For these reasons, he believes that "it may be inappropriate to think of the terrorist as mentally ill in conventional terms" (1994:92). Taylor and Ethel Quayle (1994:197) conclude that "the active terrorist is not discemibly different in psychological terms from the non-terrorist." In other words, terrorists are recruited from a population that describes most of us. Taylor and Quayle also assert that "in psychological terms, there are no special qualities that characterize the terrorist." Just as there is no necessary reason why people sharing the same career in normal life necessarily have psychological characteristics in common, the fact that terrorists have the same career does not necessarily mean that they have anything in common psychologically.

Photo is from a story at ForeignPolicy.com called The Terrorist Notebooks. "During the mid-1990s, a group of young Uzbeks went to school to learn how to kill you. Here is what they were taught." 

Link just goes to a short teaser, but has other photos and it's worth checking out their website if you haven't been there before.

The selectivity with which terrorist groups recruit new members helps to explain why so few pathologically ill individuals are found within their ranks. Candidates who appear to be potentially dangerous to the terrorist group's survival are screened out. Candidates with unpredictable or uncontrolled behavior lack the personal attributes that the terrorist recruiter is looking for.

Concluding thought from Paul: Ultimately, terrorism is political violence that needs to be understood both on the macro level (social, political and economic structures) and the micro level (individual life history and group dynamics): "The 11 September attacks emphasise the need to better understand the relationship between the continuously changing context of regional and global conflict and the individual factors that drive and sustain involvement in terrorist activity" (From, The Making of A Terrorist, Jane's Intelligence Review). 

Topics for further analysis on the macro level include ethnic conflict, religious and ideological conflicts, modernization stresses, inequalities, presence and legitimacy of institutions for resolving disputes, traditions of violence, erosions of support for government. On the micro level, suggested topics in the life history would include early socialization, childhood trauma, narcissistic injuries, escalatory events (especially involving the police, military or war), association with other terrorists, techniques of neutralization (will overlap with macro factors), and group think.

While traditional theories of crime like Sutherland’s Differential Association theory do apply to terrorism, it is important to keep in mind that terrorists are not always the passive actors brainwashed into taking a stand. Certainly charismatic leaders and peer groups can exert influence, but people also self-recruit. Terrorists in training sometimes seek out the more radical members of a group, who become a springboard to more radical groups. The challenge is to understand terrorists as people who are active agents in their life, making decisions and shaping their future even as their behavior is shaped by social structures and historical events. 

Hudson, Rex.  (1999).  “The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why?”  Washington, DC: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress.  www.fas.org

See Harvard & the Making of the Unabomber by Alston Chase, The Atlantic Monthly, 285(6): 41-65 (full text available online through theatlantic.com). Chase subsequently expanded his article into a book, Harvard and the Unanbomber: The Education of an American Terrorist that is reviewed in Western Criminology Review

Angry and hopeless, Latifa Nabieva threatens to set fire to herself - like an increasing number of frustrated Uzbek women - unless her men are released. Ms. Nabieva says she has had enough, following the arrest on terrorism charges of two sons and a nephew - all devout Muslims - since 2000. The final straw came in January, when police smashed in her front door, beat her husband bloody, and imprisoned him, too.

Analysts draw parallels to the recent phenomenon of female suicide bombers deployed by Palestinian militants against Israel, and Chechen rebels against Russia - the so-called Chechen "black widows," whose husbands have been killed by Russian forces.

They also point out that Uzbekistan has a history of female suicide - as an extreme way to protest domestic violence or fiscal hardship - that goes back centuries. Why Uzbek women opt for bombs: Amid crackdown on Muslims, wives and mothers joined last week's attacks. Scott Peterson, The Christian Science Monitor 5 April 2004]

Sixteen-year-old Iyad Masri started to withdraw from everyone. He read loudly from the Koran until well after midnight, and blasted tapes of Koranic verses from behind his bedroom door.

His parents knew he was distraught over his younger brother's death two months ago. But they never imagined that Iyad would consider strapping a belt of explosives around his waist. In early January, he met with members of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group that rejects all compromise with Israel. He asked them to prepare him to be a martyr, a suicide bomber. Iyad died days later when the belt went off accidentally, killing only himself.

The Masri family's tragedy is part of a trend that many Palestinians see as a worrisome mark of desperation: younger and younger Palestinians enlisting for suicide missions against Israel. The reason is that they see "martyrdom" as the ultimate redemption. In a poll last summer, 36 percent of 12-year-old boys in Gaza said they believed that the best thing in life was to die as a martyr, according to Dr. Serraj: "In their minds, the only model of power and glory is the martyr." [As life looks bleaker, suicide bombers get younger. Ilene R. Prusher, The Christian Science Monitor 5 March 2004]


In an attempt to divine the terrorist impulse, German officials authorized the removal and study of the brains of four Red Army Faction leaders following their deaths in the 1970s, according to news reports in Germany, but scientists apparently came up with no physiological explanation for the leaders' political violence. (Washington Post)

A Palestinian mother of two small children, who killed four Israelis by blowing herself up at a border crossing, carried out the suicide bombing to atone for having committed adultery.
The attack last week marked the first time the militant group Hamas had used a female bomber, part of an evolving belief that women who are disgraced by sexual activity outside marriage can "purify" themselves by becoming "martyrs," Israeli security officials said. 

It is not uncommon for Palestinian women accused of adultery, or of having sex before marriage, to be killed by their families trying to rid themselves of perceived disgrace. According to Israeli television's Channel Two, a new theology is emerging about female suicide bombers among some Palestinian Muslim clerics.
Male "martyrs" who blow themselves up in suicide attacks are already promised a place in paradise alongside 72 dark-eyed virgins. According to Arab affairs analyst Ehud Ya'ari, the women are promised to dwell forever alongside the husband or fiance they have left behind. [Atoning for adultery with 'martyrdom', Washington Times]

Steered to Extremism at an Early Age: Widowed Mother And Father Figure Cast Influences. Washington Post (1 June 2003, p A09) article on life of Eric Robert Rudolph, recently apprehended for the Olympic Bombings, plus the bombings of an Atlanta abortion clinic and gay bar. 

Is Terrorism Tied To Christian Sect?: Religion May Have Motivated Bombing Suspect (Washington Post, 2 June 2003, P A03). More on Randolph: "We declare and will wage total war on the ungodly communist regime in New York and your legaslative bureaucratic lackey's in Washington. It is you who are responsible and preside over the murder of children and issue the policy of ungodly preversion thats destroying our people," one of the letters said, in childish penmanship riddled with errors.

Another expert on such groups, Idaho State University sociology professor James A. Aho, said he is reluctant to use the phrase "Christian terrorist," because it is "sort of an oxymoron." "I would prefer to say that Rudolph is a religiously inspired terrorist, because most mainstream Christians consider Christian Identity to be a heresy," Aho said. If Christians take umbrage at the juxtaposition of the words "Christian" and "terrorist," he added, "that may give them some idea of how Muslims feel" when they constantly hear the term "Islamic terrorism," especially since the Sept. 11 attacks. 

Gender, Class, and Terrorism by Michael Kimmel (xyonline) Politically, these terrorists opposed globalization and the spread of Western values; they opposed what they perceived as corrupt regimes in several Arab states (notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt), which they claimed were merely puppets of American domination. "The resulting anger is naturally directed first against their rulers," writes the historian Bernard Lewis, "and then against those whom they see as keeping those rulers in power for selfish reasons."

"Central to their political ideology is the recovery of manhood from the emasculating politics of globalization. The Taliban saw the Soviet invasion and westernization of Afghanistan as humiliations. Bin Laden's October 7 videotape describes the "humiliation and disgrace" that Islam has suffered "for more than 80 years." And over and over, Nasra Hassan writes, she heard the refrain: "The Israelis humiliate us. They occupy our land, and deny our history."

"Terrorism is fueled by a fatal brew of antiglobalization politics, convoluted Islamic theology, and virulent misogyny. According to Ehrenreich, while these formerly employed or self-employed males 'have lost their traditional status as farmers and breadwinners, women have been entering the market economy and gaining the marginal independence conferred by even a paltry wage.' As a result, 'the man who can no longer make a living, who has to depend on his wife's earning's, can watch Hollywood sexpots on pirated videos and begin to think the world has been turned upside down.'"




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