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Psychology of Terrorism: Leaders and Development


The war on terror has been a losing battle because the leaders in today’s democracies fail to understand the reasons for the terrorism activities, leading to misconceptions and prejudices about the terrorist and thus affecting their judgment and the policies they make. This has led to a need for a more in-depth study of the terrorists by factoring in variables such as psychological, social, religious and political motives of the terrorists in the execution of these attacks. This, together with behavioral patterns of the terrorists will lead to a more clear understanding of the terrorists, making it easier to stop them (Vaisman-Tzachor, 2006). People tend to generalize on the terrorists activities hence use the same methods of fighting them. This is wrong for the terrorists activities are influenced by individual environmental factors and thus generalization will not yield anything, i.e. generalization leads to failures in the means of combating terrorism. This is due to the failure to view the world in general and the dissident groups from the terrorists’ point of view.

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Osama Bin Laden’s character

According to Vaisman-Tzachor (2006) terrorism may be defined in simple terms as “awareness of means and targets used by terrorists, understanding of the political agendas that drive terrorism, and clearer definitions of the psychological motives that lead to terrorist behaviors will result in applicable preventive efforts targeted against real threats and challenges”. This is made possible by profiling the potential terrorists through factoring in age range, educational background, ethnicity, socio-economic status, nationality, psychological makeup, marital status, character, criminal background, religious affiliation, immigration status, and social affiliations (Vaisman-Tzachor, 2006).

On the question of the attributes and Osama bin Laden’s character, Vaisman-Tzachor says that the heads of terrorist organizations are clearly motivated by fame and notoriety and want to leave historic tales about themselves more than they want to solve the problems affecting their members. Osama, on many instances, has appeared on TV and radio but has offered minimal important information about the organization. This acts to cement their position as the figureheads of the organization. Osama bin Laden insists on declaring to the world that he exists and is willing to do so in defiance of personal security considerations. This is done to show the rivals that he is smarter than them and he does so in mockery.

Historical and socio-cultural antecedents to September 11

In many cases of terrorist attacks, history, religion and other socio-cultural factors play a central role in the choosing of the venue of the attack and the way to implement the attacks. This is because these factors affect the way the society accepts the activities of the individuals and terrorists organization.

The Muslim community and the US have had differences in form of the ideologies. In the Middle East, the US has been viewed as establishing an imperial hegemony; the involvement of the US in the Israel Arab conflict, and other activities it has been involved in has led to the locals interpreting this as an attempt by the US government to control the Arabs and the Muslims. Moreover, it has continuously increased its troops to the gulf region and this is viewed as neo-colonialism by the Islamists and the Arabs.

Outside influence on the oil markets in the gulf region has lead to economic disparities among the Muslim and Arab states and also hindered or distorted development within countries. The countries could not deal with the effects of international integration properly mainly because the oil rent money had the effect of destroying the institutional mechanisms needed for economic changes (Snyder, 2003). In response to this, bin laden started his war on the western imperialism and he thought that his attack on the US would radicalize Muslims everywhere leading to overthrowing of the regimes in the Middle East tied to the west.

Most of the conflict between the US and the Arab and Muslim states was and still is the inability of these states to deal with secularism and liberalism. Being a minority, the Middle East hates the US for its support for secularism and liberalism; the result is the failed Arab states.

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This is based on the theory that one makes coalitions by creating a common enemy. Osama thought that attacking US would produce a massive counter attack that would lead to many deaths of the Muslims, leading to the Muslims joining forces against a common “evil”.

Why people become terrorists

The issue of the mental health of the people who use terror as a weapon has been a matter of numerous researches and debates. While some scholars argue that terrorists are mentally ill or psychologically abnormal and deviants, others say that terrorists are much healthier psychologically than other people who use violence.

The understanding of the terrorists and their behavior has for long been based on rumor and innuendo other than actual research. People often tend to associate their behaviors with the environment they live in but they believe the behavior of other people as stemming from the internal forces within the individuals. They believe that if an individual shows a tendency to be violent, it is his personality that is influencing him or her and not the environment (Silke, 2004).

The differences in the perceptions about the terrorists may stem from the data or lack of it about the terrorists. According to silke (2004) the people who hold that the terrorists are mentally ill are those with the least contact with the real study subjects; however most outstanding character of the terrorists is their normality. Proponents of the belief that terrorists are not mentally ill believe people become terrorists through a gradual process through socialization and influence from external environment.

Researchers have also found out that the terrorists are not coerced to participate in the activities but are willing volunteers. They join the group in a vengeful frame of mind looking for avenues to seek justice. This shows that the believe that they are mad and often brainwashed to participate is such activities as being one of the assumptions the general public have on terrorists.

In most cases, people become terrorists not because they are forced into it but because they need a mechanism to address the injustices they perceive in the society. In addition, Silke (2004) talks of these people as being the minority that “rightly or wrongly perceive the world as treating them harshly through injustice and persecution.” These are the right grounds for one to disassociate himself or herself from the mainstream society and form groups of like minded people who one can identify with. Since they feel that the society is against them they tend to associate with people they feel at ease with. The change from this comfort zone to terrorism is triggered by an event such as extreme violence to one or whole members of the group or family.

In order to carry out the operations successfully, the terrorists have to dehumanize the targets because if they see them as human beings, emotions are involved which may affect the execution of the operation. This contradicts the view that they are mentally ill because the mentally ill have no senses of morality so they need not distance themselves from the target for they have no risk of having emotional involvement.

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I agree with Silke’s theory on the emergence of terrorism in that it comes about as a reaction to the external factors affecting the individuals in the society and not due to mental and psychological problems. People view a problem and decide to take an action against what they presume to be the cause of the problem which in many cases is the powerful majority.


Silke, A. (2004). Courage in Dark Places: Reflections on Terrorist Psychology. Social Research, 71(1). Web.

Snyder, S. (2003). Hating America: Bin Laden as a Civilization Revolutionary. The Review of Politics, 65(4), 325-349. Web.

Vaisman-Tzachor, R. (2006). Psychological Profiles of Terrorists. Forensic Examiner, 15(2). Web.

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