Terrorist Behavior: Socialization and Intellectual Distortions

For decades terrorists have carried out attacks against innocent civilians causing massive destruction, which has brought about large-scale losses of life, the destruction of property, and devastating economic losses. Timor Abdul-Wahab (the Stockholm suicide bomber) and other suicide bombers have only distorted the concept of Jihad and the image of Islam, and hindered the call to Islam call. At first glance, we may think that what Timor Abdul- Wahab and these bombers had done is an act of sheer madness, but studies and research in the analysis of terrorists’ suicidal behavior have revealed that terrorists’ acts can be the result of a psychological crisis, an intolerant social background, an immoral upbringing, etc.


We usually believe that suicide bombers are mentally disordered people. However, the studies conducted on the demeanor of deviant Islamic groups have found that the leaders of terrorist groups have enough intelligence to brain wash and persuade talented youths to adopt their deviant ideologies, and carefully discard of mentally disordered members to protect the stability of the organization. Dr. Jerrold Post, specialist in terrorism and professor at Georgetown University, found in his study on the roots of psychological terrorism that terrorists are not mentally disordered people, for a mentally disordered person would not kill innocent victims on behalf of a cause (1). Dr. Post concludes that the research on individual psychology can never help us fathom the reasons behind terrorist acts. Thus, he believes that terrorists are psychologically normal people, stressing that terrorist organizations carefully isolate mentally disordered members from their ranks.

In addition, Dr. Post suggests that terrorists’ socialization can be the source of extremism, for their early intolerant social upbringing could have contributed in one way or another to the formation of suicidal terrorist behavior (2). Accordingly, the terrorist develops a tendency to follow radical scholars, for he feels that fanaticism and intolerance is the indication of religious commitment, and therefore he willingly sacrifices himself under the assumption that this is Jihad, since the religious or ideological upbringing gives his deviant acts a delusional sacred meaning.

John Horgan, psychologist in the field of terrorism and political violence, issued a book in 2008 entitled “Walking away from Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements” (3). The book analyzed the characteristics of those who have been involved in terrorist acts through conducting in-depth interviews, and found that individuals’ social circumstances drive them to join terrorist networks more than their psychological characteristics. Also, in his article entitled, “From Profiles to Pathways: The Road to Recruitment, Countering the Terrorist Mentality,” (4) Horagn refers to a report released by the British House of Commons, after the four suicide bombings targeted the London subway on 7/7/ 2005; the report revealed that the information available about the perpetrators of terrorist crimes in the United Kingdom didn’t identify any common features or characteristics that might help to determine who might pose a terrorist threat, since they all come from different ethnicities, with high education, while others are very poor and less educated. Moreover, some were merged in the English lifestyle, and were unmarried or married with children, and some didn’t have any criminal records while others committed minor crimes. Thus, Horgan notes that the report renders a sense of frustration, because of its inability to identify the common features of people who have been recruited to commit terrorist acts.

Marc Sageman, a member of the Institute for American Policy Research and psychiatrist who worked for the CIA in Afghanistan between 1987 and 1989, is one of the most prominent researchers who conducted numeral statistics to reveal the identities of terrorists. Sageman issued a book in 2004 entitled “Understanding Terrorist Networks” (5) which has become a reference on terrorism. One chapter of the book is entitled “The Psychology of al-Qaeda Terrorists: the Emergence of the Global Salafi Jihad” (6). The book is a reference on military psychology and includes clinical and practical applications. Sageman wrote in the introduction that he devoted his time to his career as a forensic medicine psychiatrist in 1989, but when the events of September 11th took place he felt the need to do something special since what the public believed at that time was not consistent with research findings and his personal experience. Thus, Sageman found that the studies on the psychologies of the perpetrators of the September 11th crimes contained massive theories, views, and personal impressions, yet could not manage to reach a systematic collective data on terrorists’ personal characteristics.

Hence, Sagman began to collect terrorists’ biographies from various sources, including the trial files which took place in New York in 2001 and lasted 72 days, and the investigation on the U.S. embassy bombings in 1988 (which was about 9000 pages), in addition to about 400 detailed biographies. His digital analysis of data reached the following findings: three-quarters of the study sample belonged to the middle class; 90% of them grew up with very intolerant families; 63% enrolled in universities, which proves that they are considered normal third-world community members who studied abroad; many were fluent in several languages; most of them joined Al-Qaeda at the age of twenty-six, after maturing psychological and mentally; 73% of them were married with children.

Furthermore, Siegman only managed to single out four mentally disordered members out of the 400 normal members, which is far below the rate known as the spread of such disorders. Also, those who committed the crimes of September 11th didn’t have any criminal records and had the ability to engage in organized collective action; thus, they differ from others who have carried out individual terrorist acts like Ted Kaczynski, who sent explosives to a number of American university figures and airline companies between 1987 and 1995 before being arrested in April 1996 and sentenced to life in prison.

Three-quarters of the study sample were engineers, architects and laborers, a few of them were humanities’ specialists, and very few of these were religious studies’ specialists. Most of them specialized in natural sciences. Neither terrorist leaders nor followers were graduates of religious schools. Bin Laden for example, was a civil engineer; Mohammed Atta was an architect. Few of them specialized in military science, such as Mohamed Ibrahim Makkawi. Ayman Al-Zawahiri is a graduate of Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Medicine, and the author of “Loyalty and Disavowal,” which impressed the engineer Hassan Bashandi, the perpetrator of the 2005 Al-Azhar terrorist crime” (8).

Although the studies that Sageman conducted revealed that most of those terrorists specialized in natural sciences, he couldn’t explain the contradiction between their theories and their practices. The same observation was made by researcher Thomas Hagheimer in his treatise “Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia,” in which he analyzed the biographies of several hundred of its members.

Likewise, in his analysis of Jihadi groups and Egyptian Islamic Groups, Dr. Qadri Hefni found that the majority of those who engaged in terrorist activities were highly educated people (7). Dr. Hefni believes that these educated terrorists chose to adopt an unscientific terrorist thought because the curriculum of natural sciences never includes any subjects that teach logic, philosophy or history of thought, so students naturally assume that thought can never be taught; thus they develop the tendency to believe in any concept that seems logical or at least realistic without resorting to the critical thinking skills.

Hefni then concludes that the majority of people believe that terrorists are the result of poor, ignorant and instable upbringings that contribute to the formation of a weak and irresponsible individual who can be easily influenced by others. However, that is no longer true according to the studies conducted on terrorists like Omar Abdul-Muttalib and Timor Abdel-Wahab.

In addition, Tunisian writer Abi Yarub Al-Marzouqi, believes that Al-Qaeda and some Islamic movements use “the science of words” to produce false beliefs and slogans that can control the psychology of some people, turning them into the neo-Kharijites who revolt against their communities and families. (9)

Moreover, ideological security strategies should not just place importance on one aspect of the psychological, social or intellectual factors, especially since there are a lot of interchangeable factors that subconsciously formulate a terrorist mentality. Some people may be exposed to negative social experiences, while others may be the victims of intellectual invasion, and so on.

In conclusion, the analysis of terrorists’ psychology is a complex issue; however, tolerant upbringing, socialization, guidance, implementing Islamic moderation through books and the media can certainly prevent – or at least reduce – terrorist crimes.


1. Jerrold Post, “The Psychological Roots of Terrorism,” in addressing the Causes of Terrorism: The Club de Madrid Series on Democracy and Terrorism, vol. 1 (Madrid: Club de Madrid, 2005).

2. Jerrold Post, E. Sprinzak, and L. Denny, “The Terrorists in Their Own Words: Interviews with 35 Incarcerated Middle Eastern Terrorists,” Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 15, no. 1 (2003): pp. 171-184.

3. John Horgan, “Walking Away from Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements,” Taylor and Francis, 2008.

4. John Horgan, “From Profiles to Pathways: The Road to Recruitment,” eJournal USA, May 2007.

5. Marc Sageman, “Understanding Terror Networks,” the University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

6. Marc Sageman, “The Psychology of Al-Qaeda Terrorists: the Evolution of the Global Salafi Jihad,” IN,
Carrie H. Kennedy and Eric Zillmer, Military Psychology: Clinical and Operational Applications, Guilford Press, 2006.

7. Qadri Hefni, “Science, Scientific Thinking and Terrorism,” Al Masry Al Youm, April 17.

8. Qadri Hefni, “Science, Scientific Thinking and Terrorism”, Al Masry Al Youm, April 17.

9. Abu Yarub al-Marzouqi, “Qur’anic Revolution and the Crisis of Religious Education,” House of Mediterranean Publishing, Tunisia 2009.