Skip to main content

The Mind of a Terrorist

Arie Kruglanski, who leads a team of researchers who examine the motivation of terrorists and the effectiveness of de-radicalization efforts, shares his insights.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Can reading William James help us defeat terrorism? University of Maryland social psychologist Arie Kruglanski is convinced of it. He opened a recently published paper on the motivation of suicide bombers with a quote from the Victorian-era psychologist and philosopher:

Mankind's common instinct for reality has always held the world to be essentially a theatre for heroism ... no matter what a man's frailties otherwise may be, if he be willing to risk death, and still more if he suffer it heroically in the service he has chosen, the fact consecrates him forever.

Ninety-nine years after those words were published, hijackers commandeered a pair of passenger jets and crashed them into the World Trade Center towers. This tragedy led to a brief period of soul-searching, which effectively ended when comedian Bill Maher pointed out the killers couldn't accurately be called "cowards." No one willing to die a violent death for his cause — however misguided his beliefs, or ugly his tactics — is motivated by cowardice.

The angry reaction to Maher's common-sense comment made it clear Americans were not interested in ascribing human motives to the 9/11 hijackers. It was easier to think of them as monsters. Though this classification may have been understandable, it impeded our ability to understand what drives a person to commit such an act and how potential terrorists might be dissuaded from following suit.


That understanding is the job of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (or START), founded in 2005 at the University of Maryland with funds provided by the federal Department of Homeland Security. START, which serves as an information hub as well as a research lab (its Web site boasts more than 2.5 million page views per month), continues to receive the majority of its funding from DHS, with additional support from the university, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Justice.

Kruglanski, who has served as co-director since the consortium's founding, leads a team of researchers from around the nation who have been examining the motivation of terrorists, the effectiveness of de-radicalization efforts and the cultural components that breed violent radicalism.

No stranger to hate, Kruglanski was born in the Jewish ghetto of Nazi-occupied Lodz, Poland, in 1939. He grew up primarily in Israel, where his family emigrated in 1950, and was educated in North America, earning a doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles. He spent 15 years as a professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University before joining the University of Maryland faculty in 1987. He shared his insights about the psychology of terrorism in a recent telephone interview.

Miller-McCune: Many people think of terrorists, and especially suicide bombers, as not quite human, presumably because they've set aside that basic human motivation of self-preservation. But your research suggests their motivations are quite recognizably human.

Arie Kruglanski: They are. Personal significance is a motivation that has been recognized by psychological theorists as a major driving force of human behavior. Terrorists feel that through suicide, their lives will achieve tremendous significance. They will become heroes, martyrs. In many cases, their decision is a response to a great loss of significance, which can occur through humiliation, discrimination or personal problems that have nothing to do with the conflict in which their group is engaged. Sometimes, this loss of significance is felt by individuals who are deviating from the norms of the group, such as women who are infertile or were divorced by their husbands or are accused of extramarital affairs. In traditional societies, they suffer a tremendous amount of humiliation. To compensate for them, some of them do something that is held in extremely high regard by their community: self-sacrifice for the sake of their cause.

M-M: This analysis fits the ideas of a number of Western psychological theorists, such as Viktor Frankl, who concluded that the search for meaning is a fundamental motivating force. Does your research suggest it applies equally well in other, less-individualistic cultures such as the Middle East?

AK: It's not all that different. Even in our country, we venerate our heroes — our soldiers who are willing to put themselves in harm's way for the sake of the ideals we hold dear.

M-M: Is the difference that, in our country, people in desperate need of adoration go on reality television shows?

AK: Exactly! There are different pathways to fame and fortune. According to terror management theory, we are alone among all species in that we are aware of our impending demise. As a consequence, we have this nightmare of ending up an insignificant speck of dust in an uncaring universe. In response to that frightening possibility, we try to gain some kind of significance — through our work, through good deeds, through abiding by our society's norms. These norms vary, of course. Following them can mean making a productive contribution to society or sacrificing one's life for a cause.

M-M: In one of your papers, you quote a survey of Chechen rebels, noting that a huge percentage of them had suffered some sort of personal trauma, such as someone close to them suffering a violent death. Is that one of the ingredients you often see in the making of a terrorist?

AK: It's very often a triggering event. As I see it, there are three basic components in the tendency of a person to become a suicide bomber or active terrorist. There's the social element — being part of a group; the ideological element — a set of beliefs that condone violence for the sake of the group; and the emotional element, which triggers both the acceptance and personalization of the ideology. The ideology doesn't need to be intricate or profound. There's a grievance, a culprit responsible for the grievance and a method of regressing the grievance by violence.

A sense of humiliation, hopelessness or great frustration can translate the ideological dictates into your own personal objectives. The trauma caused by the loss of a loved one falls into that category. So does watching atrocities committed against members of one's group. Many Muslims were recruited by being shown film of atrocities being done to Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia.

M-M: One clear implication of your findings is the validity of the truism that killing civilians in pursuit of terrorists just produces more terrorists.

AK: We have data to suggest this is the case. At least in the short run, the rage produced by the killing of civilians — so-called collateral damage — is fueling the readiness to embrace terrorist ideology. The military has increasingly realized that this is very important. Strikes have to be surgical. In many cases, that's easier said than done, but it's extremely important.

Terrorists can be seen as a very small apex of a larger pyramid. The base of the pyramid is made up of the supporters of terrorism — who number in the many millions, based on our data. They are not themselves ready to be recruited yet. So the question is whether these communities can be de-radicalized, whether we can address their concerns and bring them to understand that terrorism is not the way. Once that base is withdrawn, terrorism dwindles.

For a terrorist organization to continue operating, it needs a large mass of supporters. That's essential in terms of logistics and recruitment. Once that support is eliminated, they will be eliminated in time as well. We've seen many examples of that.

M-M: So how do you convince a community that violence is not a legitimate response to perceived wrongs — or, to approach the problem from a different perspective, that the United States isn't their enemy?

AK: The human mind is malleable. In Indonesia, after the tsunami, the perception of the United States was much changed after all the aid that was given to the victims. We provided massive support, including many volunteers, and it was very visible.

M-M: Your use of the term "surgical strike" brings up the subject of metaphors, which you have written about in this context. When the attorney general announced plans to try 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in federal court in New York, the ensuing debate became something of a battle of the metaphors, with critics saying this is a "war on terror" in which courts don't play an appropriate role. Others then countered by saying it's more of a policing matter, in which case the courts are essential. You have written that neither of those metaphors work all that well under these new circumstances. Is there a better metaphor we can use to help us grasp the situation we are currently facing?

AK: One has to work between metaphors, extracting aspects from each that are functional and effective, and eliminating those aspects that are counterproductive. Sometimes the use of force is absolutely necessary to overcome or prevent an impending attack. In some cases, showing terrorists they cannot prevail will de-motivate them. But the war metaphor as a whole has many drawbacks, such as the expectation of quick, decisive victory. It creates a tendency to channel tremendous resources into the fight, which limits the endurance of the society to continue it. And it can become counterproductive.

M-M: But how do you know when to shift from the war metaphor to a different framework of thinking?

AK: Timing is everything. In Turkey, the army hunted down and arrested the leader of the PKK (a Kurdish rebel group). That had an impact; it produced a shift in their strategy and ideology away from maximalist demands to much more modest demands. Once a shift like that happens, it has to be appreciated and encouraged, and the other party has to be ready to engage [with the enemy] rather than continue squashing them, which regenerates their resistance. You have to shift your frame of reference, depending on the circumstances.

M-M: In terms of changing the minds of individual terrorists, you've studied or are studying de-radicalization programs in various countries around the world, including the Philippines, Thailand and Bangladesh. Are there any indications so far as to what does and doesn't work?

AK: There are some very interesting successes. In Egypt, in 1997, the leaders of the major Islamic terrorist organization, Jamaat al-Islamiyya, renounced violence. It's unclear as to exactly what prompted them to do this, but once they renounced violence, their influence spread to their followers. They published no less than 25 volumes against violence. Why did it happen? They renounced violence based on their renewed understanding of Islam and the Koran. They met with imams from the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. It's unclear whether there was a direct causal connection, but at some point, they saw the light. Recently, the leader of the second-largest group in Egypt, al-Jihad, also renounced violence and published a manifesto calling on his followers to follow suit. This was the group that assassinated President Sadat.

M-M: Was the participation of clerics a key factor in the program's success?

AK: Yes. Clerics who are experts on Koranic teachings can produce compelling arguments to convince listeners the Koran is against violence and terrorism. That's the intellectual component of the de-radicalization process. But as I never get tired of emphasizing, intellectual arguments have only a limited ability to be convincing in the absence of a strong emotional readiness to be open-minded to them.

M-M: How can that open-mindedness be created?

AK: In several different ways. Positive ways of creating it include humane treatment in prison, allowing access to education, taking care of the detainees' families while they're in prison. This can elicit sympathy for the government. On the negative side, a willingness to abandon terrorism is often perpetrated by suffering in prison — a sense of isolation and hopelessness. Being in prison is not easy; it wears on you. Whichever of those is utilized, after the de-radicalized person is released, it's incumbent that he or she not return to the erstwhile community where they were radicalized in the first place.

M-M: That sounds like releasing a gang member from prison on the proviso he not return to his old neighborhood and hook up with his old cronies.

AK: The process is very similar. It's important to disperse the terrorists to locations where they will not be under the influence of radical demagogues.

M-M: What role does poverty play in creating terrorists?

AK: Interesting research shows that poverty is not the root cause of terrorism. Many terrorists come out of the middle class, and some are quite well-to-do. The bin Ladens are a wealthy family. But the fact there is no correlation between poverty and terrorism should not be taken to mean poverty is irrelevant to terrorism. In some cases, poverty ... can be a contributing factor in an individual's readiness to accept terrorist ideology. But it's not an exclusive factor.

M-M: Is this the sort of information you share with policymakers? Do they pay any attention to it?

AK: I would hope! We send white papers to DHS on a monthly basis. The military has been quite responsive to social-science research to an unprecedented degree. The Department of Defense is funding projects having to do with basic social-psychological research, trying to understand Middle Eastern cultures. There is at least an understanding that this "war" cannot be won by force alone. General [David] Petraeus well understands that insurgencies are rooted in popular support.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.