The Nature of Terrorism: The War Within

Terrorism is not something which has been naturally programmed into any human being. The violent act to create fear or become a terrorist is driven by a variety of motives. It is not innate or impulsive, no human is internally wired to do so. Although, this tendency in certain individuals has impacted the masses, since the very beginning. Let it be The Sicarii or the present day ISIS, the masses are dragged into this mess, directly or indirectly. Thus, it’s essential and crucial for everybody to comprehend the nature of terrorism because we play a major role in it as the victims as well as the perceivers of the act. Many a times, we blindly believe the media and become biased towards a particular community in this hate game. Without any sufficient research, we associate labels such as ‘terrorist’ to innocent civilians. So let’s take a step forward, break free from our prejudices and learn a thing or two about the situation at hand.

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No single psychological theory from the early times has acted as an explanatory model for all types of violence. Perhaps the diversity in behaviours poses as an inherent barrier to a global theory on the same. Social learning enlightens us that behaviour can be learned not only through direct experience but also through observing the environment around us, an aspect which has as much influence on our perception and inherent way of life as our innate genetic makeup does.

“If aggression is a learned behaviour, then terrorism, a specific type of aggressive behaviour, can also be learned.” (Oots & Wiegele, 1985)

According to Social cognition, people are highly aggressive when they are unable to find a non-aggressive solution to a conflict, lack of self-esteem and a perceptual hypersensitivity to hostile cues in environment specifically interpersonal cues. These approaches have received some of the most extensive empirical attention and support, but not necessarily for terrorism specifically. Terrorist violence most often is deliberate (not impulsive), strategic, and instrumental; it is linked to and justified by ideological (e.g., political, religious) objectives and almost always involves a group or multiple actors/supporters. These issues all add complexity to the construction of terrorism as a form of violence and challenges the emergence of a unifying explanatory theory.

“The actions of terrorists are based on a subjective interpretation of the world rather than objective reality. Perceptions of the political and social environment are filtered through beliefs and attitudes that reflect experiences and memories.” (Crenshaw)

Psychohistorian Lloyd De Mause observes that “The roots of terrorism lie not in this or that American foreign policy error, but in the extremely abusive families of the terrorists.”


A psychodynamic approach towards the study led to ‘narcissism’ being identified as the definite trait in understanding terrorism. The premise was that terrorist behaviour was rooted in a personality defect which produced a damaged sense of self. The essence of pathological narcissism is an overvaluing of self and a devaluing of others. This is clearly seen in terrorists. This evolves in people when they are deeply traumatized, suffering chronic physical abuse and emotional humiliation during their childhood, which results in a profound sense of fear and destroys their concept of self. And toward this feeling of being a victim of, the devaluing of others seem justified to them. In the end, terrorists are individuals who have a deep sense of being victims themselves, such as the ISIS saying that they are victims of American propaganda. Well, the sad part is that they use this aspect of victimization as a justification of their violent actions.

Three factors have been found often to co-occur in terrorists and to strongly influence decisions to enter terrorist organizations and to engage in terrorist activity

  1. Injustice: The remediable injustice is the basic motivation for terrorism. A desire for revenge or vengeance is a common response to redress or remediate a wrong of injustice inflicted on another.
  2. Identity: An individual’s search for identity may draw him or her to extremist or terrorist organizations in a variety of ways.
  3. Belongingness: In radical extremist groups, many prospective terrorists find not only a sense of meaning, but also a sense of belonging, connectedness and affiliation.

The transition into becoming a terrorist is rarely sudden and abrupt.

“What we know of actual terrorists suggests that there is rarely a conscious decision made to become a terrorist. Most involvement in terrorism results from gradual exposure and socialisation towards extreme behavior” (Horgan & Taylor)


Usually, we conclude terrorists as being psychopaths, but it does not necessarily have to be so. Terrorism, like any other serious undertaking, requires dedication, perseverance, and certain selflessness. These are the many qualities that are lacking in the psychopath. Instead, terrorists can be looked upon in the perspective of individuals who find a sense of identity through a cause emerging out of their undifferentiated sense of victimization.

“Terrorists are not dysfunctional or pathological; rather, it suggests that terrorism is basically another form of politically motivated violence that is perpetrated by rational, lucid people who have valid motives.” (Ruby)

Suicide attackers view their act as one of martyrdom, whether for their faith, their people, or their cause. In the case of jihadists, for example,

the primary aim of suicide terrorists is not suicide, because to the terrorist group, suicide is simply a means to an end with motivation that stems from rage and a sense of self-righteousness. They see themselves as having a higher purpose and are convinced of an eternal reward through their action” (Salib)

In order to understand the psychological backings of a terrorist group, it is necessary to understand their ideals, their motivations and their principles, which essentially leads to understanding their flaws. The group must be able to maintain both cohesion and loyalty. Effective leaders of terrorist organizations must be able to: maintain a collective belief system; establish and maintain organizational routines; control the flow of communication; manipulate incentives (and purposive goals) for followers; deflect conflict to external targets, and hence, keep the action going.

Fatally flawed … Jihadi John, Andreas Lubitz, Man Haron Monis and Anders Breivik. Photomontage: Andr

In order to combat terrorism, we need to understand what we have the ability to change. On one hand, changing the way terrorists view life and their cause is an aspect that cannot be changed; an aspect which we have to come in terms with. On the other hand, what can be changed is our perspective towards these terrorists. By understanding the inherent psychology behind terrorism, we can shift our perspective towards looking as them less like war-mongering beasts, and more like normal humans who just have serious insecurity issues and hence, need to hold on to some cause which gives them a sense of power and identity.

Once we understand this, we can also comprehend the fact that the need for violence against them is next to nil. Once we shift our perspective towards this way of thinking, the governments and large corporations; who are more like baying hounds waiting to lunge at the prospect of the immense profits that war brings them, would be forced to adopt more sensible decisions.

Let’s try that for a change, what say? The war against terrorism begins with YOU!

About Mariyam Saigal

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