Mind of a Terrorist

What Attracks Individuals to Terrorism?

In light of the Paris Attacks and the San Bernardino mass shootings, I ask, “What attracts individuals to terrorism?” In the study, “The Mind of a Terrorist: A Review and Critique of Psychological Approaches,” Jeff Victoroff explores four psychoanalytic psychological theories to terrorist behavior. They are identity theory, narcissism theory, paranoia theory, and absolutist/totalist thinking.

Identity Theory

According to Identity Theory, young people prone to terrorism lack self-esteem and are desperate to find their identities. Researchers Taylor and Quayle (1994) explored this theory with unstructured and undocumented interviews with Irish and European terrorists. They reported that many of these individuals became politically violent to seek a sense of purpose and self-worth. Researcher Bollinger used psychologist Erik Erikson (1959) psychosocial theory (Fifth Stage: Ego Identity vs. Role Confusion) as the basis for his psychoanalytic interpretation of his interviews with eight members of German terrorist groups. He claimed that over controlling parents prevented these individuals from developing independence, leading to the identity crisis that made violence irresistible. At the extreme, individuals who have identity confusion may feel isolated and use violence as a way to deal with their pain.

Narcissism Theory

In Narcissism Theory, failure of motherly love aka narcissist injury prevents the person from developing a mature self-identity and morality. An example is if someone is subordinated, that may result in a narcissistic injury in which he or she feels unjustly treated and may retaliate. This fits with the researchers Hubbard (1971) and el Sarraj (2002) findings that terrorists are far from the aggressive psychopaths of the public’s imagination but emotionally, damaged adolescents that have suffered ego rejections such as a parents’ dismissal.


George Washington University psychiatrist Jerrold M. Post researched that a notable part of terrorist psychology is projection, a behavior where a person denies their own negative traits while shifting the same negative traits on others. Projection is suggested to be the root cause of the infantile stage called the “paranoid-schizoid position.” This paranoid position allows the terrorist to justify their violent acts and view it as “self-defense” against their victims. Post’s paranoia theory offers a model that not only explains why only a minority of individuals with political hardships turn to terrorism but also why terrorists kill those who do not appear to be a threat.


Harvard psychiatrist, Robert J. Lifton, another major contributor to terrorist psychology, contributed that absolutist/totalist moral thinking ignites terrorism via the captivating appeal to young adults with weak self-identities, and that terrorists defend their actions through denial, psychic numbing, and isolation. The Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, used absolutist/totalist moral thinking to envision that mass destruction as a path toward replacing the corrupt world with a pure new social order.


Terrorism is part of our daily lives whether it directly or indirectly affects us. It’s a multi-dimensional social, political, and moral problem. It’s difficult to fight because terrorists have a variety of reasons and beliefs for their actions. Even though a leader of a terrorist group is killed, he or she’s legacy lives on through their followers. Reading the study made me realize prevention of terrorist ideals and beliefs rather than a reaction to terrorist actions is important in stopping terrorism.

Photo: By National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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