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Psychology of Terrorism

Written by: Afshan Shamim, Final Year Law Student, Haldia Law College, Haldia
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Psychology is often described as the science of behaviors. It tries to solve the problems and symptoms individuals encounter because their behavior is in part a science, but in the study of the mind especially the unconscious it often moves away from pure science and becomes a philosophy and an art.

Psychological factors relating to terrorism are of particular interest to psychologist, political scientists and governments officials, who would like to be able to prevent the emergence of terrorist groups or, to ruin the realization of terrorist actions. Thus, this article attempts to focuses on individual Psychological and sociological characteristics of terrorists. Terrorism can be defined as a system of violence murder, kidnapping, bombing, hijacking of aircrafts & taking hostages to achieve particular purpose or, desired goals by force. Its an art of violence creating fear in the minds of ordinary civilians. The usual definition of terrorism is something like the use of violence, by small groups against non- combatants of large groups for political goal.

Since September 11, a large number of articles and books have been published on the psychology of terrorism. It is the psychology of terrorism that causes it to commands so much attention compare to other threats of life. To give the context, the death toll of the September 11attack in the USA, the most devastating terror attack in US history. This attack on WTC and Pentagon were probably carried out by Osama-bin-ladens organization Al-Qaeda. Bin-laden is motivated by anger against the USA after Gulf war.

Fighting in the cause of God is one of the most misunderstood issues in Islam. Many Muslims scholars have confused the issue by their personal opinion that has no support in Quran. Like all other religions of God, Islam promotes peace, love and harmony among the people. The religion of Islam condemns the killing of people of merely because they are embrace a different religion. The Quran mandates the absolute freedom of religion in a society. It does not allow Muslims to fight except for self defense, but many terrorist groups have used the name Islam to promote their cause in the name Jihad which gave many non-Muslims a chance asperse Islam and labels Muslims as terrorists. The main question here arise is that whether is it possible for a man to manipulate the minds and actions of the people through the entire world including many IT experts, scientists and other for serving their own purpose. Now here psychology plays an important role.

The psychology of terrorism deals with the questions regarding the making of a terrorists i.e., how and why do people become terrorists and what characteristic those who do. Are they mentally unbalanced. Do they have common personality traits or, sociological attributes.

There are various psychological theories relating to terrorism those are as follows:
1. Frustrating psycho-social conditions
2. severe psychopathology
3. Personality disorder
4. Fanaticism

Frustrating psycho-social conditions

Frustration due to marginalization, poverty, unemployment is one of the oldest sociological theories which is related to terrorism i.e. terrorist comes from the groups that experience marginalization, poverty, unemployment, social alienation. people with such social disadvantages are thought to be at a higher risk for getting involved in the act of violence.

Psychopathology and severe mental disorders

It is very well known fact that persons who commit acts of extreme abuse and destruction, killings and massacre have been regarded as inhuman, crazy and abnormal. Terrorist organization will probably be rather reluctant to enroll mentally ill persons in their groups, it is probable that a certain informal screening already takes place where serious psychopathology is discarded from organized terrorism.

Personality disorder

People dawn to terrorism, may have some form of psychopathology such as personality disorders. The problem is that they are generally identified as terrorists after a long period of affiliation to a segregated group & one doesn't know if the so called narcissistic traits( for example extreme sensitivity) to criticism, extreme flections of mood, tendency to split the world into black& white, lack of nuance, inability to form intimate bonds, lack of sensitivity to others needs & feelings are the cause or result of belonging to a fundamentalistic, fanatical or otherwise terrorist organization.


In the original sense of the word, a fanatic is a person who is passionately engaged in a religious cause. To a fanatic the world is divided into two categories: - Those that are with him and those that are against him. The terrorist is often labeled as a fanatic, especially in actions that lead to self-destruction. In psychological terms, the concept of fanaticism carries some implications of mental illness. However, Taylor points out it is not a diagnostic category in mental illness. Thus, he believes that commonly held assumptions about the relationship between fanaticism and mental illness- seem to be in appropriate. The fanatic often seems to view the world from a particular perspective lying at the extreme of a continuum.

Modern Terror organization invests much time and effort, as well as extensive resources into methods of Psychological warfare. They carefully observe their target population to find weaknesses and cracks in the society, which can widen or exploited. The terrorist study suggest that they target country's media to learn how best to get their threats across and how to magnify the fears of the population and stimulate or to amplify criticism of the government and its policies. Dissenting views in the society are carefully collected and used to undermine the populations beliefs in the rightness of its own ways. The terror organizations from the outset that it will not achieve its goals purely by means of terror attacks. It must enlist the help of its victims themselves in gaining its objectives. A victory that would be impossible by military means is thus brought within reach through a protracted campaign of psychological warfare that gradually erodes the target populations will to fight and turns the tables against the stronger power.

If the terrorists are otherwise ordinarily, unremarkable people then one need to examine why have these normal people decided to engage in such an extreme activity as political violence. Once you are forced to throw away the terrorists are different model, then attention must be given to other areas. An important realization is that becoming involved in terrorism is a process. No body is born a terrorist. There is no bad gene at work here. Neither does anyone wake up one morning and decide that on that day they are going to start planting Bombs in public streets. Becoming a terrorist is in the first instance an issue of socialization. Any society will possess some minorities or disaffected groups who rightly or wrongly perceive that the world is treating them harshly. In some cases there are genuine and very substantial causes for grievance. Individuals who belong to or identify with such disaffected groups share in as sense of injustice and persecution. It is from such pools that individual terrorist emerge. The move from the disaffected to the violent extremist is usually facilitated by a catalyst event. Normally this is an act of extreme physical violence committed by the police or security forces or other rival group against the individual, family, friends or simply anyone they can identify with. The combination of sense of belonging to a beleaguered group combined with the experience of an art of extreme violence against either oneself or significant others, is the impetus for some to engage in terrorism.

Terrorism is a paradox- a topical, high-profile subject with clear real-world relevance, yet with limited and desperate shortage of researches in the area. There is a need to encourage the younger researchers to take an interest in maintaining research activity in the area.

Psychology offers real insight in the understanding of terrorism and in the search of an end to terrorist conflicts. It has to be focused on the crucial lessons in terms of educating with a mind to opening doors for improved prevention and more flexible resolution. The levels of ignorance, misconception and prejudice concerning terrorism that need to be overturned are immense, but in doing so there are genuine opportunities to achieve and safeguard peace and security for all.

1. Crenshaw, M, The Psychology of Terrorism- An Agenda for the 21st Century, Political Psychology.
2. Dr Silke, Andrew is at the Scarman, Psychology, Crime, and Law.
3. Hoffman Bruce, Inside Terrorism, 1998, Columbia University Press, New York.
5. www.submission.organisation/terrorism

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