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Why do some individuals decide to break with society and embark on a career in terrorism? Do terrorists share common traits or characteristics? Is there a terrorist personality or profile? Can a terrorist profile be developed that could reliably help security personnel to identify potential terrorists, whether they be would-be airplane hijackers, assassins, or suicide bombers? Do some terrorists have a psychotic (see Glossary) personality? Psychological factors relating to terrorism are of particular interest to psychologists, political scientists, and government officials, who would like to be able to predict and prevent the emergence of terrorist groups or to thwart the realization of terrorist actions. This study focuses on individual psychological and sociological characteristics of terrorists of different generations as well as their groups in an effort to determine how the terrorist profile may have changed in recent decades, or whether they share any common sociological attributes.
The assumption underlying much of the terrorist-profile research in recent decades has been that most terrorists have some common characteristics that can be determined through psychometric analysis of large quantities of biographical data on terrorists. One of the earliest attempts to single out a terrorist personality was done by Charles A. Russell and Bowman H. Miller (1977) (see Attributes of Terrorists).
Ideally, a researcher attempting to profile terrorists in the 1990s would have access to extensive biographical data on several hundred terrorists arrested in various parts of the world and to data on terrorists operating in a specific country. If such data were at hand, the researcher could prepare a psychometric study analyzing attributes of the terrorist: educational, occupational, and socioeconomic background; general traits; ideology; marital status; method and place of recruitment; physical appearance; and sex. Researchers have used this approach to study West German and Italian terrorist groups (see Females). Such detailed information would provide more accurate sociological profiles of terrorist groups. Although there appears to be no single terrorist personality, members of a terrorist group(s) may share numerous common sociological traits.
Practically speaking, however, biographical databases on large numbers of terrorists are not readily available. Indeed, such data would be quite difficult to obtain unless one had special access to police files on terrorists around the world. Furthermore, developing an open-source biographical database on enough terrorists to have some scientific validity would require a substantial investment of time. The small number of profiles contained in this study is hardly sufficient to qualify as scientifically representative of terrorists in general, or even of a particular category of terrorists, such as religious fundamentalists or ethnic separatists. Published terrorism databases, such as Edward F. Mickolus’s series of chronologies of incidents of international terrorism and the Rand-St. Andrews University Chronology of International Terrorism, are highly informative and contain some useful biographical information on terrorists involved in major incidents, but are largely incident-oriented.
This study is not about terrorism per se. Rather, it is concerned with the perpetrators of terrorism. Prepared from a social sciences perspective, it attempts to synthesize the results of psychological and sociological findings of studies on terrorists published in recent decades and provide a general assessment of what is presently known about the terrorist mind and mindset.
Because of time constraints and a lack of terrorism-related biographical databases, the methodology, but not the scope, of this research has necessarily been modified. In the absence of a database of terrorist biographies, this study is based on the broader database of knowledge contained in academic studies on the psychology and sociology of terrorism published over the past three decades. Using this extensive database of open-source literature available in the Library of Congress and other information drawn from Websites, such as the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), this paper assesses the level of current knowledge of the subject and presents case studies that include sociopsychological profiles of about a dozen selected terrorist groups and more than two dozen terrorist leaders or other individuals implicated in acts of terrorism. Three profiles of noteworthy terrorists of the early 1970s who belonged to other groups are included in order to provide a better basis of contrast with terrorists of the late 1990s. This paper does not presume to have any scientific validity in terms of general sampling representation of terrorists, but it does provide a preliminary theoretical, analytical, and biographical framework for further research on the general subject or on particular groups or individuals.
By examining the relatively overlooked behaviorist literature on sociopsychological aspects of terrorism, this study attempts to gain psychological and sociological insights into international terrorist groups and individuals. Of particular interest is whether members of at least a dozen terrorist organizations in diverse regions of the world have any psychological or sociological characteristics in common that might be useful in profiling terrorists, if profiling is at all feasible, and in understanding somewhat better the motivations of individuals who become terrorists.
Because this study includes profiles of diverse groups from Western Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, care has been taken when making cross-national, cross-cultural, and cross-ideological comparisons. This paper examines such topics as the age, economic and social background, education and occupation, gender, geographical origin, marital status, motivation, recruitment, and religion or ideology of the members of these designated groups as well as others on which relevant data are available.
It is hoped that an examination of the extensive body of behaviorist literature on political and religious terrorism authored by psychologists and sociologists as well as political scientists and other social scientists will provide some answers to questions such as: Who are terrorists? How do individuals become terrorists? Do political or religious terrorists have anything in common in their sociopsychological development? How are they recruited? Is there a terrorist mindset, or are terrorist groups too diverse to have a single mindset or common psychological traits? Are there instead different terrorist mindsets?