Why Do People Become Terrorists?

Many people consider terrorists to be insane. But are they actually insane? There has not been any evidence that terrorists are mentally unstable individuals. In fact, terrorist organizations often do not recruit mentally unstable individuals for security reasons. So why do people join terrorist organizations? While research has not found any psychopathology or general theory of why people become terrorists, research has found that there are several reasons individuals may be drawn to terrorist careers, including feelings of frustration, a search for belonging, and a need for identity.


In Tore Bjørgo’s book, Root Causes of Terrorism: Myths, Reality and WaysBjørgo explains that frustration may arise from systemic disenfranchisement or the inability to successfully complete endeavors. Many individuals may become terrorists during the process of externalizing their sense of frustration on a certain political actor. More simply put, the individual will search for an external actor, such as the West or the U.S., on which to displace his/her frustration. This process will allow the individual to view the world in more of a black and white way that makes the world easier to understand and seem more predictable.

The Search for Belonging

Similar to cults, terrorist organizations can also provide individuals with a sense of belonging. Belonging is one of the most fundamental and important human needs. A lack of belonging could cause someone to experience cognitive dissonance. For example, if an individual believes all jihadist are freedom fighters but this individual lives in a society that says differently, the individual may experience cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the process of having conflicting attitudes, behaviors, or beliefs. These conflictions cause the individual to feel discomfort. In order to stop this discomfort and restore balance, the individual alters either their attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. An article from Psychology Today explains that as the individual tries to regain balance, the individual may seek admission into groups that reaffirm the individual’s beliefs. One of these groups that reaffirm the individual’s beliefs may be a terrorist organization.

The Need for Identity

The terrorist identity can provide individuals in search of identity with a function in society. For example, people that join terrorist organizations may believe that they are fighting for a great cause. Additionally, theperceived benefits of joining a terrorist organization – social status, possible access to wealth, and close interpersonal interactions – may outweigh the social sanctions against terrorism. Perceived benefits of joining terrorist organizations would most likely outweigh social sanctions when the individual either does not have strong social ties or the individual’s social environment condones or promotes terrorist behavior. This could explain why some people that commit terrorism are first seen as loners.


There is still much research to be done on the causes of terrorism. As of now, there is no overall explanation to explain terrorism. However, in regards to recruitment, terrorist organizations seem to be similar to cults. For both cults and terrorist organizations most members join in hopes of finding belonging and identity.

Image: Nathan Bachuss. Marsh Report Shows Continued Demand for Terrorism Coverage http://www.riskmanagementmonitor.com/marsh-report-shows-continued-demand-for-terrorism-coverage/

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