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World Crisis of Terrorism and Terrorists, Past and Present: Functional Psychological Characteristics

Vernon Rupert Grant –

This short paper is a precise and understandable synopsis of literature that covers the general psychology of terrorists, past and present. We expect that this narrowly selected kaleidoscopic formulation will shed some light on why terrorists behave the way they do, and how a crisis of terrorism has evolved as a result.     

      Terrorism as a phenomenon is diverse in its results, targets, victims, and tactics as terrorists are divergent in their nationalities, politics, religions, languages, and cultures. That has been the traditional composition of terrorism and terrorists throughout the centuries. The historical commonalities between traditional and modern-day terrorists show that they are behaviorally flexible, psychologically determined, ideologically focused, and motivationally independent. Their brutality stems from a cold and heartless personality. An apparent tendency for evil has also shrouded terrorists through the ages. Their intention is to generate a crisis of metastasized fear in order to cement an agenda motivated by politics, religion, economics, social issues, or even environmental contentions. 

      Indiscriminate evil holds a central position among terrorists, anarchists, and tyrants, past and present. Maximilien Robespierre, a lawyer by profession, and one of the leaders of the French Revolution of 1789 gave rise to the “Reign of Terror†between 1793 and 1794 (Meltzer 1983). He terrorized his people in general and his enemies, in particular, by sending them to be beheaded by one of the most frightening instruments of death in history, the guillotine. Robespierre himself was later executed through the use of the guillotine (Meltzer 1983). Anarchists throughout Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were behaviorally flexible while leveling atrocities not only on leaders of various countries but against their general populations as well. Barcelona, Spain saw a shocking sight when terrorists blew up an opera house filled with patrons in 1893 (Burleigh 2009). Terrorists have also consistently targeted tyrannical leaders of their countries who exacted brutality and suppression on their people. Driven by hate and revenge, the terrorist arm of the Land and Freedom franchise in Russia led by Alexander Mikhailov, between 1878 and 1879, committed assassinations of many prominent individuals and government leaders. Among those assassinated was Prince Dmitry Kropotkin, Governor of Kharkov. The terrorists were psychologically determined to rid their Tsarist society of what they saw as tyranny and corruption and thus stem the tide of “dissatisfaction†among the population (Burleigh 2009).      

      In the United States, we are familiar with the account of President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901 by an ideologically focused terrorist/anarchist. President Theodor Roosevelt, who took over from the slain president, vowed to crush terrorism. Gupta (2006) in his account of this history, reports that  “President Roosevelt declared war against terrorism because then, as it is today, the idea of using acts of terrorism to achieve political goals was stirring people all over the world†(p. 15).

      Vaisman-Tzachor (2006), in an extensive study, conducted personal interviews of terrorist suspects and found that they exhibited a self-absorbed personality. They become completely independent individuals as they are growing up—in many cases due to dysfunctional families. Many of these terrorists lacked emotional and physical subsistence at a young age. Examples of “modern-day†terrorists were cited: “[Yasser] Arafat’s [the late Palestinian leader] mother died when he was four (4) years old, and he was raised by an uncle in Jerusalem; Zacharias Moussaoui [the so-called twentieth (20th) 9/11 hijacker] had no contact with his father for years; Richard Reid’s [the shoe bomber] father was in prison for most of Reid’s childhood†(p. 7). 

      The fierce motivational independence of the “old†versus our modern-day terrorists can be reflected in their operational function. States and organized entities often hired Independent Contractor terrorists to work on their behalf. The following terror contractors may have been considered by some to be more representative of the “old guard:†the late Abu Nidal of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP); and the late Abu Abbas representing the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF). Those of the modern terrorist realm are more representative of those who practice freelance terror. Freelancers are not beholden to any state, but will freely work with states that are complicit in terror and corruption. Some of the more notable terror freelancers were: the (now imprisoned) “Blind Sheikh†Omar Abdel Rahman; (the imprisoned) Ahmed Ramzi Yousef; and (the deceased) Osama bin Laden (Hudson 1999).

      Many terrorists seek to change their names for the purpose of evading capture and to erase the old self and take on a new personality. In his Library of Congress report, Hudson (1999), cites Bonnie Cordes, author of When Terrorists do the Talking: Reflections on Terrorist Literature, as saying, ‘Renaming themselves, their actions, their victims, and their enemies accord the terrorist respectability’ (p. 40). 

      The psychological profile suggested for terrorists in the United States by Nash (1998), was “Malcontents and Misfits†(p. 165). They were perhaps nothing more than just the rejected of society, or simply angry at their privileged status in life. Nash’s documented terrorists include: the first known skyjacking in the United States, carried out by a disgruntled car salesman and his seventeen (17) year old son in 1961, on a flight bound for Cuba; and the supremacists Ku Klux Klan group that terrorized The American South, killing and maiming innocent people, and bombing churches, Synagogues, and small businesses. Nash also noted Abbie Hoffman, a Hippie leader and his crew who orchestrated bloody riots in the city of Chicago to disrupt the 1968 Democrat convention—it was havoc. Finally, Nash chronicles that between 1969 and 1970, Bernadine Dohrn and William Ayers, leaders of the deadly terrorist group the Weather Underground Organization carried out over 4,000 bombings, and caused ruination wherever they struck (Nash 1998).

      The late twentieth and now twenty-first century terrorists are associated with a much looser network of terror franchises that are different from the more structured and hierarchical organizations of the past. Modern terrorists use this opportunity to showcase their individual personality. Some of their goals differ from the old groups. While the terrorists of old had materialist goals in mind, our more modern-day terrorists (especially those from Muslim groups) foster self-reliant values and express the need to break away from those who control them (Voll 2001). The al Qaeda organization is one example of a franchise group that seeks that goal.

      Many of us have been relegated to thinking that all terrorists are the same wherever around the world they are stationed. In fact, there are indiscernible differences, but, for the most part, the traditional and the modern-day terrorists share somewhat of a similar psychological and operational profile. They are both behaviorally flexible, in that they are willing to change tactics to achieve an immediate objective—assassination by the gun or a bomb. They are all psychologically determined to succeed; they become fanatical and obsessed and will always try again if they fail. Sophia Perovskaya and her band of terrorists were so focused ideologically that they were able to get close enough to Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881 and assassinate him (Meltzer 1983). Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (now al Qaeda’s new head), were so mentally driven and focused that they were able to give rise to the 9/11 atrocities. The prospect of getting out of a perceived social and restraining economic domination of them by others (among other reasons) appeals to the motivationally independent terrorist.

      The defeated terror group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) a/k/a the “Tamil Tigers,†of Sri Lanka (operating from 1972 to 2009) and its founder/leader, the deceased Velupillai Prabhakaran, were so vehemently focused and angry with the central government that they were able to wage decades of bloody terror in their quest to seek independence for the Tamil people of the north and east of that island nation (International Crisis Group, 2010). The Tamil Tigers were the ones who devised the terrorist suicide vest for bombers (Pickert 2009), and before September 11th, 2001 was the most lethal suicide terrorist group in the world (Waldman 2003). Today, discussions and negotiations for autonomy continue. Fortunately, “Sri Lanka’s chance to finally start on the road to a sustainable resolution of the country’s decades-long ethnic strife, including a negotiated political settlement, depends on the outcome [of parliamentary elections]†(International Crisis Group 2015, p. 3). With the results of those elections held on August 17, 2015, the alienating and dictatorial days of ex-Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa have perhaps past. The Sri Lankan people can now move on from terrorist bloodshed and ethnic strife to a properly negotiated settlement (Kadirgamar 2015).

      Many terrorist leaders of organized groups such as Velupillai Prabhakaran, and independent terrorists, such as Timothy McVeigh, the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber, were people filled with anger and rage. They often experienced a self-absorbed sense of dominance and admired people such as Napoleon and Hitler, respectively (Schurman-Kauflin 2013). The Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, who carried out a terror spree for almost two (2) decades (from 1978 to 1996), killed three (3) people and maimed over twenty-four (24) others (Marmion 1998). Kaczynski too operated out of anger and frustration with society and was found by a court-appointed psychiatrist to have suffered from “hypersensitivity and irrational rage at his family   and was also afflicted with “paranoid schizophrenia since his early 20s†(p. 2).  Other independent terrorists acted out of a particular ideology and had no known structured or official affiliation with terrorist organizations, but became “self-radicalized†(Kulbarsh 2013, p.1). Among them were Eric Robert Rudolph, the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bomber who also bombed abortion clinics, and terrorized the people of the southern United States, between 1996 and 1998; and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers, the Tsarnaev Brothers, only to name a few.      

      It seems to be that terrorists, past and present, become disillusioned with government and its leaders, family, and perhaps with society in general. A narcissistic proclivity tends to drive them to a point of no return. Our global society is riddled with these individuals who sometimes may appear “normal,†especially to the public, at large (Kulbarsh 2013). Mohammed Atta (an upper-middle-class Egyptian whose father was a lawyer) and his 9/11 terror cohorts were hardly observed to be suspicious until the time of their dastardly acts. So many others have gone undetected, eventually unleashing unprecedented violence on their victims. They may exhibit periods of psychological impairment to the extent that close friends (if any) and family, as well as others, may see an unusually spotted pattern of behavior, but never connect the dots. These sometimes maniacal future terrorists, slip through our societal sieve, and it is for others to become more sensitized to such behavior and apprise professionals who can help mitigate a potential crisis.      

      While many traditional terrorists took contracts to carry out terror for a state, the modern-day terrorists are more freelancers functioning independently, and even occasionally via terrorists cells. They are all determined, brutal, and capable of great harm. Many terrorists have heeded the call from Al Qaeda and ISIS leaders for lone Jihadists to take up arms and stir a storm of unrestrained violence on various societies. Among those heeding the call was the lone Moroccan gunman who attempted to assassinate riders on an Amsterdam to Paris (French) train on August 21, 2015. Fortunately, such planned brutality was thwarted by a handful of alert passengers. There were still others, who came forward and were, unfortunately successful, such as, the   terrorists who launched several horrific attacks, in Paris on the night of November 13, 2015. A San Bernardino couple on December 2, 2015, observed the Jihad call form ISIS and plunged a room filled with people—familiar to the two (2) terrorists—into an unexpected bloodbath.    

      There is no doubt that many more disturbed, maladjusted lone wolf and freelancing ideological terrorists (even members of cells) will continue to emerge. As Psychologist Stephen A. Diamond (2008) elucidates, “Terrorists try to force the world to meet their own narcissistic demands, and, when this doesn’t happen, they lash out violently. Terrorism†[he continues] “is a failure to find a creative solution to life, to find and fulfill one’s true destiny†(p. 3). Various despotic leaders, as well as narcissistic and demented terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, have caused the rise of an unfortunate Human Displacement Crisis (HDC). Migrants fleeing wars in terrorist dominated regions have breached the borders of Austria, Hungary, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Belgium, thereby overwhelming the security, economic, political, and social institutions of those societies. Lone wolf and cell-member terrorists with sociopathic streaks and other psychologically impaired characteristics will continue to sneak into those countries mentioned above, as well as others, by infiltrating the ranks of displaced populations and impersonating refugees seeking asylum.

      Responsible governments around the world should have already been modifying their security policies to fit the modern-day terrorists change in tactics. There has to be an imperative to do so even though it might be somewhat challenging to track independent terrorists who are bent on creating turmoil of their own. It does not mean, however, that terrorist cells—as components of organized groups—will not continue to create unease. There is only now an added layer of scrutiny that is of legitimate concern. Applying a policy of political correctness as a strategy in fighting this type of terrorism will not in any way fix this vexing problem. Addressing the psychology of terrorists and the reasons they carry out such heinous acts, must have an Enhanced Assessment (EA) component. As terrorism is being re-engineered by those with nefarious intent, our global community continues to find itself in a perpetual crisis. Can we possibly get out of a morass of fear and beat back terror? Yes, we can!  We will only need to develop the fortitude to do so. Concerned peoples around the world should feel compelled to create an authentic alliance of nations (not within the United Nations) that will genuinely demonstrate a willingness to wage an offensive campaign, which would mitigate this dire threat. Allegiance from such global partners cannot be an on-again-off-again convenience of need, but rather, one that is a true testament to the will of those who must assure their citizens that a commitment to their security is not just a transitory one. For the sake of future generations, we must be successful in doing this, no matter the psychological challenges that define terrorists around the world.   


About the Author:Vernon Rupert Grant is a Crisisologist, and an NYU trained management executive, who holds several high-level industry awards relating to leadership in crisis and prevention management. He has published in the field, and currently teaches various courses and seminars, including Crisis & Prevention Management (CPM), Leadership Skills, Human Relations, Management Ethics, How to Manager Your Manager, and Project Management. He may be reached at, [email protected]     


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Grant, V. R. (2015, December).
“World Crisis of Terrorism and Terrorists, Past and Present: 
Functional Psychological Characteristics.”
The Management Journal of Crisisology Today, 02, 1-5
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