Psychology of Terrorism: Definition and Meaning

Terrorism is without a doubt one of the most serious dangers to national security at the moment. The mission of combating terrorism has received enormous resources from both the public and commercial sectors, which have been both assigned and redistributed. These initiatives, however, frequently fall short of providing a conceptual, much alone empirically supported, framework for comprehending terrorists and their violent activities. This gap provides a significant difficulty on a number of levels, from policy decisions about how a state should respond to terrorism to individual considerations about whether a particular person of interest who espouses extremist ideologies actually constitutes a substantial threat to people, property, and interests.

What is Terrorism?

One of the most intricate societal issues of our day is terrorism. Too frequently, the subject is so polarizing that it may be difficult to even bring it up, much less delve deeper into the numerous social, political, religious, and other aspects that contribute to terrorism and, no less importantly, guide our reactions to it.

It is no less difficult to define terrorism. Hundreds of definitions exist, yet none is dominant. At the very least, we can say that terrorism is a distinct type of strategy that employs mass casualties in an effort to bring about social or political change, but in order for an act to be reliably classified as terrorism or terroristic in nature, it must involve the direct victimization of noncombatants (such as civilians) in order to influence much more distant actors (such as governments) and agendas. According to the terrorist, those who are slain in the name of a cause are just a practical, symbolic means to an overall, far more grandiose goal.

However, not even these characteristics can ensure definitional agreement. The fact that "terrorism" is frequently used to describe the conduct of nonstate actors contributes to the debate surrounding the term. This supports the idea that, when used to classify activities with which we disagree, terrorism is frequently little more than a handy label—if they do it, it's terrorism; if we do it, though, it may be something else. That is not to argue that states do not occasionally do similarly repugnant acts, but when they do, generally alternative terminology and labels (for example, "war crimes") are used.

Psychological Approaches to Terrorism: Terrorism as Syndrome versus Terrorism as Tool

Two psychological stances have been examined during the study. The two approaches differ in how they view terrorism as a tool or a syndrome.

Terrorism as Syndrome

According to the syndrome theory, terrorism is a distinct phenomenon with its own psychology. Terrorists are viewed differently from non-terrorists from this angle. It is presumable that they are different not just in what they do but also in who they are and why they do it. In this regard, terrorism is compared to a mental illness, such as schizophrenia or depression. According to the syndrome theory of terrorism, terrorism may have external root causes, such as poverty or political persecution, which ultimately lead to more terrorism.

Terrorism as a Tool

In contrast, the tool perspective of terrorism makes no assumptions about terrorists. This point of view portrays terrorism as a tool for conflict resolution that anybody may employ. It shows that terrorism may be employed by nonstate militias, state-sponsored military, and even lone perpetrators—just like the rocket launcher, the tank, or the AK-47 assault weapon. If one thinks that terrorism is a means to an end, broad theory and research on objectives and motivation might help one understand its psychology. Psychologists have basically learned from this collection of research that a certain means is utilized when a person perceives it to have a highly anticipated utility. In other words, if a tool or means is perceived as helpful to achieving a goal, a person is more likely to utilize it to achieve that goal. The tool or method is thought to have high predicted usefulness if this is the case. Additionally, a tool has a higher anticipated usefulness if the person's goal is something that matters to them. Therefore, a tool is considered to have high psychological usefulness to the degree that it greatly aids in the accomplishment of significant goals.

What is the Psychology of Terrorism?

The tool perspective of terrorism, as its name suggests, contends that the instrument of terrorism may, for certain people and in some situations, be exceptionally high in predicted usefulness. In certain situations, terrorism may be considered as a tool for achieving very important objectives, and those participating may believe they have no other equally effective options. Understanding the psychology of terrorism greatly depends on knowing the terrorists' objectives and the tools they have at their disposal.

Given these concepts, it could be conceivable to imagine diverse strategies that various groups employ to use terrorism. Islamist organizations with utopian ideologies, for instance, have few opportunities for discussion, communication, or achieving peace. They see violence and terrorism as their only options. Given their fervent devotion to violence, it is highly doubtful that anything short of a complete victory can persuade utopian Islamists to stop using terrorism. For terrorists who employ terrorism as one tool among several at their disposal, the situation is different.

Discouraging Terrorism

According to the tool perspective of terrorism, terrorism may flourish in certain situations when there are no other instruments available to achieve one's aims and where the person has a strong belief that these goals must be attained. According to this perspective, preventing terrorism entails persuading the perpetrator that (a) this method is ineffective for achieving the goal, (b) there are alternative and better methods to accomplish specific goals, and (c) doing so will compromise other goals that may also be worthwhile to pursue.


Terrorism is difficult to define because it acts in a psychological environment that has two sides. The psychological response to terrorist attacks is on one side of the coin. Terrorist acts frighten them, and this is one of the things that sets them apart. Their real objectives are the general public (and governments), whom terrorist organizations and individuals want to influence through their acts. And as a result, terrorist groups have always tended to choose, where practical, assault strategies that elicit the strongest psychological response: bombs, public spectacles, and mass spectaculars, to mention a few.

Updated on: 16-Feb-2023


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