Psychological And Behavioral Factors Of Individual Terrorists

Assignment Instructions

For this midterm you will write a college level research paper describing the psychological and behavioral factors of individual terrorists (i.e. recruits and suicide bombers; not terrorist leaders such as Bin Laden).

Note: you will address different radicalization processes/models in the final paper such as Moghaddam’s Staircase, so you only need to research and discuss individual psychological and behavioral factors in this paper. Also remember that “psychological” does not mean “psychotic” and we are only addressing those of sound mind who deliberately choose violence for a political purpose, or retribution or to instill fear (not crazy mass shooters).

Assignment Specifics:

  • The body of your report is to be at least three FULL pages in length (not counting title page and references) and is to contain the following:
  • A brief introduction, with the topic and your thesis
  • A main body, containing the “meat” of the paper, where you provide the requested information supported by class readings and with your analysis
  • A conclusion, summarizing your information clearly and concisely

Make sure you read the instructions carefully and that you focus your paper on answering the assigned questions. This assignment is a research paper, not an opinion paper, so you need to use scholarly sources to support your thesis.  Make sure you use APA style in-text parenthetical citations at the end of every sentence where you are quoting another’s ideas (or any information) that is not your own thoughts and words, like this (Bergen, 2015, para. 14). Citations are required for paraphrases as well, but not the page or paragraph number in that case. I highly recommend you use the APUS writing guide which can be found in the university library or at this link: APUS Research Writing and Style Guide. You are welcome to use supplementary sources to compliment the assigned readings based upon your research, but make sure you use only scholarly and credible sources (do not use open websites and you never want to use wikipedia for a college level paper). Also, dictionaries and encyclopedias as well as general news sites (like CNN, FOX News) are not appropriate for college level research papers. Also, see the APUS Library Homeland Security Program Guide for good sources, as well as the APUS Research Primer and the APUS Library Research FAQs. For formatting, the best option is to use the attached example paper as a template (for formatting purposes only).


  • Written according to the APA style and format (parenthetical in-text citation formats only; not end notes or footnotes);
  • Use Times New Roman 12 point font;
  • 1 inch margins on all sides with no paragraph indentation other than the first line by .5 inches
  • – The body of your report is to be at least three FULL pages in length (not counting title page and references) and is to contain the following:
    –  A brief introduction, with the topic and your thesis
    – A main body, containing the “meat” of the paper, where you provide the requested information supported by class readings and with your analysis
    – A conclusion, summarizing your information clearly and concisely
  • Double space all text (no extra lines or spaces after a paragraph or section headings and no added font sizes or lines either)
  • A respectable number of credible resources used, cited in the paper as in-text citations, and included on the reference page. A good rule of thumb is at least 2 scholarly sources per page of content (a minimum of 2 new scholarly sources per page in a research paper is acceptable). Use those academic and credible sources provided to you throughout the course, as well as other scholarly material obtained from conducting your own research. Freely utilize appropriate and reputable academic sources, summarize in your own words and cite accordingly.
  • The paper must be free of typographical, spelling and grammatical errors (make sure to proof read before submission)
  • Turn your paper in as a Word Document and title your assignment “Lastname_Midterm

Finally, be mindful of excessive direct quotes as the paper should not contain just a string of quotations from sources. Make sure you comply with all academic integrity standards expected by APUS and as slide 14 of the APUS Academic Integrity presentation posted in course syllabus (and the week 1 introduction forum) states “Quotes cannot make up more than 10% of the text of your assignment.” So paraphrase where you can and provide your own analysis and synthesis of your research (direct quotes only when necessary to support your thesis). The bottom line for academic integrity is to write an original work for this assignment (not copied from anywhere on the internet or recycled content from your own previous papers) and to properly cite your references.


Assignments will be graded using the attached rubric.

References: Fueling terror how extremist are made  by


Understanding Co-radicalization

  • Although we may think of terrorists as sadists and psychopaths, social psychology suggests they are mostly ordinary people, driven by group dynamics to do harm for a cause they believe to be noble and just.
  • Terrorism reconfigures these group dynamics so that extreme leadership seems more appealing to everyone. Just as ISIS feeds off immoderate politicians in the West, for example, so do those immoderate politicians feed off ISIS to draw support for themselves.
  • Having others misperceive or deny a valued identity—an experience we describe as misrecognition—systematically provokes anger and cynicism toward authorities.

The steep and virulent rise of terrorism ranks among the more disturbing trends in the world today. According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, terror-related deaths have increased nearly 10-fold since the start of the 21st century, surging from 3,329 in 2000 to 32,685 in 2014. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, they shot up 80 percent. For social psychologists, this escalation prompts a series of urgent questions, just as it does for society as a whole: How can extremist groups treat fellow human beings with such cruelty? Why do their barbaric brands of violence appeal to young people around the globe? Who are their recruits, and what are they thinking when they target innocent lives?

Many people jump to the conclusion that only psychopaths or sadists—individuals entirely different from us—could ever strap on a suicide vest or wield an executioner’s sword. But sadly that assumption is flawed. Thanks to classic studies from the 1960s and 1970s, we know that even stable, well-adjusted individuals are capable of inflicting serious harm on human beings with whom they have no grievance whatsoever. Stanley Milgram’s oft-cited “obedience to authority” research showed that study volunteers were willing to administer what they believed to be lethal electric shocks to others when asked to do so by a researcher in a lab coat. Fellow psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment revealed that college students assigned to play the part of prison guards would humiliate and abuse other students who were prisoners.

These studies proved that virtually anyone, under the right—or rather the wrong—circumstances, could be led to perpetrate acts of extreme violence. And so it is for terrorists. From a psychological perspective, the majority of adherents to radical groups are not monsters—much as we would like to believe that—no more so than were the everyday Americans participating in Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s investigations. As anthropologist Scott Atran notes, drawing on his long experience of studying these killers, most are ordinary people. What turns someone into a fanatic, Atran explained in his 2010 book Talking to the Enemy, “is not some inherent personality defect but the person-changing dynamic of the group” to which he or she belongs.

For Milgram and Zimbardo, these group dynamics had to do with conformity—obeying a leader or subscribing to the majority view. During the past half a century, though, our understanding of how people behave both within and among groups has advanced. Recent findings challenge the notion that individuals become zombies in groups or that they can be easily brainwashed by charismatic zealots. These new insights are offering a fresh take on the psychology of would-be terrorists and the experiences that can prime them toward radicalization.

Combating Terrorism with ScienceRead more from this special report:

Combating Terrorism with Science

In particular, we are learning that radicalization does not happen in a vacuum but is driven in part by rifts among groups that extremists seek to create, exploit and exacerbate. If you can provoke enough non-Muslims to treat all Muslims with fear and hostility, then those Muslims who previously shunned conflict may begin to feel marginalized and heed the call of the more radical voices among them. Likewise, if you can provoke enough Muslims to treat all Westerners with hostility, then the majority in the West might also start to endorse more confrontational leadership. Although we often think of Islamic extremists and Islamophobes as being diametrically opposed, the two are inextricably intertwined. And this realization means that solutions to the scourge of terror will lie as much with “us” as with “them.”


Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s findings showed that almost anyone couldbecome abusive. If you look closely at their results, though, most participants did not. So what distinguished those who did? The pioneering work of social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1980s, though unrelated, suggested part of the answer. They argued that a group’s behavior and the ultimate influence of its leaders depended critically on two interrelated factors: identification and disidentification. Specifically, for someone to follow a group—possibly to the point of violence—he or she must identify with its members and, at the same time, detach from people outside the group, ceasing to see them as his or her concern.

We confirmed these dynamics in our own work that has revisited Zimbardo’s and Milgram’s paradigms. Across a number of different studies, we have found consistently that, just as Tajfel and Turner proposed, participants are willing to act in oppressive ways only to the extent that they come to identify with the cause they are being asked to advance—and to disidentify with those they are harming. The more worthwhile they believe the cause to be, the more they justify their acts as regrettable but necessary.

This understanding—that social identity and not pressure to conform governs how far someone will go—resonates with findings about what actually motivates terrorists. In his 2004 book Understanding Terror Networks, forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer, emphasized that terrorists are generally true believers who know exactly what they are doing. “The mujahedin were enthusiastic killers,” he noted, “not robots simply responding to social pressures or group dynamics.” Sageman did not dismiss the importance of compelling leaders—such as Osama bin Laden and ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—but he suggested that they serve more to provide inspiration than to direct operations, issue commands or pull strings.

Indeed, there is little evidence that masterminds orchestrate acts of terror, notwithstanding the language the media often use when reporting these events. Which brings us to a second recent shift in our thinking about group dynamics: we have observed that when people do come under the influence of authorities, malevolent or otherwise, they do not usually display slavish obedience but instead find unique, individual ways to further the group’s agenda. After the Stanford Prison Experiment had concluded, for example, one of the most zealous guards asked one of the prisoners whom he had abused what he would have done in his position. The prisoner replied: “I don’t believe I would have been as inventive as you. I don’t believe I would have applied as much imagination to what I was doing…. I don’t think it would have been such a masterpiece.” Individual terrorists, too, tend to be both autonomous and creative, and the lack of a hierarchical command structure is part of what makes terrorism so hard to counter.

How do terror leaders attract such engaged, innovative followers if they are not giving direct orders? Other discoveries from the past few decades (summarized in our 2011 book, co-authored with Michael J. Platow, The New Psychology of Leadership) highlight the role leaders play in building a sense of shared identity and purpose for a group, helping members to frame their experiences. They empower their followers by establishing a common cause and empower themselves by shaping it. Indeed, Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s experiments are object lessons in how to create a shared identity and then use it to mobilize people toward destructive ends. Just as they convinced the participants in their studies to inflict harm in the name of scientific progress, so successful leaders need to sell the enterprise they envision for their group as honorable and noble.

Both al Qaeda and ISIS deploy this strategy. A large part of their appeal to sympathizers is that they promote terror for the sake of a better society—one that harks back to the peaceful community that surrounded the prophet Mohammed. Last year University of Arizona journalism professor Shahira Fahmy carried out a systematic analysis of ISIS’s propaganda and found that only about 5 percent depicts the kind of brutal violence typically seen on Western screens. The great majority features visions of an “idealistic caliphate,” which would unify all Muslims harmoniously. Moreover, a significant element of ISIS’s success—one that makes it more threatening than al Qaeda—lies in the very fact that its leaders lay claim to statehood. In the minds of its acolytes at least, it has the means to try to make this utopian caliphate a reality.

Crucially, however, the credibility and influence of leaders—especially those who promote conflict and violence—depend not only on what they say and do but also on their opponents’ behavior. Evidence for this fact emerged after a series of experiments by one of us (Haslam) and Ilka Gleibs of the London School of Economics that looked at how people choose leaders. One of the core findings was that people are more likely to support a bellicose leader if their group faces competition with another group that is behaving belligerently. Republican candidate Donald Trump might have been wise to ponder this before he suggested that all Muslim immigrants are potential enemies who should be barred from entering the U.S. Far from weakening the radicals, such statements provide the grit that gives their cause greater traction. Indeed, after Trump made his declaration, an al Qaeda affiliate reaired it as part of its propaganda offensive.


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