From psychology point of view, what is the reason behind terrorist attacks?

  • What is the motivation for the leaders of terrorists?
  • What is the motivation for the person who performs terrorist attacks?
  • $\begingroup$ I wonder what type of contribution can an individual make to reduce terrorism around the world? $\endgroup$
    – Maryam
    Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 4:49
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I think this is a very broad question which will have a lot of opinion in the answer unfortunately. To answer this you would need to cover many different areas of the psyche and when covering ISIS/ISIL or so called Islamic State you would need to look at perceptions to do with religious ideologies which can be different to mainstream religious ideology. Plus there can be historical influences as well as religious when covering groups such as the IRA. Even then you will have only covered a small portion of terrorism. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 18:41

2 Answers 2


As others have mentioned, different individuals and groups can have broad (and conflicting) motivations for specific actions. I found this post on the Politics SE while looking up a similar question, though I don't know if this is exactly what you are asking. The post asks why ISIS performs terrorist attacks when it brings them more attention and threat. Ultimately, they just have different goals. Looking at it from one perspective, it seems "wrong". Looking at it from another, it completely makes sense.

This answer (to the above question) does a great job of explaining how ISIS stated goals relate. These goals are not focused on conquest or "winning" in the traditional sense, but much more on bringing division into the world. If this is the goal, terrorist attacks that bring fear, racism, and religious judgement from the West are right (again, towards this purpose).

Long story short: they have a different goal than many people. These attacks are actually quite rational, when working towards that goal. It is the goal itself that we find irrational.

As to why people believe in one goal vs. another: I don't think that this has a universal answer. Lots of complex things can go into this belief, and they can greatly vary by individual.


The question is superbly broad and largely off-topic here, as it crosses to the realms of Anthropology, Sociology and Religion Studies.Secondly, terrorist attacks may be executed by different groups of individuals, and each occurrence may be fueled by a different set of motives. Hence, I will confine my answer to a general answer.

Having said that, it needs mentioning that the psychology of terrorism is marked more by theory and opinion than by hard science (source: APA). By crunching the numbers it seems that religious extremism has apparently become the main driver of terrorism in recent years (source: The Guardian).

From the point of the individual, there are a number of factors that may drive people to let themselves be recruited into terrorist radical organizations (source: APA):

  • Feelings of anger, alienation or disenfranchisement;
  • Sense of powerlessness;
  • Feelings of being victimized by the social injustice they are fighting;
  • Feeling of the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem.
  • Immoral attitudes to violence;
  • Their friends or family are sympathetic to the cause.
  • Beliefs that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity.

You ask about leaders. What is a leader? There are many leaders and layers stacked on top of each other. Divide and conquer. The same beliefs as stated above may also apply to these folks. Maybe you refer to the individual as the people that commit suicide during the atrocities. I think very personal motivations may push these people. For example believing the afterlife is eternal and that committing a certain atrocity is a good thing, granting them a place in heaven. Leaders will probably have more political motivations and will operate with a larger vision of the cause. There are many terrorist groups. The IRA for example, was an Irish republican paramilitary organization that sought to separate Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. Bin Laden, from the notorious Al-Qaeda, attacked the Twin Towers and other symbols of American power to promote widespread fear throughout the country and weaken the US’ standing in the world community, ultimately supporting their political and religious goals in the Middle East and Muslim World (source: 9/11 Memorial Museum).


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