London Bombings: Profile of a Terrorist

BalaclavaBalaclavaPeople talk as though
terrorists are ‘other’ than us, and while their actions are certainly ‘other’,
experts on terrorists have discovered their backgrounds are often very normal.
Terrorists are only human — too human — and that can be even more frightening.

Attempts to create a profile
of an average terrorist have proved extremely difficult – as difficult as
creating a profile of an average ‘normal’ person. Research into the personality
traits of terrorists reveals they have nothing particular in common. Terrorists
share the same range of personality traits as might be found in any average
The stereotype that terrorists
are psychopaths, or are mentally unstable in some way, is a controversial
point. The psychologist Jerrold Post has suggested that terrorists are impelled
to commit these acts by deep psychological problems. The weight of evidence,
however supports the view that terrorists, while they often have very strong
religious or ideological beliefs, are generally quite sane.
Heskin (1984) has studied
members of the Irish Repulican Army (the IRA), Rasch (1979) a group of West
Germany terrorists and Becker (1984), members of the Baader-Meinhoff Gang. All
of these found little evidence of psychopathology.
Apart from that it makes sense
for terrorist leaders to avoid recruiting psychopaths to their cause: the
mentally unstable would prove themselves liabilities to the organisation.
If anything, then, terrorists
are notable for their normality, for their ability to blend into the background
and remain unnoticed. Those recruited tend to be of average appearance, normal
in behaviour in the situation they are in, fairly young – between 20 and 25 –
and reasonably well educated, often to university level.
the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.
Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.