Young man in black hooded sweatshirt invisible in the night darkness, dimly lit, concepts of danger, crime, terror

Understand the Terrorist, Preempt the Threat

It is important to understand why people do the things they do when trying to figure out an individual’s motives and reasons. It is even more captivating when it involves an individual doing unspeakable actions toward another, such as murder or abuse. When it comes to terrorism, there are many different kinds of people who become terrorists – regardless of gender, orientation, religion, or race. These people have complex varying agendas, motivations, and reasons for their actions: religious, political, cultural, emotional, or perceptual. Understanding these reasons will help communities develop counterterrorism programs and support groups to help thwart terroristic actions.

Throughout history, terrorism – both international and domestic – has existed around the world. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001 was a turning point for the U.S. that exposed copious vulnerabilities within government preparedness for and response to such threats. After that attack, national security became a major focal point against international terrorism, which was the main priority at the time. This led President George W. Bush to sign the Homeland Security Act of 2002 into law, creating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Recently, due to numerous events within the past decade, domestic terrorism has garnered much more attention and focus from all levels of government and the media. In addition to acknowledging the existence of international and domestic terrorism, it is important to explore the reasons people become terrorists in order to create mitigation strategies.

Behind the Terrorist

Profiles are created to define groups of people who exhibit similar characteristics in hopes of understanding individuals and reasons for their actions. However, many people do not fit within these created profiles. For example, someone may have similar characteristics as a profile but does not commit the same crimes or may commit the same acts but have none or very few similar characteristics. Although profiles help in understanding individuals and their motives, they are not totally reliable. A “terrorist” is one such profile that cannot be easily defined.

There are many different reasons why someone may become a terrorist or join a terrorist group, such as religion, pride in self or nation, strong beliefs for or against something, or feelings of injustice or unfairness. These few major factors provide an understanding of motivations for joining a group or becoming a terrorist, but some questions remain unsatisfied:

  • While not dismissing motivations, what is personally and emotionally driving an individual to become a terrorist or join a group?
  • What is the core reason for becoming a terrorist?

The answers to these questions include many personal reasons, such as a sense of belonging, revenge, power, validation, and family/society. These reasons also can inspire action individually or can overlap or be combined with one another. Personal factors coupled with the right type of terrorist group can move an individual toward becoming a terrorist.

Sense of belonging. Many terrorists want to belong somewhere or to something. They often believe they have been outcasted by their peer groups, society, and/or even their own families. In turn, they are motivated to look for a group of like-minded people and create or join a surrogate-like family. Feelings of finally belonging somewhere – acceptance, acknowledgement, and even expressions of love from the group – can override actions that go against personal morals. Even in a group of terrorists, a new member may be willing to do anything to be praised and accepted by their “family,” even if it means killing others or themselves.

Exploring the reasons people become terrorists is more effective than profiling for creating counterterrorism strategies.

Revenge and power. Individuals who become terrorists sometimes exhibit patterns of being bullied or targets of violent attacks (e.g., from the household, society, peer group, academic institutions), which can influence future bullying and other violent behaviors. Depending on the individual, it can follow into adulthood. A sense of feeling powerless and weak from being humiliated and shamed can lead to blaming others for personal misfortune. Within a terrorist group, members may start blaming a particular set of people – involved or not – to coincide with the group’s target. By seeking revenge and committing acts against those who “wronged” them, they gain a sense of power that they previously lacked.

Validation. Often, those who want to feel validated have had their expressed feelings belittled, treated like they do not matter, or treated as though they are wrong or crazy. This can sometimes lead individuals to act certain ways deemed by society as bad or criminal because of the master label society gives them. Validation is an integral part of other listed reasons. Having a sense of belonging with like-minded people helps to validate an individual’s personal views, feelings of anger and blame, desire to seek revenge, and longing for a sense of power. At the core, validation involves being understood, being acknowledged, and having feelings and views deemed important.

Family/society. Some individuals are raised by their families or in small established societies to become terrorists (i.e., group terrorism rather than an individual joining a group or independently becoming a terrorist). Group terrorism involves having religious, political, criminal, state-sponsored, and other goals. Although family/society-encouraged terrorism is not the most common way in Western society to become a terrorist, it is more prevalent in parts of the world where religious/cultural roles play a larger role. Often, when one is raised to become a terrorist, the family is already part of the group or small society that encourages terrorism. The individuals are taught what the roles, duties, and expectations of them will be.

Disrupting a Terrorist’s Path

The reasons listed above are just a few of the many important possible reasons why people become terrorists. Once integrated into certain terrorist groups, members often conform to adopt the group’s targets, goals, and motivations. Awareness is the first step toward prevention. Individuals who become terrorists are often in the background and go unnoticed by the general public. However, others who do interact with the public may show signs of suspicious activities – for example, direct or indirect threats; or a fascination or obsession with weapons, especially guns or explosives.

Although there are no telltale signs – and some show no signs – that someone is or is becoming a terrorist, it is critical to recognize potential threats and alert the proper authorities if someone does display unusual and dangerous behaviors. Emergency preparedness professionals should work with community organizations to help build awareness and partnerships to encourage situational awareness and reporting. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s If you see something, say something campaign offers valuable tools for all community stakeholders to use for building situational awareness and reporting practices. The Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative provides law enforcement with an information sharing tool to bridge the investigative efforts of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement partners.

It is important for emergency preparedness professionals to understand the core reasons behind people becoming terrorists or joining terrorist groups. Understanding these reasons can lead society to address such issues or to create groups that provide support for non-violent coping strategies. People want to be validated, supported, and have a sense of meaning and feeling important, so understanding these underlying reasons is a step toward a less violent future.

Laura Ehrmantraut

Laura Ehrmantraut is a Virginia Commonwealth University 2021 undergraduate with a double major in homeland security and emergency preparedness, and criminal justice. She is currently part of the City of Fairfax Emergency Management as an emergency management intern. In 2018, she worked on various Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) missions in Mississippi, Montana, and Puerto Rico as an AmeriCorps FEMA Corps member.



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