The Psychology of a Terrorist

There seems to be a strange subtext in some press stories hinting that the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings, Nidal Malik Hasan, had psychological problems or motivations of a kind that would somehow render his acts inconsistent with terrorism or with Islamic terrorism. Does the press realize that the psychological profile of a typical suicide bomber or religious mass murderer is hardly one of complete normality?

The scholarship on the psychological makeup of terrorists is somewhat spotty, but in his 2005 Journal of Conflict Resolution article reviewing the literature, Jeff Victoroff identifies the following four characteristics in “typical” terrorists:

a. High affective valence regarding an ideological issue

[here Islam, jihad, or the Iraqi or Afghan Wars]

b. A personal stake—such as strongly perceived oppression, humiliation, or persecution; an extraordinary need for identity, glory, or vengeance; or a drive for expression of intrinsic aggressivity—that distinguishes him or her from the vast majority of those who fulfill characteristic a

[here probably strongly perceived oppression, humiliation, or persecution]

c. Low cognitive flexibility, low tolerance for ambiguity, and elevated tendency toward attribution error

[here there is alleged rigidity in personal relations consistent with low cognitive flexibility and low tolerance for ambiguity; we do not yet know if there was attribution error, such as unreasonably blaming Americans or Jews]

d. A capacity to suppress both instinctive and learned moral constraints against harming innocents, whether due to intrinsic or acquired factors, individual or group forces—probably influenced by a, b, and c.

[here we have not only Hasan’s actions as evidence, but also his words and the words of some of his friends]

Jeff Victoroff, “The Mind of the Terrorist: A Review and Critique of Psychological Approaches,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49: 3-42, 35 (Feb. 2005).

If what has been reported about Hasan so far is true, his biography may not be usual. But Hasan would seem to fit the psychological profile of an Islamic terrorist almost perfectly — indeed, about as well as Mohamed Atta, Osama Bin Laden, or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

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