Despite the lack of a single terrorist profile, researchers have largely agreed on the risk factors for involvement. They include what Jerrold M. Post, a professor of psychiatry, political psychology and international affairs at George Washington University, calls “generational transmission” of extremist beliefs, which begins early in life; a strong sense of victimization and alienation; the belief that moral violations by the enemy justify violence in pursuit of a “higher moral condition;” the belief that the terrorists’ ethnic, religious or nationalist group is special and in danger of extinction, and that they lack the political power to effect change without violence.
Research has also shown that some terrorists have a criminal mentality and had previous lives as criminals. Paradoxically, anxiety about death plays a significant role in the indoctrination of terrorists and suicide bombers — unconscious fear of mortality, of leaving no legacy, according to new research.
Many researchers agree that while there is rarely a moment of epiphany, there is typically a trigger of some kind to accelerate radicalization — for example, the politically related killing of a friend or relative.
Ervin Staub, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts who is finishing a book on what drives terrorism and conflict, has identified three types of terrorists. “Idealists” identify with the suffering of some group. “Respondents” react to the experience of their own group. (Perhaps they were raised in a refugee camp or saw relatives killed; they may also be responding to unrelated individual trauma, like child abuse.) Finally, “lost souls” are adrift, isolated and perhaps ostracized, and find purpose with a radical group. Dr. Post said the lost souls are “ripe for the plucking” by recruiters.
Clark McCauley, a professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College, sees four general trajectories: “revolutionaries,” who are involved in the same cause over time; “wanderers,” who are involved with one extremist group after another, whatever their causes; “converts,” who suddenly break with their past to join an extreme movement; and “compliants,” whose involvement occurs through persuasion by friends, relatives and lovers.
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