Date of Graduation

Spring 2015

Document Type

Honors Research Project

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Major

Political Science

Research Sponsor

Dr. Karl Kaltenthaler

First Reader

Dr. Ron Gelleny

Second Reader

Dr. Terry O'Sullivan

Abstract

Terrorism and radicalized political groups are an ever-growing subsection of the American and international news cycles. Mainstream media outlets tend to focus on the atrocious actions of terrorists, leaving the American public without a true understanding of what encourages someone to become a violent, radicalized extremist. This paper intends to investigate possible psychological factors that can predict a person’s likelihood to become radicalized and participate in a salafi jihadi terrorist campaign. If such psychological conditions exist, perhaps they are the key to preventing radicalization in the first place, and in turn, the key to preventing any terrorist activity. What other factors motivate someone to partake in terrorist activities? How can counterterrorism strategies distinguish between those who merely feel animosity towards the West and those who are indoctrinated to devote their lives to the West’s demise?

While the concept of terrorism is by no means a new one, modern events have provided new opportunities for research and study. Beginning with the World Trade Center attacks of September 11th, 2001, we see a new era of terrorism in which Al Qaeda and its affiliates are able to recruit, train, and produce armies of radicalized fighters in record time, making the fight against terrorism an increasingly difficult one. By studying these modern examples of terrorism and combining this research with the behavioral sciences, we can gain some insight into the mind of a terrorist and the process by which organizations are able to meet the psychological needs of their recruits.

Previous research has concluded that almost all terrorists, including salafi jihadi extremists, do not suffer from any abnormal psychological conditions, as terrorist organizations extensively screen participants for any instability that may threaten their mission. However, many terrorists do report feelings of doubt, persecution, and insecurity; these emotions are important in the framing of a terrorist cell’s rhetoric to gain new members. Abnormal psychopathology is not an accurate predictor of one’s potential to become a radical, violent Islamist extremist. Psychological factors, such as the quest for significance and identity, are very influential in prompting someone to interact with extremist groups. The manner in which terrorist organizations communicate with the public and their potential recruits is the defining variable that can determine to likelihood of radicalization. In turn, counterterrorism strategy must be focused upon dismantling the image that extremist groups project to the public and providing alternative options for those interested in joining a group to fulfill their psychological needs.