Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Terrorism motivation

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Figure 2. The flag of the terrorist organisation the Islamic State
Figure 1.Former leader of terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden

Terrorism motivation:
What motivates people to join terrorist organisations?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Since [when?] the threat of terrorism, proliferation[explain?] and presence of terrorist organisations have become more globally prevalent[factual?]. In recent[when?] times terrorism and terrorist organisations have been in the forefront of media and international relations, in turn making terrorism and terrorist organisations a known and visible threat for not just world leaders but for the general population as well. The aim of this chapter is to explore the phenomenon of terrorism and give insight into the motivations of why people join Islamic[why?] terrorist organisations and commit violent terrorist acts. This will be achieved by looking at various psychological theories that have specifically been developed regarding the motivations of joining terrorist organisations and committing violent terrorist acts. Exploring the possible psychological motivations of why people join terrorist organisations will help to educate the wider community on the psychology behind terrorism, hoping to reduce the stigma and prejudice that is often felt by nationalities and religious groups that can be wrongly associated with terrorism and terrorist organisations.

Terrorism[edit | edit source]

What is terrorism?[edit | edit source]

Terrorism is not [missing something?] new phenomenon; terrorist organisations and acts of terrorism date back to the 19th century (Silverman, 2002). Regardless of this, the question 'what is terrorism?' is one that is still yet to be answered. This is due to the fact that there is no agreement on a universal definition of terrorism,[grammar?] this is partly because not all terrorists, terrorist acts or organisations are the same and that the phenomenon of terrorism and all of its aspects are constantly evolving and changing, so instead of a universal definition there is more or less a collection of different definitions (Borum, 2004). Borum (2004) defines terrorism as violent acts aimed at civilian non-combatants to achieve an ideological, political or religious goal. Moghaddam (2005) and Silverman (2002) similarly define terrorism as violent acts conducted by state and non state funded organisations to instill fear, terror and intimidation into a population, to achieve political and socio-political goals. Wight (2009) defines terrorism as the use of illegitimate violence as political communication, targets of the violence are civilians although the message of the violence is aimed at people in government and positions of power. These are just some of the many definitions of of terrorism,[grammar?] as can be seen all of the definitions do have some communalities and for the purposes of this chapter terrorism will be defined as deliberate acts of terror and violence that insight fear and intimidation, aimed at civilians to promote a group's religious, ideological and political views and norms onto the wide international community.

Known Islamic terrorist organisations[edit | edit source]

There are a large number of different active terrorist organisations throughout the world although not all are recognised. The Australian government: Australian national security department have officially listed 19 known and active terrorist organisations they include:

These are just some of the known and legally recognized terrorist organisations that operate throughout the world others can be found here (Australian National Security, 2014).

figure 3.Islamic terrorists in Iraq

Terrorism in the 21st century[edit | edit source]

On september the 11th 2001 the terrorist group known as Al-Qaeda hijacked four airplanes and used them as vessels for suicide attacks against America. These attacks killed over 3,000 people most being civilians and emergency service personnel(BBC, 2014). These attacks shone a new light on to terrorism in the 21st century with American president George W. Bush declaring the War on Terror. Since these attacks there has been an increase in proliferation of, and global recognition of terrorists and there organisations (BBC, 2014). Some of the most notable terror attacks perpetrated by Islamic extremist terrorist include:

figure 4.Areas where Islamic terrorist attacks have occurred between September 11, 2001 and may 2013

Technology and terrorism[edit | edit source]

The past few decades has seen the world move further into the realms of technology and the internet. The development of technology and the internet has had a large impact on the phenomenon of terrorism in various ways:

Propaganda[edit | edit source]

Through use of the internet, terrorist organisations and their followers can openly and anonymously publish promotional propaganda of their terrorist groups online. This includes information regarding their ideals, aims and beliefs through creation of websites, posting videos, writing blogs, talking to people through chat rooms and through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. This information can also be found in online magazines published by terrorist organisations such as the online magazine inspire written by Al-Qaeda(United Nations, 2012).

Financial funding[edit | edit source]

With the use of the internet and various payment programs such as PayPal terrorist organisations are able to receive financial funding to keep their organisations going, this can either occur in two ways: By people willingly and knowingly providing organisations funding as well as unknowingly through websites set up by terrorists posing as charity websites that ask for donations with the money donated actually going directly to the terrorist organisations(United Nations, 2012).

Training and planning[edit | edit source]

The internet can also be used as a platform for training active and future terrorists, through the use of online recruiting, manuals for making improvised explosive devices and how to execute terrorist attacks. Terrorist attacks and activities are also often organized using the internet, as it is an anonymous un-policed platform this aids in the conduction of transnational terrorism, terrorism that can easily cross borders throughout the world(United Nations, 2012).

As can be seen the 21st centaury[spelling?] has seen a rise in terrorist organisations and activities which poses the question what motivate people to join terrorist organisations.

Motivations behind joining terrorist organizations and committing violent terrorist acts[edit | edit source]

When exploring the motivations of joining terrorist organizations and that of people committing violent terrorist acts, it is important to recognize that not all terrorist organizations are the same and therefore the motivations behind terrorist organizations differ depending on the nature of the organization.

Moghaddam's staircase to terrorism[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. The staircase to terrorism[factual?]

Psychologist Fathali Moghaddam developed the staircase to terrorism to outline the motives and process one goes through from being a civilian to becoming a terrorist and joining a terrorist organisation. There are six platforms in the staircase and on each platform individuals make decisions based on their perceived choices which result in either exiting the staircase from the platform they are on or progressing up the staircase (Moghaddam, 2005).

Ground floor[edit | edit source]

Most people occupy the ground floor,[grammar?] this floor is the foundation of the staircase and is concerned with perceived injustices and unfairness. People on the ground floor feel as if they have experienced some type of injustice. Common injustices include

  • economic - not feeling one has access to or opportunity to improve their economic standing
  • politics - not being able to vote or have a say in important decision making matters
  • secularisation - religion drifting away from culture and society
  • globalisation and westernisation - the affects that globalization has had on developing nations and the threat of westernisation overtaking traditional cultures and practices

(Moghaddam, 2005 & Borum, 2004)

Threats to personal and collective identity are also major components of the ground floor,[grammar?] this includes the aforementioned secularisation, globalisation and westernisation as they all have elements of undermining the traditional non-western cultures and way of living in turn threatening personal and collective identity (Moghaddam, 2005). This is demonstrated through what is known as the good copy problem, where people feel that all that they can strive for is to be a good copy of Western nation people as demonstrated through the media. The media portrayal of Western nations and affects of globalisation have caused feelings of deprivation in developing and non-Westernised nations (Moghaddam, 2005). People who search for a solution to these injustices move up to the first floor.

First floor[edit | edit source]

The people who occupy the first floor are searching for possible solutions to their perceived injustices. The solutions to injustices differ as they depend on the individual and the injustice they feel they are experiencing (Moghaddam, 2005). Example: if a person felt that they[grammar?] were experiencing political injustice then they could solve this by looking in to opportunities to be involved in decision making such as being able to freely vote. People who cannot find solutions or paths to solutions for their perceived injustice move to the second floor.

Second floor[edit | edit source]

The people who occupy the second floor couldn't find solutions to the perceived injustices they are experiencing and begin to project blame. This is when people experience the phenomenon of displaced anger, blaming organisations and/or people that[grammar?] are not responsible for the injustices they are encountering(Moghaddam, 2005). Displaced anger in terrorist organisations can be seen through their anti-Americanism, blaming America and Western nations for the injustices that they feel they are encountering(Borum,2004). People who feel that they need to act on these feelings of displaced anger progress to the third floor.

Third floor[edit | edit source]

The people who occupy the third floor connect with terrorist organisations and begin the process of morally engaging with the organisations ideals, values and beliefs. On the third floor people begin to build up their terrorist personas secretively alongside their everyday lives. People who successfully morally engage with terrorist organisations join them and then progress to the fourth floor (Moghaddam, 2005).

Fourth floor[edit | edit source]

The people who occupy the fourth floor have already joined a terrorist organisation and have little to no chance of leaving the organisation alive. From here people either become long term members of the organisation or foot soldiers who are used in attacks such as suicide bombings. On this floor people engage more with different members within the organisation developing tight social networks which strengthens the groups morals, ideals and values in turn strengthening their commitment to their cause. The strengthened commitment to the terrorist organisation results in progression to the fifth floor(Moghaddam, 2005).

Fifth floor[edit | edit source]

People who occupy the fifth floor are fully immersed within the terrorist organisation. On this floor us versus them thinking instills the differences between the terrorist organisation and their perceived enemy,[grammar?] this helps to dehumanise the enemy in the terrorists[grammar?] eyes. Therefore further motivating and facilitating the reasoning needed to commit violent terrorist acts that can kill and injure thousands[grammar?] (Moghaddam, 2005).

The staircase to terrorism gives a sound overview of the process that someone goes through from being a civilian to becoming a terrorist,[grammar?] this theory also outlines the many different motivations that people may have for becoming terrorists and joining terrorist organisations.

Borum: Stages of development of extremist ideas and justification of violence[edit | edit source]

Through exploring various different extremists terrorist organisations throughout the world, psychologist Randy Borum discovered four stages and several motivations behind why people join terrorist organisations (Borum, 2003).

Stage one: It's not right[edit | edit source]

The first stage is concerned with feelings resulting from hardship, sorrow or dissatisfaction commonly caused from issues regarding economic and social standing, political and legal concerns and religion(Borum,2003 & Borum,2004).

Stage two: It's not fair[edit | edit source]

In the second stage people who are already feeling dissatisfaction begin to feel as if they are being unjustly treated when they look at their source of dissatisfaction comparatively. This comparison can either be in regards to their own expectations of how their situation should be, or how the source of their dissatisfaction does or does not affect others. This outlines peoples discrepancy between expectations of their living conditions, including the things that they feel they should be entitled to, compared to their environments real value and capabilities. The discrepancy is then seen as a perceived injustice and the perceived injustices cause feelings of resentment(Borum, 2003 & Borum 2004).

Stage three: It's your fault[edit | edit source]

Stage three is when people find a source of blame for their feelings of dissatisfaction and unjust treatment. This is thought to occur due to what is known as the just world hypothesis, which states that people in general hold the belief that the world is a fair and just place and that they get what they deserve(Melvin & Miller, 1978). In turn if someone is feeling they are not getting what they deserve then someone or something must be to blame, most often than not the blame is then laid on to someone or something that has little or nothing to do with the experienced dissatisfaction and unjust treatment, which provides a target(Borum, 2003 & Borum, 2004).

Stage four: You're evil[edit | edit source]

Stage four is where barriers towards violence are broken down, so that the victims of unjust treatment and dissatisfaction can act aggressively towards the someone or something they are blaming for their experiences. This breaking down of barriers can occur through things such as us versus them thinking, dehumanizing of the enemy or creating justification for violent actions(Borum, 2004).

Horgan's three motivational factors[edit | edit source]

Psychologist John Horgan examined the research that has been conducted into the different aspects of terrorism and from this research he has identified three different motivations that if experienced by an individual, can open up the door to terrorism(Horgan, 2000).

Perceived injustice[edit | edit source]

Perceived injustice is a common motivation that has been identified by many researchers on the topic of terrorism. A primary reaction to the feeling of being unjustly treated is vengeance. In the case of terrorism if a person feels that they or someone close to them has been unjustly treated then the reaction to this is often vengeance, which translates in to violence (Borum,2004). The violence insighted by vengeance is directed towards people or organisation that are seen to be responsible for the perceived injustice. Horgan (2000) found that the perceived injustices for terrorist tend to be centralized around politics, religion and socio-economic standing.

Identity[edit | edit source]

In psychology, identity is seen as being a stable view of a persons morals, values, beliefs and attitudes. The formation of identity is typically developed during late adolescence to young adulthood (Peterson, 2010). In terms of terrorism, when a person is going through the process of identity formation they may find themselves being pulled towards the values and beliefs of terrorist organisations. In regards to terrorism, this can occur in various different ways: Identity foreclosure occurs when a person adopts the values and beliefs of a terrorist organisation without fist examining them to see if they truly resonate with them. This often occurs when younger people are having issues making sense of the world, they are attracted to the simplistic right and wrong views of terrorist organisations(Horgan, 2000 & Peterson, 2010). Group membership within identity refers to the way in which people can define themselves simply though the membership of a group merging personal and group membership, this is often a cause of people joining terrorist organisations (Horgan, 2000). Another way in which people can join terrorist organisations through identity is when people want to answer the questions who am I? and what is my purpose? these identity related questions can be simply answered if one joins a terrorist organization as then a person can define themselves as a terrorist and there purpose is to fulfill the objectives of the terrorist organisation (Borum, 2004).

Belonging[edit | edit source]

The last motivational factor behind joining terrorist organisation is belonging. Many people who join terrorist organisations have been found to already have their own feelings of alienation from either their families or the rest of the world. This then in turn results in the need to feel like they belong to something. Terrorist organisations give people the feeling of belonging and family that they may be searching for, which makes belonging a very strong motivational factor for joining, remaining in and acting on behalf of terrorist organisations(Borum, 2004 & Horgan,2000).

Self-radicalization and home grown terrorists[edit | edit source]

Radicalisation is a term that is used for when people dramatically change their own personal beliefs, attitudes and values; this is a way in which people can be motivated to become terrorists(Porter & Kebbell,2011). Radicalization is the main cause of the phenomena known as home grown terrorists (Wilner & Dubouloz, 2011). Home grown terrorists are people who have radicalised themselves with the ideology, values, attitudes and morals of terrorist organisations, and engage in the use violence and terror to insight their new ideals on to the wider community. There has been an increase in the prevalence of home grown terrorists throughout the world, including in Australia, Canada, Europe and north America. This has been seen by a number of planned home grown terrorist attacks that have been foiled by law enforcement and intelligence agencies(Wilner & Dubouloz, 2011).

Case study: Abdullah Elmir

Abdullah Elmir who now goes by the name of Abu Kahled, is a 17 year old Australian teen who has joined the terrorist organisation the Islamic state in Syria(Schliebs, 2014). The Australian teen left behind his life and his home in Sydney Australia in June 2014 to travel to Syria, after becoming radicalized through direct talks with members of the terrorist organisation and through use of the internet(Schliebs, 2014). Elmir has now become the new face of the organisation as seen in the last propaganda video released by the Islamic state, this video is of Elmir in front of Islamic state soldiers threatening western nations and their leaders, in particular Australia, America and Britain. The threats are in response to air strikes that have been conducted in Syria and the middle east and the formation of coalitions of nations to combat the terrorist organisation(Welch, 2014 & Griffiths 2014, & Schliebs, 2014). The case of Abdullah Elmir is perfect example of a home grown terrorist as he was just an Australian boy who went to school and had normal teenage life until he was self radicalized with aid of the internet to change his morals, values and beliefs to that of a terrorist organisation that he is now fighting for.

Radicalization of home grown terrorists is seen to be an extremely personal process that involves mental and emotional processes. Porter and Kebell (2011) conducted a study on 20 convicted Australian home grown terrorists,[grammar?] they found that the most common motivations for people that self radicalsze[spelling?] towards Islamic terrorism are:

  • The freedom of religion within western nations
  • Exposure to terrorist ideology and belief through technology
  • Something to turn to after a tragic life event
  • Search for identity
  • Search for belonging ,family and brotherhood

The motivations of home grown terrorists differ from that of other terrorist because the environment of the Western world differs form that of other parts of the world and, because terrorist organisations in the Western world are not as out there[explain?] and easily accessible. The most common way in which people self radicalize is through use of technology and the internet[factual?]. The internet has opened up a new world for terrorists activities, enabling people to easily and anonymously access material published by terrorist organisations, including their ideals, values, morals, religious belief and martyr videos(United Nations, 2012). All of the above[explain?] can play a significant role in the motivation of people self radicalizing.

Stigma[edit | edit source]

Islam is the second largest religion throughout the world. Since the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the numerous other terrorist attacks that have affected the world, there has been a dramatic increase in stigma and prejudiced towards the people of Islam[factual?]. Just because all Islamic terrorists follow some form of Islam, it does not mean that all Islamic people are terrorists, although this is the view many people are taking (Khan, 2014). Khan (2014) conducted a study looking at stigma and prejudice towards Muslims in America. It was found that, in a lot of cases, Muslim people changed their daily routines and tried to conceal and dis-identify with their religion while in public due to fear of violence, intimidation and being ridiculed by non-Muslim people. It has been found that this awareness of how others are negatively viewing Muslim people as a whole can have serious psychological affects for the Muslim people[factual?].

Quiz[edit | edit source]


1 what are Horgans three categories?

Sense of self, environment, family belief
Perceived injustice, identity, belonging
Upbringing, education, race

2 What is stage three of Borums stages of development of extremist ideas and justification of violence?

It's not fair
You're evil
It's not right
It's your fault

3 How many floors are there in the staircase to terrorism?


4 Abdullah Emir is a good example of


5 Throughout the theories a common motivation for joining terrorist organisations is

Global positioning
Perceived injustice

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This chapter examined various theories and research that has been conducted into why people join terrorist organisations. There are commonalties throughout the research and theories regarding motivations for joining terrorist organisations including:

  • Perceived injustice
  • Identity, sense of belonging
  • Displacement of anger and blame

The information provided in this chapter aims to help further educate people using motivation psychology on why people join terrorist organisations in the hopes that it will aid in reducing the levels of stigma and prejudice that surrounds and affects the people of Islam, who are often wrongly associated with terrorist organisations due to their race and religion.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Australian national security.(2014).listed terrorist organisations. retrieved from

BBC.(2014). The 9/11 terrorist attacks.BBC History, retrieved from

Borum, R.(2004).Psychology of terrorism. Tampa: University of south Florida.

Borum, R.(2003).understanding the terrorist mindset. FBI Law Enforcement bulletin,72(7), 7-10. retrieved from ebscohost academic search complete.

Griffiths, E.(2014). Islamic State: Video showing 17yr old Australian boy chilling and horrible, MP says.ABC news online, retrieved from

Horgan, J.(2008).from profiles to pathways and rots to routes: perspectives from psychology on radicalism into terrorism. American academy of politics and social science,618(80),doi:10.1177/0002716208317539

Kahn, S. R. (2014).post 9/11:the impact of stigma for Muslim Americans.journal of peace psychology, 1-4. doi:10.1037/pac0000063

Lister, T.(2014, June). ISIS: the first terror group to build an Islamic state?. Cable News Networks. retrieved from

Melvin. L., & Miller. T. D. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: looking back and ahead. psychological bulletin, 85(5), 1030-1051. doi:1037/0033-2909.85.5.1030

Moghaddam, F. (2005). the staircase to terrorism a psychological exploration. American psychologist, 60(2), 161-169. doi:10.1037/10003-066x.60.2.161

Peterson, C. (2010). Looking forward through the lifespan: developmental psychology. Australia: Pearsons Australia.

Porter, L., & Kebbell, M.(2011) radicalization in Australia: examining Australia's convicted terrorists, psychiatry, psychology and law, 18(2), 212-231. retrieved from academic search complete ebscohost.

Schliebs, M. (2014) Australian teen Abdullah Elmir is new public face of Islamic State.The Australian online, retrieved from

Silverman, A.(2002). just war, jihad and terrorism: a comparison of western and Islamic norms for the use of political violence.journal of church and state, 44, 73-92, retrieved from academic search complete ebscohost

United Nations. (2012). Use of internet for terrorist purposes. United Nations New York, retrieved from

welch, D. (2014) Australian teenager Abdullah Elmir appears in Islamic State video threatening PM Tony Abbott. ABC news online, retrieved from

Whight, C. (2009). theorizing terrorism the state structure and history. international relations, 99(23), 99-106. doi:10.1177/0047117808100615.

Wilner, S. A., & Dubouioz, J. C.(2011). transformative radicalization: Appling learning theory to Islamist radicalization. studies in conflict and terrorism, 34, 418-438. doi:10.1080/1057610x.2011.561472

External links[edit | edit source]