by Hala Mounib


One of the downsides of globalization is the fact that it brought about the emergence of malignant non-state actors; countries that were once accustomed to the conventional threat from other states now had to face the menace of transnational organized criminal groups, and particularly terrorist entities.

The modus operandi of these entities isn’t often understood as their members usually lack any mental illness or psychopathology. Several factors additionally contribute to the limitations of research conducted into this area due to the clandestine nature of these groups and the obvious difficulty of being granted interviews with them. Nevertheless, this paper attempts to shed light on the reasoning and psyche of those involved in terrorist activities through the available literature.

Lack of a Collective Definition for Terrorism

There exists no universally accepted definition for what constitutes “terrorism” as the concept itself defies simple legal descriptions (James C. Simeon, 2019). Different states have therefore devised their own definition variations, resulting in very vague and independent explanations that are subject to modification over time with the emergence of newer methods of violence. The absence of a collective definition hampers the process of addressing terrorism on the transnational level, as collective efforts cannot be established between governments that have polar definitions of terrorism.

However, the definitions of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) will be used in this research as it is usually adopted as a model in addressing terrorism. The CFR defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).

Analysis of Terrorist Behavior

Binary thinking, or dichotomous thinking, is a pattern of perception that has ensured our survival for millions of years. Defined as the safe realm of “good vs bad” or “us vs them”, this instinct alienates most from the fact that everyone is competitive, territorial, and violent. Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson describe modern human beings as “the dazed survivors of a continuous, 5-million-year habit of lethal aggression” (Gavin De Becker, 2010).

Research into the neural pathways finds that any stimulus perceived by the central nervous system is simultaneously redirected into two routes; the first being to the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for our logical and cognitive reasoning, and the second being to the amygdala, which is responsible for our emotional reactions. While both are activated around the same time, the process that goes through the amygdala ends faster, as its core function is to ascribe emotions to an object before we even finish cognitively processing what that object is (Jack D. Wood and Gianpiero Petriglieri, 2005).

This “quick and dirty” process retains its survival value from its speed as it is an instinct that we had to rely on for millions of years. However, it inadvertently results in our binary thinking and biasness (Wood and Petriglieri, 2005).

In the context of understanding terrorists’ rationale, the goal then becomes to familiarize ourselves with the mentality that terrorists possess through the elimination of said biasness; to empathize with the violent and locate their humanity, as it’s the only way to understand (and subsequently prevent) their actions. Finding in ourselves the capability of becoming brutal and violent helps us in the process of identifying who is most at risk of affiliating with such entities.


The popularized and mainstream image of the terrorist as an individual motivated exclusively by deep political or religious commitment obscures a more complex reality, which is that terrorists can be motivated by power, comradeship, social status, and material benefits as well (Martha Crenshaw, 1987).

According to Patrick Tucker (2015), strategic communications advisory firm Quantum Communications developed a graph based on interviews conducted with 49 terrorists operating in Syria and Iraq where their reasons for joining were quantified in accordance to the frequency of their reference during the interviews.


Quantum Communications additionally grouped Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists into nine groups based on the responses they gathered.

  1. Justice Seekers: Those who react to what they perceive as unfair and unjust. They eventually halt their operations and secede from the terrorist groups once the perceived injustice ceases.
  2. Death Seekers: Those who are burdened by significant trauma which causes them to exhibit suicidal tendencies. Their logical fallacy lies in their belief that dying as martyrs serves as a much more honourable reputation than that of a person who committed suicide.
  3. Status Seekers: Those determined on improving their social standing and recognition, mainly after material gains.
  4. Revenge Seekers: Those who believe they are oppressed by other groups and seek revenge as a result.
  5. Identity Seekers: Those who feel alienated from society and seek belonging with other groups.
  6. Redemption Seekers: Those who believe that joining ISIS and participating in their missions will atone for their previous misdeeds and sins, eventually redeeming them from an afterlife punishment.
  7. Responsibility Seekers: Those who seek financial and monetary support for their families through joining ISIS.
  8. Thrill Seekers: Those who join ISIS for the excitement factor.
  9. Ideology Seekers: Those who join out of their desire to enforce their religious beliefs onto others.

The example of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is used in this discussion due to the widely available literature. In the execution videos released by ISIS, the utilization of Hollywood-grade cinematic equipment and military-tier arms implies the existence of a steady revenue and funding which aims to attract those who seek material benefits.

This determines that their operations as a whole are the not the result of sincere political and religious drives alone as it would be paradoxical for a group advocating religious objectives to have members who are driven by financial gain or thrill.


We tend to see the actions and behaviours of others as more planned and coordinated than our own. (John Rourke, 2007). This is not to say that organized criminal groups aren’t in fact organized. However, the perception that we have tends to be flawed due to the asymmetricity of information that we possess about these entities because of their clandestine and secretive nature. This means that it is only through coming to a mutual definition of terrorism across states that this challenge can be addressed and effectively tackled.


Featured Image Credit: Reuters, 2014

Hala Mounib is a Policy Research Fellow at the American Freedom Institute

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