What Do Terrorists Think? An Interview With Former CIA Psychologist

By James Turitto
April 19, 2010

This week International Affairs Review Editor-in-Chief James Turitto sat down with Dr. Jerrold Post, current professor of political psychology at George Washington University, to discuss the psychology of terrorism. Prior to Dr. Post’s current position as professor, he headed the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior at the Central Intelligence Agency. In this position, he provided assessments of foreign leadership and decision making for the President and other senior officials to prepare for summit meetings and other high level negotiations and for use in crisis situations. With the rise of international terrorism, he began to apply this methodology to terrorist groups. Dr. Post is most recently the author of The Mind of a Terrorist: The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to al-Qaeda, published in 2007.

IAR: What is the most common misperception people have about the mind of terrorists, more specifically Islamic extremism, the kind of terrorism we see today?

DR. POST: In terms of terrorists in general, one of the most common misconceptions is that they’re mentally disturbed. I started my research on terrorist psychology during my CIA career in the late 1970s – around 1979. This was when the epidemic of international terrorism started affecting the United States. Before then it had been for the most part internal. When it started affecting us, I was asked, “Can you use the same at-a-distance psychological assessment techniques to look at terrorist psychology that you’ve used to assess world leaders?” The reason I was asked is because I’m a psychiatrist by training and it was widely assumed these were crazed fanatics.

Well, crazed fanatics they are not. In fact, terrorist groups screen out emotionally disturbed individuals. You wouldn’t want to have an emotionally disturbed individual in the delta forces or the British SAS commandos – they’d be a security risk. Terrorists don’t want to have an emotionally unstable person in their operational squad. I was an expert witness for the Department of Justice in a trial here in Washington of an Abu Nidal terrorist who at one time had suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from being in a building that exploded shortly after he left. He reported to me that before he could get back to duty, he had to have an examination by a contract psychiatrist.

IAR: What drives a person to join a terrorist organization?

DR. POST: In my most recent book, The Mind of a Terrorist, where I focus on the psychology of terrorisms (plural) – more than one terrorism –one of the points I emphasize is that it isn’t individual psychology, it isn’t psychopathology; rather, it’s group and organizational psychology, with a particular emphasis on collective identity. It’s often hard for us in the West to understand how a person could be sane and give his life for a cause. But, in fact, in the Middle East in particular, the issue of collective identity and the issue of martyrdom is a very strong and important part of their social psychology.

We’re talking about the process of radicalization – a process that begins very early. I have pictures in my collection of a two and a half year old girl with a hand grenade, a ten-month old infant with a toy suicide bomb belt on. They are being led into this pathway quite early in life so by the time they are fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old they have already been consistently exposed in the schools, in the mosques, to language rewarding martyrdom. In the curriculum of the schools from elementary school on, there are specific items emphasizing the importance of martyrdom, and the collective will of the people. So hatred of the enemy and martyrdom are “bred in thier bone.” This is a very difficult counter-terrorism challenge.

IAR: Recently there has been a surge of “lone wolf” attacks in the West carried out by people who may not have any direct involvement inside a group and appear to be self-radicalized. How do you explain this trend? Do you see it as a growing trend?

DR. POST: I do see this as a growing trend, but I think it’s important to emphasize that these are lonely, isolated, alienated individuals who find, through the internet, a sense of community – a community of hatred. There’s a virtual community of hatred and they have been socialized quite adroitly on the Internet. It’s a very careful, thoughtful strategy that they have used.

Let me read the al Qaeda Internet strategy. I find it quite fascinating the way this organization – which is strongly against globalization and modernization – use the most modern techniques. This was posted on an al Qaeda website.

“Due to the advances of modern technology, it is easy to spread news, information, articles, and other information over the Internet. We strongly urge Muslim Internet professionals to spread and disseminate news and information about the jihad through email lists, discussion groups, and their own websites. If you fail to do this and our site closes down before you have done this, you may be held to account before Allah on the Day of Judgment. This way, even if our sites are closed down, the material will live on with the grace of Allah.”

This is a very thoughtful strategy and really a daunting problem. Gabi Weimman, who wrote a book while serving as a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace called Terror on the Internet, estimated there’s in the neighborhood of 4,800 radical Islamist websites. How to counter these messages is really a problem because for the U.S. To put up a countering message, it’s just labeled as U.S. propaganda.

So in answering your question about the lone wolf, what the Internet provides is a sense of belonging. They’re lonely and isolated in their actual communities. Like Major Hasan in Ft. Hood or Abdul Mutallab, the underwear bomber – both are lonely individuals seeking to find friends and a sense of belonging. They found a sense of belonging and became involved in the Internet discussions with the Sheikh Awlaki, called the “bin Laden of the Internet.” There’s a very thoughtful strategy being used, and recruitment through the Internet is an increasing trend.

IAR: How about suicide terrorism? What can explain this phenomenon?

One of the questions that we have been grappling with is what moves a person from a much broader community to become a terrorist and carry out a violent act. There is some data to suggest that it is very hard to predict. It often has to do with some personal crisis in the individual’s life or has to do with the death of a brother or friend that throws a person over the edge.

Suicide terrorism is one area that has led to the misconception that psychiatrists have been trying to correct. Suicide is considered a byproduct of serious depression in emotional disturbed individuals. In an interview study I led with 35 incarcerated Middle Eastern terrorists, we had in our interview subject group four suicide-bomb commanders. I recall vividly one of them getting extremely angry when we asked him, “You say that what you’re doing is in the service of Allah, but the Koran proscribes – condemns – suicide. How then can you justify suicide terrorism?” He became very angry, and he said, “This is not suicide. Suicide is weak, it is selfish, and it is mentally disturbed. This is Istishhad,” which means martyrdom or self-sacrifice in the service of Allah. So one of the things that has been done, within this culture, is to reframe something that is condemned by the Koran, suicide, and make it into a virtue: martyrdom.

IAR: Robert Pape from the University of Chicago, who wrote Dying to Win, which documents cases of suicide bombing dating back to the 1980s, comes to the conclusion that suicide terrorism has its own particular psychological logic. Do you agree with Pape? What goes on inside the minds of suicide bombers?

DR. POST: Pape, who represents one of the so-called “new terrorist scholars,” really does not address the psychology of suicide terrorism. He sees it rather as a product of a strategic choice. I believe quite strongly that if you want to understand what makes a terrorist tick, ask him or her. This is not to quarrel with what Pape has discussed in terms of strategic choice, it is to augment that in a sense. There is an interesting scholar now at the Navy Post-graduate school, Mohammed Hafez, who wrote a book Manufacturing Human Bombs. He discussed three conditions for a campaign of suicide terrorism: first, a culture of martyrdom, second, a strategic decision to use this tactic, and third, a willing supply of volunteers. Both the first and the third need to be considered in looking at that strategic choice by an organization.

The Israelis did a study of suicide post-mortems- that is, reconstructing the life of suicide bombers after the act. They reconstructed the lives of 93 individuals through interviews with family and friends. The portrait was very interesting: 17-22 years old, young males, unemployed, uneducated, unmarried. They were really unformed youth. When they went into that safehouse, the suicide bomb commanders would basically say to them, “you have bleak prospects ahead of you.” The unemployment rates in the camps were running 40-70%. “Without an education, your chances of getting a job are bleak and you’ll not be able to have a wife. You can do something significant with your life. You can be enrolled into the hall of martyrs. Your parents will be proud of you. Your parents will have a sense of prestige in the community.” But they really almost self-recruited because it’s deep within the culture.

These individuals stand in sharp contrast to the 9-11 suicidal skyjackers of al Qa’ida. They were older, 28-33 years old, economically comfortable, from upper-middle class families in Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Mohammed Atta, the ringleader, and two of his colleagues were in graduate school at the technological institute in Hamburg. In contrast to the Palestinian suicide bombers, who were kept under lock and key once they came in to the safehouse, including someone sleeping in the same room the night before they went off to carry out their mission to ensure they didn’t backslide. They were then physically escorted to the pizza parlor or disco. These individuals [who carried out 9-11] were on their own in the West for upwards of 7 years, blending into Western society while carrying within them their mission to give their lives while taking thousands of casualties.

I see them as fully formed adults in contrast to the unformed youth of the Palestinian terrorists. They were fully formed adults who had subordinated their individuality to the group and came under the psychologically powerful influence of the destructive, charismatic leader, Osama bin-Laden. In some ways, you can almost think of it as cult-like psychology, except they weren’t physically within this closed cult. They were out on their own, carrying within them their commitment to the cause he had articulated-what he said was moral was moral, what he said was immoral was immoral, and they were doing this for the sake of the cause of radical Islam.

IAR: Is there a major difference in the thought process of a religious extremist and a social revolutionary or a national separatist?

DR. POST: One of the important things about the psychology of terrorism is the different pathways to terrorism. National separatists – IRA, Fatah, ETA, etc. – carry on their family traditions. Their families are disloyal to the regime, and were damaged by the regime. That’s the polar opposite of the social revolutionary terrorists who are disloyal to their family that is loyal to the regime. These are the dynamics of Osama bin Laden! When he criticized the Saudi royal family for hosting the American military in the land of Mecca and Medina, he was also criticizing the same royal family that had enriched his family. And for his troubles he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship and his family turned their back on him. It’s important to see Osama bin Laden as having the dynamics not just of an Islamic fundamentalist but also of a social revolutionary.

It is also important to distinguish between the national separatist terrorists, who are often known within their communities and have higher status within their communities because they were a member of a terrorist group, be it in the IRA in Northern Ireland or Fatah. The group, openly identified within society, represents the peak of the sentiments within society, and these are people willing to give their lives for that cause. They are given higher prestige, whereas before they were living a nothing life.

IAR: One analogy I have heard you use is that kids growing up in America have a vision of being a professional sports athlete, whereas kids growing up in Palestine have a vision of being the top leader in Hamas.

DR. POST: Right. A good friend and colleague is Ariel Merari, a leading Israeli counter-terrorism specialist and former advisor for counter-terrorism to the Israeli prime minister, who teaches at Harvard Law School every fall. I was talking to him one day four or five years ago as I was visiting Harvard and he said to me “You know Jerry, I’m convinced that teenagers are teenagers the world around.” I said, “How do you mean?” And he responded, “Well, you go into a pizza parlor here and the kids are talking about their favorite team, the New England Patriots. Their hero is Tom Brady, the quarterback. And some day when they grow up, they want to be an NFL player like their heroes. Well, it’s the same thing in the refugee camps. Only their favorite team is Hamas. Their heroes are the Shaheeds, the martyrs.” They actually have Shaheed trading cards, just as we do here for baseball. “And when they grow up – which they won’t – they want to be a Shaheed, like their heroes.” I found that compellingly normalizing and rather chilling.

IAR: Based on your research, have you found any fundamental differences between the minds of the leaders of terrorist organizations and their foot soldiers?

DR. POST: There is anecdotal evidence that certain personality types may be prevalent among the leadership. Some leaders display narcissism in that they enjoy the prominence of being group leader. If true, the implications of this might be that new members may idolize the leader from a distance. However, they can become disillusioned when they are up close to the leader. This has further implications for counter-terrorist strategy in terms of breaking the link between the organization’s leadership and its followers.

One of the ways one tends to get promoted is to be bolder, more courageous, and more violent. It is interesting because these groups tend to be against authority, yet their internal structures can be very conformist. Most are really quite conformist in their decision-making and it is rare that the foot soldiers openly question leaders’ decisions.

A colleague of mine was in the Polish underground during WWII. You can make a case that people that joined were action-oriented, but certainly not psychologically ill, and were courageous. But it was the group dynamics and how the leadership struggle played out which strongly influenced what happened in this particular episode. One would think in this scenario it would be the external security situation that would guide how the group operated. In reality, it was the internal group dynamics that heavily dictated the group strategy.

This Polish resistance cell had planned to bomb a bridge that was a crucial transit point for the Nazi occupiers. Before the operation, the leader of the group said, “We have reason to believe there is a traitor in the group. Until we find out who that is we had better stand down or else we will get wiped out.” At that point, his rival for leadership said, “What are we, freedom fighters or cowards?” At that point, the leader of the resistance cell realized that if he did not carry out an action, the group would implode and he would be deprived of his coveted leadership role. So they carried out the action. Indeed, there had been a traitor. The group was wiped out almost to a man, but they maintained their “us versus them” psychology and he continued as leader of the group.

IAR: How do you change the mind of a terrorist?

DR. POST: You must first conceive of radicalization as a lengthy process. One does not become a terrorist overnight. I believe a counter-terrorist strategy that we have insufficiently used should actually be the prime strategy for countering terrorism. My premise is that group psychology is responsible for movement into these groups and that terrorism is a vicious cycle of psychological warfare waged through the media. You don’t counter psychological warfare with smart bombs and missiles. You counter it through psychological warfare. I would suggest a four-part program based around group psychology.

1. Inhibit potential terrorists from joining in the first place
2. Produce dissension in the group
3. Facilitate exiting the group
4. Reduce support for the group and de-legitimate its leaders

First, how do we inhibit people from joining? In many societies there is no way to disagree with the government. We must help facilitate making societies more open so that we don’t drive these individuals underground. We should support programs and initiatives that could help a modernizing president of an Arab country so that bright individuals can succeed in that society, rather than strike out in despair by joining a terrorist group. A friend who was Under Secretary of Labor for International Affairs in the first Bush White House supported a $25 million grant to Pakistan to develop a network of moderate curriculum secular schools. It costs $80 a year to educate a child in Pakistan. While the purpose of the grant was to inhibit child labor, each child educated in one of these moderate curriculum schools was someone not educated in a radical madrassa. That’s counter-terrorism.

Second, how do we produce dissension? Terrorist organizations are hot-houses of internal competition. For a long time it was difficult for moderate Muslims to raise their voices against the extremists. Now people like Dr. Fadl, an early supporter of al Qa’ida, are starting to openly decry the indiscriminate violence. We must exploit and magnify these efforts. The more energy they spend fighting among themselves, the less they have to spend attacking us.

Third, facilitate exit from the group. I’m thinking of amnesty programs instituted in the past by many countries. In return for cooperation with the government, terrorists were given amnesty and sometimes, financial bonus and resettlement in another country.

Fourth, reduce support for the group and de-legitimate its leaders. Right now, you have 10 terrorists waiting in line for every leader killed or captured. We should be working to de-legitimize these groups within their societies. I was an expert in 2001 at the al Qaeda trials concerned with the bombing of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. One of the items introduced by the Department of Justice was the al Qaeda training manual. I went over that with experts in Islamic discourse. One interesting aspect of that manual is that every violent action is justified by citations from the Koran. But these justifications are ripped from the Koran and turned upside down. The Koran is a humane and compassionate book and is opposed to the sacrifice of innocent life. We need to make clear the fundamentalists’ perversion of Islam.

So these four strategies deserve much more attention. We need to be devoting much more attention to psychological/information operations.

IAR: How is the US faring with its current counter-terrorism policy? Do you see any other countries adopting any of your strategies?

DR. POST: There have been encouraging developments from a defense budget standpoint to increase funding for psychological operations. You spoke of the “lone wolf” earlier. It’s troubling how many people are being recruited from the Muslim diasporas in France, Great Britain, Belgium, and the Netherlands who do not feel accepted in these societies and have been “secondarily radicalized.” We are not immune to this phenomenon, although Muslim immigrants into the US have done better in terms of economic immigration and education than in Europe.

I had the chance to meet with the head of the Islamic Contact Group within the UK’s national police. They are trying to reach out to Muslim community leaders to make them feel more accepted in society, while still maintaining their cultural integrity. In France, for example, where they banned the Islamic headscarves in school, they are saying, “you can be French or Muslim, but not both.” This is designed to alienate Muslim émigrés. There have been a number of recent cases of US youth being inspired to become jihadists who were recruited on the Internet. As I noted earlier, Major Hasan apparently was in Internet contact with Sheik Awlaki. This is a very dangerous development, which we must work vigorously to counter.


So does that mean that there aren’t any mentally disturbed terrorists? Because according to the CIA mentally or emotionally disturbed people will not be accepted. But they tell us that according to the lone wolf pack, lonely and emotionally disturbed people go out and execute terrorism, isn’t that a contradiction?
In addition, does that mean that the CIA agrees with the terrorist explanation? According to that, it isn’t suicide, but so called ‘Istishhad’?
I think it is suicide.

It’s quite a problem with the process of radicalization. When being affected already as a baby, it does seem almost impossible to prevent martyrdom from happening. And then, trying to do anything about this sort of radicalization – religious/cultural conflicts would be unavoidable. This makes it even harder to do anything about it.

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