Psychological and Behavioral Factors of Individual Terrorists

Individual terrorism is a combination of psychological and behavioral factors that lead to the gradual radicalization of a person. Various models describe the stages of this process, but they all converge on describing the same basic principles. In particular, social, political, and personal events form a response to them, which does not correspond to legal means. Thus, individual terrorism is based on the desire of a person to eliminate the feeling of injustice through opposing oneself to society or its elements.

There are various models that describe the psychological and behavioral aspects of human radicalization. De Coensel (2018), in research, examines models by Borum, Wiktorowicz, Moghaddam, Silber, and Sagemen to identify key factors highlighted in those approaches. Thus, many researchers distinguish a period of pre-radicalization, which precedes the immediate formation of a terrorist. When considering this stage, special attention is paid to the assessment of risk factors for radicalization. Sarma (2017) notes that this “is a complex process involving multiple interacting risk factors, and can vary widely across individuals and contexts” (p. 279). Existing models agree that radicalization occurs in a social environment and is determined by external factors.

From a psychological point of view, an important role is played by the identity process, which can become the basis for the development of terrorist beliefs. In particular, various life struggles or adapting to a new culture are “often viewed as potentially leaving individuals more open to adopting new ideas and behaviors, including those associated with terrorism” (Smith, 2018, p. 14). These factors lead to an identity conflict that can result in a propensity for terrorism. Horgan (2017) notes that many researchers underline that “situational, and not personal, qualities determine terrorist behavior” (p. 202). In this case, individual terrorism is a combination of psychological and behavioral factors that are a response to events of a social and political nature.

In this process, grievances occupy a special place, which is emphasized by most of the models. Various conditions at a personal or political level affect the transformation of a person’s worldview, which leads to the need to search for meaning or an answer to existing injustices (De Coensel, 2018).

Any social event that leads a person to doubt the existing order and its legitimacy can become such grievance. These conditions, in particular, have an impact on individual terrorism since socially excluded people more often feel a sense of injustice and alienation from society (Smith, 2018). Monahan (2017) emphasizes that grievance can be a highly personal event, such as the loss of a loved one, and lead to subsequent anger and radicalization. However, more often, various political or conflict events make individual terrorists feel a “deprivation of things they believe they are entitled to” (Perry et al., 2018, p. 20). The feeling of injustice created by different personal and social conditions forces a person to seek possible solutions.

A combination of different political, social, or personal events can trigger terrorist actions. They can serve as an instant or delayed catalyst that propels a person to commit terrorist acts as a way to find a solution (Smith, 2018). An important factor in this process is the lack of sufficient legitimate funds for dealing with existing grievances (De Coensel, 2018). This strategy is most typical for individual terrorists since people often join groups where they can cope with their experiences. However, when a person cannot find sufficiently effective legitimate means or does not communicate with like-minded people, the process of individual radicalization continues.

When a person begins to take an interest in terrorist activities, online or offline contacts with terrorist groups or networks play a significant role in the radicalization process. In particular, the perception of the ideological context ensures the formation of adherence to a terrorist cause. Communication allows the individual terrorist to experience a sense of group commitment that he could not have experienced in a larger social context (Smith, 2018).

This process also allows the terrorist to identify the antagonist who in the future will be blamed for all traumatic events and will become the target of terrorist activities. Thus, an individual terrorist must oppose oneself to the object of the hatred, which is based on isolation from society and the social context. Ultimately, the completion of the formation of the target concept leads the individual terrorist to a readiness to commit an act of violence. Although not all finally radicalized individuals eventually commit terrorist acts, only a small part of them are engaged in actual violent terrorism.

The psychological and behavioral aspects of individual terrorism are closely related to the process of radicalization. In most cases, a person comes to terrorist activity as a result of experiencing a sense of injustice in connection with various social, political, or individual events. Such people gradually go through the stages of radicalization, as a result of which they identify the target to which their anger is directed. Individual terrorists oppose themselves to society or its individual members since, most often, they are excluded or alienated from the normal social context. As a result, such people feel the need to communicate with like-minded people who often become representatives of terrorist organizations. Thus, in individual terrorism, a person’s perception of various events and their response to them play an important role. In contrast to group terrorism, the individual one is aimed at satisfying a personal sense of justice and the realization of moral ideals.


De Coensel, S. (2018). Processual models of radicalization into terrorism: A best fit framework synthesis. Journal for Deradicalization, 17, 89-127.

Horgan, J. G. (2017). Psychology of terrorism: Introduction to the special issue. American Psychologist, 72(3), 199-204. Web.

Monahan, J. (2017). The individual risk assessment of terrorism: Recent developments. In G. LaFree & J. D. Freilich (Eds.), The handbook of the criminology of terrorism (pp. 520-534). John Wiley & Sons. Web.

Perry, S., Hasisi, B., & Perry, G. (2018). Who is the lone terrorist? A study of Vehicle-Borne attackers in Israel and the West Bank. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 41(11), 1-35. Web.

Sarma, K. M. (2017). Risk assessment and the prevention of radicalization from nonviolence into terrorism. American Psychologist, 72(3), 278-288. Web.

Smith, A. G. (2018). How radicalization to terrorism occurs in the United States: What research sponsored by the National Institute of Justice tells us. National Institute of Justice. Web.

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PsychologyWriting. "Psychological and Behavioral Factors of Individual Terrorists." January 25, 2023.