Terrorist Beliefs and Terrorist Lives

by Ted Goertzel

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pp 97-111 in Chris Stout, ed., The Psychology of Terrorism, Volume One, Westport, Connecticut:  Praeger, 2002.

Are terrorists rational actors who find themselves forced to use desperate measures in response to extreme provocations? Or are they driven by demons of the mind? Are the evils they so righteously denounce carefully selected to externalize feelings buried within their own psyches? Experts disagree. Psychologist Martha Crenshaw (1998: 9) defends the rationality of the terrorist. She argues that terrorism "displays a collective rationality" and that "efficacy is the primary standard by which terrorism is compared with other methods of achieving political goals." In reply, psychiatrist Jerrold Post (1998: 25) insists that "political terrorists are driven to commit acts of violence as a consequence of psychological forces, and that their special psycho-logic is constructed to rationalize acts they are psychologically compelled to commit."

Of course, Crenshaw and Post were offering opposite positions as a means of sharpening the argument. Everyone's behavior is combination of rational and emotional responses to a set of social, economic and political circumstances. There is no question that terrorists engage in a good deal of rational thinking. They vary their strategies and tactics to fit changing political circumstances and historical conjunctures. They respond to social trends, becoming more active at some points in time and less active in others. But terrorists also choose to run risks of death, torture or imprisonment. Sometimes they deliberately sacrifice their lives.

These sacrifices are not rational if we think of individuals as purely selfish beings. For the person who is motivated entirely by self interest, it is more rational to be a "free rider," who benefits when someone else makes sacrifices for the common good. But people are not always selfish. We praise soldiers, firemen and policemen when they risk their lives for the good of society, and give them the benefit of the doubt with regard to any hidden psychological motives they may have. Terrorists and revolutionaries, also, are praised as heros by the people whose causes they champion.

Terrorists and revolutionaries must make sociological and political judgments, as well as personal ones. It is one thing to risk or sacrifice one's life for a worthy cause, another to sacrifice it for a cause that history will view as misguided or counterproductive. The causes terrorists and revolutionaries espouse often fail and cause unnecessary human suffering in the process. The eagerness with which terrorists risk injury, death or imprisonment in the pursuit of doubtful causes suggests unconscious motives such as self-hatred or a need to be punished. But it is much easier to make these judgments with hindsight than it is in the heat of a conflict.

Terrorists think rationally, but they think within the limits of belief systems that may be irrational. Unlike the delusions of psychotics, these belief systems are social constructs shared by large numbers of people. Terrorist belief systems are rigid and simplistic and they are defended with great emotional intensity. Anyone who wishes to remain within a terrorist group must limit his thinking to the parameters of the group's belief system. As Post (2001) observes:

Considering the diversity of causes to which terrorists are committed, the uniformity of their rhetoric is striking. Polarizing and absolutist, it is a rhetoric of "us versus them.' It is rhetoric without nuance, without shades of gray. "They," the establishment, are the source of all evil in vivid contrast to "us," the freedom fighters, consumed by righteous rage. And, if "they" are the source of our problems, it follows ineluctably in the special psycho-logic of the terrorist, that "they" must be destroyed. It is the only just and moral thing to do. Once one accepts the basic premises, the logical reasoning is flawless.

There have been a great many psychological studies of people who adhere to extremist belief systems. Unfortunately, most of these studies have relied on superficial questionnaire instruments, such as scales of the "authoritarian personality," that have been shown to have serious methodological flaws (Martin, 2001). More insight has come from studies that use projective psychological tests and qualitative interviews. Rothman and Lichter (1982) used projective tests to probe the unconscious minds of New Left activists in the United States. They found them to be characterized by weakened self-esteem, injured narcissism and paranoid tendencies. The tests showed that many activists were motivated by a preoccupation with power which attracted them to ideologies that answered their doubts and offered clear and unambiguous answers to their problems. Similar traits were found in studies of West German terrorists (Kellen, 1998), Italian radical youth (Ferracuti and Bruno, 1981), and members of the Shining Path movement in Peru (Cáceres, 1989). The findings of these and similar studies are summarized well by Post (2001):

terrorists as individuals for the most part do not demonstrate serious psychopathology. While there is no one personality type, it is the impression that there is a disproportionate representation among terrorists of individuals who are aggressive and action-oriented and place greater than normal reliance on the psychological mechanisms of externalization and splitting. There is suggestive data indicating that many terrorists come from the margins of society and have not been particularly successful in their personal, educational and vocational lives. The combination of the personal feelings of inadequacy with the reliance on the psychological mechanisms of externalization and splitting make especially attractive a group of like-minded individuals whose credo is "Its not us; its them. They are the cause of our problems."

People who join terrorist movements make a strong commitment to a rigid belief system, but they may adopt the same beliefs for different reasons. Some are filled with so much anger and frustration that they jump on the first bandwagon that comes along. Others spend years in study and analysis before selecting a certain set of beliefs to make sense of a complex world. Still adopt terrorist beliefs as powerful ideological tools for organizing and manipulating other people. Perhaps most have some mixture of these three motives.BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES

These biographical sketches explore the combination of psychological, social, economic, and political forces that led several historically important individuals into terrorist careers. The sketches are drawn from published biographies and autobiographies and the depth of psychological insight varies depending on the quality of the available information.

Timothy McVeigh. The Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was driven to terrorism by emotional needs, with only a very thin veneer of rational thinking. In a revealing biography based on extensive interviews, Michel and Herbeck (2001) portray a man filled with rage and frustration caused by a troubled relationship with his mother, problems with bullies in school and difficulties in establishing relationships with women. He collected guns and spent many hours in target practice. He joined the army and had a successful military career, including combat in Iraq. However, he became disenchanted with Army life because of the lack of idealism, discipline and respect for authority among the soldiers and officers. He was disgusted by the fact that many of them treated the Army as a job, not as a sacred cause.

The major crisis of McVeigh's life came when he failed to pass the physical examination for the Green Beret special forces, a unit that might have lived up to his high standards. He left the Army but failed to make a successful adaptation to civilian life. He became involved with gun-rights activists who viewed the United States government as the enemy. His biographers (Michel & Herbeck, 2001, p. 129) observe that "united by the common thread of personal failure," McVeigh and his friend James Nichols "took their anger at the system to new heights of defiance. They renounced their citizenship and the law of the land."

Although McVeigh was not an intellectual in any sense, he did feel the need of an ideology to justify his anger. He found inspiration in a novel, The Turner Diaries, which was widely read by radical gun-rights activists. The novel is about a gun enthusiast who used a truck bomb to destroy FBI headquarters in Washington. It was written by an official of the American Nazi Party and advocates killing blacks and Jews. McVeigh's destruction of the Oklahoma City federal building was modeled on this story.

McVeigh's tactical goal in the Oklahoma City bombing was to have a large "body count" so as make a powerful statement and prove his potency as a soldier. He saw his action as analogous to the Hiroshima bombing which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians but was generally regarded as justified because it served the worthy cause of ending World War II. He was not overtly suicidal, but he did not care if he lived or died. He left many clues, such as using a traceable telephone card and driving without a license plate, to make it easy for the authorities to catch him. The court appointed psychiatrist who examined him did not find that he was delusional. He was, Michel & Herbeck (2001, p. 290) conclude, "an essentially decent person who had allowed rage to build up inside him to the point that he had lashed out in one terrible, violent act."

Theodore Kaczynski. After his arrest, Timothy McVeigh happened to be held in the same federal penitentiary as Theodore Kaczynski, better known as The Unabomber. Kaczynski's court appointed psychiatrist (Johnson, 1998) decided that he merited a psychiatric diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia because his delusions of persecution were so persistent. If this diagnosis is valid, he was an exception to the generalization that people with serious mental illnesses do not make effective terrorists. He is the exception that proves the rule, since he acted as an isolated individual, and had great difficulty functioning as a member of any kind of organization. He was quite capable of sustained intellectual work.

In their prison conversations, Kaczynski and McVeigh found that their views of the world were quite consistent. Although Kaczynski was nominally on the "left" and McVeigh on the "right," Kaczynski observed that (Michel & Herbeck, 2001, p. 399) "certain rebellious elements on the American right and left respectively had more in common with one another than is commonly realized." They both hated the American establishment and believed that killing was justified to defeat it. The Oklahoma City bombing was, in Kaczynski's view, "unnecessarily inhumane" because the large number of killings of innocent civilians, including children, distracted attention from the message. McVeigh saw the point. His bombing had been inspired by The Turner Diaries. Later he read Unintended Consequences, a novel by John Ross, a gun-rights advocate from St. Louis. If he had read Unintended Consequences first he might have modeled himself on that novel's protagonist who assassinated carefully selected government officials.

Kaczynski and McVeigh also had much in common on a personal level. Both were shy young men who had great difficulty establishing relationships with women. Both were picked on by bullies in school, Kaczynski after he had skipped a grade because of his high academic ability. Kaczynski felt abused by his family, McVeigh by his mother although not by his father. Both were filled with anger and felt the need of an ideology to justify that anger. Neither cared much whether he lived or died, but both cared a great deal about what people thought of them. Both adamantly opposed using an insanity defense at their trials.

There are also important differences between the two men. Kaczynski was more intelligent and intellectual and much more of a loner. He took much greater precautions against getting caught. He spent his life writing a lengthy monograph denouncing industrial society and its cultural perversions. But his writing were not very original, nor was he connected to the scholarly or journalistic worlds in ways that would have enabled him to win an audience for his ideas. So he used terrorism as a means of drawing attention to his ideas. His terrorism consisted of sending bombs through the mail to scientists or business people he hated for their involvement in technological society.

Was Kuczynski irrational? His writing (Kuczynski, 2002) is certainly rational enough, and not unlike that of many other social critics. But it was irrational for him to believe that technological society could be stopped by sending a few bombs in the mail, just as it was irrational for McVeigh to believe that blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City would build sympathy for his grievances. Kaczynski certainly pursued his tactical objectives rationally, and succeeded in getting his manifesto published in The New York Times and the Washington Post, giving it far wider circulation than the scholarly monographs from which it was derived. A rational choice theorist might argue that he made a calculation that even a small chance of saving the earth from total devastation justified the harm he caused to a handful of individuals. But by this loose a standard almost any behavior could be called rational and the theory loses any explanatory power.

Bommi Baumann. Not all terrorists are shy, reclusive young men who have trouble meeting women. West German terrorist Michael "Bommi" Baumann was a fun loving, long haired young man who (Baumann, 1979, p. 23) "preferred running after a girl over running after work, naturally, you get more out of it and she does too!" He found working as an apprentice construction worker tedious, and gravitated to Berlin's counterculture where he enjoyed rock music, drugs and plenty of liberated sex. He and his friends looked down on the conventional working class neighborhoods where "cars are more important than places for children to play." In his autobiography, he recalls that one day he was visiting just such a neighborhood, where a lot of policemen lived, and (Baumann, 1979, p. 31) "my whole disgust toward these object relationships just went through me, and I started slashing tires. I did them to the tune of about a hundred. In other words, I slashed the tires of about a hundred cars with a knife, a kind of stiletto." He kept doing this until he was caught and served jail time.

Baumann says that he came from a working class environment where fighting was common and that for him (Baumann, 1979, p. 27) "violence was a perfectly adequate means, I've never had any hang-ups about it." Indeed, he was fascinated by it. He and his friends took pleasure in the actions of Charles Manson and his "family" in California, who tortured and murdered the actress Sharon Tate and her friends. He remembers (Baumann, 1979, p. 65) "at that time we didn't think Charles Manson was so bad. Somehow we found him quite funny." Baumann's fascination with Manson was shared by Bernardine Dohrn, one of the leaders of the Weathermen in the United States, who remarked (Sprinzak, 1998, p. 70): "Dig it, first they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork in the victim's stomach! Wild!"

Baumann rose above petty hooliganism by reading radical literature - Robert Williams, Regis Debray, Eldridge Cleaver - and dedicated himself to the struggle against the Vietnam war. Was this a rational decision? Certainly more so than McVeigh's or Kaczynski's. Baumann had no illusions that the left would win the struggle against capitalism in Germany. Focusing on Vietnam allied him with a cause that had a chance of succeeding, and in fact did succeed. The only problem is that, when the war ended, the rationale for his terrorist career ended. So he and his friends looked around for another cause they could identify with and settled on Palestine. This provided a sufficient rationalization for continuing his terrorist bombings.

Eventually Baumann tired of terrorism as a life style, although he did not completely abandon the belief system. He simply became bored with living in safe houses and being isolated from the fun loving counterculture community. Life underground made it difficult to sustain meaningful relationships with women, and he came to feel that a stable relationship was more important to him than the cause. He concluded that (Baumann, 1977, p. 115) "making a decision for terrorism is something already psychologically programmed. Today, I can see that - for myself - it was only the fear of love, from which one flees into absolute violence. If I had checked out the dimension of love for myself before hand, I wouldn't have done it."

Baumann is an example of the militant activist for whom the excitement of violent struggle was the chief motivator. He saw the parallel between his life and that of Stalin, observing that (Baumann, 1977, p. 116) "Stalin was actually a type like us: he made it, one of the few who made it. But then it got heavy."

Velupillai Prabhakaran. Baumann's love of violence pales in comparison to that of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the founder of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Prabhakaran's mother was (Swamy, 1994, p. 49) "deeply religious and very fond of him," but "his thin-lipped father was a strict and upright man who demanded absolute discipline." His father is also described as "doting" and as a man who took very close interest in his children's education. But the young Velupillai found his father's attentions stifling. He was bored with school, and was inspired by exciting tales of Indian struggles against the British.

He also had a taste for killing animals. Swamy (1994, p. 51) reports that "his love for the catapult, while the other boys were more interested in sports, was legendary and took him to the world of marksmanship. His earliest victims were chameleons, squirrels and birds which he felled or killed with pebbles." His early associates remember him as "a shy and quiet young man with big piercing eyes who always appeared to be itching for action."

He quickly became famous by murdering Alfred Duriappah, the Tamil mayor of Jaffna and the leader of a moderate Tamil political party. After this killing, he lived underground with a group of young men who were inspired by his daring. One of these young men recalled that (Swamy, 1994, p. 59) "Prabhakaran would take slow steps with a revolver tucked into his shirt, take a sudden u-turn, whip out the revolver in a flash and fire at the imaginary enemy. He never got tired of it. He thought it was fascinating." He was particularly proud of a pistol he took from a police official he murdered.

Prabhakaran had a (Swamy, 1994, p. 69) "near total disinterest in Marxist politics and ideology." When an interviewer suggested that it was important to politicize people before beginning armed struggle, he responded "What people, people, you talk about? We have to do some actions first. People will follow us. You arm chair intellectuals are afraid of blood. No struggle will take place without killings." He conceded, however, that every movement needs ideological manifestos, so he recruited a journalist, Anton Balasingham, to write them (Balasingham, 1983).

Abimael Guzmán. If theory meant little to Prabhakaran, it meant everything to Abimael Guzmán, the founder and leader of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement in Peru. Guzmán was the illegitimate son of a prosperous business man. His mother died when he was five, and he lived with uncles until he was of high school age when he went to live with his father. He was a top student at an exclusive Catholic high school. Although he had plenty of spending money and enjoyed spending it, he (Strong, 1992, p. 5) "was aloof and obscure. He was a loner. He never asked questions in class, never attended parties, and never had girlfriends." He consistently received top grades, and went on to study law and philosophy at the National University of San Agustin in Arequipa.

At the University, he was captivated by a charismatic philosophy professor, a specialist on Kant who had abandoned Marxism out of revulsion for Stalinism. Guzmán adopted his professor's love for learning, but not his anti-Stalinism. Strong (1992, p. 23) reports that: "books are the cornerstone of his universe. A voracious reader in his youth, Guzmán has such respect for the written word that he all but eschews personal experience. With the delight of a philosopher and mathematician, he encounters in Marxism-Leninism, and especially in Maoism, a set of laws that satisfies his quest for scientific truth and his hunger for social justice."

After earning two doctorates, one in philosophy and one in law, Guzmán was offered the chance to run the philosophy faculty at the University of San Cristobal de Huamanga in Ayacucho, an impoverished, largely Indian town in the Andes. He was a great success as a professor, and rose to an administrative position which allowed him to fill the university with his political associates. His students became the core of his political movement.

Although he was moved by the poverty of the Indians in Ayacucho, his first political activism had nothing to do with the peasantry. It was an attack on a female Peace Corps volunteer who was attending the University and who had, for some reason, slapped another student in class. The students threatened a nationwide strike and forced the Peace Corps to leave Peru. Even after his capture in 1992, after leading a movement which terrorized the country and led to the death of 27,000 people, Guzmán bragged about this incident because (Guzmán, 1993) "this was the first victorious battle against a powerful enemy, which makes one feel strong and capable of great achievements." The benefits were clearly psychological and symbolic, the Peace Corps volunteer had "humiliated her classmates and offended Peruvians." She had to be punished.

Guzmán became intensely involved in doctrinal disputes within the Communist movement, where he was frequently denounced as a "Trotskyist" because of his championing of ideological and theoretical purity over tactical opportunism. He did not join any Trotskyist faction, however, but became a Maoist and had the opportunity to visit Albania and China. He met Chairman Mao personally, and aspired to be the Mao of Peru.

Guzmán's greatest strengths were his intellectual persistence and his skill as an organizer. He was not an original thinker or an especially charismatic personality. A man who knew him when he was a young professor said (New Internationalist, 2000) : "I remember him as a rather cold, inexpressive person. Always very correctly dressed. Not given to gesticulation. Not a talker. But the students who were taught by him spoke very highly of him. They said he was the most intelligent of all their teachers." He did not abandon his didactic role when he became a guerrilla leader. Trainees in his guerrilla warfare mountain school spent as much time reading literature and philosophy as learning military techniques. The reading list was quite sophisticated, including excerpts from Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar and Macbeth, Washington Irving's Mahomet and his Successors, and Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus (Gorriti Ellenborgen, 1999, pp. 21-36).

Guzmán adopted terror as a deliberate political and military tactic. He argued that (Gorriti Ellenborgen, 1996, p. 56) "only by agreeing to accept for themselves, and especially for others, higher casualties and a much more intense level of suffering than the enemy, could the party erase the tactical and material disadvantage it had with the enemy." Shining Path activists went out of their way to be brutal, torturing victims to death in public squares in the middle of villages, sometimes cutting their heads off and sewing them back on backwards before hanging them from trees, frequently hanging dead dogs from trees as warnings. All of this was intended to impress everyone with their ferocity. Much of their terrorism was directed at social workers, priests and leftist activists from other political parties who were dangerous because they disagreed on Marxist doctrine (Ron, 2001).

For Sendero, terrorism was also a way of communicating angry feelings and guaranteeing that they would not be ignored. Peruvian psychiatrist Saul Peña (Salazar, 1989, p. 48) thought that "Sendero says it very clearly, the only way to resist and to regain power is with violence...if a person becomes violent, one way to understand this is that he is trying to communicate a level of violence so that we will understand the daily violence that was committed against him. The violence which is expressed in the present is a way of expressing that which they have lived and felt in the past."

This may apply better to Sendero's followers (Cáceres, 1989) than to Guzmán himself, since he had a middle class life style and there is no evidence that he suffered from violence of any kind as a child. Some observers (Caretas, 1992) speculate that anger at his father for the stigma of illegitimacy, and at his mother for dying when he was five, were at the root of his anger at the capitalist world. But millions of people in Peru and elsewhere go through similar life experiences without becoming terrorists.

We cannot say that Guzmán, like McVeigh and Kaczynski, adopted political strategies that were so far out of touch with reality that they were bound to fail. He clearly calculated that the use of brutal terrorist methods would intimidate his competitors and make his movement a focal point of Peruvian and world attention. Social contradictions in Peru were acute enough, and the government corrupt and ineffective enough, that it certainly seemed possible that he might have won power, as Mao and Pol Pot did. Even though his movement collapsed after his arrest in 1992, it succeeded in transforming him from an obscure professor at a provincial university to an important actor on the stage of history.

Osama binLaden. In his exultation about the World Trade Center bombing (bin Laden, 2001) identified himself and his agents with "God Almighty," and proclaimed that "what the United States tastes today is a very small thing compared to what we have tasted for tens of years. Our nation has been tasting this humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years. Its sons are being killed, its blood is being shed, its holy places are being attacked, and it is not being ruled according to what God has decreed. Despite this, nobody cares."

Bin Laden's rhetoric follows the terrorist ideological script, as described above by Post (2001) perfectly. It is polarizing and absolutist, a rhetoric of us versus them, with no shades of grey. Most revealing, however, is his plaint that "nobody cares." The terrorist attacks forced the whole world to pay attention to his complaints. Bin Laden and his organization are quite sophisticated in their use of mass media, so it is impossible to know how sincere he is in his rhetoric. But many of his followers are sincere enough to sacrifice their lives to make sure their agonies are heard.

Biographical information (Robinson, 2002; Frontline, 2001) about bin Laden is limited and open to different interpretations. His father was dedicated to his family, but as one of 54 children, Osama's time with his father was unavoidably limited. His father, a wealthy construction entrepreneur, had three "permanent" wives and filled the fourth slot permitted under Moslem law with rotating incumbents. Discarded wives were kept in the family compound and continued to be supported financially. Osama's mother was one of these, an attractive young Syrian woman who quickly lost favor with Osama's father. Osama was not close to his mother, but was raised mostly by servants.

This kind of family life is not abnormal in Saudi Arabia, however, and most of Osama's brothers have had conventional lives. He seems always to have been an outsider within the family. He swung from one lifestyle to another, at times being a bookworm, then experimenting with hedonistic pleasures abroad, then getting heavily involved in religion and radical politics. Robinson (2002, p. 78) reports that "he was shy - a characteristic some interpreted as weakness. He isolated himself and was reluctant to participate in family life. Because of this he was both unpopular and shunned as a playmate by his brothers. Confused and hurt, he sought attention through silly childish antics and mischief. But, when his father was nearby, Osama was clever enough to transform himself into a dutiful, well- behaved son." His father, however, died when he was ten years old, leaving him adrift in the world.

At first, Osama was focused primarily on Saudi politics. He strongly opposed the Saudi government's alliance with the United States against Saddam Hussein, believing that it should rely instead of radical Muslim Mujahideen. The Saudi government correctly saw this as a losing strategy, and sent Osama into exile. He sought to become a leader of Muslim civilization against the west, and found that focusing on Palestine, rather than on internal Saudi politics, was much more effective in motivating followers.

From his point of view, Osama's attack on the World Trade Center cannot be viewed as an irrational act. It brought him the fame and recognition he craved, and there was certainly a chance that it might have succeeded in uniting much of the Moslem world under his leadership. Indeed, he and his advisors might well have been guided by the work of Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington who posited the clash of civilizations as the emerging trend in world history. Osama clearly sought to be the leader of the Muslim civilization against the Christian civilization of the west. If the western leaders had not read the same books and carefully avoided casting the conflict as one between Muslims and the west, he might have succeeded. Many of the young men who have sacrificed their lives to his holy war are unquestionably driven by personal frustrations, a lust for adventure and sincere religious beliefs. Osama shares some of these motivations, but he is most important for his skill in organizing and manipulating the emotions of others.


There will always be troubled men and boys (and some women and girls) who lose control of their emotions and lash out at the world around them. Some of these people kill their wives or schoolmates, others may attempt to assassinate a celebrity. Some of them may adopt a political or religious ideology, as in the cases of Theodore Kaczynsky and Timothy McVeigh, but the ideology is secondary to their psychological pathology. This is a continuing mental health problem that occurs independently of political or social conflicts. Better counseling and psychological services can help these people, and better police work can stop some of them before they do too much damage.

Terrorism is much more dangerous when it becomes collective rather than an individual behavior. Collective behavior (Blumer, 1951) occurs when a large number of people learn to understand their dissatisfactions and discontents as having a common cause. Sometimes collective behavior is quick and spontaneous, as with a riot or mob action. But with effective leadership, collective discontent can be mobilized into a more lasting social movement. These movements encourage many people who might have dealt with their unhappiness on their own, or even sought psychological counseling, to project their anger onto an external object. Even in the cases of McVeigh and Kaczynsky, who operated almost entirely as isolated individuals, the sense of being part of a larger social movement was important.

The first stage in the development of a social movement is a period of mobilization of discontent. Intellectuals are very important at this stage because they formulate the movement's doctrine, helping people to understand how their unhappiness is rooted in a common social problem. As the movement grows, its participants want to do more than understand and express their discontent. They want to take action to change things. The movement enters a stage of sharpening of objectives and strategies. There is typically a good deal of conflict within the supporters of the movement about how to go about accomplishing their goals (Goertzel, 1992). Terrorist factions typically emerge out of a struggle between moderates and extremists at this stage in the development of a movement. Terror is used by the extremists to distinguish themselves and to assert leadership. Typically, this stage lasts for a few years, after which terrorist activity is likely to decline, either because the movement is suppressed, or because it develops a strong, centralized leadership that finds other strategies more effective.

The large majority of people who sympathize, support or are active in a social movement do not commit terrorist acts. The actual terrorists are likely to be recruited from the ranks of troubled young men, men like Bommi Baumann and Velupillai Prabhakaran, whose anger is so great that they are willing to take great risks in order to express it. The larger social movement encourages these men to believe that their anger is caused by an enemy outside themselves and that they are justified in engaging in terrorism against that outside enemy.

Most people support social movements either because they believe they are likely to succeed, or because they see no alternative. Support for movements can be lessened by both the carrot or the stick: by reformist measures that help to ameliorate the problems or by repressive measures that make rebellion too costly. The hard core terrorists are much more resistant to either reformist or repressive measures, but they are nevertheless likely to become discouraged when support for the broader social movement withers away. With time, they also often mature and get past the psychological storms that led them to terrorism.

A visitor to Ayacucho in 2000 (New Internationalist, 2000) found former Sendero activists to be a discouraged lot, understandably, since most of them are serving long terms in prison. One woman, who had taken part in Sendero "actions" in 1989 and 1990 when she was 15 and 16, said "I think the path I took was incorrect. But I never had bad intentions, I didn't join Sendero in order to kill people." When asked about her hopes for the future, she said "I hope that others do not make the mistakes I made."

Remarks of this sort are often made by terrorists who look back on their periods of activism. William Harris, one of the leaders of the Symbionese Liberation Army that became famous by kidnaping Patricia Hearst in 1974, now (Sterngold, 2002, p. 26) observed that "I'm older, no longer self-destructive and unwilling to go to jail. We were a bunch of amateurs. I wish everyone would forget us." Bernardine Dohrn, who once rejoiced in Charles Manson's exploits, grew up to become the Director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University. Her husband, fellow Weatherman activist Bill Ayers, became a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Chicago. Attempting to explain his past, Ayers (2001: 258) wrote "the psychological answer, I think, was that we were young with an edge of certainty and arrogance that I would be hard-pressed to re-create or even fully understand again. The moral justification requires remembering the context of the times."

These terrorists have had the good fortune of being able to grow out of their terrorist stage and go on with normal lives. Others, like Weatherman Kathy Boudin, and many of Guzmán's comrades, have had to do their personal growth in prison. Many others lost their lives, as did many of their victims.

Terrorists, like all of us, are both rational thinkers and emotional beings. Terrorist movements are most potent when they have rational leadership that is skilled at manipulating the emotions of large numbers of followers. Prevention of terrorism requires a variety of measures including psychological counseling to help troubled youth before they become terrorists, reform measures to ameliorate social problems, and military and police actions to catch and punish perpetrators and persuade their supporters that the movement is unlikely to succeed (Lemann, 2001).


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