Today its Islamic extremists, in the past it has been national separatists, ecological radicals, and even rancher militias in the old West. We’ve had them through all ethnicities and causes throughout time; and one thing that we’ve learned from studying the psychology of terror is that it takes a deeply vulnerable individual to become an acting terrorist.
Dr. James Turner, expert in counter terrorism and forensic psychology, and Professor at the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant University, asserts that the most vulnerable and isolated trainees, become the most the most effective terrorists.
Turner asserts that it’s not an easy thing, to take a life. Terrorist organizations like ISIS recruit thousands of members, and after battle testing each and every one, most fail. They deploy only the few who have proven that they have what it takes to act.
So what is the profile of a terrorist?
According to Turner they are:
If you look at the average age of a terrorist, you will find that they are in the prime age of identity exploration. They are young and they are seeking a cause, a meaning in life, a support group, and a world in which they can feel important. They are malleable, and these terrorist groups give them what they desire in order to mold them into a killer or a gofer who provides material support and cover.
You will find many similarities in the modus operandi of cults and terror groups. One thing they all have in common is isolation. The best way they can be successful in radicalizing their members is to be the only voice in their ears. That’s why groups like ISIS isolate their members in the shadows of Syria for training.
Extremists have been sold a cause. They believe that they can change the world with one single action. And just like many of the crusaders during the Christian holy wars, Islamic extremists believe that there is a grand reward in becoming a martyr for their cause. They live in a perpetual state of romanticized fantasy.
After World War II, many psychological studies were conducted on soldiers who could not bring themselves to fire their weapons at the opposing forces. Many would fire their weapon at the ground, many soldiers would shoot a man only if that man’s weapon was aimed at the soldiers themselves, and many couldn’t bring themselves to fire at all. It takes a lot for someone to be able to take a life. Terrorist organizations have to desensitize their warriors before they can kill indiscriminately. Before the organization’s leaders deploy their cell members, those members have proven that they can pull the trigger, that they can devalue and take life.
Ultimately, the person you see with the bomb strapped to their ( we need to make this gender neutral) chest, the one you see with the gun in their hand, the one who actually carries out the attacks— they proved to be the most vulnerable, malleable, isolated, indoctrinated and desensitized of the bunch and, in turn, they proved to be the most dangerous.
James T. Turner, PhD is a Professor at Alliant International University’s California School for Forensic Studies and has managed thousands of threat cases over the course of his thirty year career. He has experience in counterterrorism investigations, operational psychology, and political violence issues.
Dr. Turner is a U.S. Army veteran and has served as a consultant to a variety of organizations such as the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, Nuclear Threat Program, Department of Homeland Security, The Secret Service, Comptroller of the Currency, Microsoft, Seagate Technologies, Morgan Stanley, and Microsoft.