Terrorists' Favorite Psychological Defense

In our search for an understanding of terrorism, we have studied political, religious, economic, and cultural factors. It may be, however, that terrorism can best be understood through psychology.

Terrorists of all stripes are steeped in a victim mentality. In the case of Islamic terrorists, they feel violated and oppressed by Western power and culture. They experience the social and political dynamics of the West through feelings of deprivation, helplessness, domination, disrespect, and defeat. Their unconscious interest is not in reform or progress but in the ongoing experience of themselves as victims of alleged injustice and oppression.

The Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, identified as the inspiration for recent attempted attacks on American soil, appears to have a persecution complex. (This diagnosis is based on the sense of victimization he displayed in comments attributed to him in The New York Times.) Someone with this disorder unconsciously lives in the expectation of being on the receiving end of aggression. Such individuals typically don’t recognize their unconscious willingness to experience and recycle the feeling of being controlled, harassed, dominated, or persecuted.

Rather than acknowledge their emotional weakness, they resort to blaming others. In using blame as a psychological defense, Mr. Awlaki has produced distorted views of the world, with dogma and reactive behaviors to match, that enable him, on an inner level, to plead innocent to his participation in his own sense of oppression.

It’s much easier for terrorists to blame others rather than to accept responsibility for the emotional attachments to helplessness and victimization that they recycle within themselves. To make their defense more convincing, they produce enormous anger and rage toward their alleged oppressors, making their thoughts or acts of terrorism seem justified.

The terrorist believes that his acts of violence (or his fantasies of retaliation) represent power and strength. However, he is desperate to display some form of strength, however demented that may be, to cover up his enmeshment in feelings of powerlessness and weakness. The more damage he causes in acts of terror, the more he convinces himself that he is powerful rather than weak.

The terrorist’s passivity is revealed by the fact that he allows his mind and emotions to be taken over by dogma or by the agenda of others. He is a bewildered soul, separated from his own truth and his own self. He embraces a cause that makes him feel real or powerful, enabling him to claim as a defense that it is power he wants to feel, not the helplessness and passivity in which he is mired. This renders him infantile, like a child who slaps another child who touches his toy. Like a child, he feels entitled to act on his primitive emotions, particularly when he becomes bonded with a cadre of similarly psychologically impaired individuals.

If the terrorist’s underlying weakness and psychological defense were more widely understood and publicized, potential terrorists could be positively influenced by a powerful, alternative view of reality.