Who Is the Boston Bomber? Understanding the Psychology Of a Terrorist


“While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” —Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky

As the country continues to reel from the Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three people and injured over 100, terror has forced itself back into our daily vocabulary. Once again Americans find themselves grappling with the senselessness of mass destruction, the fear of what’s next, and the anxiety of knowing that civilian lives may have become political pawns in an unknown game with an unknown player.

Everyone has questions — and authorities are scrambling for answers.

Though unusual in its magnitude, such acts of terror happen far more frequently than is reported. The city of Boston itself has experienced sixteen terror attacks since 1970, according to a recent report by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), making it the 14th most frequently targeted U.S. city by terrorists in the past 40 years. New York leads with 430 attacks since 1970, with Los Angeles in second place with 103 attacks in that time period.

In the United States, 2,362 terror attacks took place between 1970-2011 — the vast majority never making headlines, or even claiming lives. “Historically,” the report reads, “each U.S. terrorist attack has resulted in 3.3 casualties on average. Excluding the 9/11 attacks, the average number of casualties per U.S. attack drops to 1.4 casualties per attack.”

So … what makes a terrorist? 

“One has, I think, to reckon with the fact that there are present in all men destructive, and therefore anti-social and anti-cultural trends…” —Sigmund Freud

Up until relatively recently, very little empirical research had been conducted on the psychology that lives behind atrocities like these. It was commonly and popularly held that that terrorists were paranoid, deranged, schizophrenic, psychotic or sociopathic — or any combination thereof. Senseless people who did senseless things. For millennials, whose sense of maturity and mortality was collectively defined on a single cold morning in September, this is all too true.

But it’s a stereotype that’s been whittled-away in recent years as a new wave of research has come pouring fourth, expanding our understanding of the who and the why as psychologists begin to explain the unexplainable. For the first time doctors are gaining access to terrorists and militants, as tens of thousands have been systematically detained and released over the past decade. 

“The popular image of the terrorist as an individual motivated exclusively by deep and intransigent political commitment obscures a more complex reality,” explains Dr. Martha Crenshaw of Stanford University in a report, Psychology of Terrorism, produced by the University of South Florida. Though some biographical trends have been observed — child abuse, neglect, and incarceration are all common in their childhood narratives — these are loose, and quite far from establishing causality. Attempts to determine a “terrorist personality” have failed.

Dr. John Horgan of Pennsylvania State University, in interviews with over 60 former terrorists, has identified a number of traits that can and have led to radicalization: feelings of anger, alienation or disenfranchisement; identifying with other perceived victims of social injustice; belief that their current political power doesn’t allow them to induce change; belief that joining a movement offers social and political rewards; feeling the need to take action; having friends or family who are either sympathetic, or are terror actors themselves; and believing that engaging in violence with the perceived enemy is not immoral.

Many such characteristics can be found in the typical American teenager.

Other researchers have tried to isolate cultural shifts that could have led to regional radicalization. Some have sighted “cultural competition,” specifically, to explain the development of terror networks in the Middle East. As the age of globalism progresses, and Western influence continues to spread around the globe, disparate cultures are intimately interacting on a daily basis in a way that was never before possible.

This has been linked to a “survival of the fittest” mentality that, according to Georgetown University Professor Fathali Moghaddam, quickly develops into violence: “You can interpret Islamic terrorism as one form of reaction to the perception that the fundamentalist way of life is under attack and is about to become extinct.”

Though terrorism seems to be capable of arising from any combination of these psychological, sociological and economical factors, the process is slow. The newly indoctrinated tend to undergo a gradual radicalization process, occasionally expedited by single “tipping point” events.

The role of the group

“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” —Voltaire

Very few terrorists terror alone. Notable but rare exceptions include Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and John Allen Muhammad, the Washington sniper.

The vast majority are linked to terror networks; though few such organizations survive more than a couple years, the larger ones (Al-Qaeda, Hizballah, Aum Shinrikyo, etc.) can grow increasingly complex in scale and structure. They are big and multinational, often centering around a single leader or personality who administers tasks to followers by means of a select number of core lieutenants. Though many terror organizations include violent fighters, there is just a strong a need for videographers, organizers and web masters. 

Not all extremists are terrorists, not all terrorists are extremists, and not all members of terrorist organizations necessarily become violent actors. But nearly all work in groups.

Some of the most important (and most lacking) areas of research surround this crucial social dynamic, as it has become apparent that how members join and leave terror organizations may just be the key to counterterrorism. New members are often recruited in areas of high disenfranchisement, anxiety and frustration — areas where anger is high, political capital is low, and achievement is lacking. Colleges and universities, where many young people encounter new and radical ideas for the first time, are also key centers for recruitment.

Once established, pressure from the outside tends to radicalize a group, which in turn contributes to the continued radicalization of its members. As is true with all organizations, the sense of worth or purpose can strengthen group membership. Conversely, alienation from support networks, internal power struggles, and a lack of cohesiveness can bring collapse. 

Are terrorists mentally ill?

“Those who would commit suicide in their assaults on the free world are not rational and are not deterred by rational concepts.” —U.S. Senator John Warner

Put simply, no. A 1999 report filed by the Library of Congress titled The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why suggests that the opposite is true: “Increasingly, terrorist groups are recruiting members with expertise in fields such as communications, computer programming, engineering, finance, and the sciences…highly skilled professionals.” The mentally ill are almost never admitted into terror networks, and in studies with the incarcerated, were found to be exceedingly rare.

“The idea of terrorism as the product of mental disorder or psychopathy has been discredited,” says Dr. Crenshaw.

Dr. Charles Ruby further explains: “Terrorists are not dysfunctional or pathologic; rather, it suggests that terrorism is basically another form of politically motivated violence that is perpetrated by rational, lucid people who have valid motives.”

Ted Kaczynski again stands as a rare exception to the rule, with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

Suicide bombing, though uniquely complex on a number of levels, is no exception. In a 2004 study, Psychology of Terrorism, Dr. Randy Borum traces modern suicide bombing back to the 1983 attacks on the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Thirty-one attacks followed in the 1980s, 104 in the 1990s, and 53 between 2000-2001. Though the rate of this kind of violence is on the increase, it makes up just 3% of all terror incidents — though accounts for a staggering 48% of terrorism-related fatalities. And yet even here the rate of mental illness is astonishingly low, as terror organizations are disinclined to send mentally-incapacitated individuals on critical missions.

Dr. Andrew Silke of the University of East London notes: “As with other terrorists, there is no indication that suicide bombers suffer from psychological disorders or are mentally unbalanced in other ways. In contrast, their personalities are usually quite stable and unremarkable (at least within their own cultural context).”

It is important to note the psychological differentiation between suicide and martyrdom. “In the majority,” explains Dr. Ariel Merari of Tel Aviv University, “you find none of the risk factors normally associated with suicide, such as mood disorders or schizophrenia, substance abuse or history of attempted suicide.”


“The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why is this important? Understanding the psychology of terrorism has led to a growing number of “de-radicalization” programs with the goal of rehabilitating incarcerated terrorists. They tend to include three primary components: the intellectual (a moderate Muslim cleric may discuss peaceful interpretations of the Qu’ran), the emotional (the terrorist’s anger may be defused by the actor paying for his children’s education), and the social (de-radicalized militants may be enlisted to help convince others to leave behind violence).

Though the efficacy of these programs has been debated, success stories are already beginning to appear. Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Egypt’s largest radical Islamic group, renounced bloodshed in 2003 after going through a similar program as part of a deal with the Egyptian government, and hasn’t been linked to a violent act since. Al Jihad, another major Egyptian terror group, renounced violence in 2007 to similarly positive results.

Whether or not de-radicalization is the solution, the growing interest in the psychology of terror is promising. The crazed and senseless militant is a misconception and a dangerous one — in dehumanizing the terrorist we loose sight of him, and subsequently preclude ourselves from any chance of understand or stopping him. 

And leave ourselves open for his next attack.