Inside the mind of a terrorist

Nushin Namazi writes: In a discussion about the mind of a terrorist, should we not make a distinction between leaders of terrorism vs. its followers? How are these terrorist leaders and their followers any different than  religious cults (Jones town massacre), the mafia, gangs (Charles Manson and his gang of women), and other organizations (Patty Hearst and Symbionese Liberation Army) built around an ideology that provides basic tangible needs (food, shelter, employment, camaraderie) in addition to intangibles (promise for salvation, etc)? What motivates a person to join a religious cult? a street gang? the mob? Would the same factors not motivate someone to join a terrorist group? My impression is that the leaders of terrorist groups are often intelligent antisocial men who over time have developed a perverted sense of retribution and deviant set of ideologies. Leaders more often than not must have access to funds which are either  amassed through illegal or legal means in order to execute their plan. The followers (i.e. those who join these organizations) are probably poor, hungry, destitute, social outcasts, drug addicts and the mentally ill. Those who have nothing to lose!  The use of psychoactive drugs and mental illness would have to be factored into any study.

Genye Cain writes: For some interesting insight into the issues Nushin  Namazi raises, I would suggest she and other interested parties read Raphael Ezekiel's book The Racist Mind, which is about recruitment efforts among neo-Nazi groups and the Klan. One of the things he shows quite clearly was the difference between the leadership and the "other ranks" and how the former manipulate the latter. This is also well illustrated in another book, Fuehrer-Ex: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi by Ingo Hasselbach with Tom Reiss. As one would suspect, poverty, alienation (real or perceived), and lack of education are major factors in making the underlings join, but, as one would also suspect, this is certainly not universal and, in particular, did not seem to be as true of the leadership, which generally took advantage of those characteristics and successfully exploited them. About ten years ago I did some interviews with a couple of people involved in neo-Nazi groups in Germany (one was an American jailed there), and the characterizations from both books seemed to me to hold true for them.

Your comments are invited. Read the home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on: Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: November 24, 2004