Motivating Factors for Radicalization of Terrorists

Why do they do it? The media and pundits commonly blame lack of economic opportunity and religious ideology as the primary root causes for individuals to radicalize and become terrorists, but that is too broad a brush to be very useful. This informal paper proposes a more nuanced model of motivating factors for individuals radicalizing and choosing to join terrorist groups or organizations:

  1. Spiritual need
  2. Ideology, dogma, and doctrine
  3. Need for structure
  4. Need for sense of belonging, family, and community
  5. Aspiration and sense of purpose
  6. Need for compelling sense of identity
  7. Justice, to correct for a perceived injustice
  8. Need for engagement and social and political enfranchisement
  9. Need for economic enfranchisement
  10. Political
  11. Need to rebel
  12. Lust for excitement, thrill, and adventure
  13. Weak personality, weak sense of self
  14. Low mental resilience
  15. Weak mental health, bordering on mental illness
  16. Mental illness
  17. Some combination of any or all of the above

This paper will not delve into the actual process of radicalizing and joining a terrorist group or the specifics of the triggering of the radicalization process. The exact steps in the process and their sequencing is certainly of interest but beyond the scope of this paper. The concern here is simply what drives the process. Similarly, it is beyond the scope of this paper to inquire into interventions to prevent or mitigate radicalization. The title of this paper might just as well have been “Drivers of Terrorist Radicalization.”

Religion as a catch-all

  • Spiritual
  • Dogma
  • Structure
  • Sense of community, belonging, and family

More than basic economic opportunity

Spiritual need

These spiritually-oriented individuals, all too happy to escape from their earthly tribulations are ideal candidates for suicide attacks.

Ideology, dogma, and doctrine

Need for structure

Western-style freedom may feel antithetical to their sense of order.

Sense of belonging, family, and community

Terrorism can also offer the appeal of a very intense movement or cause.

A terrorist group, movement, or cell offers a sense of belonging, that the individual may be missing from their family, community, and country.

Their real father may have intimidated or belittled or outright battered them, or their real mother may have been passive or domineering, so that they may have had no sense of belonging or value to others as a child.

They may lack of sense of belonging and affinity for other kids in school and the neighborhood or peers in the community that can also lead to a need for a sense of belonging and family that a terrorist group can offer (or promise, even if unable to deliver on the promise.)

And for immigrants their host country may not be particularly welcoming or provide them with a feeling that they belong.

Aspiration and sense of purpose

If the institutions of family, neighborhood, community, school, religion, business, and country fail to tap into and satisfy their aspirations and need for a sense of purpose, individuals may easily fall prey to the siren call of subversive organizations, whether gangs, criminal enterprises, or extremist terrorist organizations, who are all to willing to promise more even if they cannot deliver. And if violence has an appeal to the individual, the the promise of violence may be irresistible and all too easy for the subversive organization to deliver.

Need for compelling sense of identity

If the institutions of family, neighborhood, community, school, religion, business, and country fail to offer a deep enough sense of identity, individuals may easily fall prey to the siren call of subversive organizations, whether gangs, criminal enterprises, anarchistic groups, or extremist terrorist organizations, who will offer a compelling sense of identity.

It may be a negative and dysfunctional sense of identity, but it is lack of any substantial sense of identity rather than negative consequences that causes angst in the individual that may finally be relieved by the subversive organization.

Justice, to correct for a perceived injustice

Revenge and retaliation

As a general proposition, revenge and retaliation would be one-off motivations for specific, narrow grievances, while justice and correcting for perceived injustices will tend to be broader and more comprehensive motivations based more on a pattern of injustice, principles, or general oppression.

Need for engagement and social and political enfranchisement

They may feel disengaged and disenfranchised from traditional social and political structures.

Economic enfranchisement

Lack of a sense of economic enfranchisement can lead individuals to sever their emotional attachment to state, community, religion, and family, priming them for radicalization.

Economic disenfranchisement will tend to be coupled with a desire to rebel, another major motivation for radicalization.

Granted, terrorism may not provide economic enfranchisement to them either, but the lack of that enfranchisement may leave them angry enough to wish to destroy the system that fails to provide them with that opportunity.

The Islamic State actually was offering individuals a level of enfranchisement that existing western societies were failing to do for so many people, especially immigrants and young people.


Separatists seeking political independence are one manifestation of this motivation.

Anarchists seeking to bring down an established political order are another.

Need to rebel

They may rebel against the law, the strictures of family, the community, religion, the political system, or the state.

Lust for excitement, thrill, and adventure

Weak personality, weak sense of self

There may be some underlying mental disorder causing this weakness, or maybe not.

Low mental resilience

  1. Home life problems.
  2. School problems.
  3. Relationship problems.
  4. Work problems.
  5. Financial problems.
  6. Economic problems.
  7. Bullying.
  8. Oppressive media messages.
  9. Oppressive government.

This low mental resilience can render the individual susceptible to domination and extreme manipulation to compensate for their own lack of resilience.

Weak mental health, bordering on mental illness

Mental illness

They may or may not be clinically diagnosable. It may be a borderline mental dysfunction that goes undetected or is simply written off as a quirky personality, difficulty with environmental stress, growing pains, or whatever. Undiagnosed mental illness is a very real and significant social problem, even absent terrorism.

Either way, terrorism can provide mentally ill individuals with an escape from their inner demons, in a way that traditional society is failing them.

Terrorism frees them from the restrictions of civilized society, providing them with an escape, a sense of relief, if not more emotionally satisfying adventure. Mental illness can also preclude economic opportunity or normal family relationships.

Their mental health status may or may not qualify for a legal assessment of insanity.

The compelling nature of mental illness should not be underestimated. It may not be as sexy as spiritual, ideological, and political motivations, but the effects can be just as devastating.

Combined motivations

That said, if if there are numerous of many motivating factors at work, it may commonly be true that there is a single dominant factor or maybe just a very few dominating factors for a particular individual or cohort of individuals.

The important thing is to rank the factors for a particular individual or cohort of individuals so that attention can be given to those motivating factors which had the greatest impact.

Factors of minor significant may be more of a distraction, especially when it comes to focusing on intervention.

Human psyche

This informal paper tries only to identify motivating factors. How to assess which factors drive a given individual into terrorism is beyond the scope of this paper.

Triggers for radicalization

What events or factors actually constitute the trigger are beyond the scope of this informal paper. The focus here is underlying causes, not triggering events per se.

Whether triggering is due to specific, discrete events, a straw that breaks the camel’s back, or some more complex psychological calculus may depend on the particular individual.

Process for radicalization

Joining a terrorist group

Interventions to prevent radicalization


Informal speculation

I see my own speculation as a starting point, a hypothesis to be tested. Personally, I am far less interested in the hands-on nature of testing hypotheses than I am in speculating and formulating hypotheses. In particular, I find the dearth of high-quality, comprehensive, broad, and deep hypotheses to be distinctly disheartening and outright unsettling, especially considering the momentous nature of terrorism.

Black Box

That said, we can read a lot of media accounts of their behavior and sometimes even their own words.

My interest is in studying black boxes, examining the external qualities and hypothesizing based on what we know about human behavior, human nature, culture, and history.

Puzzle pieces

My method

I don’t seek single, magic bullet answers and solutions, but I do expect that if I am patient enough, that the many black boxes and puzzle pieces will incrementally present me with ever-improved opportunities to discern at least fragments of the ground truth of the matters at hand.

Peering into the abyss

Besides, for the most part we can do reasonably well contemplating and speculating about the nature of the abyss from a decent and comfortable distance.

To be clear, I have never personally been anywhere near the edge of the abyss, but we do have enough written accounts of terrorists that we can imagine and feel as if we actually were right there at the edge.

It’s a dicey proposition to even contemplate putting yourself in the shoes of a terrorist, although it may be a little easier to put yourself in the shoes of an individual who might be experiencing the motivations detailed in this paper, imagining what might be running through their heads as they contemplate making the leap to radicalization. Again, I personally haven’t done that in any deep and meaningful way, but we can at least ponder the prospects from a reasonably safe distance.

What’s next?

That said, the menu for future work includes:

  1. Formalizing the motivations.
  2. Analyzing the process of radicalization.
  3. Analyzing triggers for radicalization.
  4. Analyzing the triggering process.
  5. Identifying opportunities for intervention, both before and after radicalization.
  6. Identifying personality characteristics at risk for the various motivations for radicalization.

Freelance Consultant