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Terrorists Are Made, Not Born

Cultic Studies Review, 4(1), 2005, 30-40

Terrorists Are Made, Not Born: Creating Terrorists Using Social Psychological Conditioning

Anthony Stahelski, PhD
Central Washington University


Sociologists and social psychologists have discovered that terrorist groups use cult-like conditioning techniques to convert normal individuals into remorseless killers. The limited global counterterrorism resources should focus on eradicating the terrorist group training camps where the conditioning takes place, rather than on trying to find terrorists after they have already been conditioned.

Psychologists have thus far been unable to verify the existence of an individual-level universal terrorist profile. This disappointing finding makes the search for terrorists who appear and act normally in a larger population of non-terrorists much more difficult. However, sociologists and social psychologists have discovered that terrorist groups use cult-like conditioning techniques to convert normal individuals into remorseless killers. The premise of this article is that the limited global counterterrorism resources should focus on eradicating the terrorist group training camps where the conditioning takes place, rather than on trying to find terrorists after they have already been conditioned. Five phases of conditioning are described: depluralization, self-deindividuation, other-deindividuation, dehumanization, and demonization. All conditioning phases are supported by powerful group dynamics that reinforce the effectiveness of the conditioning. It appears that most terrorist groups use all or most of the social psychological conditioning and support processes described here. Since the cult-conditioned products of these processes are currently the most dangerous individuals on the planet, the article concludes with several recommendations for disrupting and possibly eliminating the groups and the training facilities, in order to stop the production of terrorist operators.

Terrorism researchers have generally concluded that most terrorists are not initially psychopaths,1 that most terrorists are not obviously or consistently mentally ill,2, 3 and that there is as of yet no identified universal terrorist personality pattern.4 

These findings are unfortunate. Counterterrorism efforts would be enhanced if likely terrorist candidates could be preemptively identified on a precise individual basis.

However, less universal efforts at individual terrorist characteristic identification have been somewhat more successful. In the 1970s, German and Italian researchers had access to captured members of and government documents about the Red Army Faction and the Red Brigades. The researchers identified some family background commonalities: Many terrorists came from families where the father was absent or, even when the father was present, the children were estranged from the father.5, 6 More recent observations of modern terrorist groups indicate that some terrorists come from “broken” homes, where the father is absent, estranged, or economically or politically impotent.7 

Additionally, some terrorist group joiners are individuals who have had difficulty forming consistent group identities outside the home, such as school or the workplace.8 

This partial background profile is certainly not universal. For example, many of the 9/11 hijackers were college-educated individuals who came from professional two-parent middle-class homes. Nonetheless, it appears that terrorist group joiners from dysfunctional family backgrounds are particularly susceptible to the seductive messages of charismatic leaders, who offer them their first positively meaningful group experience. The leader becomes the welcoming father figure, and the leader’s group provides a close-knit family atmosphere. Many joiners are individuals desperate to belong to a “family” group, presumably because their actual family groups did not fulfill their emotional affiliation needs.9 

These unfulfilled needs make some individuals especially vulnerable to cult conditioning.

Terrorism researchers have compared terrorist groups to cults, and they have concluded that the cult model is applicable to terrorist groups.10 Most cults center on a charismatic leader. Charismatic leaders have many of the following characteristics: physical presence, intelligence, experience, education and expertise, the ability to verbally and clearly articulate the vision and the mission, and, most important, a strong emotional appeal. Most joiners of cults respond to the leader’s message first at an emotional level, then later at the physical and intellectual levels. Joiners report that they have finally found someone who has the answers to life’s perplexing questions and who is therefore worthy of their total commitment.11 

In exchange for providing joiners with meaningful existences and for fulfilling their affiliative emotional needs, the leader requests and receives unquestioning obedience from the joiners. Long-term members of the group support the leader’s obedience pressure by applying conformity pressure on new joiners in order to forestall any deviation from the group’s mission or values. The joiners’ initial susceptibility to this intense obedience and conformity pressure makes them extremely vulnerable to the five-phase social psychological conditioning process used in violent cults, which is summarized in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The Five Phases of Social Psychological Conditioning

Phase 1—Depluralization: stripping away all other group member identities

Phase 2—Self-deindividuation: stripping away each member’s personal identity

Phase 3—Other-deindividuation: stripping away the personal identities of enemies

Phase 4—Dehumanization: identifying enemies as subhuman or nonhuman

Phase 5—Demonization: identifying enemies as evil

In essence, this process first eliminates a joiner’s old social and personal identities (depluralization and self-deindividuation) and then, in the case of extremist hate groups and terrorist groups, reconditions joiners to hate and sometimes kill noncombatants upon demand (other deindividuation, dehumanization, and demonization).

Numerous studies have demonstrated that, for most people, meaningful group affiliations are important for psychological health.12 In stable, normal (non-crisis) societies, most individuals are pluralized—that is, they fulfill their affiliative needs by belonging to a variety of groups. None of these affiliations, with the possible exception of the family group, is absolutely essential to an individual’s self-concept.13 

All cults, including terrorist groups, wish to change this normal pluralized state by depluralizing potential joiners. Cults are frequently located in isolated environments. If joiners agree to live in these isolated environments, it becomes easier for them to give up membership in any of their previous group affiliations, often including their families. Old group affiliations and identities detract from the total commitment required by the cult. Cults cannot effectively condition joiners unless the cult group is the joiners’ only group affiliation.14 An individual who has only one group affiliation has self-concept and self-esteem that are totally dependent on retaining membership in that group. The completely dependent individual is then willing to do whatever it takes to retain membership in the group.

Although cults would like joiners to immediately and completely depluralize upon joining, in reality depluralization can occur via several pathways over varying amounts of time. Indeed, some individuals are suddenly inspired by the cult leaders to give up all of their old group affiliations at once. However, other potential joiners go through a much slower depluralization process. They may slowly abandon their “mainstream” group affiliations while attaching themselves to more marginal, but still somewhat mainstream, groups. After a while they leave these marginal groups and join the extremist cult. Thus depluralization could occur within days, or it could take years.15 

Once a joiner’s old group affiliations and group identities have been eliminated, the joiner is more vulnerable to Phase 2. Self-deindividuation takes away an individual’s personal identity, both externally and internally. For example, many cult joiners give up their civilian clothes and are then given uniforms to wear. Internally, all recruits are expected to give up any values, beliefs, attitudes, or behavior patterns that deviate from the group values and expectations. Deindividuated joiners give up their personal sense of right and wrong if it is different from that of the leader. Furthermore, the joiners’ broader view of reality—their view of how the past, present, and future fit together to create the modern social world—becomes aligned with that of the leader. Deindividuated persons stop thinking about their own unique qualities. They absorb the concept that they are simply anonymous parts of the greater whole, the cult.16 

Phase 3, other-deindividuation, parallels joiner self-deindividuation. We categorize our social world into those who are in the same groups as we are (“in” groups, “us”) and those who are not in our groups (“others,” “out” groups, “them”17). Many cults take this normal categorization process a step further by identifying certain “out” groups as enemies. Cult joiners are then conditioned to deindividuate members of the enemy group. Enemy deindividuation includes giving up any personal relationships with enemy group members, knowing or referring to any enemies by individual name, or distinguishing any individual attributes or characteristics among enemy members. All enemies become a homogeneous, faceless mass: they all look alike, think alike, and act alike.18 

Numerous studies have demonstrated that both types of deindividuation increase aggression against members of enemy groups,19, 20 a finding that is apparently related to the fact that combat killing is less traumatic if the victim is further away from the killer.21 The further away and less individually identifiable the victim is, the easier it is to deindividuate that person and therefore to kill him or her.

Once cult joiners are deindividuated into “us,” and cult enemies are deindividuated into “them,” negative stereotyping of the enemy begins. This is the transition to Phase 4, dehumanization. All positive characteristics (for example, moral virtue, intelligence, responsibility, honesty, trustworthiness, reliability) are attributed to members of the “in” group, and all negative characteristics (moral degeneracy, stupidity, irresponsibility, dishonesty, untrustworthiness, unreliability) are attributed to members of the “out” group.22 Dehumanization occurs when the enemy and the enemy’s characteristics are associated with nonhuman entities, such as animals, vermin, filth, and germs. Nazi propaganda in the 1930s compared the Jews and their negative characteristics to rats and cockroaches.23 Cult members are constantly encouraged to use these labels when referring to the enemy. Once these labels are consistently applied to the enemy group, cult members are conditioned over time to think of the enemy group members as nonhuman.

The dehumanization phase separates extremist hate groups and terrorist groups from non-violent cults, which do not dehumanize out groups. This phase also separates terrorist groups from the organized militaries of democracies. Although democratic militaries use depluralization, both forms of deindividuation, and dehumanization, their conditioning applies to armed combatants only. Democratic militaries have strict rules of engagement that preclude killing innocent noncombatants.24, 25 Terrorist groups have no such restrictions; therefore their dehumanization conditioning applies to all members of the enemy group, regardless of their combat status.

Although dehumanization rationalizes the mass killing of innocents by terrorist group members, an additional phase of conditioning helps prevent the occurrence of after-action killing remorse. Demonization, the fifth phase of the social psychological conditioning process, occurs when cult members become convinced that the enemy is in league with the devil and cosmic evil. Since most cultures define “good” in comparison to “evil,” demonization is a widely available conditioning strategy. Referring to the United States as the “Great Satan” is an example of cultural demonization. Since most cultures also exonerate those who fight against and eradicate evil, demonization is simply channeled and intensified by terrorist groups. If a terrorist group member is truly convinced that enemy old people, women, and children are evil creatures, then killing them is not just easy; it is necessary, honorable, and rewarded by those the member respects.

In summary, it is worth reiterating that the five phases of social psychological conditioning are reinforced by obedience pressure,26 which would not exist without the presence of the charismatic leader. In fact, studies of cults demonstrate that many cults cease to exist once the original founder or leader has been somehow removed from the group.27 Furthermore, additional powerful group dynamics reinforce the five-phase conditioning process. As a cohort of joiners simultaneously undergoes the phases of the conditioning process, they become a highly cohesive group. They endure the hardships of training and indoctrination together, and this shared experience enhances the perception that the group is now all and everything in each joiner’s life. As the group cohesion grows, the level of conformity pressure that each joiner imposes on the others increases.28 Increasing cohesion and increasing conformity pressure, along with the leader’s initial extreme position, help make each joiner’s views more extreme than they were initially.29 

In nonviolent cults, the ultimate threat underlying both obedience and conformity pressure is rejection from the group. No one who joins a group voluntarily wants to be rejected from it. Cult joiners especially do not want to be rejected from the cult group. They have usually sacrificed greatly (giving up family and friends, a career, personal wealth) to join the group, which increases their dependence on the group and therefore makes the possibility of rejection by the group even more psychologically devastating.30 In violent cults and terrorist groups, there is an additional and greater fear present: The fear of being killed or of having family members killed by the group is a strong possibility if joiners are too deviant or seriously consider leaving the group. Both of these fears have the effect of increasing joiner obedience and conformity.

In essence, each joiner confronts powerful social dynamics that make the conditioning almost impossible to resist. First, the seductive power of the charismatic leader entices the joiner into the cult and helps the joiner develop cult values while the conditioning takes effect. Second, the growing conformity power of the increasingly cohesive group reinforces the power of the leader. Then consider that many joiners are often culturally preconditioned in favor of the leader’s vision, that the conditioning frequently occurs in isolated environments, that there is an underlying fear of the consequences of deviance, and the power of the conditioning itself, and what becomes surprising is not that most terrorist group joiners become conditioned to actually become terrorists, but that apparently some do not.31 

What have we learned that will help responsible authorities eradicate terrorism? The first and most important conclusion to draw is the importance of leaders to terrorist groups. The conditioning process centers on and builds from the power of the charismatic leader. If the leader is eliminated, the group is greatly weakened. Considering terrorist groups as cults supports strategies that focus on “cutting the head off the snake.” Second, the more isolated the environment in which the conditioning process occurs, the deeper and longer lasting the results on group members. Aggressively disrupting the training camps wherever we find them not only hurts terrorist groups operationally, it should greatly diminish the effects of the conditioning. A third conclusion is specifically directed at the Fundamentalist Islamic groups. These groups take advantage of the fact that Fundamentalist religious schools (madrasas) have preconditioned a significant portion of Islamic male youths of recent generations. Products of these schools are more malleable to terrorist group values and missions. The results here support the idea of aggressively pursuing and eliminating the funding sources for these schools.

These recommendations could be put into effect quickly. This is important because the circumstances that create individuals susceptible to joining terrorist groups are not going to change quickly; for a long time there will be plenty of potential terrorist group recruits. I hope that this article has demonstrated how easily some of these cult-susceptible recruits can be conditioned into remorseless, on-demand killers of innocents. If the conditioning is this powerful, then it might be worthwhile to focus our limited counterterrorism resources on disrupting and possibly eliminating terrorist-creating conditioning processes.


1. Andrew Silke, “Cheshire-Cat Logic: The Recurring Theme of Terrorist Abnormality in Psychological Research,” Psychology, Crime and Law, vol. 4, 1998, pp. 51–59.

2. Martha Crenshaw, “The Psychology of Terrorism: An Agenda for the 21st Century,” Political Psychology, vol. 21, no. 2, June 2000, pp. 405–420.

3. Jerrold M. Post, “Terrorist Psycho-Logic: Terrorist Behavior as a Product of Psychological Forces,” in Walter Reich (ed.), Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 25–40.

4. Walter Reich, “Understanding Terrorist Behavior: The Limits and Opportunities of Psychological Inquiry,” in Origins of Terrorism (1998).

5. Herbert Jäger, Gerhard Schmidtchen, and Liselotte Süllwold, Analysen zum Terrorismus 2: Lebenlaufanalysen (Darmstadt, Germany: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1981).

6. Franco Ferracuti, “Psychiatric Aspects of Italian Left Wing and Right Wing Terrorism,” presented at the VII World Congress of Psychiatry, Vienna, Austria, 1983.

7. Stephen J. Morgan, The Mind of a Terrorist Fundamentalist: The Psychology of Terror Cults (Awe-Struck E-Books, 2001).

8. Salman Akhtar, “The Psychodynamic Dimension of Terrorism,” Psychiatric Annals, vol. 29, no. 6, June 1999, pp. 350–355.

9. Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich, Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995).

10. Stephen J. Morgan.

11. Thomas Robbins, Cults, Converts, and Charisma: The Sociology of New Religious Movements (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1988).

12. Donelson R. Forsyth, Group Dynamics, 3rd edition (Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1999).

13. Elliot Aronson, Timothy D. Wilson, and Robin M. Akert, Social Psychology: The Heart and the Mind (New York: HarperCollins, 2002).

14. Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich.

15. Stephen J. Morgan.

16. Salman Akhtar.

17. Elliot Aronson, Timothy D. Wilson, and Robin M. Akert.

18. Stephen J. Morgan.

19. Phillip G. Zimbardo, “The Human Choice: Individuation, Reason, and Order Versus Deindividuation, Impulse, and Chaos,” in W. T. Arnold and D. Levine (eds.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, vol. 17 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1969), pp. 237–307.

20. B. Mullen, “Atrocity as a Function of Lynch Mob Composition: A Self-Attention Perspective,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 12, pp. 187-197.

21. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995).

22. Henri Tajfel (ed.), Social Identity and Intergroup Relations (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

23. James Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002).

24. Dave Grossman.

25. Richard Holmes, Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle (New York: Free Press, 1986).

26. Stanley Milgram, “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 67, 1963, pp. 371–378.

27. Thomas Robbins.

28. Donelson R. Forsyth.

29. Serge Moscovici, “Social Influence and Conformity,” in G. Linzey and Elliot Aronson (eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology, 3rd ed. (New York: Random House, 1985) , pp. 347–412.

30. Donelson R. Forsyth.

31. James Waller.


Reprinted with the author's permission from Journal of Homeland Security, March 2004.

Anthony Stahelski received his Ph.D. in social and organizational psychology from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1981. He is a professor at Central Washington University and director of the Master’s Program in Organization Development, which trains leaders to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of groups and organizations. His research interests focus on various dynamics of small group interaction, particularly as manifested in cults and extremist groups. He has taught courses on the psychology of terrorism and has presented seminars on the mindset of a terrorist to law enforcement personnel in the state of Washington.