Inside the Mind of a Terrorist

June 5, 2012 Topic: PsychologyTerrorism

Inside the Mind of a Terrorist

An intelligence-community psychologist demystifies the enigmatic Al Qaeda bomb maker.


In early May, intelligence officials foiled a plot to conceal a nonmetallic bomb under the clothing of an Al Qaeda operative. At the center of the drama of this second thwarted underwear operation is the bomb’s maker, a technical virtuoso who has created a range of explosive devices for Al Qaeda. This bomb maker is a shadowy, enigmatic, compelling figure, who is both fascinating and repellent.

What kind of man is this bomb maker? What motivates and sustains him? How can he be so recognizably human in some ways and yet in others stand outside of humanity? As an intelligence-community psychologist who has studied terrorism for many years, here are some provisional thoughts about this bomb maker's psyche.


Let us start with his highly developed technical skills. Irrespective of how his ideology may skew his worldview, in relation to his craft he is firmly grounded in material reality. His mind remains disciplined, meticulous and logical, which is why he is so dangerous. The FBI tells us this second underwear bomb of his design is an improvement from a previous design, so he adapts to failure and persists. He is not mentally rigid, at least with working on technical matters. In fact, his imagination is not anchored by normal conventions, squeamishness or taboos. This unrestricted quality of thought is evident in the very concept of a device that conceals lethal explosives beneath the groins of operatives where they are most likely to slip undetected through security pat downs at airports. The bomb maker knows the hard limits that respect for the privacy and dignity of other people impose on security personnel, and he twists these limits to his goals. He understands the boundaries of common decency yet is eerily free from them himself.

To take this concept of psychological freedom a step further: the groin region of a suicide operative equipped with an underwear bomb would be first thing destroyed when the operative explodes the device. This is why the very notion of suicide bombs concealed in underpants so readily becomes the basis for edgy jokes ("Have you heard? Fruit of the Loom is now Fruit of the Boom!" "Even if the bomb works, there's going to be seventy-two very disappointed virgins"). Such humor aims to defuse our unease at the unhinged quality of the psychology behind such devices. We ask ourselves: What kind of educated, informed mind does this? A design for an explosive device positioned to start killing from the groin out strikes us as unnatural, perverse and the imagination behind it both completely uninhibited and very twisted. His mind seems to lack some critical element endemic to the human spirit and to moral psychology.

He does not relate to human physicality in a normal way. For him, the bodies of terrorist operatives and anonymous bombing victims are tools, a means to an end, not the foundation of their personhood. The operatives' bodies—including purportedly his own brother's—become a component of the weapon systems he designs, and the destroyed or mangled bodies of the victims become props in a propaganda message he wants to send. The cold calculation behind the bomb maker's exploitation of these bodies contrasts sharply with what he expects—in fact counts on—will be the reaction of audiences witnessing the spectacles of carnage he helps to stage.

Terrorism is about hijacking the attention of the public with scenes of random carnage, and what locks the attention of viewers is fear and sympathetic horror. He understands the way others react to the use to which he puts human bodies but stands apart from such reactions while ruthlessly manipulating them. He exploits the compassion of audiences as much as he exploits the bodies of his comrades and victims.

This man is brave in a primitive sort of way. After all, in becoming an Al Qaeda terrorist he has become a hunted man and therefore courts death as much as he deals it. He is brave but not courageous. Courage requires persevering in the face of danger that is fully understood in all its facets—physical, psychological, moral, spiritual. Redefining danger contrary to fact to lessen its psychological impact is not courage but a distortion of reality. If you believe what you get by dying for the cause is an afterlife far better than what you get by living your ordinary life, being dead loses much of its menace. This is standard Al Qaeda doctrine, which incidentally also applies to devout Muslims randomly killed in the terrorist strikes. These anonymous innocents are considered fortunate to have donated their live for the cause, for which they garner guaranteed, glorious heavenly rewards far better than their everyday lives. They become "collateral martyrs" alongside the suicide operatives who killed them.

We can infer that the bomb maker subscribes to this strange inversion of the value of death over life. How else would he justify creating devices that kill so many? By way of contrast, let us consider how the deaths in combat of civilians and soldiers in professional militaries are viewed by most publics. These dead are certainly not seen as luckier than those who survive. We mourn and honor soldiers who fall in combat—even enemy soldiers—precisely because they knew beforehand that death would irretrievably destroy the treasured pleasures of their present lives and future hopes, and yet they went forward anyway. To consider them lucky to have died is to show contempt for the precise nature of their witting sacrifices when going into battle. Furthermore, to brand innocent civilians who die in war's path as somehow fortunate is a profound distortion of moral psychology.

We may conclude, therefore, that the bomb maker is brave though not courageous, that on technical matters his mind is precise, logical, firmly anchored in material reality, while at the same time free of ordinary constraints and taboos and therefore singularly daring and creative. His logic and technical imagination are cold and powerfully intact, but his judgment—that ephemeral mental quality that captures maturity, wisdom, sympathetic understanding of the totality of reality, including tolerance for the complexities and ambiguities of shared morality—is quite broken.

Ursula Wilder is an intelligence-community clinical psychologist who specializes in terrorism and counterterrorism. She is currently a Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution.