Terrorists are mad and 5 other myths about terrorism

Anders Behring Breivik

Writing about terrorism is always fraught.  It’s naturally emotive.  Readers are suspicious, sometimes defensive, and often dogmatic.  Public debates concerning terrorism so rarely get anywhere.  They generate far more heat than light.

On that score, the recent tragedy in Oslo was no exception.  Responses were swift and passionate.  The fact that these attacks were carried out by a white Norwegian rather than the Muslim everyone expected meant the debate was different this time.  People’s understanding of what terrorism was, and who could do it had been rocked.  And in the struggle to make sense of it, certain themes kept emerging: the person who did this was mad; religion causes all the violence of the world; this person wasn’t a real terrorist, he was just a lone gunman and so on.  Immediately I was struck by just how many wrong assumptions were being made, and how badly terrorism was understood, despite the fact we’ve been talking about it for a decade now.

Clearly, terrorism remains steeped in mythology.  Frustratingly, so.  I can understand that where it’s something unknown.  But people have been studying it for decades now, and despite all the enduring mysteries, some myths have now well and truly been busted by researchers in the area.  Here are a few of the most common

1. Terrorists are mad

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard or read someone express this sentiment since the Norway attacks.  At one level, it’s perfectly understandable, too.  Terrorism definitely is abnormal behaviour.  It seems to contradict every natural instinct we have to avoid killing members of our own species.  And it seems to be the domain of fanatics who have extreme views of the world and minds that aren’t for turning.

And in fact, for quite some time, even the experts seemed to agree.  When terrorism studies began to take off in the ‘70s, researchers were immediately attracted to psychological explanations of terrorism.  Terrorists were assumed to be psychologically disturbed or to have personality disorders like paranoia or narcissism.  Lots of energy was spent trying to find the “terrorist personality”, and by the ‘80s, plenty of theories had been developed.

But this psychoanalysis was done without actually interviewing any terrorists.  Andrew Silke, who is one of the world’s leading authorities on the psychology of terrorism, describes this as “diagnosis at a distance”, and points out everything began to change when psychologists actually started interviewing terrorists themselves rather than relying on second hand reports of them.  Suddenly it became clear that most terrorists showed no signs of mental illness or personality disorder.  They were overwhelmingly sane and psychologically normal.

The world's most recognised terrorist, Osama bin Laden.

Some terrorists, it is true, do have mental illnesses.  Theodore Kaczynski (best known as the “Unabomber”) who sent over a dozen homemade bombs in the mail to victims over nearly 20 years, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  Closer to home, the same is true of Izzydeen Atik, who was convicted as part of the Benbrika group in Melbourne.  It is entirely possible to be both mentally ill, and a terrorist.


But the truth is that this is rare.  The best research shows that terrorists have a much higher rate of sanity than the rest of the criminal population, and perhaps even higher than the general population.  That’s why, despite the fact that the myth still seems a popular one in media, just about every serious researcher in the field now agrees terrorists are overwhelmingly normal people.

But as the media’s response to Anders Breivik’s terrorism in Norway shows, the myth is still rife.  That’s probably because it’s easier and more comforting to dismiss him as a “nutter”.  The thought that he was a completely normal, rational human being is a far scarier one.  Of course, the problem is that this quickly becomes circular reasoning: you’d have to be mad to do terrorism, so if you do terrorism, you’re obviously mad.  The sad reality is that there is just about zero evidence that Breivik is mad at all.  And even if he were, he’d be the exception.

2. Terrorism is something religious fundamentalists do

It’s true that most of the terrorism-related headlines lately have been dominated by religious fundamentalists.  But the fact is the history of terrorism is dominated by secular groups, and that there are still plenty of them active today.

The first modern terrorists were the Russian anarchists of the 19th century.  In fact these were the groups that came up with the term “terrorism” to distinguish themselves from ordinary killers.  Far from being religious fundamentalists, the anarchists were atheists.  They were also very influential.  By the beginning of the 20th century, anarchist terrorism had spread far and wide, from Europe to Asia and even to America.

After World War I came what terrorism historian David Rapoport calls the “second wave” of modern terrorism: the anti-colonial wave, which lasted about 40 years.  Again, a lot of these groups were secular in nature.  They were fighting against what they saw as occupation – either wanting to kick occupiers out of their country, or trying to separate and create their own nation.  Even the groups that had religious affiliations in this wave, like the Catholic IRA in Ireland, or the Hindu Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka weren’t primarily focussed on religion.  They were focussed on land and independence.

The next “wave” of terrorism came about in the ‘60s, and is called the “New Left” wave.  The groups of this era – like the Weathermen in the USA or the Red Brigades in Italy – were heavily influenced by Marxism, Leninism and Communism.  Often, the anti-colonial terrorists began adopting similar ideas.  The Tamil Tigers, for instance, are more a Marxist group than a religious Hindu one.


Terrorism only entered its “religious wave” in about the ‘80s.  Over the next decade we saw the Christian Identity Movement emerge in America, the Aum Shinrikyo attacks in Japan, Jewish terrorism in the Middle East, and of course the Muslim groups that have now become so infamous.

While scholars continue to debate whether this religious wave is really any different from the terrorism that came before it, the fact that it is even identified as religious only emphasises that terrorism has historically not been a religious activity.  Even in the Middle East and North Africa, secular nationalist groups – like the Palestinian Liberation Organisation or the National Liberation Front in Algeria – were the pioneers.  The religious groups only came later.

Today, terrorism remains a broad activity taking in white supremacists, European nationalists, anti-government activists, animal liberationists and environmentalists, as well as the usual suspects.  All this shows terrorism is simply a political tactic.  It isn’t owned by any one political position or religion.  It’s right-wing and left-wing, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, religious and atheist.

Timothy McVeigh

3. Terrorists always act in groups

Yes, terrorism is most typically a group activity.  Killing people is often easier if you have other people egging you on.  But that doesn’t mean you have to be in a group to be a terrorist, or that terrorists never act alone.  In fact there are plenty of “lone wolves” in the history of terrorism.  Far too many to list.

Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber is probably the most famous, but here you could also mention Eric Rudolph (who was in the FBI’s top 10 until he was caught in 2003) or Faisal Shahzad, the failed “Times Square bomber” who was convicted last year after acting alone.  We don’t yet know if Breivik acted entirely alone, but if he did, he certainly wouldn’t be the first.

4. Terrorists have no moral conscience

It is easy to assume that because terrorists commit horrific acts, they have no morality at all.  Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.  Terrorists usually have very strong moral commitments – they just have a moral system that the rest of us find repugnant.

People like Anders Breivik don’t see themselves as doing something immoral.  In fact, they usually see themselves as doing the only moral thing in the circumstances.  Breivik admitted his act was cruel, but he saw it as “necessary” in order to save his people.  Osama bin Laden had a similar attitude.


Terrorists usually aren’t psychopaths that have no empathy.  They often have a great deal of empathy for certain people.  The anarchist terrorists had empathy for the working class; the anti-colonialists had empathy for their own national or ethnic group; New Left terrorists had empathy for Third World populations; and today’s religious terrorists have empathy for their co-religionists.  In fact they often see themselves as being altruistic – acting not only out of hate for people they think are the enemy, but also out of love for “their people”.

5. Terrorism aims to kill people

The original anarchist terrorists used to describe terrorism as “propaganda by deed”.  That’s really what terrorism is: a way of communicating a political demand or idea.  This is why it is almost always done in public.  The September 11 attacks are the most extreme example of this.  They were designed so that the second tower was hit 15 minutes after the first – enough time to ensure all the cameras were in place and the attack would be beamed live around the world.

The point is not the people who are killed.  Terrorism is really done for the benefit of the rest of us – the audience.  Without publicity, terrorism is a failure.  It is meant to draw a reaction from us: to make us scared, or intimidated or angry.  The direct victims are really just sacrificed for our attention.  It is no coincidence that Anders Breivik posted his manifesto online just before his attack.  Who would have read it had he not killed 76 people in broad daylight?

That’s why some terrorism scholars say you don’t even need to kill people to commit an act of terrorism.  If, for example, you blow up an empty abortion clinic, that’s still terrorism because you’re using violence to make a political point through fear.

6. Terrorists have extreme views

Sometimes they do.  Sometimes they are very conspiratorial or just plain wacky.  But sometimes they hold political views that are fairly widely held.  Anders Breivik’s views on Muslims and multiculturalism are similar to those of a lot of quite mainstream writers and commentators.  Similarly, plenty of Muslims agreed with Osama bin Laden that the West had been oppressing Muslims for decades.  The IRA were far from alone in wanting Irish independence from Britain.

What makes them extreme is that they believe change should be achieved through violence.  That is, their prescription is extreme, but not always their diagnosis.

Waleed Aly is a lecturer in politics at Monash University, and works within the university’s Global Terrorism Research Centre. Previously, he worked as a commercial lawyer, and was a board member of the Islamic Council of Victoria for over four years. Waleed has risen to prominence as a young, articulate spokesperson for the Australian Muslim community, due to his considered commentary on human rights and multiculturalism within Australia.

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