Skip to main content

From Profiles to Pathways and Roots to Routes: Perspectives from Psychology on Radicalization into Terrorism

Pathways to radicalisationRadicalisation

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social ScienceArguing that terrorist profiling has failed, this article gives a detailed and clear account of how other psychological approaches can lead to a better understanding of how people become terrorists.


The article makes the argument that attempts to find a ‘terrorist’ profile have failed. The author does not go so far as to say that it would be impossible to do so, but that it is logically unlikely that profiles either of terrorists generally or even of terrorists within the same movements will be generated. Instead of a focus on attempts to profile terrorists he argues that concentrating on the processes of involvement in terrorism is more productive, with a particular focus on three distinct phrases: (i) becoming involved, (ii) being involved (seen as involvement with unambiguous terrorist activity) and (iii) disengaging (not necessarily involving de-radicalisation). Critical study of these phases, he argues, allows for targeted counterterrorist and antiterrorist interventions into what is a complex psychosocial process of terrorist involvement.
The article builds on (and summarises some of) the author’s arguments in other works, and is a useful introduction to the themes and concepts discussed in them. The intention here is to show how a psychological approach to terrorism can lead to a better understanding of the processes that lead to involvement in terrorist groups.

Horgan also points out that asking ‘Why did you become involved in terrorism?’ elicits very different answers from ‘how did you become involved in terrorism?’ The former will often lead to accounts of external ‘push’ factors being discussed and these accounts tend to be more strongly influenced by the propaganda of the group, whereas the ‘how’ question can lead to answers containing more helpful accounts of radicalisation by focusing on the ‘pull’ factors – those positive factors that lured the individual in. Understanding these positive factors are very important in the context of counterterrorism initiatives, with Horgan’s interviews with former terrorists showing how disengagement with a group often occurred when the positive aspects of involvement were removed. An example of such a process might occur through the grim day to day reality of life in an illegal group being in stark contrast to the perceived glamour or excitement of membership prior to joining.

Based on this point, Horgan argues that in order to counteract the attractive (and legitimating) perception of membership in these groups counterterrorist initiatives should publicise the negative consequences of terrorism. This would target those at the first key process identified, that of considering becoming involved, as well as discourage more of those in the second identified process of being actively involved. However, Horgan also points out that it is important to remember that there is no single moment where these processes occur, but rather that they do so in little stages over time, at varying speeds and differing causes and consequences for each individual. Profiling these processes of involvement will, therefore, be of far more use for counterterrorism strategies to be targeted at each separate stage as opposed to the goal of profiling individual terrorists.

You might also like: