The Subjective Reality of the Terrorist: Ideological and Psychological Factors in Terrorism

  • Martha Srenshaw


The actions of terrorist organisations are based on a subjective interpretation of the world rather than objective reality.1 Perceptions of the political and social environment are filtered through beliefs and attitudes that reflect experiences and memories. The psychological and ideological factors that constitute the terrorist’s world-view are only part of a complex web of determinants of terrorist behaviour, one of which is surely a strategic conception of means and ends. It is clearly mistaken, however, to assume that terrorists act in terms of a consistent rationality based on accurate representations of reality. In fact one of the aims of terrorist organisations is to convince sceptical audiences to see the world in their terms. An important aspect of the struggle between governments and terrorists concerns the definition of the conflict. Each side wishes to interpret the issues in terms of its own values.


Belief System Political Violence Innocent Victim Cultural Narrative Subjective Reality 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Alpert, J. (1981) Growing Up Underground (New York: William Morrow).Google Scholar
  2. Baumann, M. (1977) Wie Alles Anfing — How It All Began: The Personal Account of a West German Urban Guerrilla (Vancouver, Canada: Pulp Press).Google Scholar
  3. Begin, M. (1977) The Revolt (Los Angeles: Nash) revised edn.Google Scholar
  4. Bereciartu, G. J. (1985) The Political Violence in the Basque Country’. Paper prepared for presentation for the International Political Science Association, Paris, France.Google Scholar
  5. Billig, P. (1985) The Lawyer Terrorist and His Comrades’, Political Psychology, 6, 1, pp. 29–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Böllinger, L. (1981) ‘Die entwicklung zu terroristischem handeln als psychosozialer prozess: begegnungen mit beteiligten’, pp. 175–231, in H. Jager et al., Lebenslauf-Analysen, vol. 2 of Analysen Zum Terrorismus (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag).Google Scholar
  7. Conrad, J. (1963) The Secret Agent (Harmondsworth: Penguin).Google Scholar
  8. Craig, G. (1982) The Germans (New York: Putnam).Google Scholar
  9. Crenshaw, M. (1986) The Psychology of Political Terrorism’, in M. Hermann (ed.) Political Psychology (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass) pp. 379–413.Google Scholar
  10. Erikson, E. H. (1963) Childhood and Society (New York: W. W. Norton) 2nd edn.Google Scholar
  11. Erikson, E. H. (1968) Identity: Youth and Crisis (New York: W. W. Norton).Google Scholar
  12. Ferracuti, F. and Bruno, F. (1981) ‘Psychiatric Aspects of Terrorism in Italy’, pp. 199–213, in I. L. Barak-Glantz and C. R. Huff (eds) The Mad, the Bad and the Different: Essays in Honor of Simon Dinitz (Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath).Google Scholar
  13. Ferracuti, F. and Bruno, F. (1983) ‘Italy: A Systems Perspective’, in A. Goldstein and M. H. Segall (eds) Aggression in Global Perspective. (New York: Pergamon) pp. 287–312.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Fetscher, I. and Rohrmoser, G. (1981) Ideologien und Strategien, Vol. 1 of Analysen zum Terrorismus (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag).Google Scholar
  15. Feuer, L. (1969) The Conflict of Generations: The Character and Significance of Student Movements (New York: Basic Books).Google Scholar
  16. Gergen, K. J. and Gergen, M. M. (1983) ‘Narratives of the Self’, in T. R Sarbin and K. E. Scheibe (eds) Studies in Social Identity (New York: Praeger) pp. 254–73.Google Scholar
  17. Himmelweit, H. T., et al. (1981) How Voters Decide (London: Academic Press).Google Scholar
  18. Hoffman, B. (1982) Right-Wing Terrorism in Europe, N-1856-AF (Santa Monica: Rand).Google Scholar
  19. Hoffman, B. (1986) Right-Wing Terrorism in the United States (Santa Monica: Rand).Google Scholar
  20. Holsti, O. R. (1967) ‘Cognitive Dynamics and Images of the Enemy’, in J. C. Farrell and A. P. Smith (eds) Image and Reality in World Politics (New York: Columbia University Press) pp. 16–39.Google Scholar
  21. Holsti, O. R. (1972) Crisis Escalation War (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press).Google Scholar
  22. Hopple, G. W. and Steiner, M. (1984) The Causal Beliefs of Terrorists: Empirical Results (McLean, Virginia: Defense Systems, Inc.).Google Scholar
  23. Horowitz, I. L. (1983) The Routinization of Terrorism and its Unanticipated Consequences’, in M. Crenshaw (ed.) Terrorism, Legitimacy and Power: The Consequences of Political Violence (Middletown, Conneticut: Wesleyan University Press) pp. 38–51.Google Scholar
  24. Jacobs, H. (ed.) (1970) Weatherman (New York: Ramparts Press).Google Scholar
  25. Janis, I. L. (1968) ‘Group Identification under Conditions of External Danger’, in D. Cartwright and A. Zander (eds) Group Dynamics: Research and Theory, (New York: Harper & Row) 3rd edn, pp. 80–90.Google Scholar
  26. Janis, I. L. and Mann, L. (1977) Decision-Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment (New York: Free Press).Google Scholar
  27. Jenkins, B. M. (1979) The Terrorist Mindset and Terrorist Decision-making: Two Areas of Ignorance (Santa Monica: Rand) paper no. P-6340.Google Scholar
  28. Jervis, R (1976) Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press).Google Scholar
  29. Kaplan, A. (1978) ‘The Psychodynamics of Terrorism’, Terrorism: An International Journal, 1, pp. 237–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Khaled, L. (1973) My People Shall Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary (London: Hodder & Stoughton).Google Scholar
  31. Knutson, J. N. (1980) ‘The Terrorists’ Dilemmas: Some Implicit Rules of the Game’, Terrorism: An International Journal, 4, pp. 195–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Knutson, J. N. (1981) ‘Social and Psychodynamic Pressures Toward a Negative Identity: The Case of an American Revolutionary Terrorist’, in Y. Alexander and J. M. Gleason (eds) Behavioural and Quantitative Perspectives on Terrorism (New York: Pergamon) pp. 105–50.Google Scholar
  33. Kohl, J. and Litt, J. (eds) 1974) Urban Guerrilla Warfare in Latin America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press).Google Scholar
  34. Laqueur, W. (ed.) (1978) The Terrorism Reader: A Historical Anthology (New York: New American Library).Google Scholar
  35. Lebow, R N. (1981) Between Peace and War: The Nature of International Crisis (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press).Google Scholar
  36. Marighela, C. (1971) For the Liberation of Brazil (Harmondsworth: Penguin).Google Scholar
  37. Moran, S. E. (ed.) (1986) Court Depositions of Three Red Brigadists, N-2391-RC (Santa Monica: Rand).Google Scholar
  38. Post, J. M. (1984) ‘Notes on a Psychodynamic Theory of Terrorist Behaviour’, Terrorism: An International Journal, 1, pp. 241–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Rapoport, D. C. (1985) Why does messianism produce terror?’ paper prepared for the American Political Science Association, New Orleans.Google Scholar
  40. Rapoport, D. C. (1984) ‘Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions’, American Political Science Review 78, 3, p. 658–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Rapoport, D. C. (1986) ‘Messianism and terror’, The Center Magazine, 19, pp. 30–6.Google Scholar
  42. Salvioni, D. and Stephanson, A. (1985) ‘Reflections on the Red Brigades’, Orbis, 29, pp. 489–506.Google Scholar
  43. Schmid, A. and de Graaf, J. (1982) Violence as Communication: Insurgent Terrorism and the Western News Media (Beverly Hills: Sage).Google Scholar
  44. Sheehan, T. (1981) ‘Myth and Violence: The Fascism of Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist’, Social Research, 48, pp. 45–73.Google Scholar
  45. Sidanius, J. (1985) ‘Cognitive Functioning and Sociopolitical Ideology Revisited’, Political Psychology, 6, pp. 637–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Snow, D. A. and Machalek, R. (1982) ‘On the Presumed Fragility of Unconventional Beliefs’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 21, pp. 15–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Textes des prisonniers de la Fraction armée rouge et dernières lettres d’Ulrike Meinhof (1977) (Paris: Maspero).Google Scholar
  48. Tololyan, K. (1985) ‘Cultural Narrative and the Motivation of the Terrorist’, paper prepared for the American Political Science Association, New Orleans.Google Scholar
  49. Wilkinson, P. (1986) Terrorism and the Liberal State (New York: New York University Press). Rev. ed.Google Scholar
  50. Wilkinson, P. (1983) The New Fascists (London: Pan Books) revised ednGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Robert O. Slater and Michael Stohl 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martha Srenshaw

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations