The terrorist mindset

Understanding the mindset of a terrorist and their motivation is not enough. What drives them may be more useful in winning the war against terror.


Every day we make assumptions about what people value, why, and how they make certain decisions.

But are there groups of people who are harder to read than others? And how many false assumptions do we make based on our own social mores and biases?

LSE graduate Sumitra Sri Bhashyam has spent the past six years researching the terrorist mindset and trying to get to the core of their values.

Her PhD thesis, recently completed in the Department of Management within the Decision Sciences team, looked at the different perceptions of terrorists’ motivations, and how to capture them in models trying to predict their choices of attacks.

She says there is no question that those who mastermind the attacks are intelligent, rational, brilliant strategists and often one step ahead of the game.

However, their actions can also seem counter intuitive to most of us, as Dr Sri Bhashyam explains, and this could be for several reasons.

Sumitra-140pixels“First, we may have the wrong idea about what terrorists are trying to achieve, and that their priorities may change over time. In addition, we (and they) may be overestimating their ability to weigh their options. We also don’t realise that emotions play such a big role in their actions.

“We make the mistake of attaching our own social mores and biases to the actions of terrorists, thinking we understand their motivation, when we have sometimes got it totally wrong. Often they are not looking for political gain, but social benefit. It is also difficult to know exactly what they want when they appear to be so inconsistent.

“When government try to negotiate with terrorists, the latter often don’t want to reach any agreement because it defeats one of their purposes – to exist. It is not uncommon for them to turn their backs on achieving a political gain if it means they no longer have any reason to exist,” she says.

What proof do suicide terrorists have that they will go to paradise and be greeted by 72 virgins, as propagated by some Islam followers?

Suicide terrorists are willing to give up their lives, making many people doubt their rationality, but it is possible that these types of terrorists are seeking another type of benefit: a psychological one, Dr Sri Bhashyam says. They could be martyrs, or acting out their anger through violence against others.

How, then, should governments devise counter measures to halt terrorism when they are dealing with completely different personalities and mindsets prone to change?

Dr Sri Bhashyam says the solution – as with disease management – should include prevention and not only counter-measures.

But can we solely rely on counter-measures such as security procedures? It may not be sustainable in the long term, she argues, because terrorists will just change their strategy and find a new target or mode of attack.

A greater emphasis should be put on proactive measures, such as stopping people wanting to join a terrorist organisation in the first place. Many of them do not even understand the cause they are fighting for; they just want to belong to a group and be part of something.

“They often suffer from low self-esteem and feel alienated from the rest of society,” Dr Sri Bhashyam explains. “If you can reach people at this point – before they are drawn into the terrorists’ net and feel sympathy for them – then you have a far better chance of winning the so-called war against terror.”

The purpose her thesis, Dr Sri Bhashyam says, was to come up with alternative ways to fight terrorism.

Since 9/11, when Al-Qaeda launched an attack on the United States, killing almost 3000 people, the world has witnessed terror strikes in Bali, London, Boston and more recently, Kenya.

Governments and security officials are increasingly trying to find ways to protect the public against such attacks bit the fight against terrorism is becoming more difficult, Dr Sri Bhashyam says.

“Current efforts in modelling terrorist decisions rely on several assumptions such as rational thinking, with the ability to do a ‘cost benefit’ analysis of their alternatives. But are we missing something? I think so,” she says. “It is time we looked at this in a different way.”

Posted 3 April 2014

Useful links

Sumitra Sri Bhashyam is a postdoctoral researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD thesis, In the Opponent’s Shoes: Modelling Dynamic Preferences of Malicious Agents, is available at|