Unmasking Terrorists - Two Critical Characteristics!

Key Signs Which Point to Potential Terrorist Activity

Posted Dec 31, 2009

This article was written in 2009 after we were horrified to learn that a young man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly tried to blow himself up on board a US bound aircraft and that there had been warning signs which were ignored. The horrific bombing and shootings in Oslo by the accused Anders Behring Breivik serves as another reminder of clues we can look for when unmasking terrorists.

There are perhaps always warning signs or pre-event indicators, as we call them (travel, chatter, messages left behind) in terrorism cases, but none are more telling than these two: (1.) subscribing to an uncompromising ideology which seeks to use violence to achieve its goals and (2.) isolation.

Christmas day we saw a powerful example of how unyielding violent ideologies and isolation combine. It could have turned out differently if not for the heroic efforts of fellow passengers. In this case, we were fortunate enough to have a caring father who saw his son being “radicalized” (to an unbending ideology) and who became psychologically and physically isolated which caused his father to sound the alarm.  Unfortunately and potentially disastrously, it went unheeded by those who should have known better. It is for that reason that I resurrect this article (in parts) which I wrote back in 2003.

Much has been written elsewhere about what can happen when we believe in an unyielding ideology (Inquisition, Nazism, Pol Pot, KKK, the list is endless). What has not been talked about at length is the psychological isolation that first takes place and then the physical isolation which when combined with a powerful ideology, makes for a very dangerous individual in the same way that Theodore John Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, Usama Bin Laden, and Timothy McVeigh, became metastable and even more dangerous when they self isolated.

These two components form a very dangerous admixture, as evidenced by the allegations now made against Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab by the Federal government. Because, once a terrorist isolates he has reached the final plateau, the springboard to terror.  At this juncture the terrorist is at the mercy of his whims (if acting alone) or the powerful effects of group dynamics (such as from an organized group such as Al Qaeda).  In either case, this is the final, most significant phase for the terrorist.  It is here that the terrorist becomes most dangerous; from here anything is possible from killing children to blowing themselves up.

I hate to be too critical, but the minute that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father went to the American embassy and told them about his son’s belief system (unyielding ideology which promotes violence) and his self isolation with others like minded, our intelligence services  should have been robustly mobilized because the intelligence community has known of this dangerous phenomenon for a very long time.

For those not familiar with this phase of terrorist assessment I present the following, based on my book “Hunting Terrorists: A look at the psychopathology of terror,” which is used by the FBI in the study of terrorism.  

Isolation: A Key Factor to Profiling Terrorists

Within the would-be terrorist or proto-terrorist are a multitude of thoughts, fears, and issues which have to be resolved. These thoughts and sentiments often put the terrorist at odds with society, with friends, with family, with traditions, and especially with the law. This process of synthesizing and distillation requires time to contemplate so that permissive beliefs can be fully embraced.  The thoughts of the would-be terrorist percolate to the surface beginning the differentiation process from the rest of society. Social norms may be called into question, extremist views are nurtured, and violent action is ideated. These views resonate well within the terrorist but not with family and friends who, like most people, eschew extremes and violence.  In due time, the proto-terrorist senses that he is different and that society is not indulgent of his thoughts and ideation, and so the isolation and withdrawal process begins.  Mental isolation transforms into spatial and social isolation.

Isolation permits the free expression of ideas, especially those which are extreme and which foster passionate hatred.  But it comes at a price, soon the activist or proto-terrorist becomes physically isolated not just mentally isolated.  In this cocoon of isolation the terrorist can indulge his ideology without the restrictive unfettered by routines and requirements of daily life. 

A study of this phenomenon is best illustrated by examining two all too familiar American terrorists Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh.  The evidence shows that in both of these cases their thoughts diverged from those of their families and friends, leading them to be little understood by those closest to them.  During this transitional period, both sought to refine their thoughts and later to pursue their passions in isolation.  One remained stationary in Montana (Kaczynski) the other (McVeigh) restlessly traversed the Midwest (Dyer 1998, 223-227).  They both communicated to family and friends their ideology, beliefs, concerns, vision, and fears, finding little sympathy.  Thus they pursued a relatively isolated life, where there were no arguments or restraints on their ideation.  In isolation they perfected their twisted views without the inconvenient restraints of reality (Dees 1996, 150-170). In this isolation, violence was woven into a schema where bombs served as a "magical" solution to what they both perceived to be a crisis.

It appears that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab mirrored this paradigm, if we are to believe all the early reporting on his behavior prior to this week.

Transition to Terrorism

While terrorists are still in this formative-transitional stage, distilling their passions, deciding what to do, reaching out to others, it is a perfect opportunity for family and friends to intervene.  Obviously many times the family does not know and may not have a clue, nevertheless, this is where law enforcement can interject themselves and solicit the assistance of family and friends.  This kind of action may not lead to a conviction or a prosecution but it may prevent a terrorist act.  In the case of  McVeigh and Kaczynski, if friends and family had intervened at this point perhaps hundreds of lives would have been saved.  In each of these cases the record shows that family or friends knew or suspected something; the ideation and passion by these two individuals was palpable (Dees 1996, 157).  Exactly what we saw with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his father according to published reports.

If isolation can be prevented so that rational thoughts and positive influences can prevail, often this is all that it takes (Post 1992, 37-38).  For once the individual either self isolates or is taken in by other “True Believers,” it is too late.  In all likelihood the individual will go forth and meet the violent expectations of the group, the psychological effects and dynamics of the collective are just simply too powerful (Hoffer 1951; Post 1992, 37-39). 

We have seen this similarly in the United States with the “militias” (nothing more than extremist groups) in the 1990’s which isolated themselves in Michigan, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon (Dyer 1998, 275-285; Lacayo 1996, 24-27). 

Once isolated within the confines of the group there is usually an initiation process which binds these individuals together.  In anthropological terms this is a “rite of passage.”  After their initiation, training, and indoctrination, these individuals are transformed and mutate into something mythical (Juergensmeyer 2000, 223).  After this they are “freedom fighters,” “revolutionaries,” “jihadists,” “martyrs,” “heroes.” 

This initiation process is also the glue that binds, affixes, and guarantees their commitment in the future to the organization.  In relative isolation with other terrorists, beliefs are strengthened, discipline is instilled, training is facilitated, and new skills (e.g., firearms, explosives) are acquired (Combs 2000, 108).  Within the terrorist camp or cell, the terrorist feels part of something greater, he feels whole, perhaps for the first time in his life.  This is very fulfilling for the unfulfilled as they become in the words of Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, “archetypes;” they become the hero-adventurer.

In isolation, the relative merit of each individual is determined through a vetting process unique to each terrorist organization (Combs 2000, 108-109). Some are more rigid and stringent than others.  Obviously, not all terrorists are up to the same task.  Large terrorist organizations have the capacity to pick and choose the best and brightest to insure that limited human resources (terrorists) are most effectively utilized.  The 9/11 Commission Report speaks at length about the long process of selection and training that the al-Qaeda hijackers underwent prior to 9/11 (The 9/11 Commission Report 2004; Ragavan 2004, 11-19).  That is not that unusual.  Terrorist organizations don’t want to waste talent unnecessarily either.

Training follows the vetting process, which allows for the personal abilities and agilities to surface.  Those that are proficient with firearms become the snipers, assassins, or marksmen.  Those who feel comfortable around explosives learn to create improvised explosive devices (IED), so essential to modern terror.  Those that evolve a hands-on approach perfect the morbid art of manual assassination through stabbing and beheading.  Others, less talented, are merely used as transportation platforms for bombs (IED’s) which they will detonate upon themselves as is alleged in the Abdulmutallab case by the government. While others will serve as couriers, administrators, communicators, and go-betweens (Combs 1997, 105-126; Moreau, et al. 2004, 30-21).  Like a corporation, terrorists will find a niche, a way to contribute to the cause in their own way. 

With training and coaching, the terrorist is soon ready to move on, to act out, to terrorize.  Before each terrorist act, there is one final phase of isolation.  Not mental isolation but rather the necessary isolation from society to commit the terrorist act.  This usually requires some sort of hiding out while preparing.  In the case of the Puerto Rican nationalist group the Macheteros, they would go to a “safe house” before each operation. Here they would spend the final few days getting mentally prepared, cleaning weapons, readying their equipment, rehearsing their final actions, making sure no one was on to them.  Both Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski also went into hiding just before they struck.  It appears that the alleged terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, did the same thing in Yemen.

Once operations are planned, coordinated, approved by higher authority, and rehearsed, then it is time to act.  Functional isolation at this stage is necessary.  The terrorist needs to separate from others and arm himself for the task.  All terrorist acts require this final separation to carry out their deeds.  Be it for a few hours or for a few months, this final phase is necessary because at this point that which has been concealed and guarded will soon come to light. Premature exposure or mistakes cannot be afforded.  It is at this phase that it becomes dangerous for all concerned: the terrorist, the public, law enforcement. The terrorist is primed for action and any interference with the plan could have negative consequences.  Weapons and explosives are in hand, devices have been armed, the terrorist is nervously on edge, paranoia is heightened.  

At this stage it is too late, all that is past is prologue.  The terrorist is singularly focused, energized and primed.  At this point all that remains is the execution of the plan; death and destruction will follow. Which is why we need to focus on these two key criteria: subscription to an unyielding ideology that requires violence and isolation of the individual. These two components give us insight into the psychopathology of terror. Unfortunately in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab they were ignored, a mistake we can ill afford to make again, especially when there were pre-event indicators as well as the compelling warning by a concerned father.

For further information please consult the bibliography below or contact me at www.jnforensics.com. You can follow me on twitter at: @navarrotells. For a complete list of my books including Interviewing Terrorists: The Definitive How-to Guide From An Ex-FBI Special Agent, please go to Amazon.com.


The 9/11 Commission report: final report of the National Commission on terrorist attacks upon the United States. 2004. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Combs, Cindy. 1997. Terrorism in the twenty‑first century. New York: Prentice Hall.

Dees, Morris and James Corcoran. 1996. Gathering storm: America’s militia movement. New York: Harper Collins.

Dyer, Joel. 1998. Harvest of rage: why Oklahoma city is only the beginning. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Dyson, William E. 2001. Terrorism: an investigator’s handbook. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Co.

Hoffer, Eric. 1951.  The true believer.  New York: Harper and Row.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2000. Terror in the mind of God: the global rise of religious violence. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Lacayo, Richard. 1996. State of siege. Time, April 8: 24-27

Navarro, Joe. 2005. Hunting terrorists: a look at the psychopathology of terror.  Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas Publishers.

Navarro, Joe. 2004. Lectures on exploitable weaknesses of terrorist organizations, Saint Leo University, Saint Leo, Florida, Spring Academic Year.

Navarro, Joe. 2003. “The psychopathology of terror,” lecture before the FBI National Academy Graduates, Key West, Florida, July 28.                                                                                                       

Navarro, Joe and John R. Schafer. 2003. Universal principles of criminal behavior: a tool for analyzing criminal intent. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, (January): 22-24.

Post, Jerrold M. 2004. Leaders and their followers in a dangerous world.: the psychology of political behavior. Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press.

Post, Jerrold M. ed. 2003.  Assessing leaders at a distance: the political personality profile.  In The psychological assessment of political leaders: with profiles of Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton, Jerrold Post, ed.,  Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press: 69-104.

Post, Jerrold M. 2001. The mind of the terrorist: individual and group psychology of terrorist behavior. Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, November 15, 2001.

Post, Jerrold M. 1992. Terrorist psycho-logic: terrorist behavior as a product of psychological forces.  In Origins of Terrorism: psychologies, ideologies, theologies, states of mind, Walter Reich, ed., Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press: 25-40.

Ragavan, Chitra. 2004. Unraveling the plot.  U.S. News and World Report, July 5: 11-19.