Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

WTC Attack Ushers in a New Breed of Terrorist

Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

WTC Attack Ushers in a New Breed of Terrorist

Article excerpt

Intelligent, highly skilled, and delusional.

The premeditation and calculated planning of the assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon suggest that a new type of terrorist has emerged-one who is intelligent, skilled, and committed, long term, to furthering a cause-whatever the price.

"Unlike others who act with a criminal intent, terrorists don't see what they do as criminal.... They are operating from a posture of righteousness," Dr. Robert Phillips, consulting psychiatrist for protective intelligence at the U.S. Secret Service, told this newspaper. "If you were able to talk with the terrorists, with a great deal of rationality they would be able to justify their behavior." Those who support such terrorism have the same skewed sense of reality, he said.

The behavior of terrorists distinguishes them from many other people who have fixed, false beliefs. Terrorists are unable to distance themselves from their self-perceived view of the world. "Terrorism is a delusional state in which the terrorist's belief system is rooted in a series of realities only they share," said Dr. Phillips, a forensic psychiatrist who also is adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Law in Baltimore.

"Some delusional patients we treat are able to exist in the real world with only minimal compromise," he said.


"A lot of people think of terrorists as crude and unsophisticated, but that is not the case. We've found some to be very intelligent," said Walter Purdy of the Terrorism Research Center in Fairfax, Va. Some of the terrorists involved in the events of Sept. 11, 2001, had college degrees and provisional pilot licenses. And although flight school instructors described the hijackers as polite and eager students-neighbors called them unobtrusive and unexceptional-clearly they would need a very different psyche to commit such acts.

A psychological profile of terror is only one element in a multifaceted counterattack, but it is an essential component, according to Dr. Colin A. Ross of the Cohn A. Ross Institute for Psychological Trauma in Richardson, Tex. "We cannot solve terrorism without a psychological profile of the terrorists ... in the long term." He added that it is essential to understand the motivations and psychology of the terrorists involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in order to effectively combat terrorism and prevent such assaults from happening again.

The term "profiling" may be inaccurate for a group of terrorists because the technique applies to individuals, Dr. Phillips noted. "We are profiling and codifying behaviors, attitudes, and acts. The important thing is coming up with a profile that includes the behaviors, risk factors, warning signs, and the kinds of beliefs that are going to lead an individual to act this way. We have to understand their ways of thinking."

Psychological profiling is a very inexact endeavor, said Tom Evans, Ph.D., professor of psychology at John Carroll University, University Heights, Ohio. "And we're trying to work with a variable that is very intangible."

"We don't have a good handle on their personality structure," said Dr. Clete DiGiovanni, a psychiatrist involved with the U.S. Interagency Community on Counterterrorism. These terrorist attacks have uncovered a lot of seemingly new issues, he explained, adding, "if anyone has these people figured out, I'd like to meet them. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.