The Making of a Homegrown Terrorist

Psychiatric TimesVol 32 No 4
Volume 32
Issue 4

The author applies psychodynamic psychology to understand and recognize so-called "homegrown" terrorists, individuals who are familiar with American culture and thus more difficult to detect.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"34167","attributes":{"alt":"Making of a Homegrown Terrorist","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_1678442522345","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"3623","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"151","media_crop_scale_w":"150","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","style":"float: right;","title":" ","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]The best salespersons get their customers to seek them out to buy the product. Terror group recruiters from ISIL and Al Qaeda mushrooming franchises have many new and effective group membership sales techniques. They are sophisticated brainwashers and seducers. Internet advertisement is popular, even hip, for terrorist recruiters. Charismatic Imams use fiery anti-American sermons at mosques to attract young men. These potential recruits are “in-betweeners”: in between jobs; in between relationships; in between their family homes and their own marriage; in between schools; or in general, in between young adulthood and adulthood.1

Recently, terror cult recruiters such as the sinister, now deceased American Imam Anwar al-Awlaki have mesmerized and recruited young adult Americans into the cadres of violent Islamist Jihad. These so-called homegrown terrorists are the source of great concern for US Homeland Security experts. These “homegrowns” are very familiar with American culture and thus more difficult to detect before their acts of terror. In this article, psychodynamic psychology is applied toward the understanding of and recognition of homegrown terrorists.

“In-betweener” countries, communities, and youths

Like “in-betweener” individuals, countries and communities can sometimes become “in-betweeners.”2 Such places are vulnerable on a larger scale to terror cult recruitment, particularly their late adolescent and disaffected young adult populations. For countries in transition, such as Afghanistan after the Soviet occupation; Iraq after the defeat of Saddam; and unstable Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, there are extended periods of vulnerability to the recruitment efforts of terror cults such as ISIL and Al Qaeda franchises.

The spiritual/religious sermonizing and discussions draw many young people toward the idealistic pursuit of social justice or the utopian causes embedded in Jihadist propaganda. The exciting study of weapons, military tactics, physical fitness, and bomb-making technology appeal to youths. They prefer Jihadism to the mundane, boring vocations of their fathers. And, jobs are scarce in many Muslim countries because of the global economic recession.

The appeal of ISIL and Al Qaeda is their unique ability to magnify and expand normal rebelliousness of adolescents and their search for independent identity. What is normal adolescent rebellion and protest for many becomes terrorist identity and actions for some through the tutelage of malignant leaders such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In other words, ISIL recruiters, by intuition, design, or mere favorable location, take advantage of a normal adolescent stage-young Americans who can’t find jobs or vocations are vulnerable to recruitment.

Radical Islamists recruit by using personal charisma and manipulating the Koran. These manipulations of the Koran form attractive mixtures of theology turned into starkly articulated radical political action ideology (see Adam Gadahn history, below). In fact, many ISIL followers seek the Islamists out via their own adolescent identity searching and idealism.

As noted, all good salespersons savor customers who seek them out, rather than having to canvas mosque attendees or make cold-calls on the Internet. Often ISIL merely provides Internet posts.

Specific homegrown terrorists’ life histories

In terms of their individual life narratives and developmental psychologies, a pattern begins to emerge as we look in detail at the adolescent identity struggles of so-called homegrown terrorists.

Adam Gadahn: a traitor’s voice for Al Qaeda

Adam Gadahn is a 25-year-old American raised in Orange County, California. He calls himself “Azzam the American.” He is 1 of 4 children who worked on the family goat farm and was home-schooled in a nominally Christian, religiously eclectic home. During his teens, Adam began to rebel against his family and society in general. He grew to love death metal music.

Adam rebelled against his parents’ eclectic religious tastes and his grandparents’ Jewish home by hanging out at the Islamic Center of Orange County. Adam was a classic “in-betweener”: in between his parents’ and grandparents’ homes and in between a job and school.1 At the Orange County Mosque, 15-year-old Adam fell under the influence of 2 naturalized US citizens who were radical Muslims: Khalil Deek (a Palestinian computer repairman) and Hisham Diab (an Egyptian accountant). Diab brought the hungry boy home with him and asked his wife (now his ex-wife) to feed him.

After that innocuous beginning, the Islamists began indoctrinating Adam with their extremist views. The president of the Islamic Society of Orange County thought Gadahn so violent that he barred him from the mosque. Adam openly called Islamic Society President Haitham Bundakji an infidel because he reached out to Christians and Jews. At one point, Adam assaulted Bundakji. (The Imam probably attracted Adam’s repressed and displaced rage and disappointment in his father and grandfather.)

Adolescents need strong, caring male role models to help channel their energies toward healthy vocational, ethical, and spiritual development. Even painful narcissistic wounds can be sources of wisdom, humor, and creativity if fathers and/or family, friends, or clergy care; however, the recruitment process of Adam Gadahn sounds like a famil-iar malignant Pied Piper of ISIL tune.

Gadahn went to Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1998. He participated in Al Qaeda camps and met key Al Qaeda leaders; Osama bin Laden was very interested in “homegrown” American converts. Since 2004, Gadahn has been increasingly open with his threats against the US and Australia. The detailed study of Gadahn’s conversion to radical Islam reveals how vulnerable many adolescents are to recruitment by radical Islamists.

Nidal Malik Hasan, MD: doctor of death at Fort Hood

Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and wounded 33 others at Fort Hood, Texas, on November 5, 2009. This 39-year-old, unmarried Army psychiatrist is of Jordanian descent but born and raised in a Muslim family in Virginia. Hasan showed signs of identity struggles during his training years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He enjoyed the benefits of good medical and psychiatric specialty training at US government expense. However, Hasan showed evidence of conflicts between his Muslim faith and his duties as an army medical officer. He tried to convert some of his patients to Islam and had been reprimanded.

Hasan gave a grand rounds presentation, “The Koranic World View as It Relates to Muslims in the US Military,” to his colleagues at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Hasan presented PowerPoint slides of passages from the Koran, which he had interpreted as anti-American military efforts in Muslim countries. These rationalizations using the Koran could be connected with his subsequent violent behavior at Fort Hood. Hasan also made some grandiose recommendations, including the notion that US Army soldiers who are Muslim be allowed to be conscientious objectors.

Hasan had significant contacts with radical Imam Anwar al-Awlaki-a champion of violent Islamist Jihad. Hasan appears to have looked to al-Awlaki as a father or older brother figure to bolster his own impulses for violence against the US military. This level of father hunger, identity confusion, and “in-betweener” phenomena is a typical pattern among terrorist recruits.


Eric Shaw3 has presented a cogent model to explain terrorist formation. He calls it “The Personal Pathway Model.” In addition to the “in-betweener” idea, it can be usefully applied to understanding homegrown terrorists. One of the 4 ways Shaw found that terrorists solidify their identity is through the group cohesion and personal connection instilled in them through shared experiences of harsh treatment they receive from security forces and prison experiences. He also mentions narcissistic injuries/loss, such as that experienced by 10-year-old Osama bin Laden when his father abruptly died.

Shaw found that a telling contradiction occurs in the childhood histories of future terrorists. These youths come to realize that there are glaring inconsistencies between their parents’ political philosophies and beliefs and their parents’ actual impotence in terms of social or moral action. The young future terrorist feels that he must pursue strong decisive and violent action for the cause. Unlike his parents, he walks the walk, and not just talks the talk. This is an important dynamic in many homegrown terrorists. Moreover, young nascent terrorists are overly concerned about failure and thus are unable to achieve a traditional professional or vocational place in society despite being well educated. So, just as prison can provide a personal connection, spiritual inspiration, and group identity formation for a future terrorist, so, too, can the calculated psycho-inspirational charismatic training camps or professionally created Web sites of ISIL and Al Qaeda.

A subtheme echoes among all the homegrown terrorists-an ambivalence about marriage, women, and intimacy. Boys raised in fundamentalist families (Christian, Jewish, or Muslim) are taught to dominate women. But, at the same time, they fear adult intimacy and mutuality with a woman because of the now-devalued women who raised them. They feel entitled in the present to be idealized and “special.”


The key psychodynamic patterns in homegrown terrorists are:

• Ambivalence toward or disappointment in early parental figures, often resulting in father hunger or longing

• Ambivalence about vocation, marriage, and intimacy

• Being an “in-betweener” with prolonged adolescent identity searching

• Ambivalence toward authority, fear of authority, and hate of authority, yet longing for effective authority

The recruitment of homegrown terrorists involves the charismatic exploitation of “in-betweener” life situations by radical Imams as cult figures. Terror cults and their recruiters use well-recognized mind control, thought reform techniques, and social group atmospheres to accomplish their ends.


Dr Olsson trained at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. After an internship in mixed medicine at the University of Vermont in Burlington, he took a psychiatry residency at Baylor (1968-1971). He served as a psychiatrist at Oakland Naval Hospital from 1971 to 1973 running the substance abuse unit and working with POWs returning from Vietnam prisons. In 1981, he graduated from the Houston-Galveston Psychoanalytic Institute. He was an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, NH, and an Adjunct Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Baylor before retiring in 2011. He is the author of several books, including The Making of a Homegrown Terrorist: Brainwashing Rebels in Search of a Cause (Praeger, 2014). He reports no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.


1. Singer MT. Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers; 1995.

2. Olsson PA. Homegrown terrorists, rebels in search of a cause. Middle East Quarterly. 2013;20(3):3-10. Accessed March 24, 2015.

3. Shaw ED. Political terrorists: dangers of diagnosis and an alternative to the psychopathology model. Int J Law Psychiatry. 1986;8:359-368.

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