Terrorists can end or radically change the lives of innocent people in a fraction of a second, and now psychologists are striving to understand the root causes that drive people to radical actions. Childhood events and traumas could lay the foundation, encouraging people to join organizations like ISIS, the study revealed.

Law enforcement organizations, as well as social scientists, have spent decades trying to understand the psychology involved when people choose to join terrorist organizations. If patterns can be spotted before radical actions are undertaken, it may be possible to prevent potential terrorists from joining radical organizations. Such findings could also assist in the development of treatment methods for those captured in the field.

Extremists in all fields are usually disillusioned with a set of beliefs, and/or by their society as a whole. These people usually try to network with others who share the same belief system they do, whether they are a gang, cult, or terrorist group. The type of group sought out by a budding extremist is related to their culture and social system.

Militant groups, such as al-Qaeda, can draw the support of millions of people among the general public. However, only a small percentage of the group's followers are willing to die in militant actions. Researchers found that the people who become recruits are those who find a group that both reinforces their ideas and allow their identities to merge with that of the extremist organization.

"They can be low-lifes, but once they lock into these values it doesn't matter, because they become heroic warriors," Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor said.

Atran and his team traveled to a pair of regions in Morocco known to have produced several terrorists, including some involved in the train bombings in Madrid in 2004. Many of the subjects in the study said they were willing to make a sacrifice to bring sharia, a literal interpretation of Islamic law, to Syria. However, the depth of that theoretical sacrifice varied greatly, with the most radical positions held by those who had joined extremist groups.

Noemie Bouhana, a criminologist at University College London, is developing a new computer model that would examine the risk factors, attempting to identify times when the risk of attack is high.

Some former terrorists reject their chosen path, or are rehabilitated after capture or surrender. One center for the rehabilitation of terrorists in Saudi Arabia claims to have a success rate of 88 percent.

Study of the psychology of potential militants was profiled in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Pnas), as well as an article in Cliodynamics.

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