Psychological Resilience to Terrorism

Terrorism is a psychological weapon waged upon society by non-state actors who attack civilian populations using various unconventional means in order to create the most horror, fear and panic possible in order to move the political process in the way the terror group desires.  In this type of psychological warfare, civilians are targeted for political purposes usually in a campaign of targeted attacks rather than one isolated attack, unless it is a horrific one, in order to continually create and reinforce in civilian perceptions an ongoing senses of threat and dread - that anyone and any place, at any time can be a victim.  By achieving this aim the terrorists hope to force concessions, withdrawals and win their way on their deadly background​.  In nearly every case the terrorists' main goal is to hit the largest possible target (symbolically or in the number of casualties) in the most horrifying manner and by doings o use the media to amplify its horror driven message which is some variant of "make your government give in to our concessions or suffer more threats to civilian security".  Terrorism is a tool and it is used to create states of fear, horror and dread not only in its immediate victims but in its wider witnessing audience.

Increasingly western populations and governments are finding themselves the targets of terrorists plots and need to take into account the best measures for protecting themselves.  Defense against terrorism involves numbers measures: from hardening targets, strengthening police and intelligence functions, winning hearts and minds to fight against terrorists, diminishing popular support for terrorism, reducing the root causes as well as preparing civil populations to be resilient in the face of terrorist attacks.  While counter-terrorism measures are important to fight terrorism, resilience to terrorism is also an important deterrent to terrorists.  A population that is resilient in the face of terrorism and remains steadfast and cohesive in the face of attacks on the civilian population refusing to be moved by fear into political concessions is one of the most overlooked and perhaps best tools in the fight against terrorism.

Governments and civil society face significant challenges in preparing their civilian population to be resilient in the face of terrorist attacks.  In her paper Modeling Psychosocial Resilience to Terrorism, Dr. Speckhard identifies and analyzes the variables that are important to consider in enhancing resilience.  She also discussed the challenges of reporting terrorism in the media, the psycho-social responses that are likely and how to deal with them.  She examines the psychological dimensions of terrorist attacks on the civil population and how government responses and communications via mass media can greatly modulate stress responses and increase societal resilience to terrorism.

Currently thousands of military, diplomatic and civilian personnel are deployed under NATO, UN, and other multi-national, as well as national auspices in high security threat environments, including active conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan.  Soldiers are generally well trained and prepared psychologically to face armed conflict.  Civilian contractors and diplomats on the other hand, often are not.  Moreover in today's high threat security environments terrorists, insurgents and even child soldiers may be the opposing force, creating a more uncertain and anxiety provoking environment and more difficult to identify security threat.  These facts have serious implications for the psycho-social resilience of diplomatic, civilian and military personnel deployed in such environments.  In their study Military Personnel Serving in a High Threat Security Environment: Counter Insurgency & Counter Terrorism Operations in Iraq, Anne Speckhard, Gino Verleye & Beatrice Jacuch investigated psycho-social resilience in an exploratory sample of U.S. embassy staff, contractors and U.S. forces serving in Iraq during 2007, a time when IEDs, roadside bombings, mortar attacks, kidnaps, murders and sniper fire were an everyday occurrence in Iraq.


Anne Speckhard, Verleye, G., & Jacuch, B. (2012). Assessing psycho-social resilience in diplomatic, civilian & military personnel serving in a high-threat security environment during counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations in Iraq. Perspectives on Terrorism, 6(3). 

Verleye, Gino and Speckhard, Anne (2011) “Military and Diplomatic Personnel Engaged in Counter Insurgency and Counter Terrorism Operations” in Laurie Fenstermacher, Special Rapporteur and Anne Speckhard, editors Social Sciences Support to Military Personnel Engaged in Counter-Insurgency and Counter-Terrorism Operations: Report of the NATO Research and Technology Group 172 on Social Sciences Support to Military Personnel Engaged in Counter-Insurgency and Counter-Terrorism Operations Symposium held in St. Petersburg, Russia June 18-20, 2009.

Speckhard, A. (2006) Prevention strategies and promoting psychological resilience to bioterrorism through communication.  In M.S. Green, J. Zenilman and D. Cohen (Eds.), Risk assessment risk and communication strategies in bioterrorism preparedness.

Speckhard, A., Tarabrina, N;  Krasnov, V. & Mufel, N. “Stockholm Effects and Psychological Responses to Captivity in Hostages Held by Suicidal Terrorists” in S. Wessely  & V. Krasnov eds. Psychological Responses to the new Terrorism: A NATO Russia Dialogue, IOS Press (2005).

Speckhard, A.“Civil Society’s Response to Mass Terrorism: Building Resilience” in Combating Terrorism – Military and Non Military Strategies, Rohan Gunaratna editor, Eastern Universities Press, Singapore, 2006.

Speckhard, A.,Tarabrina, N. Krasnov, V. &  Mufel. N.     Posttraumatic and Acute Stress Responses in Hostages Held by Suicidal Terrorists in the Takeover of a Moscow Theater Traumatology, Vol. 11, Issue 1 2005, 3-21.

Speckhard, A.  Inoculating Resilience to Terrorism: Acute and Posttraumatic Stress Responses in U.S. Military, Foreign & Civilian Services Serving Overseas After September 11th .  Traumatology, 8 (2), June 2002 pp. 105-122.

Speckhard, A.  Acute Stress Disorder in Diplomats, Military and Civilian Americans Living Abroad Following the September 11th Terrorist Attacks on America.  Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, Vol 34(2), Apr 2003, 151-158.