Investigating the Psychological Profile of the Palestinian “Lone Wolf” Terrorist: Preliminary Findings

, May 29, 2017

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 17, No. 11

Lone wolf? Stabber at a check point.

Lone wolf? Stabber at a check point.

  • The reasons behind “lone wolf” terrorism are an enigma, although it is assumed by many that cultural, religious, and nationalistic factors drive the phenomenon. Identifying psychological factors associated with the “lone wolf” would be important in gaining an understanding of who potentially may be prone to such behavior.
  • It is widely assumed that Palestinian “incitement” fuels lone wolf attacks. However, this does not account for specifically who decides to carry out an act of violence. We looked at Palestinian Arab youth and attempted to identify a psychological profile of the potential “lone wolf.”
  • A series of psychological measures was administered to residents of a refugee camp as well as a neighboring village, with subjects asked to rate both themselves as well how they imagined actual perpetrators of “lone wolf” violence would see themselves.
  • We found distinct patterns of response with differences between the refugee camp population and the village population as well as differences within the village population between themselves and their perception of “lone wolves.”
  • Our results suggest a far more complex and nuanced picture of Palestinian Arab society insofar as attitudes toward Jews and willingness to carry out terror attacks is concerned. We also found that many Palestinian Arabs see the “lone wolves” as psychologically distressed individuals who are not solely driven by ideology.


In an earlier study,1 a behavioral profile of “lone wolf” Palestinian Arab terrorists was proposed. The discussion focused on how the decision to carry out a violent terror attack requires both a motivational ideology to act as “fuel” and a specific psychological event or state to serve as the “trigger.” Neither motivation alone nor a trigger alone would ordinarily suffice to create the circumstances where an individual would actually carry out an attack. While many factors may be part of this theoretical “fuel-trigger” mix, conventional wisdom holds that religious and nationalistic factors that are central to Palestinian Arab culture and evident in both social and public discourse (commonly referred to as “incitement”) have played a significant role.

The question of what specific behavioral factors contribute to the susceptibility of an individual to act as a “lone wolf” remains open. Are these individuals in any way different, especially psychologically different, from those Palestinians who may hold the same cultural, ideological and/or religious beliefs, yet refrain from carrying out violent activities against Israelis or Jews? If so, is there any way to identify potential “lone wolves” before they carry out an act?

Answering this question requires measuring specific psychological factors that may play a role in driving individuals to violent behavior. To this end, we selected an initial pilot group in the Palestinian Arab population that included two separate sub-groups of younger, mostly male residents of a refugee camp and a village – both located south of Bethlehem on the Hebron-Jerusalem road.

The Pilot Study

Our sample included a group of 27 subjects from the Al-Aroub refugee camp and another 59 subjects from the village of Beit Ummar. This was a convenience sample of individuals between the ages of 15-21 who were randomly approached and agreed to participate in a short survey that would measure a variety of psychological and ideological characteristics.

Subjects were explained the procedure and then asked to complete a number of scales that measured general health and mental well-being (the General Health Questionnaire, GHQ-122), psychological hopelessness (Beck Hopelessness Scale3) and the tendency towards violence in school (student survey on violence4).

The question of how to measure “incitement” effects remained.  To tap into this assumed motivational attribute, we looked at the components of “incitement” as noted by Kuperwasser in his description of “pillars of identity.5” A scale designed to measure the individual variables related to these “pillars” and thus incitement to violence was constructed and administered.

Constructing a Profile of Terror

Our procedure was fairly simple, with a “twist.” We initially described the general purpose of the study as seeking ways to better understand the psychological makeup of Palestinian youth in general and asked subjects to complete the scales described above as they apply to themselves. After they had completed this task, they were asked to again complete the scale, but to this time complete it as if they were a person who actually carried out a terror attack (with many in both groups actually knowing such people). The goal was to construct a psychological profile of the young Palestinian “lone wolf” based on the descriptions of those that knew him or her best, namely peers. (These acts were not described as “terror” to the group, but rather as it is known in the Palestinian vernacular, i.e., as an “action” or “operation.”)


Our data shows a distinct pattern that differentiates the Al-Aroub refugee camp group from the Beit Ummar villagers.

The Al-Aroub group showed a higher level of measured belief in the values related to “incitement” measured by our scale. On our scale, each item could be scored from 0 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). Since there were seven items measured, scores could range from a low of 0 to a high of 28. A score of 14 indicates neutrality, neither agreeing strongly nor disagreeing strongly with the items presented. Any score from 15 and above would thus indicate a general adherence and belief in factors related to Palestinian incitement, as described by Kuperwasser. While the Al-Aroub group averaged close to 22 on this scale, the Beit Ummar presented a much more moderate result of 15.8.

The graph below illustrates these differences.

Incitement Beit Ummar Al-Aroub ComparisonData analysis conducted found the difference to be statistically significant at the .01 level, with a t=4.75. This means that the results are likely not due to chance.

Another difference between the groups was in how they view themselves versus how they viewed those that committed acts of terror. While the Al-Aroub group’s personal profile was virtually indistinguishable from the profile they attributed to those that carried out “actions,” this was not the case with the Beit Ummar. The Beit Ummar group attributed higher rates of psychological distress, hopelessness, and belief in factors related to incitement to those that carried outs acts of violence against Israelis (and consequently, saw themselves as being psychologically different from those “lone wolves” who carried out violent attacks).

The graph below shows the results of the Al-Aroub group.

Lone Wolf Data - Al-Aroub YouthBelow are the results of the Beit Ummar group.

Lone Wold Data - Beit Ummar YouthStatistical analysis here shows that while the differences between perception of self and perception of terror operatives in Al-Aroub are not significant statistically at either the .01 nor at the .05 levels (for “t”), the differences in the Beit Ummar group on psychological well-being, hopelessness, school violence, and identification with variables related to incitement are all very significant (“t” probability <.01). Again, this would mean that the results are not likely due to chance.  

The “Incitement” Factors

A specific look at the nature of “incitement” shows that Kuperwasser’s pillars may be divided into discrete categories.  Table 1 displays the “incitement scale” and shows the seven items that probe the belief in the various “pillars” of Palestinian Arab identity proposed by Kuperwasser. These items may be divided into three general factors: ideological-historical (first three items), hatred-violence (next two items) and nationalism (last two items).

Table 1: The “Incitement Scale”

Table 1: The "Incitement Scale"

When examining the results of the incitement scale data in Al-Aroub, we find that there is little difference between the data of how subjects scored themselves and how they scored a hypothetical terror operative. However, the differences in Beit Ummar, as noted above, were statistically significant.  This warranted another look, which a “factor analysis” that divides the results into ideological-historical, hatred-violence, and nationalism factors can be insightful.

These differences in Beit Ummar are indeed concentrated across the factors, showing that there is a qualitative difference in the way this population views terror operatives as opposed to how the group in Al-Aroub views them.

On the first factor, “ideological-historical,” we see that in both agreement and disagreement with the concept of Jewish connectivity to the land, differences are seen. The subjects in Beit Ummar saw themselves more likely to agree with the concept of Jewish connectivity to the land and less likely to disagree with it than would perceived terror operatives. When aggregating all data for this factor, statistical analysis shows a very significant difference (.01 level) between what the Beit Ummar group thought of their own ideas as opposed to how they perceived the terror operatives (t=-2.4).

Factor: Ideology-HistoryWith “hatred-violence,” again the Beit Ummar population saw the terror operatives as “different” and more likely to both despise Jews and to carry out a violent act. Aggregate scoring data here showed a statistically significant difference (.01 level) between how the subjects looked at their own feelings as opposed to how they viewed terror operatives (t=-3.8). It is important to note, however, that while there is statistical significance here, the actual behavioral significance is limited to a specific cadre, as much of the variance may be accounted for by the difference in degree (agree or agree strongly) and not in actual behavior. In any case, the differences are worth looking at.

Factor: Hatred-ViolenceFinally, with the “nationalism” factor, little difference is seen, and statistical analysis bears this out. Analysis of the aggregate data shows no statistically significant difference between how the group viewed their own nationalistic attitudes as opposed to how they felt the terror operatives viewed it. (t=.97, non-significant). Beit Ummar subjects saw themselves no less “nationalistic” regarding the rights of Palestinians than they saw terror operatives being, while at the same time being more tolerant of Jewish rights and less tolerant of violent behavior towards Jews.

Factor: Nationalism


We measured a variety of psychological variables in two groups of Palestinian Arab youth. One group from a refugee camp (Al-Aroub) and another from a village located partially in Area “B” and partially in Area “C” (Beit Ummar). We found statistically significant findings related to both how the residents of each site see themselves as compared to actual “lone wolf” operatives as well as how committed they are to basic pillars of Palestinian identity related to incitement. The refugee camp residents appear to have more closely identified with those that perpetrate attacks, while Beit Ummar residents see themselves as more psychologically intact, less hopeless, less violent in school settings and more moderate in their beliefs related to incitement. Also of interest was the general identification with beliefs related to incitement, with the Beit Ummar group showing much more moderate beliefs as compared directly to the Al-Aroub group, whose beliefs appear to be at the upper end of the scale.

Despite the inherent limitations of a convenience sample and preliminary pilot study, the trends shown reveal a behavioral pattern that appears to indicate more extreme beliefs (and presumably behavior) in the refugee camp residents versus the village residents. That is not to say that the Beit Ummar villagers have no record of violence toward Israelis (which, in fact, they historically do). However, the differences are marked and are worth looking into.

Of greater interest are the specific differences on factors related to “incitement,” which are seen in the factor analysis of the incitement scale based on Kuperwasser’s pillars. Here, it appears that Beit Ummar’s population see themselves no less nationalistic or patriotic to the Palestinian cause than do terror operatives, but do see themselves as more accepting of Jewish history and connections to the land, less hateful toward Jews and less prone to use violence against them. To be sure, there still is a significant presence of those who reject Jewish connectivity, those who would agree with the negative description of Jews and those who would agree with violence, but there is also a clear cadre of those who do not. The fact that Al-Aroub residents do not show this bifurcation would lead one to conclude that there are variables associated with life in Beit Ummar or membership in Beit Ummar families than create or foster conditions that would mitigate against potential acts of terror or violence.

One possible explanation relates to the needs of each group. While the refugee camp residents are essentially “landless,” the villagers do identify with their residence as their permanent “home” and have a specific attachment to the land. The demands of each and the perception of their victimhood is thus different. It is reasonable to assume that, given the highly tribal nature of Palestinian society, willingness to participate in violent activities will vary according to the needs and charter of each group (and, by extension, each village).

Another important observation is the higher level of psychological distress that villagers attribute to “operatives.” This may point to a predisposing set of possibly identifiable behaviors that may characterize potential “lone wolves” and differentiate them from their immediate social environment. Should such patterns become more identifiable, it may offer an understanding of how to preempt attacks as well as how to create conditions where the probability of “lone wolf” attacks will be lower.

Two other points can be made concerning the implications of the data. First, the pattern of Beit Ummar and the differences between self-perception and perception of “lone wolf” operatives may provide an insight into possible identifiable behavioral characteristics that may provide “early warning” signals of potential terror operatives. For example, we could point to the perception that such operatives were perceived to show more school violence than others. Other factors of general well-being and hopelessness that characterized perception of the “lone wolves” are also potentially identifiable.

The second point pertains to intervention. Presumably, if these differences reflect actual risk factors for carrying out terror attacks, modifying the factors could potentially mitigate the effects and reduce the likelihood of engaging in terror related violence. What form intervention would take and how individuals would be identified needs to be formulated, but considered in future investigations.

Summary: Lessons Learned

What can we learn from the data we collected in this study? This appears to be a classic case of the glass “half full, half empty.” On the one hand, we see that there are indeed Palestinian Arabs who eschew violence not only for practical reasons but also apparently on principle. We see many who did not challenge the Jewish historical connection to the land and the Jewish right to self-determination. On the other hand, a significant portion of the sample, even among those in the relatively “moderate” Beit Ummar group, still strongly support violence and maintain negative attitudes towards Jews. The other interesting finding is the attribution (repeated in anecdotal post-data collection reports) of some sort of personal problem or issue unrelated to the political situation that is perceived to characterize terror operatives.

The fact that a portion of Palestinian Arab society is willing to accept Jewish self-determination as well as being against violence is not inconsistent with results of previous polls, which have shown a consistent minority who likely feel this way.6 7  What is still unclear are the factors that can account for this behavior, i.e., why some feel so strongly in one direction while others do not.

Insofar as the use of violence, our results seem to indicate that more moderate sections of Palestinian Arab society tend to see “lone wolf” operatives as more psychologically distressed and distinctly different from themselves. More extreme swatches of society, such as those in our refugee camp sample, apparently do not see it that way and more closely identify with these individuals. While the fruits of incitement appear to be quite visible in the ideological acceptance of violence towards and enmity for Jews in much of Palestinian Arab society, those that actually turn on the switch and move from ideology or belief to concrete action are perhaps identifiable not by their ideology (which many share), but rather by their specific social and personal distress, unrelated to political motives or the political situation. This is quite different from ideologically driven militants and terrorists who see themselves as sacrificing for the cause.8 In the case of lone wolves, it may be that it is the “cause” that serves them, rather than them serving the cause.

Despite the limitations in the selection of subjects that characterizes this pilot work, the statistical data analysis does show clear trends that should be looked at. These include the strong differences in ideological and psychological factors between refugee camp residents and residents of other villages; the impression of greater psychosocial distress of terror operatives that many of their peers perceive; and the greater ideological acceptance of the rights of Jews to the land in certain elements of the Palestinian Arab population. The next stage would be to study how these behavioral trends develop and how to best understand the variables responsible for them.

Further investigation is needed to clarify these hypotheses and to replicate, verify, and delineate the empirical reasons for the findings with a goal of applying methods to increase desired behavior in the Palestinian Arab population.

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My thanks to Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser and Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum for their invaluable insight into designing and interpreting the results of this project. Thanks also to Lt. Col. (res.) Yochanan Tzoreff of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs for his important perspectives on the data. Tamara Elashvili was invaluable in assisting in data analysis. Special thanks also go out to Myron Joshua and to two Palestinian associates on this project whose identities need to be kept confidential. Thanks to the Targum Shlishi foundation for providing support for this project.

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About Dr. Irwin J. Mansdorf

Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, PhD., is a clinical psychologist and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He directs the Center's Israel-Arab studies program for university students.