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Understanding the Psychology of Terrorist Behavior: How the Virtual “Pack” Stirs Lone Wolves to Action

Filed under: Palestinians, Terrorism
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

Understanding the Psychology of Terrorist Behavior: How the Virtual “Pack” Stirs Lone Wolves to Action
The popular M16 t-shirt for Palestinian youth. (Ultra Palestine/Telegram)

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

No. 657, June 22, 2022

  • Arab terror against Israelis has been a constant presence for an extended period, with different “waves” of violence characterized, among other features, by various means of attack.
  • A combination of motivational “fuel” and environmental “triggers” determines when and how a particular attacker may choose to act.
  • Terrorist behavior can be understood as having different layers or levels, which produce “waves” of violence when triggered and acted upon.
  • Jewish and Arab Israelis differ in their perceptions of the threat represented by the general Israeli Arab population, resulting in lower perceptions of personal security among Jewish Israelis.
  • While some Arab sources condemn terror activity, others are more ambivalent, and others consciously incite and promote violence.
  • Clearly, social media and social networks have significantly increased the perception and presence of Arab anti-Israel incitement. They also cultivate a culture of Palestinian victimhood which adds psychological fuel to justify terror activity.
  • Social networks have also expanded the environments of individuals previously considered “lone wolves” to where they now enjoy widespread support in both the real world and in a “virtual” world.
  • Ultimately, the source of Palestinian terror activity lies in an ideology of rejectionism, with the intransigent refusal to come to terms with the existence of a Jewish state resulting in a culture of non-acceptance of the reviled Jewish “other.”
  • The extended virtual social environment of would-be Palestinian terrorists now means that, in reality, they are members of a more extensive “pack” rather than solo operators. This reality presents a significant challenge that calls for a proactive cyber campaign to counter terror.

In an address to the nation on March 30, 2022, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated that Israel is “experiencing a wave of murderous Arab terrorism.”1 And, as was common during previous waves, media reports contribute to the impression that the current wave may somehow be different from previous waves. In reality, while environmental factors relating to political, economic, or social factors may indeed be different, the common psychological denominator motivating and driving terrorist attackers, described by Yossi Kuperwasser as the “pillars of Palestinian national identity,”2 remains the same. As such, the “fuel-trigger” mix discussed in previous studies3 may include different “triggers,” but the psychological or ideological “fuel,” namely the intolerance of Israelis as the “other” and a willingness to act on that intolerance, remain the same.

So, while the picture may appear to be different, with different actors and different scenes, the storyline is essentially consistent. And while the factors related to the challenges presented by unorganized terrorists (often referred to as “lone wolves”) may be similar, the proliferation of social media coverage and social network incitement contribute to explaining why these actors choose a particular time to go into action.

What exactly is a “wave” of terror?

Media reports have accurately noted that the current series of attacks are among the deadliest since the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005.4 But while the difference may be in the result, i.e., more deaths, the actual behavior in the field is not different from what many Israelis, especially those who live in Judea and Samaria, have been experiencing for years.

According to data compiled by “Rescuers Without Borders,” attacks against Israelis have been ongoing and steady for many months. The perceptual difference is that while most of the recent deadly attacks took place in Israel “proper [the pre-1967 boundaries],” most of the other attacks occurred either in Jerusalem or over the Green Line in Judea and Samaria. Take, for example, actions taken in December 2021. Data show 22 victims of stoning attacks, five more from shooting attacks, two from car-ramming, and five others from stabbings, with another seven attacks in Jerusalem.5 In January 2022, Rescuers Without Borders recorded over 400 attacks with 24 injured.6 A look at the daily register of events7 shows attacks routinely taking place that result in damage to both property and person. As noted by Israeli U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan, these incidents occur daily but are met with widespread silence.8 Moreover, these data do not even begin to take into consideration the sporadic terror activity, including incendiary balloons that were released in Gaza and sent into Israeli fields.

Screen shot of data compiled by “Rescuers Without Borders” from attacks against Israelis in December 2021.
Screen shot of data compiled by “Rescuers Without Borders” from attacks against Israelis in December 2021.

A model for understanding terror “waves”

Imagine a house with a solid basement or foundation and several floors and levels above it. Terror activity among Palestinian Arabs has a basic “basement” or foundational baseline of constant threat, and different levels are exhibited at other times. At the base is a solid and steady presence among at least part of the population that not only supports terror activity, but actually engages in “baseline” behavior that includes confrontation from a distance and use of generally primitive yet potentially lethal weapons. This activity includes stone-throwing or the use of Molotov cocktails thrown at Jewish Israeli vehicles and buses in Judea and Samaria or the use of incendiary balloons flown into Israeli territory from Gaza.

The next level involves opportunistic use of “cold” but lethal weapons in direct, frontal attacks. This would include knifings and car-ramming targeting Jewish Israelis, especially in Judea and Samaria and in east Jerusalem. The transition to “hot” weapons and attacks inside the pre-1967 Israel is next, with shooting attacks being the most common method. While the transition to “hot” weapons includes the suicide/homicide bomber or the use of rockets or IEDs, these operations, while certainly an example of a different level of terror, are most often not a classical “lone wolf” situation because of logistic and planning issues and accomplices needed to transport them to the attacks.

Are more Arabs leaning toward terror?

Prime Minister Bennett specifically described the current wave as “Arab” terrorism. In the sense that Arabs are indeed the ones committing the attacks, that impression is accurate. But impressions can be misleading. The problem of ideology and mindset of an unorganized terrorist remains a challenge not because of the large number of Arabs who are potential terrorists but precisely because of the relatively low number of those who climb from the basement of basic violence to the second or the third floor of the terror house, making it challenging to identify the actual attackers. Despite the resultant horrific deaths, the recent hot weapons attacks referred to by Bennett involve only a handful of incidents committed by only a handful of attackers, while the “cold” weapons attacks noted earlier by Erdan involve many attacks by many attackers. A recent survey by N12 News9 brings to light the challenges to public confidence when reality and perception do not coincide.

The N12 survey asked Jewish and Arab Israelis their feelings regarding whether the perpetrators of the recent attacks are generally representative of Israeli Arabs. The results here point out the divide between Jewish and Arab Israelis concerning their views of each other and their views regarding terror.

Forty-four percent of Jewish Israelis felt that the Arabs who murdered Jews were representative of the general Arab population. However, with the Israeli Arab population, the results were markedly different, with only 13% feeling the attackers were representative of the general Arab population (and only 5% feeling they “greatly” represent the general Arab population).

Illustrations (Hebrew) from the <em>N12</em> survey of attitudes among Jewish and Arab Israelis toward Arab terrorism.

Illustrations (Hebrew) from the <em>N12</em> survey of attitudes among Jewish and Arab Israelis toward Arab terrorism.
Illustrations (Hebrew) from the N12 survey of attitudes among Jewish and Arab Israelis toward Arab terrorism.

This finding likely contributes to the other significant data in this survey, the finding that one-third of the Jewish population has doubts regarding personal safety/security. Even if one considers the more optimistic estimates of the Israeli Arab population, there are likely tens of thousands of Israeli Arabs who could be regarded as potential terrorists by a considerable part of the Jewish population. Add to this the numbers of Palestinian Arabs living inside the Green Line illegally or with work permits, and the actual numbers, even if relatively low, represent a significant threat.

Predicting terror activity

With so many potential terrorists, what determines if any particular individual will move from “believer” to “actor”? Here is where the unorganized would-be terrorist is nurtured by the perceived group support to which they are exposed. The organized hate indoctrination and incitement join with social media and social networks that provide the fuel and incitement to attack. These dangerous elements represent the community support system that extends far beyond one’s real social environment.

Our past studies10 have demonstrated that ideology is affected by one’s social environment. To the degree that one lives in an environment where terror activity is valued, sanctioned, and admired, any such activity by an individual is reinforced, making the behavior more likely to be modeled by others and repeat itself in the future. However, at least theoretically, should such activity be discouraged, devalued, and ostracized, that activity is less likely to be imitated by others.

Witness the reactions by various communities to the recent attacks. In the Israeli Bedouin town of Hura, home of the perpetrator of the Beersheba stabbing attack of March 22, 2022, that killed four, there was substantial “wall to wall” condemnation, with even special sessions in local schools to reinforce the unacceptability of such behavior.11 Contrast this to the widespread positive reaction to the event by terror groups on social media and social networks,12 demonstrating the possible break between the terrorist’s real world and his virtual world. For those living in the “real” world in Hura, turning to terror is a low probability, but for those whose life is centered in the virtual world of destructive social networks, terror activity is much more likely.

Negative reactions to the Hadera attack of March 27, 2002, were less forceful and demonstrated a different response. Although publicly condemning the shooting attack that killed two and wounded 12 perpetrated by two Umm al-Fahm residents, the Umm al-Fahm municipality also offered condolences to the attackers’ families.13 This is the same town where thousands participated in the funeral of three terrorists involved in a July 2017 incident in Jerusalem.14 Here, the reinforcing social environment extended into the real-life of the attackers, making the social support system for terror action much more concrete and actual.

As far as Palestinian Arabs (contrary to Israeli Arabs) are concerned, the social support of their virtual world is extensive. A recent report by the Meir Amit Center notes how Palestinian social media is “rife” with anti-Israel incitement. Referring to WhatsApp, TikTok, and Instagram, the report states: “They are probably one of the reasons young Palestinians have carried out terrorist attacks, copying what they have seen on the social media.”15 But there is also a “real world” support of terror activity that Palestinian Arabs are exposed to in their immediate social environments like schools, mosques, and public statements made by Palestinian Arab officials that serve to incite, promote, and ultimately reinforce terror activity.

One of many such examples is the following Palestinian report, translated by Palestinian Media Watch:

“Yesterday [April 10, 2022,] PA Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh participated in the [Ramadan] fast-breaking meal with female fighter (sic) Um Nasser Abu Hmeid (i.e., mother of terrorists responsible for at least 10 murders; see note below) at her home in Ramallah, in the presence of Ramallah and El-Bireh District Governor Laila Ghannam.”16

Advancing terror activity from one level to another (from believer to perpetrator) is something that can (and is) being done by such activities, the timing of which is decided by Palestinian officials and organizations. Such activities may occur in “real-time” but are subsequently reflected in social media, providing a virtual audience for potential individual terrorists to act on the messages being promoted. The increase in terror activity seen subsequent to such Palestinian activities and pronouncements is not a coincidence.

For example, read the statement made by Hamas leader Yihya Sinwar17 specifically calling Palestinians to “carry out lone-wolf attacks; Israeli-Arabs should prepare their guns, cleavers, axes, knives.” Less than a week later, on Israel Independence Day, two such “lone wolves” mentioned by Sinwar did, in fact, carry out a fatal attack in Elad using axes and knives.18

Yihya Sinwar

The following illustration from the Meir Amit Center19 shows the various “ups and downs” or “waves” of significant terror activity (a significant attack is defined as involving shooting, stabbing, a vehicular attack, the use of IEDs, or a combination of the above; stones and Molotov cocktails thrown by Palestinians are not included) coinciding with specific events (e.g., May 2021, Operation Guardian of the Walls; March 2022, pre-Ramadan).

Significant Terrorist Attacks since January 2020

Significant Terrorist Attacks since January 2020

In fact, these “waves” are consistent and repetitive, as documented by additional data compiled by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.20

The virtual “pack”

The extensive presence of social media in the lives of potential terrorists creates a virtual support system that buttresses or, in the case of those where support in their real lives is minimal, supersedes their actual social environments. As a result, while they may be “lone wolves” when they carry out their actions, their behavior is actually more like a pack wolf, acting in concert with other members of the pack occupying a common virtual world. From a psychological perspective, while the fuel (i.e., motivation) to attack the “other” is constant, the “trigger” that determines when such an attack will take place is only a matter of what and how any potential terrorist interprets what they see on their personal cyber feeds and how the pack signals an attack.

While social media support for terror attacks is common in attacks against Israelis and Jews, it is not limited to them. The recent “lone wolf” attack in the New York City subway system is suspected of having been perpetrated by an individual with a broad and long social media presence.21 This, in essence, was his “real world,” and his activity and presence in this virtual social environment may have served to reinforce his behavior. A racially motivated terror attack in Buffalo, New York,22 was also perpetrated by a supposed “lone wolf” with an active social media presence who reportedly permitted a small group to join his private chatroom about 30 minutes before his fatal attack.23 In both cases, the perpetrators thus virtually socialized with their larger “pack.”

The fuel or motivation for terror activity has been part of Islamist and Palestinian ideology for some time. For example, the canard of “Al-Aqsa is in danger” has been used for decades and revived whenever a reliable and proven method to incite the Arab public is needed.24 Notwithstanding the understandable perception that recent attacks represent a new “wave,” the reality is that the number of attacks and the hateful anti-Israel ideology behind these attacks have been a constant in Palestinian Arab life for years. While real-life conditions and efforts by Arab leadership and society can undoubtedly influence and modify the frequency of terror activity, the addition of the amorphous cloud of social media allows lone wolves, even as a small minority of their society, to receive virtual support to act out and conduct attacks that can have effects far beyond the influence of any real-life situation they may be living in. This support can even take place after an attack as well. The ease with which perceived “lone wolves” can be “adopted” post-attack by others is exemplified by a fatal shooting attack on a security guard in the town of Ariel, thought by Israeli security forces to be a “lone wolf” type attack, only later to have responsibility claimed by Hamas, retrospectively creating a support system for the perpetrators and proactively creating a future support system for potential attackers.25 Added to the praise provided for specific attacks, even while not directly claiming responsibility,26 these actions create a system of post-event reinforcement that further raises the probability that others will carry out similar attacks.

Image from Arab-language social networks showing a banner saying “Happy (Israel) Independence Day” with an ax tearing through it.
Image from Arab-language social networks showing a banner saying “Happy (Israel) Independence Day” with an ax tearing through it.

The widespread employment of social media to incite and support terror has been recognized of late and expressed in related posts on various social media27 and noted specifically by those following Palestinian Arab media28 to include widespread use of WhatsApp groups.

What creates the “pack”?

The late terrorism expert and psychiatrist Jerold Post referred to the concept of “when hatred is bred into the bone” as explaining much of the social psychology of individual terrorists that creates a collective identity that is primary in determining socially accepted behavior.29 This conceptualization would also apply to today’s unorganized individual Palestinian “lone wolf” and help understand the mentality behind the brutal nature of some of the attacks (such as taking an ax to a random victim). According to Post, individual terror activity is not a result of some personal psychological defect or illness. In fact, Post argues that terror organizations screen out emotionally unstable individuals and that their members “are neither depressed, severely emotionally disturbed, nor are they crazed fanatics.”30 When Jerold Post refers to a “virtual community of hatred” created in cable news and the Internet, it would include any motivated individual that has access to these sources as being a potential terrorist. When a society, such as much of Palestinian society, sanctions and supports behavior associated with violence toward Israelis, a culture of hatred is created.

In Palestinian society, group psychology can determine individual behavior. What is sanctioned by the group becomes the standard for the individual. A prime example is the longstanding policy of the Palestinian Authority of financially supporting (and thus rewarding) terror behavior, including the behavior of unorganized individual terrorists.31 Therefore, any such individual action, even if not planned or officially sanctioned in advance, is effectively reinforced and incentivized by the group and becomes accepted as the norm. When added to the background messages of incitement common in Palestinian society and Arab-language social networks, the triggers for individual terror activity are set.

Eliminating unorganized individual terror in a society where such behavior is culturally acceptable would require a change in the relationship between the cost of such behavior and the benefit of abstaining from it. Currently, as pointed out by Kan 11 News correspondent Gal Berger,32 there is a well-oiled mechanism of Palestinian incitement, denial of the “other,” and cultivation of hatred that fits in squarely with the collective identity Post alludes to that can account for why individuals carry out organized terror attacks.

The role of “victimhood”

In many politically progressive circles, “victim blaming” is considered taboo. Originally applied to incidents involving sexual abuse,33 avoiding victim blaming has extended well beyond that to politically perceived “victims” as well. Defining the “victim” often takes place in a vacuum, where the perceived weaker party is automatically granted privileged status, leading them to be considered less responsible for any behavior they engage in that is ostensibly a reaction to their victimhood. The Palestinian narrative has taken advantage of this internally and externally and has cultivated a victimhood scenario where Israel is accused of mistreating prisoners34 and children,35 desecrating Al-Aqsa,36 engaging in apartheid,37 and carrying out massacres against Palestinians.38 These repetitive messages, where the truth is often clouded or distorted, result in a “big lie” mechanism impacting the Palestinian and Israeli Arab populations and potentially any sympathetic outside observer as well. 

The quick rush to judgment after the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh,39 when the respected Washington Post carried a headline that promoted the Al-Jazeera claim that she was intentionally targeted by the IDF (“American reporter killed by IDF, network says; IDF calls for inquiry”)40 is a prime example of a questionable victimhood paradigm adopted by a major news source. The Washington Post all but definitively blamed Israel by stating, ”based on video the Post filmed in Jenin, Abu Akleh and other journalists identified as press would likely have been visible from the IDF convoy’s position.”41 This was followed by media investigations by both CNN42 and the New York Times.43 CNN also assigned blame to Israel, writing that this was a “targeted attack” on the journalists.  The Times report seemingly left the question of intentionality open, stating, “The Times found no evidence that the person who fired recognized Ms. Abu Akleh and targeted her personally. The Times was unable to determine whether the shooter saw that she and her colleagues were wearing protective vests emblazoned with the word Press.”44 Notwithstanding the still open question of which side is responsible for the death of Abu Akleh, the definitive assignment of intentionality to Israel (either by direct blame or strong suggestion) became a narrative that followed the Palestinian script. For the Palestinians, the actual facts surrounding the death of Abu Akleh became irrelevant as the opening narrative of Abu Akleh being a victim “assassinated in cold blood”45 became a truth that, true to a longstanding pattern, resulted in public disorder and confrontation with Israeli forces in Jerusalem46 that were broadcast prominently in the virtual world of social media.

Poster on the Fatah-Jenin Facebook page praising the “hero” of the Bnei Brak terror attack of March 29, 2022.
Poster on the Fatah-Jenin Facebook page praising the “hero” of the Bnei Brak terror attack of March 29, 2022.

Maintaining this narrative is essential to Palestinian leadership, to the point of photoshopping any images of captured Palestinian terrorists to make them appear smiling and beaming with pride instead of forlorn and dejected.47 The terror activity is not only justified by the sense of victimhood, but it is also the way to overcome the impotence that comes with it and transform it into a feeling of omnipotence. This can be seen in other features that characterize Palestinian and Israeli Arabs these days, such as harassing Jews in public48 and challenging the security forces in sensitive friction locations (in Jerusalem,49 in Israeli universities,50 and in the mixed Jewish-Muslim cities,51 among other places).

As the virtual world of social networks expands, individuals not only are fed the fuel for action, but also can, in many cases, anonymously feed others and stir them into action. One recent example of the proliferation of “fashion statements” consistent with the “virtual pack” are t-shirts emblazoned with images of M16 rifles, like the one used in the Bnei Brak attack.52 A clothing store manager in Ramallah reported that he sold 12,000 of the shirts in a week. “The demand is terrifying,” he said.53

The popular M16 t-shirt for Palestinian youth.
The popular M16 t-shirt for Palestinian youth. (PMW)54

With no borders, no controls, and no policing, the individual living in the virtual world of social networks operates within a limitless arena of whatever culture they choose. For many Palestinian Arabs, this virtual world of hate mirrors the society and environment they were raised in and still live in that, as explained by Kuperwasser and Lipner,55 does not accept the presence of a Jewish state anywhere within the area of Mandatory Palestine. As long as these worlds continue to exist as is, the motivation for unorganized terror activity will be present. Consequently, as also noted by counterterrorism expert Ely Carmon, a proactive and direct cyber campaign targeting the virtual world of terror is required to deal with the problem.56

The lone wolf is now, more than ever, a member of a dangerous and virtually invisible pack of wolves.

* * *











10 Op. cit 2




















30 Ibid











41 Op. cit. ii



44 Ibid