Skip to content

The Palestinian “Lone Wolf,” Deconstructed

Exploring the Psychology of the “Lone Wolf” Terrorist

An innovative and important pilot study by Dr. Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, Ph.D., of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs’ Institute for Contemporary Affairs delved into the psychology of the “lone wolf” terrorist. Targum Shlishi helped support this research. Dr. Mansdorf and his team released the preliminary findings in the May 2017 report “Investigating the Psychological Profile of the Palestinian ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorist: Preliminary Findings.”

To conduct this research, Dr. Mansdorf worked with two Palestinian-Arab research assistants. They interviewed subjects between the ages of 15 and 21 in both the Al-Aroub refugee camp and in the village of Beit Ummar; the study found distinct and significant differences between the two populations.

The excerpt below includes the report’s summary and introduction. To read the full report, go here.

Investigating the Psychological Profile of the Palestinian ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorist: Preliminary Findings [An Excerpt]

By Dr. Irwin J. Mansdorf

  • 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, 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.

Related Links:

  • To support the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, go here.
  • To read a 2016 article on the topic written by Dr. Mansdorf, “The Psychology of ‘Lone Wolf’ Palestinian Arab Violence: The Interaction between Religious, Cultural and Political-National Motives” go here.
  • To watch a brief video of a 2016 television news interview with Dr. Mansdorf on the topic, go here.

Go here to read the full report

Image: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) building, a protected Jerusalem landmark. Located in Beit Milken, and built in 1932, the building was home to the Embassy of Uruguay from 1957 to 1980. Photo courtesy of JCPA.

Back To Top