Top Causes of Terrorism

What Motivates a Terrorist Attack?

Causes of Terrorism
Illustration by Hugo Lin. ThoughtCo. 

Loosely defined, terrorism is the use of violence to further a political or ideological goal at the expense of the general population. Terrorism can take multiple forms and have many causes, often more than one. An attack can be rooted in religious, social, or political conflicts such as when one community is oppressed by another.

Some terrorist events are singular acts linked to particular historical moments, such as the assassination of Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand at the start of World War I in 1914. Other terrorist attacks are part of ongoing campaigns that may last years or even generations, as was the case in Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998. So how did terrorism begin and what are its historic motivators?

Historical Roots

Although acts of terror and violence have been committed for centuries, today's version of terrorism can be traced to the French Revolution's Reign of Terror in 1794 and 1795, which included gruesome public beheadings, violent street battles, and bloodthirsty rhetoric. It was the first time in modern history that mass violence was used in such a fashion, but it would not be the last.

In the latter half of the 19th century, terrorism emerged as the weapon of choice for nationalists, particularly in Europe, as ethnic groups chafed under the rule of empires. The Irish National Brotherhood, which sought Irish independence from Britain, carried out multiple bomb attacks in England in the 1880s. About the same time in Russia, the socialist group Narodnaya Volya began a campaign against the royalist government, ultimately assassinating Tsar Alexander II in 1881.

In the 20th century, acts of terrorism became more prevalent throughout the world as political, religious, and social activists agitated for change. In the 1930s, Jews living in occupied Palestine conducted a campaign of violence against the British occupiers in a quest to create the state of Israel.

In the 1970s, Palestinian terrorists used then-novel methods such as hijacking airplanes to advance their cause. Other groups espousing new objectives like animal rights and environmentalism committed acts of violence in the 1980s and 90s. Finally, in the 21st century, the rise of pan-nationalist groups like ISIS that use social media to connect members led to the murder of thousands in attacks in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

Causes and Motivations

Although people resort to terrorism for many reasons, experts attribute most acts of violence to three major factors: political, religious, and socioeconomic motivators.

Political

Terrorism was originally theorized in the context of insurgency and guerrilla warfare, a form of organized civic violence by a non-state army or group. Individuals, abortion clinic bombers, and political groups like the Vietcong in the 1960s can be seen as choosing terrorism as a means of trying to right what they perceive to be a social, political, or historical wrong.

During the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland that stretched from 1968 to 1998, Catholic and Protestant groups waged an ongoing campaign of violence against one another in Northern Ireland and in England, seeking political dominance. History has proven that politics is a powerful motivator of violence.

Religious

In the 1990s, several attacks carried out in the name of religion made headlines. The Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo perpetrated two deadly sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subways in 1994 and 1995, and in the Middle East, numerous suicide attacks since the 1980s have been marked as the work of Islamic martyrs. 

Career terrorism experts began to argue that a new form of terrorism was on the rise, with concepts such as martyrdom and Armageddon seen as particularly dangerous. However, as thoughtful studies and commentators have repeatedly pointed out, such groups selectively interpret and exploit religious concepts and texts to support terrorism. Religions themselves do not "cause" terrorism.

Socioeconomic

Socioeconomic explanations of terrorism suggest that various forms of deprivation drive people to terrorism, or that they are more susceptible to recruitment by organizations using terrorist tactics. Poverty, lack of education or lack of political freedom are a few examples. There is suggestive evidence on both sides of the argument. However, comparisons of different conclusions are often confusing because they don't distinguish between individuals and societies and pay little attention to the nuances of how people perceive injustice or deprivation, regardless of their material circumstances.

The group Shining Path carried out a years-long campaign of violence against Peru's government in the 1980s and early '90s in an attempt to create a Marxist state. This analysis of the causes of terrorism may be difficult to swallow because it sounds too simple or too theoretical. However, if you look at any group that is widely considered a terrorist group, you will find a basic theory behind their plans.

Individual Vs. Group Terrorism

Sociological and social psychology views of terrorism make the case that groups, not individuals, are the best way to explain social phenomena such as terrorism. These ideas, which are still gaining traction, are congruent with the late-20th century trend of seeing society and organizations in terms of networks of individuals.

This view also shares common ground with studies of authoritarianism and cult behavior that examines how individuals come to identify so strongly with a group that they lose individual agency. There is also a substantial body of theory that has existed for several years that concludes that individual terrorists are no more or less likely than other individuals to have pathological abnormalities.

Conditions of Terrorism

Rather than seek the causes of terrorism itself in order to understand it, a better approach is to determine the conditions that make terror possible or likely. Sometimes these conditions have to do with the people that become terrorists, many of whom can be described as having worrisome psychological traits like narcissistic rage. Other conditions have more to do with the circumstances in which these people live, such as political or social repression and economic strife.

Terrorism is a complex phenomenon because it is a specific kind of political violence committed by people who do not have a legitimate army at their disposal. As far as researchers can tell, there is nothing inside any person or their circumstances that sends them directly to terrorism. Instead, certain conditions make violence against civilians seem like a reasonable and even necessary option.

Stopping the cycle of violence is rarely simple or easy. Although the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought an end to the violence in Northern Ireland, for example, the peace remains fragile today. And despite nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorism is still a daily part of life even after more than a decade of Western intervention. Only time and commitment by a majority of parties involved can resolve​ one conflict at a time. 

View Article Sources
  1. DeAngelis, Tori. “Understanding Terrorism.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, vol. 40, no. 10, Nov. 2009.

  2. Borum, Randy. "Psychology of Terrorism." University of South Florida, Mental Health Law & Policy Faculty Publications, 2004.

  3. Hudson, Rex A. “The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why?” Edited by Marilyn Majeska. Federal Research Division | Library of Congress, Sept. 1999.