All terrorist acts are motivated by two things:
•Social and political injustice: People choose terrorism when they are trying to right what they perceive to be a social or political or historical wrong—when they have been stripped of their land or rights, or denied these.
•The belief that violence or its threat will be effective, and usher in change. Another way of saying this is: the belief that violent means justify the ends. Many terrorists in history said sincerely that they chose violence after long deliberation, because they felt they had no choice.
This explanation of the causes of terrorism may be difficult to swallow. It sounds too simple, or too theoretical. However, if you look at any group that is widely understood as a terrorist group, you will find these two elements are basic to their story.
•Zionists who bombed British targets in 1930s mandate Palestine felt they must do so in order to create a Jewish state.
• The IRA (Irish Republican Army) bombed English targets in the 1980s to make the point that they felt their land was colonized by British imperialists.
•In the 1960s and 1970s, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine felt that armed attacks in Israel were a justifiable response to the usurpation of their land.
• Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war on American interests in the 1990s stemmed from his belief that U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia represented an abomination to the kind of Islamic state he believed should exist in the Arabian peninsula.
• Uighur separatists in China today feel that Chinese religious repression (the Uighur Chinese are Muslims) justifies their terrorist tactics.
• In some cases, people choose terrorist tactics based on a cause whose righteousness they believe in to the exclusion of nearly all else. Abortion clinic bombers in the 1990s and groups such as the Animal Liberation Front believe zealously in their causes.
People who choose terrorist tactics are also persuaded that violence, or the threat of violence, is effective.
There is some question about who actually ‘chooses’ terrorism, and it may be unfair to think of young recruits, such as some suicide bombers today, who are seduced by cult-like methods of indoctrination as completely culpable for their choices.
Asking a Better Question: What Conditions Are Favorable for Terrorism
In fact, the question, “what causes terrorism?” is not quite the right question to be asking, because we will never be able to answer it. We cannot say that the presence of one factor provokes terrorism in the same way that we can say with scientific certainty that certain toxins cause diseases.
If you listen closely to the explanations that are usually given as answers to the question, “What is terrorism?” you will find that they actually answer the question: “What are the conditions in which terrorism is most likely to take place?” Sometimes these conditions have to do with the people who become terrorists (they are described as having certain psychological traits, like ‘narcissistic rage’) and some conditions have to do with the circumstances they live in (a poor society; a formerly colonized society, for example).
Although many people today believe that that religious fanaticism “causes” terrorism, it isn’t true. It may be true that religious fanaticism creates conditions that are favorable for terrorism. But we know that religious zealotry does not ’cause’ terrorism because there are many religious fanatics who do not choose terrorism or any form of violence. So there must also be other conditions that in combination provoke some people to see terrorism as an effective way of creating change in their world.
There are two more reasons why asking, “What conditions create a favorable climate for terrorism?” is better than asking about causes The first is, it makes it easy to remember that there are always at least several conditions. Terrorism is a complex phenomenon; it is a specific kind of political violence committed by people who do not have legitimate army at their disposal. A second reason that has been useful for me, as I ask questions about terrorism, is that thinking in terms of ‘conditions’ helps me remember that people have a choice about whether to use violence.
There is nothing inside any person nor in their circumstances that sends them—like a monopoly piece headed directly to “Go”—directly to terrorism. Instead, there are certain conditions, some of which make violence against civilians seem like a reasonable, and even necessary option. Despite this, and some of the deeply unforgivable circumstances that foster terrorism, people always have the free will to seek another course of action.
Learn more about the groups mentioned in this article:
• IRA (Irish Republican Army)
• Al Qaeda
• Animal Liberation Front
Note on imageA Sri Lanka paramilitary Karuna soldier mans a checkpoint on December 8, 2006 in Valaichenai in eastern Sri Lanka. Tamil paramilitary soldiers from the ‘Karuna faction’ broke off with rebels to join government troops in Sri Lanka’s civil war. With Sri Lanka’s peace process in tatters, government forces and rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), have been fighting all along their former ceasefire line. The fighting has driven thousands of people from their homes. More than 3,000 people died in the renewed ethnic conflict in 2006, which has claimed more than 60,000 in decades of civil war.
By Amy Zalman, Ph.D.
Global Terrorism Expert