Home » Terrorism » On the Causes of Terrorism Part 2: Common Misconceptions

On the Causes of Terrorism Part 2: Common Misconceptions

There are many popular misconceptions amongst the general population about terrorism. This is due to a combination of ignorance and misinformation, which are in turn the result of lazy and misleading media framing, and deliberate state propaganda.

Terrorists Are Not ‘Crazy’

Terrorists are often misconstrued as being psychologically unbalanced for a number of reasons. Firstly, people who have never been in extreme circumstances (and thus have no idea what they would do in such a situation) cannot imagine what would compel someone to wield such violence (I have written about this before). Secondly, it’s more beneficial to governments to promote the idea that the terrorists are crazy in order to deflect attention away from their (usually perfectly legitimate) political grievances. De-humanizing an enemy is often used as a tactic by governments during times of war.

© Matt Dorfman

Renowned terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman writes about his experiences interviewing terrorists:

I am still always struck by how disturbingly “normal” most terrorists seem when one actually sits down and talks to them. Rather than the wild-eyed fanatics or crazed killers we have been conditioned to expect, many are in fact highly articulate and extremely thoughtful individuals for whom terrorism is (or was) an entirely rational choice, often reluctantly embraced and then only after considerable reflection and debate.

Another scholar has written that “What we know about the mindset of terrorists tells us that they are mostly not deranged or insane, but have acquired a different set of beliefs and been exposed to social conditions very different from our own.” A second writes that “psychological pathology does not seem to be present in higher rates among terrorism perpetrators than it is among members of the general public.” And a third points out that “It is very rare to find a terrorist who suffers from a clinically defined ‘personality disorder’ or who could in any other way be regarded as mentally ill or psychologically deviant.”

Labelling terrorists as ‘deranged’ or ‘evil’ deflects attention away from the actual conditions that give rise to terrorism. As one commentator writes, “When we resort to psychologically comforting but misleading assumptions about terrorism, we hamper our own understanding of political violence in general – and hence weaken our ability to avert or minimize it.”

Terrorism Is an Inherently Rational Strategy

As Martha Crenshaw, one of the world’s foremost experts on terrorism has postulated many times, terrorism should be considered a logical, rational (last) resort because of the inherent advantages to this strategy.

For example, the use of terrorism by a very small number of people can instantly put the issue of political change on the public agenda. Terrorism can also provoke government repression, thereby heightening popular disaffection, demonstrating the justice of the terrorist’s claims, and enhancing the attractiveness of the terrorist’s political alternative. Finally, terrorism can provoke a state into starting a costly conventional military campaign.

© Francesco Bongiorni

Terrorism is ineffective at achieving long-term political goals (for example, Northern Ireland, the Palestinians, Basques, Chechens, Tamils, and many others still don’t have independent states, and the U.S. still has a large military presence in the Middle East, despite the efforts of various terrorist groups) but can be very effective at bringing about short-term goals. There are many examples.

Hezbollah’s October 1983 suicide attack against the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut convinced the U.S. to withdraw its soldiers from Lebanon. Two years after the September 11 attacks, the U.S. pulled its troops out of Saudi Arabia. The 2004 Madrid train bombings directly resulted in the Socialists coming to power in Spain and the immediate withdrawal of all Spanish forces from Iraq. One study by terrorism expert Robert Pape found that between 1980 and 2003, seven of the thirteen suicide terrorist campaigns that occurred were closely followed by substantial concessions by the target governments.

Pape, who is perhaps the world’s foremost expert in suicide terrorism, points out the rationality of this most extreme form of terrorism. “Most suicide terrorism is undertaken as a strategic effort directed toward achieving particular political goals; it is not simply the product of irrational individuals or an expression of fanatical hatreds.” He also compares it to certain kinds of state-employed military campaigns. “The heart of the strategy of suicide terrorism is the same as the coercive logic used by states when they employ air power or economic sanctions to punish an adversary: to cause mounting civilian costs to overwhelm the target state’s interest in the issue in dispute and so to cause it to concede the terrorists’ political demands.”

Crenshaw points out that “many terrorists are activists with prior political experience in nonviolent opposition to the state.” The adoption of terrorist methods often follows the failure of other methods of achieving political goals. The group is faced with what they perceive to be “an absence of choice.”

A study of Palestinian suicide bombers found that they were all “children of the Intifada,” mostly from refugee camps. Many had relatives killed by Israeli soldiers, and most had been locked up in Israeli jails for months at a time without any charges. “The common thread running through their lives was hopelessness.”

Why else would anyone choose to employ such lethal violence, especially against non-combatants? For kicks? As Crenshaw further points out, “terrorist groups often discourage or reject potential recruits who are openly seeking excitement or danger for personal motives.”

During a trial for sabotage, Nelson Mandela talked about how using peaceful methods can be ineffective: “it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence when the government met our peaceful demands with force […] our policy to achieve a non-racial state by non-violence had achieved nothing.” Consequently the ANC’s militant wing, the MK, employed violence against a range of targets, including civilians.

In 19th century Russia, the failure of non-violent movements contributed to the emergence of terrorism. In Ireland, terrorist strategies followed the failure of Parnell’s constitutionalism. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, terrorism followed the failed Arab conventional wars against Israel.

Studies also show that there is no direct connection between poverty or lack of education and terrorism. In fact, in most cases it appears that terrorists are in fact better educated and wealthier than the average citizen in their city, as well as gainfully employed.

Terrorists Do Not Have Religious Goals

Terrorism is by definition utilized in pursuit of a political goal. That is to say, a goal having to do with the power, authority, or influence over a region or group. For example, political autonomy for a given territory, political rights for a given group, or the withdrawal of military forces from a region. Traditionally, the five primary terrorist objectives have been: regime change, territorial change, policy change, social control, and maintenance of the status quo. Pape found that over 95 percent of suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation.

This distinguishes terrorists from petty criminals with self-serving material interests, such as thieves, and also from psychopathic murderers. Terrorists are distinct from state-controlled militaries in their inability to deploy conventional forces, and pursuant to that, their need to magnify the effects of their much smaller-scale attacks with the psychology of terror. This is why they often attack symbolic targets and civilians.

Terrorists may use religion as a form of recruitment or justification, but there are always political goals. So-called religious terrorist groups also have a reputation for employing more violence than secular groups, but this isn’t always accurate. For example, the fiercely secular Tamil Tigers not only invented modern suicide bombing, they have been its most prolific user.

Terrorist groups have in fact been using religion as a justification for thousands of years. Examples include the religious Jewish Zealots using a terrorist strategy against the Romans between AD 66-73, and the Muslim Assassins fighting against the Christian crusaders between 1090 and 1272. Even these religious terrorist groups had fundamentally political goals. The Zealots wanted an end to the Roman rule in what is now Israel, and the Assassins fought against Western military occupation of present-day Syria and Iran.

Even so-called Islamic terrorist groups have political goals. Take al Qaeda. Bin Laden repeatedly stated his political goals: the end of U.S. support to Israel and oppressive Arab regimes, the withdrawal of U.S. and other Western military forces from the Middle East, and ending state oppression of Muslims by countries such as Russia, China, and India. Hezbolla and Hamas also have political goals – governance of a territory.

It’s important to accept the rationality and political nature of terrorism in order to better understand it and deal with it effectively. Terrorists don’t employ their violent tactics because of insanity, religious zealotry, or lack of education. They do so because of a firm commitment to a political cause for which they believe terrorism is the most effective or only avenue.

Related: On the Causes of Terrorism Part 1: A Thought Experiment

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4 thoughts on “On the Causes of Terrorism Part 2: Common Misconceptions

  1. I’m beginning to worry that you are developing an understanding … not common among the general public … hope they don’t take you to the gallows for that 😀

  2. Although, your piece seems to elude to the fact that “general public” believes terrorists are “crazy,” I do not think the general public nor the government expound that theory at all. For example, terrorists, or well Islamic terrorists, when they go on trial never afforded the opportunity to plead insanity. However, if you will look in the case of the Norwegian “mass-killer” Anders Brevik, notice he is not given the label “terrorist,” the Norwegian government sought to put him in an insane asylum because they had labeled him disturbed and not fit to stand trial. Brevik himself has stated that if he were an Islamic terrorist no one would have called him crazy. Thus, I think it can be surmised that although perhaps the “general public” may not understand the meaning behind such attacks I do not think they simply write them off as crazy (although for the record, I think that one has to be slightly delusional or disturbed to blow themselves up, and well slightly deranged to believe whole-heartedly in a religious cause, even though in my personal opinion religion has nothing to do with but more so is just used as a means to an end.). But perhaps I have a more optimistic view of the general public.

    Finally, you mention education, I think the people who are actually killing themselves are certainly lacking in education (their handlers however are not). Another, thing you could have mentioned is that terrorist groups would most certainly use greater force if they had access to such advanced weaponry. But for the moment they are stuck with AK-47s, rockets, and suicide bombers.

    Good article though Nick!

  3. Pingback: On the Causes of Terrorism, Part 1: A Thought Experiment | Advokat Dyavola

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