Review of the Literature on Causes of Terrorism

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- An Expanded and Updated Review of the

Literature on Causes of Terrorism


Katja H-W Skjølberg and Brynjar Lia

This essay presents a critical survey of the academic literature on the causes of domestic political violence and terrorism. Drawing on a broad specter of research on peace and civil conflict, this study focuses primarily on theories that seek to explain why some societies are more exposed to domestic terrorism than others, i.e. theories on individual, group and societal levels of analysis. The study underscores the importance of understanding terrorism in its socio-political context, identifying political and socio-economic conditions that are likely to generate high levels of terrorism. Being a relatively comprehensive survey of theories on the causes of terrorism, the study is presumably useful for students and scholars in the field of terrorism research, as well as for practitioners and policy-makers involved in planning long-term preventive and counter-terrorism strategies.



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Contents 3

Introduction 4

Approaches to Explaining Terrorism 5

Psychological Explanations 7

Societal Explanations 21

Concluding Remarks 45

Bibliography 46


There is extensive literature in the field of terrorism, most of it written after 1968. However, much of this work either falls into the trap of being ideologically biased, purely psychological, speculative, or built on data of dubious quality. Furthermore, the bulk of the research is dedicated to conceptual or definitional problems, and only limited effort is put into systematic, empirical work. Thus, the literature suffers from a general lack of good empirically grounded research on the patterns and causes of terrorism. Gurr (1988:115) once argued that the research questions raised often are considerably more interesting than most of the evidence brought to bear on them. Schmid and Jongman (1988:179) follow up the critique, arguing that:
‘There are probably few areas in the social science literature in which so much is written on the basis of so little research. Perhaps as much as 80 percent of the literature is not research-based in any rigorous sense; instead, it is too often narrative, condemnatory, and prescriptive.’
Though written nearly two decades ago, Schmid and Jongman’s deep sigh still seems to hold. The bulk of terrorism research still relies on relatively weak research methods, and quantitative research is rare – resulting in ‘The unfortunate consequence […] that most research work scores poorly in terms of validity and objectivity.’ (Silke 2004:11). It is a challenge, therefore, to survey and critically examine the existing theoretical work in the field, while keeping in mind that not all of these ‘theories’ have been rigorously tested. This article surveys the most commonly used theories on the causes of terrorism – also drawing on literature from the field of low-intensity conflict and political violence in general. The survey is not completely exhaustive; some theories are well-grounded in theoretical and empirical studies, others admittedly are not, and should be seen as hypotheses originating in research literature, rather than established theory. However, by providing a thorough review of the literature on causes and conditions for political violence and terrorism, we may also discover the weak points and missing links in the research tradition on the causes of terrorism.
Discussions about the causes of terrorism are bound to be controversial. To many people, any focus on underlying causes, motivating factors, and grievances, implies a kind of justification for violence. While such objections are in some cases fully legitimate, any study of terrorism and its future potential must rely upon causalities, and explore dispassionately all significant factors leading to changes in its occurrence and manifestation. Furthermore, in the post-11 September era, it is more important than ever that one seeks to understand the driving forces and motivations behind terrorism; otherwise it will be impossible to devise balanced and effective long-term counter-measures.
Approaches to Explaining Terrorism1
Terrorism research literature has previously suffered from a dearth of solid findings about the causes of terrorism, empirically tested in quantitative cross-country studies (Silke 2004). Quantitative armed conflicts and civil war-studies have progressed much further in the theoretical field than has research on terrorism. However, over the past years, there has been some progress in terrorism research testing hypotheses about the causes of terrorism (Silke 2004) – and new research has demonstrated that causal relationships between socio-economic and political conditions and terrorism are in several areas quite similar to those previously found in civil war-studies (Engene 1998; Li and Schaub 2004; Lai 2004). This should make us confident in drawing more upon this literature than have previous authors.2 Relying upon findings from this field of research will further allow us to fill gaps in the terrorism research literature. Still, the relationships’ applicability to terrorism studies is not necessarily directly applicable and straightforward, and will have to be discussed more closely in each case.
There is a multitude of situations capable of provoking terrorism. Terrorists may be deprived and uneducated people or affluent and well educated. Even if young males are usually highly over-represented in most terrorist organizations, one also finds terrorists among people of both sexes and of most ages. Terrorism occurs in rich as well as in poor countries; in the modern industrialized world and in less developed areas; during a process of transition and development, prior to or after such a process; in former colonial states and in independent ones; and in established democracies as well as in less democratic regimes. This list could easily be extended, but it suffices as a demonstration of the wide diversity of conditions one needs to consider when trying to develop an understanding of terrorism. Obviously, this diversity makes it difficult to generalize about terrorism, since there are so many ‘terrorisms’. Different forms of terrorism also have different causes. We may distinguish between international and domestic terrorism; socio-revolutionary terrorism; and ethnic separatist terrorism. Socio-revolutionary terrorism spans different ideologies, including leftist, rightist, and even religious trends. It is also important to recognize that what gives rise to terrorism may be different from what perpetuates terrorism over time.
When analyzing the causes of terrorism, one is confronted with different levels of explanations. There are explanations at the individual and group levels, of a psychological or more often socio-psychological character, such as those identifying why individuals join a terrorist group. Explanations at the societal or national level primarily attempt to identify non-spurious correlations between certain historical, cultural, economic and socio-political characteristics of the larger society and the occurrence of terrorism. For example, the impact of modernization, democratization, poverty, economic inequality, etc., on terrorism falls into this category. Explanations at the world system or international level seek to establish causal relationships between characteristics of the international system and international relations on the one hand, and the occurrence of international terrorism on the other.
This study focuses primarily on the former two levels of analysis. As will be clear, considerable attention has already been devoted to explaining terrorism on individual and group levels, despite strong evidence that terrorism can not be explained through psycho-pathological profiles alone (see below). The fact that external influence on the individual and the group appears to be far more decisive, makes it more relevant to search for the causes of terrorism beyond the individual and group level. There exist few, if any, comprehensive reviews of academic works explaining why some countries experience more terrorism than others. This is evidently a knowledge gap that needs to be addressed. The societal or national level is considered the most useful level of analysis with regards to any attempts at forecasting and long-term prediction about domestic terrorism trends.
Psychological Explanations
The individual and group levels of analysis draw mostly upon psychological explanations (Sageman 2004; Hudson 1999). Major tasks in this field would be to identify why individuals join a terrorist group in the first place, and, secondly, why they continue to stay with the group (Crenshaw 1990: 125). Other related research questions at the individual and group levels of analysis would be: Who are the terrorists? Is there a specific ‘terrorist personality’? What motivates individuals to carry out acts of terrorism? What are the psychological mechanisms of group interaction? Psychological research on terrorism can be divided into two main traditions: The psycho-pathological and the psycho-sociological traditions (Kegley 1990: 99-101).
Psycho-Pathological Theories
The first tradition treats the individual terrorist in isolation, searching for deviant character traits. The simple basic assumption of such pure psychological theory of terrorism is that non-violent behavior is the accepted norm, and that those engaged in terrorist activities therefore necessarily must be abnormal (Schmid and Jongman 1988). Based on behavioral studies and profiles, several researchers of psychology claim to have identified a distinguishable terrorist personality. Spoiled, disturbed, cold and calculating, perverse, exited by violence, psychotic, maniac, irrational and fanatic, are character traits frequently claimed to be typical to the terrorist (Schmid and Jongman 1988). Although he has dismissed the theory of a terrorist personality, Jerrold Post (1990) claims that there is a special logic of terrorist reasoning. He terms this the ‘terrorist psycho-logic’ – referring to his research proposition that ‘[t]errorists are driven to commit acts of violence as a consequence of psychological forces, and that their special psycho-logic is constructed to rationalize acts they are psychologically compelled to commit’ (Post 1990: 25).
In diagnosing terrorists as mentally disturbed individuals, and portraying terrorism as violence just for the sake of violence itself, explanations like these de-politicize terrorism. Psycho-pathological explanations have been much criticized, not only for divesting terrorism of its socio-economic and political setting, but also on empirical grounds. For example, Corrado (1981: 156) has concluded that ‘[p]olitical terrorists, overwhelmingly, are not viewed as suffering from mental disorders. With a few important exceptions, political terrorists are seen as being motivated by ideologies or values that justify the use of terrorism as a legitimate political tactic.’ Many other researchers concur, Heskin (1984: 26) pointing out that ‘the best documented generalization is negative; terrorists do not show any striking psychopathology’; on the contrary, the most outstanding characteristic of terrorists seems to be their normality (Corrado 1981; Turco 1987; Ruby 2002; Weatherston and Moran 2003; Silke 2004).
Even if terrorists are mostly normal, one has not discounted the possibility that there is ‘a connection between an individual engaging in terrorist activity and developing a mental disorder’ given the stress and strains of underground clandestine work (Weatherston and Moran 2003). Furthermore, as Sprinzak (1995: 40) has pointed out psycho-pathological factors cannot be ruled out entirely: ‘the evolution and activity of certain violent groups, especially those that are small and poorly organized, cannot be reduced to socio-political factors.’ The examples of ostensibly non-political religious cults engaging in terrorist violence against society, such as the Aum Shin-rikyo in Japan and the Rajneshees in the US, suggest that psycho-pathological factors among the leadership must have played a significant role (Sprinzak 1995).
Psycho-Sociological Theories
In the second field of psychological terrorism research, the focus on individual characteristics and mechanisms is supplemented by recognition of the influence of the environment upon individual behavior. There is a prodigious literature on psycho-sociological contexts for violence, drawing upon long historical research traditions.
Pointing to the bulk of psychological literature that actually emphasizes the absence of diverging personality traits among terrorists, as well as to the failure of socio-economic research to explain both the ‘comings and goings’3 of terrorism in relatively similar societies, Wilkinson (1987) argues that explanations of terrorism should concentrate on the social context of the terrorists’ ideologies and beliefs. He asserts that the most powerful tool for understanding terrorism is to explore the individual political motivations of terrorists, and to relate them to the unique political, historical, and cultural context, and the ideology and aims of the groups involved (ibid.: ix).
Crenshaw (1990c) also argues that psychological variables must be combined with environmental factors at various levels in order to understand the causes of terrorism. Terrorism is initially a matter of individual motivations and perceptions of social conditions, and about the deliberate choice of the individual to join a terrorist group, to participate in acts of terrorism, and to continue engaging in terrorist activity. Hence, the phenomenon must be studied in relation to the social context in which it occurs. The central challenge is to determine when and under what circumstances extremist organizations find terrorism useful (ibid.:259).
Relative deprivation theories. The connection between human frustration and political violence was recognized in ancient times, and it is essential in Aristotle’s classical theory of revolution. Later, these mechanisms were discussed both in Tocqueville’s work on revolution and in Freud’s early writings. These theories connect individual mobilization of aggression and political violence to social, economic and political circumstances (Wiberg 1990). Dollard et al. (1939) first assumed that aggressive behavior always originated in frustration. Later, Galtung (1964) argued that the situation most likely to provoke aggressive behavior is one in which individuals find themselves in a state of disequilibrium along various socio-political dimensions of status. Davies (1962; 1973), on the other hand, claimed that the probability of violent conflict is highest when improvements, either economic or political, increase the individual’s expectations, only to be followed by a general deterioration, thus decreasing the ability to satisfy accustomed needs and expectations. This hypothesis is illustrated in the well-known ‘Davies’ J-Curve’ (Davies 1962: 69). It is argued that tension based on the perception of deprivation is the basic condition for participation in collective civil violence. The line of argument follows the so-called ‘DFA-linkage’: deprivation produces frustration, which eventually turns into aggression against the state. Deprivation may be absolute, or alternatively, it may be relative, produced by an increasing gap between expectations and satisfaction. It may also be relative in the sense that some social or ethnic groups are more affected than the general populace. Systematic studies find support for deprivation theories both at the micro- and macro-levels of society (Gurr 1970).
The relative deprivation theory also seems valid for terrorism, particularly so for political deprivation. In a quantitative cross-country analysis based on the ITERATE 2 dataset measuring transnational terrorism from 1967-77, Lai (2004) finds a strong positive relationship between political inequality of minority groups within a state, and terrorism in that state. Economic measures of average individual deprivation were found to be insignificant. Also case studies of political violence in Northern Ireland suggest that socio-economic changes are mostly irrelevant in explaining fluctuations in violence (Thompson 1989). However, one recent study has found that economic contraction in democratic high-income countries has a significant effect on transnational terrorism (Blomberg 2004), suggesting that socio-economic deprivation at an individual level still might be a significant factor in explaining terrorism (see our discussion on terrorism and poverty below).
Social distance’ and terrorism. Recent studies have used sociological theories of violence and social geometry to explain the occurrence of ‘pure’ or mass casualty terrorism. The point of departure is that long-standing grievances alone cannot explain extreme violence. Hence, one needs to identify the sociological interrelationships between the terrorists, their grievances, and their enemies – or the ‘social geometry’ of the actors (Black 2004: 18). Senechal de la Roche (1996: 118-22) has proposed that terrorism is most likely to occur under conditions of high levels of ‘social distance’4 or ‘social polarization’ between perpetrators and victims, including a high degree of cultural and relational distance, inequality, and functional independence.
Donald Black (2002, 2004) identifies other social distances as well, adding for example that terrorism has an ‘inter-collective’ direction: terrorists strike against civilians associated with another collectivity, be it another ethno-religious group or foreign nationals. Terrorism also has an upward direction; terrorist attacks are directed against targets symbolizing the central government, a dominant enemy regime, or a socio-economically or politically superior community. Thus, terrorism represents in a sense ‘social control from below’ (Black 2004: 19). According to Black, terrorism in its purest form ‘arises inter-collectively and upwardly across long distances in multidimensional social space’ (ibid.:19). In other words, terrorism in its most destructive form is most likely to occur when perpetrators are as socially removed from the victims as possible. Black formulates this as follows (ibid.: 19)
‘And the greater the social distances, the greater their destructiveness […] An excellent social location for highly destructive terrorism thus would be a grievance against a powerful nation-state by a group ethnically and otherwise extremely far away in social space, such as the indigenous people of a colonial society or members of another society.’
Senechal de la Roche and Black’s propositions are interesting in terms of explaining mass casualty terrorism, but remain to be tested systematically.
Altering gender relations and terrorism. After 11 September 2001, issues involving repressed male sexuality, gender segregation, and high sex-ratio societies have been discussed as possible avenues to understanding the new terrorism. Baruch (2003: pp. 698-700) has suggested that the ‘traumatic’ gender segregation in Islamic societies ‘is a major cause of fundamentalism and the search for violent political activity. Suicide bombing is one result of hating one’s sexual impulses.’ Lewis (1990: sidereferanse) argues that anti-US terrorism by Islamist groups reflects ‘a rising tide of rebellion against this Western paramountcy, and a desire to reassert Muslim values and restore Muslim greatness’. A part of this struggle is the cultural clash over social mores, primarily related to the status of women and sexuality. Promiscuity and gender equality promoted through Western film and movies are seen as fundamentally threatening to a Muslim man and his honor, as they violate ‘the sanctuary of his home’, and jeopardize his ‘mastery’ over his family (ibid.). Kaufman (2003) has argued that the combination of the ‘sexual titillation spread by western culture’, and the social taboos on premarital sex for young men creates immense sexual frustration among young males. Those who are unable to cope with this tension runs the risk of turning to violence, either against local symbols of immorality, or against the West for having forced them into this difficult situation.
However, none of these authors offers much evidence as to why this sexual frustration has translated into terrorism in some countries and not in others, and in recent years while not earlier. Yet the relevance of sexuality and gender-relations should not be entirely discounted. Kimmel (2003) has studied how lower middle-class men in extremist right-wing and Islamist groups use the discourse of masculinity as a symbolic capital to understand their world and depict their enemies, as well as for recruitment purposes. His study points to the enormous importance that such groups attribute to their masculinity and the need to restore a public and domestic patriarchal order. It remains to be seen whether there is any systematic relationship between changes in gender relations, segregation policies, etc., on the one hand, and the occurrence of terrorism on the other. However, what seems clear is that skewed gender balance (high sex-ratio societies) and high proportions of unmarried males tend to be associated with intra-societal violence and social instability (Hudson and Den Boer 2002). Both political and criminally motivated violence are overwhelmingly the work of young unmarried men (Buvinić and Morrison 2000).
The contagion theory of terrorism. An important variant of the psycho-sociological research tradition is the thesis that terrorism is ‘contagious’. A number of studies have demonstrated that the occurrence of terrorist attacks is far from random, rather that there is a clear trend of periodical cycle in the occurrence of terrorist attacks, or waves of terrorism (Redlick 1979; Midlarsky et al 1980; Weimann and Brosius 1988; Bjørgo 1997). A high level of terrorism in one month is likely to be followed by few incidents in the next month, suggesting that the decision by terrorist groups to launch an attack is influenced by similar attacks elsewhere, hence, the ‘concept of contagion’. These periodic ‘waves’ of terrorism may be partly explained by the desire of terrorists to guarantee newsworthiness and consequently, media access (Weimann and Brosius 1988: 500). According to Weimann and Brosius (1988), there is ‘accumulating empirical evidence pointing to the contagiousness of terrorism’ with regards to the timing of terrorist attacks.
The contagion theory also refers to the observed phenomenon that high levels of terrorism in one country often are associated with increased incidents of terrorism in neighboring states in the region, whether by the same organization, by ‘second-generation’ groups, by foreign sympathizers and coalition partners, or simply by imitators (Crenshaw 1983: 15; Midlarsky et al. 1980). In a cross-country quantitative analysis based on the ITERATE dataset for all countries in the period 1968-1977, Lai (2004: 29) finds support for the hypothesis that ‘the greater the amount of terrorism in a state’s region, the greater the amount of terrorism a state is likely to face the next year.’
A third aspect of the contagiousness of terrorism is that terrorist groups learn from each other, and successful operations in one country are imitated by groups elsewhere. For example, the spread of sky-jackings and other high-profile hostage taking incidents from the end of the 1960s was in no small measure a result of the stunning successes of the new Palestinian groups in gaining worldwide attention through their use of terrorism (Hoffman 1998: 67ff). It encouraged a wide variety of leftist-nationalist groups to employ similar tactics. The wave of hijackings was only arrested when new security measures such as metal detectors were installed at airports worldwide. The next quantum leap in airborne terrorism, namely the September 11th attacks, was also quickly followed by a number of copycat incidents. In January 2002 an American teenager deliberately crashed a Cessna 172 aircraft into the 42 story Bank of America Plaza building in Tampa, Florida, leaving a handwritten note behind in which he praised the actions of al-Qaida and claimed to be ‘acting on their behalf’.5 Eight months later a suspected suicide bomber from the Colombian Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (‘Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’, or FARC) planned to crash an aircraft loaded with explosives into the Presidential Palace in Bogotá (Hodgson 2002). Towards the end of the year, an Israeli-Arab citizen attempted to break into the cockpit of an El Al-plane with the intention to crash it into a high-rise building in Tel-Aviv (Filkins 2003: 3). Many other terrorist techniques are also communicated worldwide, including expertise in constructing the number one terrorist weapon: the improvised explosive device (IED). Recent investigations into the use of IED in cars by Islamist groups suggest ‘a global bomb-making network’, as the same designs for car bombs have been found at terrorist attack sites in Africa, the Middle East and Asia (Johnston 2004).
Modern mass media is a key to understanding the contagiousness of terrorism and terrorist techniques (Crenshaw 1990a: 115; Wilkinson 1987: xv-xvi). The extensive media coverage of the terrorists attracts attention to the group’s cause. Since an increasingly large section of the world’s population is exposed to international media coverage, information concerning specific terrorist tactics and modus operandi are thus communicated worldwide. Due to the information revolution, the ideologies, rhetoric and beliefs justifying the violence are transmitted transnationally with greater ease than ever before. Even back in the 1970s Redlick (1979: 91) noted that ‘informational flows, thus, seem to benefit militants or discontented individuals or groups in today’s international system’.
Extensive collaborative arrangements, transborder networks, and personal relationships of trust between terrorist groups are other key factors in explaining the contagiousness of terrorism. Crenshaw writes (1983: 17):
‘Terrorist organizations frequently have direct, physical contacts with other terrorist groups and with foreign countries. Collaboration extends to buying weapons, finding asylum, obtaining passports and false documents, acquiring funds, and sometimes rendering assistance in the planning and execution of terrorist attacks. […] it means that transnational links among groups with shared aims make terrorism in one state likely to lead to terrorism in nearby states.’

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