Causes of terrorism

Research literature on causational factors and diverse goals that drives people to resort to carry out terrorist acts is inconclusive. How these two are connected can be a matter of debate: are researched causes derived from terrorists' manifestos, implicitly or explicitly worded goals, or are living conditions perceived as unjust and not decent and therefore its goals may be inferred, or a mere conjecture? Multiple reasons are listed here, of which some seem to be more appliccable than others, and some others tend to go together for identification of more or less convincing causational factors.

Etnicity, nationalism/separatism

Probably the most contested cause of terrorism is an aggrieved group resorting to violence for nationalist or separatist reasons; depending on one's point of view, this can be considered as resistance against an (external) oppressor. Thus far, only Mahatma Ghandi and his followers of the freedom movement have managed to liberate themselves from foreign occupation by peaceful means (Drewermann, 2001), whereas in most other (previously) colonised states "nationalism movements commonly turned to terrorism", it being "the resort of an extremist faction of this broader movement" within an ethnic minority (Crenshaw, 1981:383). Williams (1994) provides an overview on the relation between ethnic minorities and the likelihood of conflict, for example to establish or assert language rights, religious beliefs and symbols (1994:59), but he also includes factors like "civil and political rights and privileges, ..., regional-ethnic parity in the economy... What then generates perceptions of unfairness is competition/rivalry when an ethny is subordinated or disadvantaged in economic opportunity, social status, political voice and rights, or cultural expressions." (Williams, 1994:59)
However, the cited factors are not unique for ethnic minorities. To generalize it further, ethnic conflict arises from a "complex combination" of class, inequality, political opportunity, mobilization resources and "ethnic strength" (Williams, 1994:49). How can 'ethnic strength' be measured, and to what extend is ethnicity (and related nationalist separatist movements) a constructed concept? (Nevertheless, the idea works for mobilizing people). One note of caution on the importance of ethnic conflict is appropriate. Fearon and Laitin (1996) assessed the ratio of actual versus potential communal violence in Africa from independence through 1979, ranging from 0.0005 for actual ethnic violence to 0.0028 (or 0.28%) for ethnic civil war, thereby claiming that incidence of ethnic conflict is hugely overestimated due to research bias. Worded more positively: most ethnic groups live in peace with each other.

Poverty and economic disadvantage, globalisation

A more important factor may be the social stratification Williams is referring to and inequalities in the distribution of scarce resources. Extensive contemporary media and literature simplify this to the poverty argument (e.g. Murphy (2001) and Kristof (2002)): when a group is absolutely or relatively deprived they rebel. A comprehensive evaluation of the extant literature on the validity of this argument, the Economic Inequality - Political Conflict (EI-PC) hypothesis, has been carried out by Lichbach (1989), who came to the conclusion that "EI-PC studies have produced an equivocal answer about the EI-PC nexus" (p440) regardless the research angle (statistics, rational actor and deprived actor paradigms). Problems Lichbach identified were notions on the lack of exactly defined economic factors influencing the decision to resort to political conflict and the "tolerance for inequality" (p452), according to the Rational Actor (RA) approach shifting to behavioural dissent only when absolute poverty is present, the Deprived Actor (DA) scientific research program's undefined additional "intermediate psychological processes" (p459), and another not fully explored factor of the (insignificant) influence of collective action (p465). Say, one dismisses the inconclusive research results and assumes that it is a (major) cause fuelling terrorism - proof by contradiction: roughly 15% of the population consumes 85% of the resources, UN statistics show that citizens in the Third World are worse off now than 30 years ago, while a small faction in those countries enriched themselves, i.e. RA and DA are both present as well as the statistics. If either one of them is true, the West ought to be continuously subject to terrorist acts by (a small group representing) people from these Third World countries. But there is no huge mass uprising of the vast majority of the world population against the few in Western states, nor continuous terrorist attacks carried out by Third World citizens against the West. In fact, the amount of terrorist incidents declined in the 1990s. (Refer to e.g. 'Patterns of Global Terrorism' publications, downloadable from the US State Department website at
Broadening the perspective to globalisation, Galtung (2002) blames the Third World - First World dichotomy as a new version of class conflict based on structural violence. This assertion in itself may provide an explanation as to why widespread social upheaval has not occurred. Proving injustice being done by structural violence is considerably more difficult than an overt assault on a country or discrimination of a target group, and even if one succeeds in convincing one's own group, they will likely stumble upon resorting to terrorist methods, not possessing sufficient assets to purchase and develop so-called 'weapons of mass destruction'. This is an example of a wider gap between means and ends. Guelke (1995) explores globalisation, inequality and the Third World from another direction and explores the possible links between economic affluence and a stable liberal democracy, thereby assuming that it would reduce incidence of terrorism. However, at the same time he asserts that a liberal democracy "has proved little more successful than other forms of political systems in overcoming the relative weakness of the state in many Third World societies" (p135) and that economic development is a more important factor to maintain law and order. Guelke is more concerned with intra-Third World conflicts than world wide international terrorism as "there has been relatively little spill-over from political violence within Third World states into the international arena" (p142) and in addition to economic development, the possible effects a "debilitated" liberal democracy in Third World countries may induce and facilitate, but without formulating a sound conclusion on the matter either.


The factor of democracy as an instigator or facilitator for terrorism deserves further exploration. A democratic government is supposed to represent the people and provide political means to voice grievances, hence essentially providing a sphere where terrorism has no place. For this reason, in theory, there 'cannot' be an aggrieved group that is not adequately represented; otherwise, it is a "violation of the doctrines of democracy and constitutionalism" (Wilkinson, 1977:232). In reality, this may not be the case: for example the 'second-class citizens' in the democratic Jewish state Israel (excluding non-Jewish citizens certain rights (Dworkin, 1997:222)). Such a situation would fit Wilkinson's assertion that political violence is morally justifiable in a democracy in two occasions: "Firstly, there is the case of the minority whose basic rights and liberties are denied or taken away by arbitrary action of the government or its agencies. ... Second when one minority is attacked by another minority and does not receive adequate protection from the state and its forces of law and order." (Wilkinson, 1977:40) and "Those who are the subjects of a liberal state, but who are not admitted to its rights of citizenship cannot be morally bound to obedience to the state. They are not bound by political obligation for they have not been accorded any rights by the state." (Wilkinson, 1977:39)
Arguably, based on these claims, one can say it is exactly absence of a 'correct' implementation of democratic ideals and not democracy sic.
However, a characteristic of democracies is their openness. Some, like Meyer (2002) and Khan (2003), consider this openness a major weakness of the system, and therefore a 'cause'. Openness in itself cannot be a cause, only maybe easing terrorists in their preparations and facilitating publicity in the relative absence of censorship, but not the 'change of mindset' to resort to terrorism as a tool. Likewise the non-cause of the claims of the increase in ease of mobility and technology, put forward by for example Homer-Dixon (2002). It is conceivable to contend that Western states are as close to the democratic ideology as possible, but it is generally assumed the case, thereby invalidating Wilkinson's two occasions. Why then, have Western states not been free from internal terrorism? What might be a cause, is the so-called 'terror of the majority': the minority is represented and allowed to voice their grievances, but this is consistently not translated into desired policies because there are not sufficient votes to pass desired legislation.

Disaffected intelligentsia

Rubenstein elaborates another interesting aspect occurring in Western liberal democratic states in his book Alchemists of Revolution (1987), though not necessarily because of a hiatus in democratic governance. There are two points I would like to bring under attention. First, Rubenstein's thesis that the main cause of terrorism are disgruntled, disaffected, intelligentsia who are in a social and moral crisis unable to mobilize the masses. This is "a primary internal cause of terrorism, dictating to a degree its philosophy, tactics and consequences" (Rubenstein, 1987:xvii). Intellectuals, of the type of ambitious idealist, do not have a rebellious lower class to lead due to shifts from primary and manual work to the services sector, nor do they receive guidance from a creative upper class that they can follow. When rigid social stratification shatter hopes for social transformation, then the ingredients are present for a start or rise in terrorist activities in an attempt to reconnect with the masses who they claim to represent and aspire to lead. Examples: "...ever since the Russian intellectuals "invented" modern terrorism..." (Radu, 2001), referring to Narodnaya Volya, Wieviorka's "Disappointed, frustrated or unrealisable upward mobility" (1988:29); "middle-class alienation" (Kristof, 2002); "spoilt children of affluence" (Wilkinson, 1977:93); Crenshaw (1981); Williams (1994:65), and so forth. But now, 15 years after the book's publication, access to third level education (the 'democratisation of education') has increased to such an extend that it devalues degrees to a minimum standard for procuring a job. Is the degree graduate now the new (white collar) working class stuck in his/her cubicle? If true, then the 'gap' between the masses and intelligentsia is smaller at present, hence more likely to be bridge-able, and therefore less prone to induce ideas to resort to terrorism, thus at least weakening Rubenstein's view. The second aspect of Rubenstein's book is a broad discussion on the myriad of, predominantly leftist, political ideologies - indirectly the perceived cause being the undemocratic government, unfair capitalist system et al - but may simply be a failed revolution.


Opposite the concept of disaffected intelligentsia is the assertion that it is not intelligentsia, but simpleminded people who are easy to indoctrinate that are perceived to be 'the cause' (Rathbone and Rowley, 2002) prevalent in more recent popular literature. They, and others, are essentially trying to dehumanise terrorists, thereby confirming terrorist's core reasons they are fighting for: being heard, recognised and treated as equal human beings. In this context, Midgley (2002) has put forward an interesting explanation for the increased levels of dehumanisation: "a continuation of the frozen, abstract hatreds made possible by the cold war... this suspending of normal human relations is supposed to be just a temporary expedient ... The corrupt thing about the Cold War idea was that it legitimised acceptance of this evil as a normal, permanent condition of life. It domesticated tribal hatred."
Thus obfuscating the distinction between literal and metaphorical wars, where the negative mindset of people caused by the Cold War continues to live on, and feed, terrorism and the violent responses on terrorism, made possible by disregarding the idea that an opponent is a human being too. However, a closer examination of this argument reveals that the implied cause of the violence is within us, having internalised dehumanisation, not the 'illiterate stupid other'.


In line with either dehumanisation, or with previously outlined ethnicity and democracy or both, is religion as a cause for terrorism put forward, 'Muslim fanatics in the Middle East' in particular. Michael Radu (2001), senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in the US, provides a simplification: democracy is declared un-Islamic by all ideologues of Islamic terrorism, Islamists hate capitalism and believe in a new Caliphate (who will lead the community of Muslims worldwide) and oppose individualism. Statistics reveal two relevant intriguing facets. One is religious revival in general, with the US at the top (Doyle, 2003), the other is statistics on killings (including from one murder to world wars) gathered and analysed by Lewis Fry Richardson (referenced in Hayes, 2001), among other factors, on the causality of violence and religion: "The one social factor that does have some detectable correlation with war is religion. ... nations that differ in religion are more likely to fight than those that share the same religion. Moreover, some sects seem generally to be more bellicose (Christian nations participated in a disproportionate number of conflicts). But these effects are not large." (Hayes, 2002:15)
Bear in mind though, that there are also a 'disproportionate' amount Christians. In turn, it can be argued that there are many Christians exactly because they 'seem generally to be more bellicose'.
Notwithstanding the above, all religions emphasise that one should treat others as we wish to be treated, and that one should not kill another human being (the latter with a few exceptions, e.g. Just War Theory). From an Islamic perspective, there are scholars who consider Western society, which is based on Christian theology, as the main cause of terrorism, and Darwinism and materialism in particular (Yahya, (1)), including Malthus' theory of ruthlessness, also known under the definition of social Darwinism. Last, New Age - as a religion - considers the perceived cause of terrorism the "modern society", being "too stressful and uncreative" (Ridgley, 1999), i.e. a problem within oneself.


Among the multitude of causes that may lead a person to resort to terrorism, there is none that conclusively links a sole cause to the act. Ethnicity, nationalism/separatism, poverty and economic disadvantage, globalisation, (non)democracy, Western society, disaffected intelligentsia, dehumanisation, and religion all have arguments confirming a possible existing link, as well reservations against a causal relation.

This write-up was first published on (here d.d. June 12 2003) and is a shorter and easier-to-read version of a paragraph of my MA dissertation "Terrorism and Game Theory: coalitions, negotiations, and audience costs", downloadable in full here (in pdf).


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