Towards a Theory of Terrorism

1. Introduction

Although the media has been 'covering terrorism' extensively, especially during the past year, it has mainly focused on how to respond, how people did respond, and how to 'fix terrorism', thereby largely ignoring the fact that terrorism has been around for many more years and, more importantly, ignoring the vast amount of (research) publications dealing with theories of terrorism, which I think could have been, and still can be, very helpful in dealing with such acts of violence in a constructive manner.
First, I will address the basic theory of terrorism, then map the involved parties in order to place terrorist actions and their demands in that framework. Last, I comment on the prevailing responses to and 'fixes' for terrorism.

2. Basic aspects of the theory of terrorism

Terrorism is the weapon of those people who are prepared to use violence, but who also believe that they would lose a real power struggle, thus one can say that terrorism is a tool of the weak1: they do not have the resources (people, money, political power) to wage a real war. Secondly, and in contrast with standard warfare tactics, the used violence is a means, not a goal in itself, as the main goal is to disturb, expose and highlight the weaknesses and incompetence of the government and civil apparatus. A secondary aspect is achieving their direct political objectives (see also §3.1).1, 2, 3, 4, 5
An important notion is that its effectiveness depends on the reaction of the opponent, because the terrorist is trying to achieve goals through the reaction on their actions. This is also its Achilles heel: the opponent may act in another way than anticipated, thus having the option to break a vicious circle or downward spiral.1, 2
Terrorist themselves tend to judge the success of an action based on the amount of media coverage (+ propaganda) and the psychological 'warfare' resulting from it; i.e. the instilled fear and sense of insecurity, the idea of 'invisible enemies', not knowing where they are or with how many, etc.1, 2, 3, 4, 5
From a political philosophy point of perspective, terrorism is an indirect strategy.1

3. Characterization of actors

There are various ways to map involved organizations when looking at a specific conflict (most notably the 'classical method', a top-down approach involving a few groups, and a wider approach as advocated by Transcend), but I'm taking a very basic viewpoint here (thus still allowing the option that it can be elaborated on when focusing in on a real-life situation): terrorists and state(s).

3.1 Aggrieved groups

Having referred to 'organized groups using violence as a means to achieve their goals' as terrorists, I will correct myself here. Some call these organized groups terrorists; others would say freedom fighters, or fighters for a just cause. To avoid this subjective branding, I will use the more neutral term "aggrieved group".
These aggrieved groups have specific political objectives and believe that violence is an inevitable means to achieve their political ends. Objectives vary widely, from defending/wanting regions, religions, nationalities or ideologies. 2, 4, 5 Roughly, this can be divided as having a basis in ideological or refugee-based disorders. Ideological disorders encompass liberation struggles, right-wing (e.g. racist) and left-wing (e.g. Marxist) ideologies 1, 4, 5 whereas for refugee-based disorders the aim is to get 'their own' country or region back, most often being fought from a refugee area outside the borders of the country they are targetting.5

3.2 States

The minimum amount of involved states in any 'terrorist conflict' is one. However, it is only rarely that an aggrieved group has sufficient means to maintain violence on its own without support from other states. Khan5 divided the involved states up into supportive and suppressive states. A further sub-division can be made into both principle and accessory supportive/suppressive states.

Supportive states
Accessory supportive states provide moral support to the aggrieved group, which might sound little distinct from being neutral, but effective moral support form states that promote the political objectives, officially positioned as being outside of the problem, does provide extended legitimacy of the actions of the aggrieved group. A principal supportive not only provides moral support, but also resources (finance, military, active training etc.)2, 5, though sometimes the vocal moral support may not be voiced loud and clear for international political reasons.

Suppressive states
The distinction between principal or accessory suppressive states largely depends on perception of the aggrieved group of the particular state and the consistency in opposing the aggrieved group.5

Things get more complicated in real life than the nice distinctions made in the previous two paragraphs, as it is common practice for a state to be categorized as more than one type of state not only over time, but especially at the same time with regards to different conflicts. This conflicting characterization is part of the wider problem as the dual approach of measuring with two standards towards violence and terrorism impairs the orderly functioning of the international system: labels become weapons to influence, and even to manipulate, domestic and international public opinion. 5

4. Terrorist activities

4.1 Actions

Bearing in mind the basic theory of terrorism and the classification of the aggrieved groups as well as the involved state(s), actions carried out by the aggrieved groups can be categorized as follows (see Marighella6 for a more detailed categorization): See Johns and Silverman7 or Bueno de Mesquita8 for interesting studies about respectively the influence of personality & emotions and state structure on terrorist target selection.

4.2 Demands

Some actions as described in §4.1 are solely intended to defame the state, but other situations demanded money, freeing prisoners, (more) schools, a (better) health system, meeting the advocated ideology or land1, 2, 5; essentially, that the basic needs of people need to be provided for, as well as communal recognition and distributive justice9.

5. Responses to terror

5.1 Responses to actions

The possible responses to a terrorist action are only limited by the opponent's imagination and willingness to do something. Roughly, documented responses fit one, or more, of this list: Most of the most often tried responses are focused on doing exactly the things that the terrorist accuses the opponent of: killing without a fair trial, dehumanizing the members of the aggrieved group, hence not taking them seriously leaving a feeling of being marginalized, restricting rights and freedom (which 'proves' that the state/government is not a 'real democracy' but a disguised dictatorship). All in all, essentially confirming the perceived injustice and providing the aggrieved group with more reason to fight for the cause.

5.2 How-to

This paragraph looks at suggestions being made, occasionally tried out as well, that can be considered as a more constructive approach than outlined in §5.1 to deal with aggrieved groups, supportive and suppressive states and their acts of violence. Personally, I think that to be able to solve terrorist problems, one will not only have to take the point of view of the aggrieved group into consideration, but also to find options that include demands and wishes form all sides of the parties involved in the conflict; regardless if it's by using their alpha consciousness, religion, or whatever ethical or moral background, in reaching out to each other to get to such a situation to live together on this planet.

6. Concluding remarks

While reading up on theories of terrorism, I found it striking it was the older literature of the late '70s and '80s that did attempt to provide an analysis and theoretical framework of violent acts of aggrieved groups, which did not appear in the more recent scientific literature. On the contrary, recent literature on the web tended to be focused on how to deal with terrorists (mainly Game Theory, with similar outcomes to kill10, 16) and using computational modeling (other neural networks)8 in trying to predict terrorist's behaviour for risk assessment analysis of potential target sites.
Comparing the older scientific literature (Chapter 2) with the responses most prevalent at the time of writing (§5.1), I can't withdraw my attention form the idea that either people didn't learn much from the outlined theory or don't (want to) know about its existenceb. Moreover, the recipients of the (violent) acts carried out by an aggrieved group have the option to break the vicious circle/downwards spiral. In other words:

it's the recipients who will have to make a first constructive move towards conflict resolution.



1. Fromkin, D. Die Strategie des Terrorismus. In: Terrorismus - Untersuchungen zur Strategie und Struktur revolutionärer Gewaltpolitik. Funke, M (ed.). 1977. pp 83-99.

2. Laqueur, W. Terrorism. London: Weinfeld and Nicolson. 1997. 277p

3. Kreis, K.M. Der internationale Terrorismus. In: Terrorismus - Untersuchungen zur Strategie und Struktur revolutionärer Gewaltpolitik. Funke, M (ed.). 1977. pp 158-172.

4. Allemann, F.R. Terrorismus in Lateinamerika - Motive und Erscheinungsformen. In: Terrorismus - Untersuchungen zur Strategie und Struktur revolutionärer Gewaltpolitik. Funke, M (ed.). 1977. pp 173-197.

5. Khan, A. A legal theory of international terrorism. 19 Connecticut Law Review. 1987. pp 945-972. This website contains much more interesting theory than addressed in this write-up.

6. Marighella, C. Mini-manual of the Urban Guerilla. 1969.

7. Johns, M. and Silverman, B.G. How emotions and personality effect the utility of alternative decisions: a terrorist target selection case study. University of Pennsylvania. 10p.

8. Bueno de Mesquita, E. An adverse selection model of terrorism: theory and evidence. Dept. of Government, Harvard University. 45p.

9. Azar, E.E. The management of protracted social conflict. Hampshire: Dartmouth. 1990. pp 2-3.

10. Tay Kok Siong, D., Yong Wee, F. and Kien Meng, W. Terrorism And Game Theory. July 2001.

11. Anne Rathbone and Charles K. Rowley. George Mason University. 15p

12. Schiller, D. From a national to an international response. In: Combating the terrorists. Tucker, H.H. (ed.). New York: Facts on file. 1988. pp 185-202.

13. Anon. Preventing Terrorism: Invincible Defense Technology: Scientific Foundation. Permanent Peace.

14. Yahya, H. The Real Ideological Root of Terrorism: Darwinism and materialism.

15. Yahya, H. Islam Is Not The Source Of Terrorism, But Its Solution.

16. Anon. RMS Unveils Game Theory-Based Terrorism Risk Model. Insurance Journal, Sept 2002.

This is a write-up of a presentation held at 25-11-'02, part of the course IL5052 - Origins, development and resolution of conflict, Department of Government & Society, University of Limerick, Ireland.