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Causes of Terrorism | Hand of Reason

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Causes of Terrorism

In our Types of Terrorism post we laid out the different kinds of terrorism that exist. Here we discuss the causes of terrorism, or more specifically, why people become terrorists. In order to combat terrorism, we must first understand the drivers of terrorism. Identifying these drivers allows policy makers to target terrorism at its root causes rather than fight those who have already become radicalized.

The causes of terrorism have been under much debate. There is evidence for and against every reason on this list however, more often than not, it is a combination of several that lead to terrorism. Below are the most common causes cited by leaders in the counterterrorism field.

Causes of Terrorism


The desire of a population to break away from a government or ruling power and create a state of their own can cause the formation of terrorist groups. In the 20th century this was seen often times with regions or states attempting to gain independence from their colonial era masters. However, as Bruce Hoffman points out in Inside Terrorism, ethno-nationalist terrorism had been around decades before even the First World War. Perhaps the most notable of these groups, formed before and after WWII and inspired by the weakening of imperial powers, was the Jewish Irgun Avai Le’umi who fought British rule in Palestine so as to attain the creation of a Jewish state.

Today Hamas is one of the most active ethno-nationalist driven groups carrying out suicide bombings and attacks against the state of Israel with the goal of creating a Palestinian state. Chechen terrorist organizations are also ethno-nationalists for their attacks against the government and people of Russia in the attempt to form their own state.

Within many countries around the globe minority groups exist wishing to garner some form of independence, if not their own state altogether. Therefore ethno-nationalism will continue to be a significant source of terrorism. It is important to recognize this and counter it with more politically inclusive processes that can mitigate the grievances of minority groups, though some will inevitably continue to employ terrorism until they achieve their desired independent nation.

Alienation /Discrimination

Several authors on terrorism have pointed to a sense of alienation felt by diasporas, particularly those living in Europe as a driver of terrorism. Many times these groups face discrimination in the countries they reside, leading to further feelings of isolation. They commonly move from poorer countries, particularly Muslim states in the case of Europe, to wealthier ones to go to school or find work. As Marc Sageman discusses in his book Understanding Terror Networks, once in these countries they begin to feel alienated. The new host nation is substantially different than their own culture, and is usually much less community oriented. This causes alienated individuals to seek out communities with cultures like their home countries or others like themselves. These groups may become jaded towards society around them as they don’t fit in and feel excluded. Growing sentiments of discrimination can lead groups to look to more conservative, and eventually, extremist ideologies.

The Hamburg Cell, consisting of two of the pilots in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is a perfect example of this. The cell included a number of expatriate Muslims studying in Germany who sought out other conservative Muslims to band together when they felt homesick in a Western society that was alien to them. This started them down the trail of radicalization as they became more jaded with the world around them.

Robert Leiken also discusses this phenomenon in his paper Europe’s Angry Muslims. Leiken points to both “outsiders,” Muslims who immigrated in order to study or seek asylum, and “insiders,” second or third generation Muslims in Europe. These groups are subjected to discriminatory social policies, such as the headscarf law in France, that then cause them to become radicalized.

The problem here, particularly in the case of Europe, is that many of these expatriates who become radicalized due to alienation from being in a foreign society also hold European passports and thus can travel within Europe with increased ease, as well as enter the U.S. much easier than non-Europeans. Therefore they pose not only a threat to Europe, but also to the United States.


Perhaps the most commonly held belief today is that terrorism is caused by religion. Though it is not the main cause for terrorism, religion does play a significant role in driving some forms of it. As Hoffman points out in Inside Terrorism, from the Thugs of ancient India that killed to terrorize in the name of the god Kali to the Jewish Zealots who cut the throats of Romans in public to combat their occupation of Israel, religion (in conjunction with political/ethno-nationalist drivers) has long been a factor of terrorism.

Today religion as a part of terrorism has been mainly attributed to Islamic fundamentalism (though other examples, such as the Aum Shinrikyo cult that carried out the 1995 sarin gas attacks in Tokyo, also exist). As Sageman describes: “The global Salafi jihad is a world wide religious revivalist movement with the goal of reestablishing past Muslim glory in a great Islamist state stretching from Morocco to the Philippines, eliminating present national boundaries.”

As a driver of terrorism, the true danger that religious doctrine poses is its encouragement of attacks that are more violent in nature than other types of terrorism. By being promised rewards in the afterlife, terrorists are more likely to carry out suicide bombings and other such “all in” tactics that are harder to defend against.

Socio-Economic Status

Terrorists may also be driven by a sense of relative depravation and lack of upward mobility within society. Globalization and the modern media have given the ‘have nots’ an acute awareness of their situation compared to the ‘haves’. As Omer Taspinar states in Fighting Radicalism, Not “Terrorism,” “Globalization creates an acute awareness about opportunities available elsewhere. This leads to frustration, victimization, and humiliation among growing cohorts of urbanized, undereducated, and unemployed Muslim youth who are able to make comparisons across countries.” Seeing the economic differences between themselves and the Western world can infuriate some in underdeveloped countries, increasing tension and hostilities. This allows terrorist organizations to gain attention and entry to societies that have felt wronged by these perceived social injustices.

Unfortunately the only real way to mitigate this is through economic development of the community, country, and region, but that takes time. For the foreseeable future there will always be those that are disgruntled by the comparison of living standards of the wealthy around the world versus their own, opening the doors to frustration and anger.  Thus, this driver is remarkably hard to combat as globalization allows for more mechanisms of comparison between varying global socio-economic levels.

Political Grievances

A lack of political inclusiveness in states or grievances against a certain political order may cause individuals to join or create terrorist groups. Left and right wing terrorists often seek to a political system. As well, many in nations with authoritarian regimes lack avenues for dissent.  Frustrated expressions of political will can turn to violence as an alternative to exclusive political systems. While somewhat similar to ethno-nationalist/separatist causes, these political grievances are not born from the desire to create a new state but to change the order within the current one.

In his piece, Taspinar describes this as a political dimension to relative depravation. In this light he sees political Islam as a reaction to such oppressive governments and its Western supporters. With the knowledge that other people around the world live in representative governments, the anger only grows among those who live without such political representation, leading disillusioned individuals into the arms of terrorism.

The implication here is that Western governments, in their support of repressive authoritarian regimes for their own national interest, have essentially made themselves targets of terrorism of an angered populace within these regimes, acting out violently as the only alternative to political expression.

The Accidental Guerrilla

Finally, there is the theory put forth about the “accidental guerrilla” by David Kilcullen. Kilcullen describes it as such: A terrorist organization moves into an area with poor government or that is conflict ridden (he uses Al Qaeda specifically), then uses this safe haven to spread their ideologies to other areas and as a base to carry out violent acts. When outside forces then intervene to deal with the threat posed to them by this group, this causes the local population to reject the ‘foreign invaders’ and ally with the terrorist group, thus creating more terrorists and popular support for terrorist movements. The cases of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq to counter Al Qaeda are the obvious examples here.

This theory poses strong questions about the viability of direct intervention in pursuit of terrorist groups by Western countries, and whether it causes more harm than good.

Further Readings:

While the information here gives a useful overview of the causes of terrorism, there is a large amount of literature out there regarding terrorism and its causes. The following are some good books and essays for further reading.


• Inside Terrorism – Bruce Hoffman

• The Accidental Guerrilla – David Kilcullen

• Understanding Terror Networks – Marc Sageman


• Rebuilding Weak States – Eizenstat, Porter, and Weinstein

• Using the Internet to Uncover Terrorism’s Root Causes – Joshua Sinai

• Market Civilization and Its Clash with Terror – Michael Mousseau

Fighting Radicalism, Not ‘”Terrorism”: Root Causes of an International Actor Redefined – Omer Taspinar

• Europe’s Angry Muslims – Robert Leiken

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