The Causes and Consequences of Terrorist Attacks

Causes and Consequences of Terrorist attacks


Terrorism, root causes, trigger causes, transnational terrorists

Causes of terrorist attacks


In recent years, terrorist attacks have increased enormously. According to Paul Wilkinson in his book “Terrorism Versus Democracy: The Liberal State Response” (2011), terrorism still remains a serious problem for the international community; during the years 2006 to 2009 over 60% of the countries in the world experienced terrorist attacks.

Defining terrorism has been an intimidating task to do, over hundreds of definitions were made across a number of academic fields, and still there has been no progress in providing an internationally accepted definition. Terrorism can be defined as the threat or usage of violence for political, religious or ethical purposes that influence the attitudes and behavior of a certain group of people to accomplish their objectives (Rapoport and Alexander, eds.1982). This definition was generated by David Rapoport and Yonah Alexander in their book “The Rationalization of Terrorism” which was published in the year 1982 as a simple definition of terrorism. Throughout the years, terrorism has been a highly complex phenomenon that is constantly changing, and that is affected by many factors, as the word itself is a very broad topic which is associated with a wide variety of groups, and I believe that this is the reason why the international community was unable to come up with a combined definition. Wilkinson (2011) writes that some people ban the word terrorism and would rather call people who use terrorism as a weapon as “freedom fighters”, “holy warriors” or “revolutionaries”, depending on the cause they are fighting for. Even according to the Scholar Dr.Dipak Gupta, terrorism is nearly impossible to define.

In this literature review, I will first present an overview of the existing literature on the topic of causes of terrorist attacks, underlining the main positions and sources of disagreement. Building on this, I will then identify gaps in the literature on the topic in order to see how my future research could have an added value. Finally, after narrowing down the topic, I will present specific research questions that I believe would be fruitful to explore further.

  1. Overview of research by key scholars

I aim to investigate and analyze the root and trigger causes of terrorism, by providing an overview of the main literature on this topic, and based on this literature review, a comprehensive list of concrete factors is presented to demonstrate the causes of terrorism. It is always a necessity to search for the causes and causality in every social science, because of the need to understand a particular phenomenon. Moreover, when we deal with undesirable occurrences and incidents, we usually seek to understand the why and how questions in order to develop appropriate measures and variables. In this section, I will try to differentiate between root causes and trigger causes, which according to Martha Crenshaw (1981) root causes (or preconditions) are the factors that occur over the long run, and trigger causes (or precipitants) are factors that occur immediately in a specific event. Terrorism is a study that has extended across several fields including political science, sociology, criminology, psychology and history, and what researchers have tried to do is to build our awareness to further develop our understanding of this phenomena. Unfortunately, the only outcome of this awareness was to raise more questions than to provide answers.

  1. The root causes of terrorism

Although studies of this phenomenon have been taking place since the 1960’s, the number of publications that directly talk about the root causes or the preconditions are very limited. In his book “Terrorists, Victims and Society: Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and its Consequences” (2003), Andrew Silke states that although there have been numerous publications about terrorism, its research has not reflected any improvements in quality, and despite proliferation of academic studies in the field, there have been no improvement or progress in this area. Andrew Silke (2001) also pointed out that although there has been recent research on terrorism, only 20% of the published articles provide new knowledge on the subject, while the rest of the published articles are repeating and reworking old data.

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It is said that countries with intermediate range of political freedom are usually more prone to terrorism than countries that have high levels of political freedom (Alberto Abadie, 2004). Many geographic factors also affect and are important to endure terrorist activities. According to Abadie’s dataset on terrorist risk and attacks worldwide, it has been estimated that political freedom has a non-monotonic effect on terrorism. He therefore observed that there is an increase in terrorism for countries in transition from authoritarian regimes to democracies (Alberto Abadie, 2004:11).

One of the most cited publications on the causes of terrorism is the article written by Martha Crenshaw under the title of “The causes of terrorism” (1981), highlighting the difficulties of finding general explanations for terrorism and distinguishing different types of variables. Crenshaw distinguishes and separates the variables into 3 groups: strategic, structural and psychological, and she emphasizes that the main idea of terrorism is an invention of rational political choice. According to Crenshaw, terrorism is the result of a decision made by an organization to oppose a government; it is seen as a logical way to fulfill desires (Crenshaw, 1981: 385). Despite the fact that Crenshaw’s article offers a lot of ideas to further research, and that her article was cited by others, only few scholars have been challenged to bring our main understanding of the causes of terrorism to a more advanced and higher level.

Twelve years after Crenshaw’s article, Jeffrey Ian Ross wrote another influential article under the name: “Structural Causes of Oppositional Political Terrorism: Towards a Causal Model” (1993), he also identified three variables that causes terrorism similar to the ones of Crenshaw, namely structural and psychological causes, and rational choice.

Another scholar, Dipak Gupta (2005), has tried to understand and research why people engage in terrorist actions in the name of groups that represent a certain ethnicity, ideology, religion or nationalism. His arguments are basically rooted in economic and socio-psychological dimensions of human motivations, where he states that the link between economic factors and socio-political factors such as poverty…etc and terrorism is weak. Gupta also states that “political violence takes place when a leader gives voice to the frustration by formulating a well-defined social construction of collective identity and paints in vivid colour the image of ‘us’ and ‘them’” (2005:19). This means in other words that the political, economic and religious frustration are not alone the causes that lead to terrorism, there must have been root causes that remain hidden until a trigger mechanism is activated, which then leads to outbreak of violence and terrorist attacks.

We have seen that scholars have expanded the research on root causes to terrorism, building on what Crenshaw has found, but yet not produced any new approaches towards terrorism, but expanded the elements of socio-economic causation and other factors, especially Gupta.

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After giving an overview for some of the scholars about theoretical approaches, I will be listing here some of the concrete root causes of terrorism. The list that I am about to present is not an inclusive list of the root causes, and is not to represent a comprehensive set of the root causes, but to identify the multiplicity of causal factors that usually contribute to terrorism. The causes are derived from the publication by Randy Borum (2003) under the title Psychology of Terrorism.

First cause could be that lack of democracy, rule of law and civil liberties are conditions for many forms of domestic terrorism. We therefore identify that the most democratic states and societies have the lowest level of oppositional violence. As Crenshaw states “Democracy and terrorism are not polar opposites: saying yes to democracy, unfortunately, does not mean saying no to terrorism” (Club de Madrid, 2005: 14)

Second cause is rapid modernization and urbanization in the form of high economic growth has also been found to correlate strongly with the emergence of ideological terrorism, but not with the ethno-nationalist terrorism. An example of this cause given by Borum is when a country faces sudden wealth, e.g. from oil, and they experience changes from tribal to high-tech societies during one generation or even less sometimes (Borum, 2003:5).

Third cause is historical antecedents of political violence, revolutions, civil wars, dictatorships or even occupation may lower the threshold for acceptance of political violence and terrorism and obstruct the development of non-violent norms among all the segments of the example of this could be, when children are brought up in a society that believes in and celebrates martyrdom, revenge and hatred of other ethnic groups, then it is likely to increase their willingness to commit or support a terrorist act when they grow up (Borum, 2003:5).

Fourth cause is the repression by foreign occupation or by colonial powers; this has given rise to many national liberation movements that have pursued recourse in terrorist strategies and other political means (Borum, 2003:5).

Last but not least, the fifth cause is the experience of discriminating people on the basis of their ethnic origins or religious backgrounds, is the chief root cause of ethno-nationalist terrorism. When minority people are being deprived from their basic social and economic rights, such as not allowing them to use their language or practice their religion, this can make them commit terrorism and other forms of violence.

1.1.a Psychological research on the causes of terrorism

Many scholars have tried to identify different causes of terrorist attacks by focusing on the psychological factor of each individual or the groups itself. A researcher named Jerrold Post was one of the few who analysed the psycho-logic thinking of the individuals who were involved in terrorist attacks, in his article under the title “The Radical Group in Context: 1. An integrated framework for the analysis of group risk of terrorism” (2002). Post was able to criticize those who think of terrorism as a course of action, and he also argued that the political terrorists commit terrorist crimes or acts of violence because of psychological factors, and that their psycho-logic is created to justify acts they commit psychologically (1990:25).

The scholar Marc Sagemen also contributes to the research on psychological causes in his book “Understanding terror networks” (2004). Sagemen contests the conventional causes often given to explain why a person participates in terrorism, such as poverty, trauma and ignorance, and highlights the importance of social bonds and networks in inspiring individuals’ terrorist activities. His research is unique as such as it is based on personal meetings with Islamic fundamentalists and it therefore brings some new understanding to the field.

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If we want to talk about empirical analyses of the causes of terrorism, we can refer to a very interesting study by Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova under the title “Education, Poverty and Terrorism: Is there a Causal Connection?” (2003). Based on their article, Krueger and Maleckova disprove the presence of a causal link between poverty or low education and terrorism in Israel/Palestine and in Lebanon. They also state that although the rational choice of participating in a terrorist attack can produce valuable insights, it does not produce a clear answer to the question whether more education and higher income would reduce participating in terrorist attacks (2003:120), their results that were tentative and exploratory, suggest that neither poverty nor education has a direct, causal impact on terrorism. Moreover, the study shows that the level of education of the individuals involved in terrorist attacks is higher than average, those who are wealthier and more educated may generate such feelings more intensely. Additionally, the background of the suicide terrorists covers all socio-economic layers of society, further reiterating that “economic theory is unlikely to give a very convincing answer one way or the other as to whether poverty or low education are important root causes of terrorism” (2003:123).

  1. The Trigger Causes of Terrorism

We spoke earlier about the root causes of terrorism; in this section we will discuss the trigger causes of terrorism. The very first condition that could be considered as a direct cause of terrorism is the existence of concrete grievances among an identifiable subgroup of a larger population, example is ethnic minority discriminated against by the majority.

Second cause terrorism is the lack of opportunity for being engaged politically (Borum, 2003:41).

The trigger causes are usually unpredictable; it is usually due to certain government actions that a common pattern emerges for terrorism. Terrorist revenges can thus occur as a result of unexpected use of force by the government, a so-called “action-reaction syndrome” (Crenshaw 1981: 385). Generally speaking, some provocative events that call for revenge or action may trigger terrorist action, such as contested elections, peace talks, and police violence.

The root and trigger causes I have mentioned above are just the most relevant causes that were based on scholarly literature, and with what we mentioned have been ranked from the most general or broad aspects to more specific factors.

Gaps in literature on the topic

In this section, I will try to identify some gaps that scholars have failed to discuss or identify, and that was missing in the past research on terrorism. One of the main and most important gaps to start with is the definition of the word terrorism, as I mentioned in the introduction, scholars have failed up to this date to come up with an international definition of terrorism, failure to develop a universally acceptable definition. I believe that if scholars fail to have a definition used by all, this will cause other scholars and countries to define terrorism according to the acts and violence attacks they experience. One other unsolved dilemma is whether the concept of political violence should be reserved for destructive harm intended to influence politics, or whether the concept should include any violence that has a political impact.

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