Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

No single theory can completely explain the motivations of terrorist individuals and groups

Analysts struggle constantly to understand and explain the motivations of terrorists. On the strategic level, often these motivations are clear enough: some expressed political or social goal, be it revolution, the maintenance of a status quo,  or the redress of a particular issue or law that appears unjust. Strategic analyses also can shed light on particular terrorist activities, as they focus on the ways in which actors compete for political goals or struggle to survive. But this level is merely the cognitive tip of the iceberg, and in the frequent cases where terrorist demands are too maximalist or unrealistic to be feasible, one is faced with the question, ‘why would people pursue such unreasonable goals, and how do they justify such appalling means?’ Thus an exploration of terrorist motivations, if it is to contain any depth, must include an exploration of the psychological and social dynamics that lead to the decision by some to use extranormal -that is, outside what is typically socially acceptable – political violence. For the purposes of this exploration, it is best to presume that terrorism involves the use of extranormal violence by substate actors as a means of  influencing an audience’s political behaviour, as this definition encompasses the intimidation, provocation, and inspiration that comprise the strategic goals of a terrorist act.

Psychology is a natural place to begin when looking for an overarching theory to explain why people do what they do, and believe what they believe. Terrorists often seem to employ irrational justifications for their target selections, and often seek goals that appear unattainable under rational evaluation. Yet psychologists have consistently found no evidence of psychosis or otherwise abnormal psychology amongst most terrorists. Other theories can help explain this phenomenon, though. Fathali Moghaddam uses a staircase metaphor to show how individuals go through increasing stages of radicalisation, where at each successive step the individual develops an increased sense of persecution and an increased engagement with normative justifications for violence. At the fifth and final step, the individual is ready and willing to commit a terrorist act, without any apparent sympathy for his or her potential victims. McCauley and Moskalenko have a somewhat similar model, and discuss a pyramid of radicalisation, the apex of which is the terrorist act, and the slopes of which represent the diminishing number of people who enter into such a radical mindset. They identify twelve drivers for radicalisation, ranging from strongly personal to strongly social motivations. Yet while these theories shed some light on the individual terrorist, they lack the broader social perspective which could explain why feelings of radicalisation may arise in the first place, and instead focus on their transmission and growth within an individual.

Social psychology offers some theories which make up for the limitations of individualistic theories of radicalisation. Social Identity Theory posits that individuals subordinate their personal identity to a group identity (Tajfel and Turner), and that groups compete with other groups in an intergroup environment, while individuals gain self-esteem primarily by competing within their own group. In intergroup environments which contain permeable boundaries between better-off and worse-off groups, and which are perceived by an insurgent group to be illegitimate, political violence becomes more likely. Other scholars have shown how groups experience an ‘extremity shift’ when discussing commonly held views, where following any such discussion most group members leave with a stronger version of whatever view with which they begun. In situations where some groups are collectively worse-off, members of those groups are likely to scapegoat another group and consider violent means to counter the other’s perceived oppressive influence. This increases the likelihood of violence as members of the former radicalise beyond the threshold at which violence becomes justified, and individuals within the latter consider violence to defend themselves against a threat to their status quo. Yet while these theories might help explain how radicalism and violence emerge at the social level, they’re still inadequate in explaining what underlying socio-structural reasons are most conducive to intergroup competition along potentially violent lines – though they do offer some hints.

As suggested by the apparent importance of perceived group persecution or relative depravation in motivating terrorist acts, some social and political conditions appear more likely to make terrorism an appealing option for some. While most studies show a weak correlation between poverty and terrorism, there is better evidence to suggest that in societies where there is a great and obvious disparity between the rich and the poor (for example, the proximity of slums to rich neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro), people who identify with the poorer elements are more likely to feel aggrieved and unjustly deprived. Political structures which limit the extent to which certain classes within society can mobilise or campaign for their particular vision, particularly in cases of occupation, appear to make some minorities of those classes more likely to support violence as a ‘last resort’ or otherwise justified option for realising social goals. While complete totalitarianism or strong democracy are less likely to comprise conditions permissive to terrorism, new democracies or ‘in-between’ systems are comparatively rife (Crenshaw 1981). In such systems, there are opportunities for some actors to use violence as a means to and end. Yet as not all actors do so, it is clear that structural or system cases alone do not produce terrorism – there is an element of agency.

Strategic theory helps explain the motivations of terrorism at the agent level, beyond highlighting the affective and normative preconditions or the social and structural dynamics that correlate with political violence. By understanding terrorists as rational political actors who choose violence as the most cost-effective means to achieving political ends, strategic theorists are able to model and explain terrorist action at the material, instrumental level. Terrorists use violence to intimidate an enemy population, provoke an enemy government to use countermeasures that radicalise the affected population, or inspire others to take up the terrorist cause (Neumann and Smith). Terrorists are sensitive to political competition from other actors and to the risks to their survival or the advancement of their interests, depending on how others react to their actions. Strategic theory also helps explain the apparent escalation in violence that takes place as terrorist campaigns draw on, as violence needs to be increasingly costly or dramatic to maintain target interest and attention. While it doesn’t address the psychological motivations of terrorists nor the structural conditions that make terrorism an appealing strategic choice, this perspective provides the final, more immediate piece of the puzzle.

Obviously no single theory can completely explain the motivation of terrorists. It appears as though a set of theories can come close to doing so sufficiently though, as they cover the cost-benefit calculation, psychological willingness to commit violence, and social conditions permissive to the growth of extremism that underlie incidents of terrorist action.


2 responses to “No single theory can completely explain the motivations of terrorist individuals and groups

  1. Pingback: A primer for Steven Pinker’s ‘Better Angels of our Nature’ « Said Simon

  2. Pingback: Why we shouldn’t psychologise extremism (as often as we do, anyway) « Said Simon

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