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Theoretical perspectives of terrorism

Subject of Study:

Terrorism involves the use of terror or coercion to fulfil personal ambitions. It is difficult to determine what drives people to terrorism since terrorists cannot volunteer as study subjects (Thackrah, 2013). Therefore, terrorism is best understood through theories and opinion than through science. Theoretical perspectives are essential in answering the common questions that linger in our minds in regard to terrorism. These perspectives give an answer as to why terrorism exist. Moreover, they enable us evaluate the causes of terrorism as well as gain adequate knowledge to deal with terrorism (Abrahms, 2008).

Modern analyst tend to view terrorism in terms of group and political processes than individual ones. Moreover, group and political dynamics coupled with psychiatry and personality traits produce terrorist whose actions often make headlines in media. They attack or threaten individual people, organizations and governments in the most inhumane way. Understanding terrorist views, concerns and reasons for their actions, is an important way to prevent would be terrorist from turning to violence (Alexander, Carlton, & Wilkinson, 1979).

In an interview with people who are open to terrorist recruitment, psychologist John Hogan, PhD, a director at Pennsylvania State University’s International Centre for the Study of Terrorism, identified terrorist had common characteristics. Firstly, they feel alienated and not satisfied with the government in power. Secondly, they perceive themselves as victims of injustice. By joining in the movement, they feel psychologically rewarded. In addition to that, they feel the need to take action to rectify the current situation (Victoroff & Kruglanski, 2009).

The form of governance is arguably the main cause of terrorism. However, causes of terrorism span a wide field of issues to include economic, social, religious, psychiatric and political causes among others. Either of such issues or a combination of them has ever been a cause for terrorism. Moreover, personality seems to play a role in terrorism if someone takes a look at personality aspects of a terrorist (Victoroff & Kruglanski, 2009).

Political theory of anarchism as a theory of terrorism.

Anarchism rejects central authority and perpetuates other forms of government that increase freedom and liberty of an individual. It justifies terrorism because it attacks the values of the centrally organised society. It calls for destruction of society beliefs, individualism and giving greatest freedom to workers. By doing that, it calls for a criminal action against the central government (Wardlaw, 1989).

By rejecting domination and exploitation by a government, anarchists organize themselves into movements to agitate for their views. If their views are not addressed to their satisfaction, they call for an action that could involve fighting the ruling government. By 1912, anarchists had tried to assassinate presidents of nine countries including U.S president William McKinley in 1901. The most famous incident of anarchism is the Hay market riot that took place in Chicago during 1986. Many people were tried, hanged or deported for participating in the riot (Wardlaw, 1989).

In general, issues that compel people to engage in terrorism are conflicts related to discrimination, religious persecution, political oppression and economic harassment. Inequalities in distribution of power and wealth make terrorist attempt to overthrow government. They would then replace such a government with a socialist or communist regime. Italy’s Red Brigades is an example of terrorist groups with such aims (O’Connor, 2004)

Political theory of fascism as a theory of terrorism.

Fascism involves consolidation of political and economic power to scare an enemy. It involves acts of genocide and endless wars with the enemy. Fascism thrives out of a sense of failure and insecurity. However, it is also born out pride and envy. Fascist leaders make their followers use conspiracy to make their followers believe that their setbacks are as a result of their enemy. Famous fascist include, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Islam fascism of 1928 organised by Muslim Brotherhood was a reaction towards abolition of caliphate by the Turks (Wardlaw, 1989).

Fascism supports terrorism both at home and abroad. They fight anybody who does not abide to their views and party line. Many people owing allegiance to fascism ideologies have formed social identity movements such as Pan-Africanism. There enemies form a scapegoat for all past challenges that members have faced. Often, fascists who fail to achieve their intentions turn to terrorism and vandalism (Crenshaw, 1987).

Philosophical theory of religion as a theory of terrorism.

Out of experience, philosophy, theology and religion play a significant role in terrorism. The most dangerous terrorist are motivated by religion concerns. Religion based terrorists comprise majority of terrorist ever known. They believe that, their God not only approves their actions but also demands them to take action. Martyrdom is seen as the most rewarding action. They have a sacred cause with hope for the future and vengeance for the past life. This is their motivation for terrorist activities (Abrahms, 2008).

Believers are made to understand that they ought to do something to please their God. Militant interpretation of the basic tenets of the religion breeds terrorism. In majority of incidences, religion is mixed with politics. The target enemy is viewed as a betrayer of the sacred beliefs of the religion. Thus forming a justification for a sacred mission against the target enemy. An example is the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo that attacked Tokyo subway in 1995 killing twelve people. Similar incidences include the famous Jihad war used by Muslim terrorists against Christians (El-Awa & Spalek, 2012).

Sociological and psychological theories of terrorism.

Sociological theories suggest that social construction of fear is the reason behind terrorism. Lack of social control of values such as competitiveness, achievement and individualism lead to extreme levels in utilisation of those values that are responsible for terrorism. Drawing comparisons with other people’s quality of life is the basis for arguing that injustice exists. Such feeling cause stress and a feeling of revenge or a terrorist activity to express dissatisfaction (O’Connor, 2004).

Moral disengagement hypothesis suggest that it is the way a person removes all inhibitions about committing violence that leads to terrorism activities. For example imagining oneself as a hero can be a motivating factor to commit violence. A damaged self-perception due to wrong child rearing contributes to tendency to blame others for oneself failures and eventually terrorist activities (Crenshaw, 1987).

Studies on terrorism reveal that terrorist behavior is brought about by political, economic and individual frustrations. Most governments facing terrorist attacks are involved in frustrating terrorist efforts to claim for recognition. This causes further willingness of people to volunteer in terrorist activities against such a government. For example, the government of Sri Lanka attempted to frustrate terrorist activities to safeguard national security. However, this attempt renewed terrorist activities in Sri Lanka led to killing of hundreds of innocent civilians by communist terrorists (Crenshaw, 1987).

Frustrating terrorist activities provides a justification for further aggression by terrorists. The theory of frustration –aggression explains that the more terrorists or potential terrorist are frustrated, the more they are bound to be more aggressive. This theory is quite useful in those countries where terrorism exist. By reducing frustration efforts and embracing dialogue is a safer measure to reduce terrorism activities (Tosini, 2007).

Globalization Theory of Terrorism.

Globalization creates great expectations for achievements. But in real sense, it leads to unfulfilled achievements and frustrations. This gap breeds terrorism. Globalization theory explain that, rich people want power and authority over poor people. The poor, as well, want justice. Therefore, the rich are perpetrators of terrorism to create opportunities favorable for them to gain wealth and power over the poor. The poor on the other hand, result to terrorism to demand their justice. Colonialism, neocolonialism and imperialism are ideas originating from globalization theory (Howard, Sawyer, Bajema, & McCaffrey, 2003).

Biological Theories of Terrorism.

Biological researchers of terrorism identified similar biological characteristics in majority of terrorists. Scientific investigations lead to conclusions that acts of terrorism are driven by hormonal and neurochemical imbalances in terrorist bodies. In particular, the levels of norepinephrine, acetylcholine and endorphins are major elements that exhibit imbalance in a terrorist at the time of planning and executing his missions. Psychiatric conditions are therefore, held accountable for influencing people to develop a terrorist attitude (O’Connor, 2004).

The Economics Theory of Rational Choice as a Theory of Terrorism.

Terrorist engage in crime after evaluating economic benefits against expenses. This theory depicts terrorism as an income generating activity whose motive is to increase control and generate more wealth. That is why terrorist attack rich individuals, organizations and governments. Perpetrators of terrorism are made to believe terrorism pays. They are promised large amounts of money after successful terrorism activities (Schneider, Brück, & Meierrieks, 2010).

However, this theory proposes use of economic activities to suppress terrorist activities. It takes a lot of wealth investment to conduct terrorist activities. The government and international organization can seize this aspect and prohibit trade with terrorist organizations. This makes terrorist organizations broke and unable to execute their missions (Schneider et al., 2010).

In conclusion, theories of terrorism enhance understanding of the motivations and causes of terrorism in order to be able to deal with terrorism comprehensively. Understanding a terrorist mind is key to developing a strategy to end terrorism. Terrorist are from diverse backgrounds but their intentions and motivating factors are the same as explained above. Political, social and economic concerns lead are blame for terrorism. Addressing these concerns proactively, provides an opportunity to prevent terrorism. Moreover, economic sanctions are against terrorism has proved successful counterterrorism mechanism (Howard et al., 2003).


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Crenshaw, M. (1987). Theories of terrorism: Instrumental and organizational approaches. The Journal of strategic studies, 10(4), 13–31.

El-Awa, S., & Spalek, B. (2012). Religion, Theology and Counter-Terrorism. Counter-Terrorism: Community-Based Approaches to Preventing Terror Crime, 137.

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