The Making of a Terrorist: Recruitment, Training and Root Causes, ed. James J.F. Forest (Praeger Security International, 2005)


A wide variety of topics can be explored within the general category of “root causes of terrorism.” Further, there is also a considerable diversity of opinion about what this term means. The themes chosen for this volume are meant to represent this diversity, rather than encompass the entire spectrum of possible topics. The chapters are organized into three general areas: those dealing in the realm of politics, those addressing socioeconomic or religious dimensions, and those which either transcend all these simultaneously or address topics outside them.

Part I: Political Dimensions

In the first chapter of this section, Erica Chenoweth (a terrorism researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder) examines the assertion that terrorist groups take haven in weak, failed, and collapsed states—and particularly those without a strong tradition of democracy. She contends that this assumed relationship between non-democracy, state weakness, and terrorism is deficient. Levels of democracy do not necessarily diminish the likelihood of terrorist development. Instead, the political stability of the existing regime is the most significant factor affecting the origins of terrorism. Her analysis indicates that politically unstable regimes—regardless of regime type—are more likely than stable regimes to provide hospitable environments for terrorist organizations to develop. The essential argument here is that the “permissive conditions” of politically unstable regimes inhibit domestic institutional mechanisms that could potentially prevent terrorist organizations from taking root in particular countries. Therefore, the international community should seek to provide multilateral, legitimate support to transitioning states in order to provide the institutional framework by which a transitioning state can develop. [1]

            In the next chapter, Paul Pillar—a 28-year veteran of the U.S. intelligence community and former deputy chief of the Counterterrorist Center at Central Intelligence Agency—describes how a superpower’s foreign policies can engender resentment on the part of certain aggrieved populations, and explores the ingredients that are most likely to be found among policies resented by members of the Muslim world. U.S. policies that Muslims perceive as being on the wrong side of a conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims are resented both for the policy itself and for the U.S. motives that they are deemed to demonstrate. A second attribute that makes certain U.S. policies more likely than others to evoke resentment is that they play to other negative stereotypes or preconceptions about the United States. A third ingredient of a policy particularly suited for incurring resentment is in its potential for vivid events that by their very nature may carry emotional impact—especially people dying and suffering as a result of military action. From his analysis, it is clear that public diplomacy has an important role to play in shaping perceptions abroad of the United States and its policies.

            Hassan Abbas, a former government official from Pakistan, delves deeper into this topic of public diplomacy in the next chapter. Clearly, he argues, the war of ideas and the battle for the “hearts and minds” of Muslims is by no means over. He draws on analyses of U.S. public diplomacy in Pakistan and Iran to illuminate lessons learned for consideration—for example, he notes, “closing the channels of communication and dialogue has never proved to be a productive measure.” His recommendations for U.S. policymakers include: acknowledging past mistakes; understanding the limitations of public diplomacy; employing efficient feedback mechanisms to assess the impact of specific policies; establishing and encouraging forums for people-to-people interaction; framing important issues in more constructive ways than “you are either with us or against us;” and supporting reform of the education sector in Muslim countries, especially where madrasa networks are entrenched.

            The discussion of U.S. foreign policies and public diplomacy is continued in the next chapter, by West Point Professor Ruth Margolies Beitler. She notes that American policy towards Israel remains a potent source of discontent and reverberates throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Indeed, it is commonplace in the Middle East to hear comments espousing the view that if only the United States would modify or cease its support for Israel, hatred against the United States would end. Her analysis reveals that while the United States has supported Israel’s existence, it has not always supported its policies, and yet the overwhelming assessment in the Muslim and Arab world is that the United States retains little objectivity when dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. In reality, whether or not the United States is even-handed when it comes to the Arab world and Israel is almost insignificant, she argues—the key factor fostering resentment in the Middle East is the perception that the United States maintains a double standard. Thus, given the prominent role this issue has come to play in public statements of Osama bin Laden and others calling for a global jihad, it is imperative for the United States to lessen Al Qaeda’s appeal to discontented populations in the Middle East by ensuring a greater balance—or perception of balance—with regard to its policies toward the Arab World.

            Professor Mohammed Hafez of the University of Missouri-Kansas City also addresses discontented populations in the Middle East with his chapter on how Islamic opposition movements have adopted a variety of strategies to affect social and political change. His discussion addresses two important questions: Why do some Islamic movements turn to rebellion and why do previously non-violent militants turn to violence? Islamic rebellion, he argues, is a product of institutional exclusion and indiscriminate state repression, particularly following an extended period of Islamic mobilization. Drawing on the political histories of Algeria and Egypt, he concludes that the choice between moderation and violence in Islamic movements during a democratization process is shaped by state policies, especially the degree of system accessibility and the nature of state repression. If the democratic process grants Islamists substantive access to state institutions, the opposition will be channeled toward conventional political participation and shun violence. If, on the other hand, the state denies Islamists access and if the state applies repression indiscriminately—punishing both moderate and radical proponents of political opposition—Islamists will tend to resort to militancy.

            The tendency to resort to militancy is also the topic of the final chapter of this section, by Professor Eugenia Guilmartin of West Point, which examines how ideology, personality, and rejection of commonly respected government institutions play an important role in the making of a right wing extremist in America. Her discussion examines the ideology of the extreme right wing in America—an ideology of limited government and maximum property rights, the opposition to taxes, the right to bear arms and opposition to world government. This is followed by an analysis of personal characteristics—particularly, a heightened focus on certain grievances and the rejection of political institutions—which seem most common among right wing extremists and domestic terrorists. Her research indicates that while various types of right wing groups—including militias, common law courts, sovereign citizens, tax protesters, and survivalists—differ in which aspect of the government they fail to recognize, they all reject some commonly respected government institution.

Part II: Religious and Socioeconomic Dimensions

The first chapter of this section, by researcher Susanna Pearce at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, examines the relationship between religion and violence. Rather than viewing religion as a sole cause of violence, her analysis illuminates how religion contributes to violence in specific cases. The discussion focuses on three qualities of religion as an explanation of why religion intensifies a conflict. In her model, religious doctrine supplies the motivation, a religious organization grafts in its hierarchal structure, and a religious diaspora provides resources to sustain a movement through a prolonged violent struggle. In each of these unique characteristics, religion has the capacity to escalate and sustain violence in a confrontation between individuals or groups. Overall, her chapter offers a unique analysis through which the relationship between religion and violence can be better understood.

            Religious doctrine of a different nature is the topic of the next chapter, in which Professor Michael Barkun of Syracuse University explores the relationship between terrorism and apocalyptic ideologies. For religious believers, particularly many Christians, doomsday has a fairly exact meaning, represented in two complementary scenarios: in one, time will cease with God’s Last Judgment, and the world will be destroyed and replaced by “a new heaven and a new earth;” in the other, this event will be preceded by a sequence of stages, during which escalating conflict between good and evil forces will result in the final, titanic battle of Armageddon. In addition to Christianity, apocalyptic strains may also be found in Islam, in association with the appearance of a salvationist Mahdi; in the Buddhist vision of a “Buddha of the future”; and in Native American beliefs about the ancestors’ return. Here, as in Christianity, the destruction of the old and corrupt implies the appearance of something new and pure. Given that religious terrorists are widely thought to be the most likely source of a WMD attack in the foreseeable future, this review of apocalyptic ideologies is particularly salient in understanding contemporary terrorism.

            The next several chapters of the volume address issues of a more economic orientation, beginning with a discussion on the relationship between terrorism in the Middle East and the oil extraction efforts of the West. Massachusetts Professor Michael Klare [2] examines three key aspects of this relationship: the intersection of European colonialism and the onset of oil production in the Middle East; the nature of U.S. ties with leaders of the oil-producing nations; and the strategic role of oil infrastructure in the war between the terrorists and their opponents. From the extremists’ perspective, he notes, the pursuit of Middle Eastern oil is but the latest chapter in a long drive by Western nations to overpower Islamic societies, occupy their lands, and extract their precious resources. Further, these communities are largely devoted to an ancient religious tradition that is thought to be under attack by the West, and it does not help matters that the pursuers of oil are mostly adherents to a different religious tradition that is closely associated with centuries of invasion and conquest. Under these circumstances, he argues, it will probably take the demise of petroleum as the world’s leading source of energy to sever the ties between oil and violence altogether.

            In the next chapter, Stanford University Professor Paul Ehrlich and Michigan State Professor Jianguo (Jack) Liu address the persistent demographic and socioeconomic factors that can facilitate 9/11-type terrorism and make it easier to recruit terrorists. In particular, their analysis highlights the important and complex relationship between demographic variables and political instability in the developing world. For example, increased birth rates and the age composition of populations in these countries affects resource consumption, prices, government revenues and expenditures, demand for jobs, and labor wages. Differences between developing countries and the developed world are striking—for example, the total fertility rate of Jews born in Israel is under 3, approaching replacement level, while that of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is over 7, the highest of any national-level entity. The implications for these trends on terrorism and terrorist recruitment suggest that without dramatic action, the demographic and socioeconomic conditions in Islamic nations in the Middle East, South Central, and Southeast Asia could continue to support terrorism and terrorists for many decades to come.

            The following chapter, by MIT researcher Vanda Felbab-Brown, explores the intersection of terrorism and the global drug trade. Her analysis of the Taliban, the Peruvian insurgent group Sendero Luminoso, and the Colombian insurgent group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) reveals how drug cartels have used terror to protect their profits, while the demand for (and cultivation of) drugs supports terrorism. Specifically, terrorist groups derive three sets of gains from their involvement with the illicit economy: increased physical capabilities (money and weapons); increased freedom of action (the ability to optimize tactics and strategies); and increased political capital (legitimacy, relationship with the local population, the willingness of the local population to withhold intelligence on the terrorist organization from the government, and the willingness to provide intelligence about government units to the terrorist organization). In essence, as long as a global drug trade exists—in which there is high consumer demand and lucrative rewards for production and trafficking—terrorist groups will continue to profit from this trade, and can be expected to commit violent acts in order to protect these profits.

            The final chapter of this section also deals with the global economy, but from a much different perspective. Professor Michael Mousseau, of Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey, draws on research by economic historians to show how two distinct norms of economic integration—contracting and reciprocity—give rise to two distinct political cultures that legitimate, respectively, liberal democracy and collective authoritarianism. In liberal democracies, economic transactions are based on contracting, which requires a recognition of the equal rights of strangers, as well as religious and cultural tolerance. In contrast, economic environments where reciprocity is the norm—as is the case for many developing nations—trust and cooperation is based more on in-group beliefs and values, loyalty to in-group leaders, and distrust of outsiders. From this perspective, one begins to see how globalization has contributed to exacerbating conflict between the developed and developing worlds—particularly when free trade between the developed and developing world hurts the local economy and worsens the conditions of the urban jobless, increasing the dependency of millions who blame the foreigners for their conditions.

Part III: Alternative Views on Root Causes of Terrorism

This final section of this volume begins with internationally renowned political theorist Benjamin Barber’s chapter on the relationship between terrorism and interdependence. He argues that the contemporary struggle against terrorism can be seen as the collision between two forces: one, an integrative modernization and aggressive economic and cultural globalization, which can be called McWorld; and the other, a fragmentary tribalism and reactionary fundamentalism, which can be called Jihad. As globalization has led to increasing interdependence, he argues, we must learn to contain and regulate the anarchy that foments both the destructiveness of terrorists and the injustices of global capital. Only the globalization of civic and democratic institutions is likely to offer a way out of the ongoing war between Jihad and McWorld, and this requires a new understanding of global democratic interdependence.

            A globally interdependent perspective is also the subject of the next chapter, authored by two officers of the U.S. Army: Dr. Cindy Jebb, a Colonel and Professor at the U.S. Military Academy, and Madelfia Abb, a Lieutenant Colonel and Instructor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Their chapter explores the intellectual framework of human security, and draws from living systems theory to illuminate definitions and concepts that are then applied to the human, political, and terrorist systems. Their analysis reveals how failed states impact security at the individual level—and particularly, how the process of globalization and failed states create, sever, and influence the interconnectedness of the three living systems. In essence, they argue, framing the challenge of terrorism through the living systems theory may help policymakers better understand the significance of human security in the fight against terrorism.

            From a similar perspective, regarding individual human security, Bryn Mawr College Professor Clark McCauley’s chapter argues that the rise of the modern nation-state that began with the French Revolution has been accompanied by a slow but steady erosion of the distinction between soldiers and civilians. This has been exacerbated by countless instances of state-sponsored violence against its own citizens. In war against internal enemies, he notes, the modern state has recognized the threat to its own power to justify killing disaffected ethnic and political categories among its own civilians. Such attacks have killed 130 million in the 20th century. In comparison, guerillas and terrorists have killed approximately half a million civilians in the 20th century. Thus, he argues, our understanding of terrorism must include a recognition that a state’s killing of its own civilians is not irrelevant, and may have some influence on how terrorists view the morality of killing noncombatants in pursuit of their political or religious objectives.

            The next chapter provides a unique discussion on how dimensions of environment and geography—specifically, the physical landscape in which terrorists live—can be seen as root influences for terrorism. Co-authored by Professor Peter Liotta, Executive Director of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, and Professor James Miskel, Vice President for Policy Studies at Alidade Inc., this chapter argues that environment and geography provide both context and opportunity for the making of a terrorist, particularly in numerous locations across the Lagos-Cairo-Karachi-Jakarta arc of mega-cities where jobs and educational opportunities are increasingly unavailable, resulting in discontent, crime and urban instability. Other locations of concern within this arc include the slums to which tens of millions of refugees have come from other (primarily rural) parts of the developing world. To combat the potential for these locations to serve as breeding grounds for terrorism, they argue, more focus must fall on internal public sector reform and public security improvements in states where governance is currently failing or where urban population growth is likely to induce failure at the municipal level.

            Finally, Karin von Hippel, a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Defense Studies at King’s College, London, provides a concise summary of themes covered in many of the chapters in this volume, and examines developments in six main areas that have emerged in the public debate as causal and facilitating factors for international terrorism. These six areas—poverty, weak and collapsed states, wars hijacked by Islamic extremists, fundamentalist charities, radicalization in Europe and North America, and the “democracy deficit”—need deeper analysis to understand how they may facilitate terrorist recruitment and support. Further, she argues, while some energy has been dedicated to understanding and tackling these factors in the three years since the attacks in America, the response has not been adequate. The rhetoric—on both sides of the Atlantic—has not yet been satisfactorily matched by realistic and robust reforms. In essence, the threat posed by transnational terrorism can only be defeated through a dedicated and coordinated transnational response, one that not only focuses on the symptoms, but also on the causes.


This final volume of the Making of a Terrorist series is perhaps the most ambitious, as it seeks to fill a significant gap in the field of terrorism studies by entering the contested terrain of “root causes.” As these chapters demonstrate, the diversity of topics scattered around this terrain indicates there is still much to explore and learn. With so many roots, facilitators and trigger causes, and so much disagreement about the relative importance of any of them, surely there is ample opportunity for new generations of bright, creative thinkers to engage this field of inquiry.


The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.


[1] Roland Paris, At War’s End (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[2] Professor Klare is the Five College Professor of Peace and World Security Studies, a joint appointment at Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.


to the Table of Contents