"The point of theory isn't to think safe thoughts, but dangerous thoughts." (Ronald Beiner)

    Most of the major theories of terrorism are derived from theories of collective violence in the field of political science, and indeed, prior to the emergence of criminal justice as a separate discipline in the early 1970s, it can be said that political science had a monopoly over theories of terrorism, followed perhaps by the disciplines of religion and economics.  However, there are modern sociological, psychological, and criminological theories that certainly have a role to play with some relevance.  We will begin, first, with the theories of political violence, and it is customary to say at this point that none of the following ideologies, or any ideology for that matter, are being advocated.  The purpose is to provide an objective overview of theories, concepts, causal factors, and models.  The underlying concern should be to answer the questions "Why Does Terrorism Occur?" or "What Causes It?" rather than pass judgment or assess any of the theories at this point.  With the political theories, we shall see that it is often the form of governance which is the main cause of terrorism, and with the other theories, we will find a number of subcultural and personality factors at work.     


    Terrorism is most definitely not a form of governance, but anarchism is.  Most anarchists reject terrorism in its vanguard varieties (for nationalist or religious purposes), but in a theoretical sense, anarchism justifies terrorism as a form of criminal action that attacks the values of an organized, complacent society.  Anarchism is a theory of governance that rejects any form of central or external authority, preferring instead to replace it with alternative forms of organization such as shaming rituals for deviants, mutual assistance pacts between citizens, syndicalism (any non-authoritarian organizational structure that gives the greatest freedom to workers), iconoclasm (the destruction of cherished beliefs), libertarianism (a belief in absolute liberty), and plain old rugged individualism.  Anarchism is often referred to as the nineteenth century roots of terrorism, the term first being introduced in 1840 by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.  Anarchism defined is the rejection of the state, of any form of coercive government, of any form of domination and exploitation.  It is the notion of free and equal access to all the world's resources to enable positive freedom (freedom to) in place of negative freedom (freedom from, or the basis of most constitutional rights).     

    As a theory, anarchism holds a unique place in history because it was the first revolutionary movement to come up with systematic ideas about the purpose of agitation.  You'll recognize some of these ideas as terrorist tactics, but it's important first to understand them in the context of anarchism.  Proudhon contributed the idea of finding the "moment" as in when the moment is ripe for revolutionary action.  Another anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, popularized the idea of "propaganda by deed" or letting your actions speak for themselves, which was a theory originally developed by Carlo Pisacane.  Bakunin's ideas strongly influenced anarchism because his concept of propaganda by deed also included a prohibition against large scale group action (it being better, he thought, for anarchist action to be individualized or done in small groups).  Most anarchists operate on the principle of leaderless resistance, or acting on your own, with little knowledge or support of the groups they may belong to.  Major anarchist figures, like Karl Heinzen and Johann Most, contributed the idea that murder, especially murder-suicide, constituted the highest form of revolutionary struggle.  Both advocated the use of weapons of mass destruction.  Other anarchists contributed different ideas, such as Peter Kropotkin's notion of "propaganda by word" or radicalizing the public by use of subversive publications.  Anarchism (like fascism) has also had some influential female figures, and Emma Goldman (1869-1940) comes to mind as a early founder of free speech (the ACLU) and sexual freedom movements.  Minor figures in the history of anarchism, like Charles Gallo, Auguste Vaillante, Emile Henry, and Claudius Konigstein advocated the idea that to have the most effect, the targets must be innocents (in places such as crowded dance halls or shopping centers) or symbols of economic success (like banks and stock exchanges).  It may be worth noting, in passing, that the famous Italian criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, developed his notion of the "born criminal" in part by being called in to examine the physical features of some minor anarchists who were really nothing more than criminals justifying their behavior with anarchist talk.

    Between 1875 and 1912, anarchists alone or in small groups managed to assassinate or attempt to assassinate the leaders of nine (9) different countries, including the U.S. (with President William McKinley in 1901).  These crimes were just the most well-known acts of anarchism, as anarchists were involved in numerous ordinary crimes such as theft, robbery, murder, kidnapping, assault, and bombing.  The most famous incident was the Haymarket riot in Chicago during 1886.  During these peak years for classic anarchism, May Day celebrations became famous as all-out crime-rampant days.  Police departments around the world became convinced there was an international conspiracy, and suspicious foreigners were locked up by the hundreds in many countries.  Perfunctory trials were held, and many defendants were hanged or deported.  The most famous of these trials was the 1920 case of Sacco and Vanzetti who were more antiwar and labor activists than anarchists.  Anarchism in the classical sense was largely erased from the face of the earth by 1917 via a number of factors: the rise of communism and fascism (both of which are opposed to anarchism), strong xenophobic deportation (Red Scare) laws in democratic countries, and the fact that classic anarchism never became an organized movement.  Twentieth-century terrorist groups which came later and claimed an ancestry with anarchism include: the Japanese Red Army, the British Angry Brigade, the German Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Weatherman in the United States, and the Mexican Zapatista movement (Kushner 2003).  During the Spanish revolution of 1936, something called anarcho-syndicalism developed, which is a loose confederation of various protest groups (see the Workers Solidarity Alliance website).  Those who call themselves anarchists today (see Purkis & Bowen 1997) are more likely to be environmentalists or part of the anti-globalization movement who target for attack such institutions as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, or World Trade Organization.

    For purpose of balance, it is important to point out that anarchism today does not support terrorism.  It has historically supported terrorism and even today might support assassination, but there are only weak theoretical links between the two, most strongly with the propaganda by deed concept.  Anarchists hold to a doctrine that anarchy must be created in the act of self-liberation from oppressive and coercive relationships.  You don't blow up the relationship as terrorists do; instead, you convince others that grounds for the existing relationship must be blown up.  Anarchism is not about mad bombing or chaos.  Terrorists target people; anarchists target things such as institutions and structures.  Bakunin did not want the death of people but the destruction of things and positions of authority.  Only a small minority of terrorists have ever been anarchists, and only a small minority of anarchists have ever been terrorists.

    In fact, there is an area of study called anarchist criminology, a controversial subfield of critical criminology which celebrates the fact anarchism really has no workable definition (Tifft 1979; Ferrell 1997).  Anarchist criminology advocates the abolishment of criminal justice systems.  It argues that much harm has been committed in the name of reasonableness, and anarchist criminology is committed to promoting the unthinkable and unreasonable.  Like other subfields of critical criminology, anarchist criminology views the state as an inherently oppressive entity, and anarchist justice not only promotes social justice (equal access to all resources), but protects diversity and difference among people (Ferrell 1999).     


    Fascism is the one form of government with the most disagreement about a definition for it, which Passmore (2002) attempts to consolidate as an ultranationalist ideology that is unabashedly racist.  The word comes from the Latin "fasces" which means to use power to scare or impress people.  It generally refers to the consolidation of all economic and political power into some form of super-patriotism that is devoted to genocide or endless war with one's enemies.  Benito Mussolini, who practically invented the term in 1922, said it is the merger of state and corporate power.  Adolf Hitler said that it is the clever and constant application of propaganda so that people can be made to see paradise as hell, and the other way around.  So-called Islamo-Fascism can also be traced to the same time period as the birth of the Nazi ("national socialist") fascism in 1928 when the Muslim Brotherhood (Al Ikhwan Al Muslimun), parent organization of numerous terrorist groups, was formed in reaction to the 1924 abolition of the caliphate by the Turks.

    Fascism supports terrorism at home and abroad.  Charismatic leaders are usually given supreme powers to crack down on dissidents, peacemakers, and anyone who doesn't abide by the "cult of the individual" which worships a He-man mentality and the party line.  With the frequent wars and militaristic ventures that come with fascism, an effort is made to demonize the enemy as sub-humans who deserve extinction.  These enemies are also made into scapegoats for all the past problems a country has had.  Fascism appeals to the frustrations and resentments of a race of people who think they ought to have a bigger place at the global table.  When combined with an anti-western slant (the United States as Great Satan), fascism becomes a means of social identity (Pan-Africanism, Pan-Arabism, Islamo-Fascism) as well as a facilitator of terrorism against all western interests.

    Frustrated fascists who fail to gain control in their own countries have historically turned to terrorism.  They are most likely to turn to domestic terrorism since fascists do not believe that citizen rights are bestowed merely because someone inhabits a country.  Nor do they believe that all human beings are possessed of equal rights.  "Foreign" families and businesses (as they define them) are usually targeted for extermination by fascists.  The enemies who are seen as the greatest threat are those who fascists see as corrupting or poisoning family and property relations. 

    Fascism is full of ironies and contradictions.  On the one hand, it is anti-modern in its glorification of the land, a return to country life, and its fascination with peasant dress or costume.  On the other hand, it is pro-modern in its worship of military technology, favoritism of big business, mass mobilization of people, promotion of commercialized sport, and its surprisingly liberal attitude toward the involvement of women in the movement.  Science and scholarship also take on interesting twists under fascism.  "Hard" sciences like biology and chemistry usually advance significantly, especially in areas such as genetic research.  "Soft" sciences like sociology and psychology usually become usurped into mumbo-jumbo pseudoscientific ideas about a glorified folk culture and reasons for hating the enemy.

    Just as anarchists have their May Day (May 1st) celebrations, fascists also tend to celebrate anniversaries.  Many terrorists, of course, have been known to time their attacks to coincide with the date for an historical event or the birthday of someone special to them.  For example, with ecoterrorism, that day is October 16, which coincides the the United Nation's World Food Day, and is usually when McDonald's restaurants are targeted for vandalism.  However, the most important date in the study of terrorism is April 19.  A number of significant events have happened on that date.  Right-wing domestic terrorist groups call it "Militia Day" because it was when the siege at Waco ended, it was when surveillance began at the Ruby Ridge compound in Idaho, and it marks the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing of the federal building.  Neo-Nazi fascist groups celebrate April 19 because it was the day German Nazis started wiping out Jewish ghettos across Europe, as well as the following day being Adolf Hitler's birthday.  Internationally, terrorist groups who regard themselves as "freedom fighters" and trace at least part of this justification to the American Revolution, take heart in the fact that the American Revolution started on April 19, 1775 at the Battle of Lexington.  It remains to be seen if September 11 will replace April 19 as the most popular date for terrorism.         


    More than one criminologist has pointed out that the disciplines of theology, religion, and philosophy have had important things to say about terrorism (Stitt 2003; Kraemer 2004).  It is also a fact that about a quarter of all terrorist groups and about half of the most dangerous ones on earth are primarily motivated by religious concerns (Hoffman 1993).  They believe that God not only approves of their action, but that God demands their action.  Their cause is sacred, and consists of a combined sense of hope for the future and vengeance for the past.  Of these two components, the backward-looking desire for vengeance may be the more important trigger for terrorism because the forward-looking component (called apocalyptic thinking, or eschatology) produces wild-eyed fanatics who are more a danger to themselves and their own people.  The trick to successful use of terrorism in the name of religion rests upon convincing believers or convertees that a "neglected duty" exists in the fundamental, mainstream part of the religion.  Religious terrorism is therefore, NOT about extremism, fanaticism, sects, or cults, but is instead all about a fundamentalist or militant interpretation of the basic tenets.  Most religious traditions are filled with plenty of violent images at their core, and destruction or self-destruction is a central part of the logic behind religion-based terrorism (Juergensmeyer 2001).  Evil is often defined as malignant narcissism from a theological point of view, and religion easily serves as moral cover for self-centered terrorists and psychopaths (Stitt 2003).  Religion has always absorbed or absolved evil and guilt in what is called theodicy, or the study of how the existence of evil can be reconciled with a good and benevolent God.  Most religions theodicize evil away as either: (1) a test of faith; (2) a product of free will; (3) part of God's plan; or (4) functional to let people learn right from wrong; and terrorists easily make use of these established theodicies or critiques of them (Kraemer 2004).  

    To be sure, the usual pattern in religious-based terrorism is for a psychopathic, spiritual leader to arise that is regarded as somewhat eccentric at first (a tendency toward messianism).  But then, as this leader develops their charisma, they tend to appear more and more mainstream and scholarly.  They begin to mingle political with religious issues (a tendency toward theocracy), and little-known religious symbols or pieces of sacred text take on new significance.  Quite often, these symbols are claimed to be an important part of that religion's history that has somehow been neglected.  The stage is then set for blaming somebody for the betrayal of this sacred heritage.  First, the politicians in one's own country are blamed, but soon a foreign influence, like secularization or modernization is blamed.  Militant religions quickly move to blaming a foreign influence for at least three reasons:  (1) it doesn't serve the religion's survival interests to blame a homeland; (2) it makes use of a long history of competition, animosity, and war between the world's different religions; and (3) any blaming to be done must occur on the symbolic or cosmic level, which is to say that the enemy cannot have a face, but must be some impersonal, evil-like force or influence.  Hence, the most specific enemy a militant religion can have is some global trend like secularization, modernization, or Westernization.  The strength of fundamentalism is its ability to guarantee a radical change is coming without specifying exactly what it will look like.  However, once a semi-vague enemy has been identified, the religious movement borrows the idea of "sovereignty" from the political realm and begins to see itself as the legitimate defender of the faith and legitimate restorer of dignity to the homeland.  Most importantly, such "defenders" justify terrorist action in their accountability only to God, for it is God who has chosen them for this sacred mission in history. 

    Perhaps the most interesting aspect of religion as a theory of terrorism is how a devout believer could come to mix politics and religion in such a way.  The answer is in the conception of worship.  Most of us associate worship with dressing up, the ringing of church bells, and one-way communication with God (human to God).  But worship is not just about the liturgy of church ritual.  Worship is part of service to God and all of humanity on behalf of God (striving to receive instructions from God).  Politics is also about service, especially public service.  So-called "liberation theology" that permeates Latin America has always had a handle on this aspect of worship as service which is intended to bring about the emancipation of the poor.  Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), a founder of the Italian communist party who is best remembered for the concept of hegemony (Bocock 1986), or the idea of an all-encompassing world-view, also postulated a model of worship as opposition.  To engage in any sort of enterprise involving service to God, humanity, or social justice, each group of devout worshippers must see through their religious culture toward political goals.  It is not so much as using religion to achieve secular ends, but the transformation of theology to create "free spaces" that permit creative action consistent with that religion's view on the needed transformation of society.  A key theological transformation that supports terrorism would be the notion that communal violence, even though violence is despised, is still a form of worship that may help discover the true nature of God and open up two-way communication with God (God to human).

    Religious terrorism can be quite extreme in its tactics.  Not only does it strive to avenge a long history of persecution and injustice, but it frequently carries out preemptive attacks.  This is because a high level of paranoia is usually maintained about the actual degree of threat that the enemy trend poses.  Rarely are religious terrorists swayed by secular sources of information about the degree of actual threat, but instead are driven by doctrinal differences of opinion over interpretation of holy scriptures.  This results in two things:  (1) a rather non-selective targeting pattern, lashing out blindly, often harming innocents; and (2) the creation of numerous offshoot, spin-off, or fringe groups who believe they are commanded to follow a different mission imperative.  Add to this the fact that most adherents have already long felt like alienated and marginal members of society, and you've got a recipe for perhaps the most dangerous or prolific kind of terrorism in the world today.

    Most religious terrorist groups can trace their origin to key historical events.  Institutional memory is long, as the example of Irish terrorism points out, and it is not uncommon for the group to conduct rituals designed to "never forget" some long-ago grievance.  In one sense, this is why religious terrorism is popular, because political terrorism, like politics, has a much shorter memory.  Another variety of religious terrorism has its roots in millenarianism, where the key event is some doomsday or apocalyptic date where something was supposed to happen.  We know from studies of UFO cults that such groups are often more dangerous after an event fails to happen because of cognitive dissonance, which forces a rearrangement of attitudes and beliefs that are frequently more rigid and fantastic.  However, political events also serve as the catalyst for religious terrorism, and these are usually tied into whatever messianic traditions the religion has.  For example, the rise of al-Ikhwan Muslim militancy can be traced to a date in 1979 (during the Islamic year 1400) when the return of the prophet Madhi was anticipated at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.  Adherents of the belief stormed the mosque by force, which happened to coincide with a time for pilgrimage and the height of the tourist season.  The government reacted by forcing the militants out, cementing forever a date of infamy in which the group became certain that the homeland needed rescuing from secularization.  Religious terrorists also typically have "mourning periods" or dates such as "anniversary of the martyrs" because these activities are important ways the group recruits true believers from those who have been standing on the sidelines.  Recruitment generally is followed by a reeducation program that changes the way a person thinks about good and evil.  Anything foreign, secular, or modern without question becomes evil; and anything supporting an all-out, uncompromising struggle with the enemy, including the killing of innocents, becomes good.  The only exceptions are when the group has freed up some nonviolent avenues of experimentation. 

    It is important to understand the practice of martyrdom in the terrorist context.  Not only does a martyr serve recruitment and other purposes after their death, but a whole mythology develops around them, which might be called a process of martyrology (Ranstorp 1996).  Targets are chosen not for strategic purposes, but for symbolic purposes, and the repercussions of an attack are managed as well.  The ideal target is one in which the martyr can inflict more damage than is expected for their size.  The idea is to produce an impression that the group is larger and more powerful than it actually is.  This feeling of power is enhanced by the use of anonymity, whereby the martyr goes through an indoctrination process where they are stripped of their real identity and provided with a false background history.  The process goes much further than establishing a cover story in case of capture.  The process involves changing the family name and home town the martyr came from, so that any repercussions or reactions to the terrorist event can be channeled toward another family or town.  In some cases, the cover story is used to direct government counterterrorism toward the wrong target (especially if the martyr's family is well known and the town is small).  In other cases, it is used to give the impression that dozens of martyrs are coming from the same town, when in fact they are not.

    In all fairness, it should be said that most militant religious groups only adopt terrorism as a tactic of last resort.  We have not discussed Just War Doctrine here, but ethics and/or fair play are integral parts of most religions, and there are usually unwritten rules for when the cosmic struggle (as Juergensmeyer 2001 calls it) spills over into political struggle.  Religious terrorists demonstrate marvelous ingenuity in means, methods, and timing, but their targeting is flawed, and one can only wonder how strategically effective is their "symbolic" success from "striking at the heart of the infidels."  Perhaps the whole reason for it is to bolster their reputation among other religious communities.  This would be supported by the fact that some terrorist acts are scheduled on dates specifically designed to desecrate a competitor's religious holidays and sacred moments.


    The discipline of economics has many concepts that are relevant to an understanding of terrorism -- supply and demand -- costs and benefits, etc.  Fully-developed economic or econometric models of terrorism are quite rare, however, and often involve such things as "psychic" costs and benefits (Nyatepe-Coo 2004).  More down-to-earth economic theories can be found in the literature on deterrence.  Rational choice theory, in particular, has found a place in criminology, and holds that people will engage in crime after weighing the costs and benefits of their actions to arrive at a rational choice about motivation after perceiving that the chances of gain outweigh any possible punishment or loss.  Criminals must come to believe their actions will be beneficial -- to themselves, their community, or society -- AND they must come to see that crime pays, or is at least a risk-free way to better their situation.  Perhaps the most well-known version of this idea in criminology is routine activities theory (Cohen and Felson 1979), which postulates that three conditions must be present in order for a crime to occur: (1) suitable targets or victims who put themselves at risk; (2) the absence of capable guardians or police presence; and (3) motivated offenders or a pool of the unemployed and alienated.  Other rational choice theories exist which delve further into models of decision making.  In the few models of collective violence that have found their way into criminology, the Olson hypothesis (source unknown) suggests that participants in revolutionary violence predicate their behavior on a rational cost-benefit calculus to pursue the best course of action given the social circumstances.

    Rational choice theory, in political science, follows a similar line, and holds that people can be collectively rational, even when making what appears to be irrational decisions for them as individuals, after perceiving that their participation is important and their personal contribution to the public good outweighs any concerns they may have for the "free rider" problem (Muller and Opp 1986).  For those unfamiliar with it, the "free rider" problem is a classic paradox in social science and economics which asks why anybody should do something for the public good when most likely someone else will get credit for it and most everybody else will benefit merely by sitting idly and doing nothing.  Perhaps the most eloquent spokesperson for rational choice ideas in the field of terrorism is Wesleyan professor Martha Crenshaw (1998), whose writings inform my remarks below.

    Let's take, for example, a typical terrorist event that involves hostage-taking and all-too-frequent hostage-killing.  From an individualist rational point of view, the best choice would be to keep at least some of the hostages alive in order to bargain with the government for leniency.  Yet, often a collectivist rational mentality sets in, and the group choice (or groupthink) is to kill all the hostages.  Is this killing senseless, the product of deranged minds, or an example of mob behavior?  The answer is NO on all points from a rational choice point of view.  It may be a reasonable and calculated response to circumstances.  It may involve a collective judgment about the most efficient course of action that has the most lasting impact on observers (for social learning purposes).  And most importantly, the senselessness of it all may be just what the group needs to make their ideological point that they are terrorists, not just ordinary criminals. 

    Terrorism is not a pathological phenomenon.  The resort to terrorism is not an aberration.  The central focus of study ought to be on why some groups find terrorism useful, and in standard control theory fashion, why other groups do not find terrorism useful.  Some groups may continue to work with established patterns of dissident action.  Other groups may resort to terrorism because they have tried other alternatives.  Still other groups may choose terrorism as an early choice because they have learned from the experiences of others, usually through the news media, and Crenshaw (1998) calls this the contagion effect, and claims it has distinctive patterns similar to the copycat effect as in other theories of collective violence (Gurr 1970).  There may be circumstances in which the terrorist group wants to publicize its cause to the world, a process Crenshaw (1995) calls the globalization of civil war.   

    Factors that influence the rational choice of terrorism include place, size, time, and the climate of international opinion.  A terrorist plot in a democratic society is less likely to involve senseless violence than a scheme hatched under an authoritarian regime because under the latter, terrorists realize they have nothing to lose with the expected repercussions.  Size is important because a small elite group is more likely to resort to terrorism when the population is passive.  This means that more senseless acts of violence may occur in a stable society rather than one on the verge of collapse.  Time constraints are important because the terrorist group may be competing with other groups or attempting to manage a tit-for-tat strategy with counterterrorism.  The climate of international opinion, if low for the problems of the host country, may force the terrorists to take action that risks a repressive counterterrorist reaction, in hopes that their suffering will capture public attention.  In short, terrorism is an excellent tool for managing the political agenda on a world stage.   


    Modern sociological perspectives are primarily concerned with the social construction of fear or panic, and how institutions and processes, especially the media, primary and secondary groups, maintain that expression of fear.  It is important for students to be able to critically assess the social construction of terrorism and grasp sociological viewpoints, and as a good starting point, I would recommend Gibbs (1989) or any of several new books that critique the war on terrorism or look at it as mythology or dialogue.  However, it is equally important for students to recognize that the social constructionist viewpoint is all about consequences, not causes.  Labeling theory in criminology, for example, is a social constructionist viewpoint that, in my opinion, goes about reconnecting consequences with causes in a way that is less systematic than the way functionalists did it a long time ago.  My own theory of terrorism (O'Connor 1994) makes use of a neo-functionalist framework to chart the way terrorism impacts the evolution of a whole society by affecting core values of achievement, competition, and individualism.  Some societies become "softer" targets after experiencing terrorism, and other societies become stronger afterwards.  It depends not only upon interaction patterns, but stabilities and interpenetrations among the structural subsystems (economy, polity, religion, law) of that society.  However, there are probably only three people left in the world who understand the kind of Parsonian functionalism I'm describing, so it will most likely be the case that labeling and learning theories will dominate sociological thought on terrorism, followed by conflict or radical theories which all-too-often overdo how they implicate state crime, fiscal crisis, capitalism, or imperialism with terrorism.  For a promising approach that more carefully attempts to tread in these sociological waters, see Ross (1999).

    Let's get down to the causal models of sociology rather than worry about perspectives.  Regardless of the name for the theoretical viewpoint, one is likely to encounter the following, or some variation of them, as causal factors in almost all etiological, sociology-related thinking (FIVE SOCIOLOGICAL THEORIES OF TERRORISM):

    The frustration-aggression hypothesis is the idea that every frustration leads to some form of aggression, and that every aggressive act relieves that frustration to some extent.  A professor I had once referred to it as the "flush-toilet" model of motivation because the basic notion is that stress and hassles build up until they reach a point that "breaks the camel's back" and the displacement of released energy provides some benefit in terms of catharsis or ventilation.  Students should be advised that very sophisticated models of this hypothesis exist in criminology, and that my description is only a crude simplification.

    The relative deprivation hypothesis is the idea that as a person goes about choosing their values and interests, they compare what they have and don't have, as well as what they want or don't want, with real or imaginary others.  The person then usually perceives a discrepancy between what is possible for them and what is possible for others, and reacts to it with anger or an inflamed sense of injustice.  Students should be advised that debates exist within criminology regarding relative deprivation and terrorism, on the one hand, with the anomie or strain tradition which finds causal influence in such objectivist factors as Gross Domestic Product, and on the other hand, with the left realist tradition which finds causal influence in subjective experiences of deprivation or discomfort. 

    The negative identity hypothesis is the idea that, for whatever reason, a person develops a vindictive and covert rejection of the roles and statuses laid out for them by their family, community, or society.  For example, a child raised in a well-to-do family may secretly sabotage every effort made to hand them the good life on a "silver platter," deliberately screwing up in school, at work, and everyplace else until the day comes, with some apparent life-altering experience (like engaging in terrorism), that the long-nurtured negative identity comes out, and the subject can then make it feel more like a total identity transformation.  Students should be advised that there are many varieties of this idea that exist in a number of theories across many fields of study.

    The narcissistic rage hypothesis is an umbrella idea for all the numerous things that can go wrong in child-rearing, such as too much smothering, too little smothering, ineffective discipline, overly stringent discipline, psychological trauma, coming from a broken home, etc., that all leads to the same effect of a "What about Me?" reaction in the child.  It is actually a two-way process with the child contributing as much as the parents and other role models which results in a damaged self-concept, a tendency to blame others for one's inadequacies, and the well-known "splitting" of self into a "good me" and "bad me" which often forms the basis for personality disorders involving a lack of empathy for the suffering of others.  Students should be advised that there is not all that much consensus on the primal importance of narcissism, and that the literature on child-rearing is full of mixed empirical results.

    The moral disengagement hypothesis is the idea that encompasses all the ways a person neutralizes or removes any inhibitions they have about committing acts of horrific violence.  Some common patterns include imagining one's self as a hero, portraying one's self as a functionary, minimizing the harm done, dehumanizing the victim, or insulating one's self in routine activities.  Organized crime figures, for example, usually hide behind family activities with their wives and children.  Students should be advised that in the study of terrorism, there are numerous other ways that violence is rationalized which go far beyond denigrating one's enemies and beefing one's self up as a crusader (see Hacker 1996).  Terrorist rationalizations usually involve a complete shift in the way government and civil society is perceived.

    Psychological perspectives, with few exceptions (Ross 1996; 1999), are decidedly clinical in what is often a futile attempt to find something pathological in the terrorist personality.  The major name in this area is David Long, former assistant director of the State Department's Office of Counter Terrorism, who has gone on record saying there's no such thing as a terrorist personality, but then has said they typically suffer from low self-esteem, are attracted to groups with charismatic leaders, and enjoy risk-taking (Long 1990).  A sampling of psychological factors that have been investigated include: ineffective parenting or rebellion against one's parents, a pathological need for absolutism, and a variety of other "syndromes" and hypotheses (see Margolin 1977), but study after study for the past thirty years has yielded very little valid and reliable information about the psychology of terrorists other than the following generalizations:

A Summary of Psychological Knowledge about Terrorism

     As far as we know, most terrorists feel that they are doing nothing wrong when they kill and injure people. They seem to share a feature of the psychological condition known as antisocial personality disorder or psychopathic personality disorder, which is reflected by an absence of empathy for the suffering of others.  However, they do not appear unstable or mentally ill for this.  A common feature is a type of thinking such as “I am good and right. You are bad and wrong.”  It is a very polarized thinking which allows them to distance themselves from opponents and makes it easier for them to kill people. It is not the same kind of simplistic thinking one would expect from someone with low intelligence or moral development. Most terrorists are of above average intelligence and have sophisticated ethical and moral development.  A closed-minded certainty is a common feature of terrorist thinking.  (Merari 1990)

    Although what we don't know about the psychology of terrorism is more than what we do know, there have been several promising attempts to merge or combine psychology with sociology (and criminal justice) into what might be called terrorist profiling (Russell and Miller 1977; Bell 1982; Galvin 1983; Strentz 1988; Hudson 1999).  This line of inquiry actually has a long history, and includes what rare studies exist of female terrorists.  The earliest study (Russell and Miller 1977) found that the following people tend to join terrorist organizations:

    These data, as well as other known characteristics and attributes about terrorists, have found their way into databases, some public, some private.  One of the most well-known databases used by researchers is the RAND-St. Andrews University Chronology of International Terrorism.  When suicide bombing became popular, Merari (1990) conducted rare interviews with terrorists, and found that most suicide terrorists are between the ages of 16 and 28.  Most are male, but 15% are female and that proportion is rising.  Many come from poor backgrounds and have limited education, but some have university degrees and come from wealthy families.   

    We'll return again from time to time to this group of theories, and new developments, because criminology is quite heavily informed by sociology and psychology.  What sociological and psychological approaches basically tell us now is that individuals join terrorist organizations in order to commit acts of terrorism, and that this process is the same as when individuals join criminal subcultures in order to commit acts of crime. There appears to be no unique terrorist personality.  Instead, there appear to be unique subcultural phenomena which develop, support, and enhance a penchant for cold-blooded, calculated violence which, if not satisfied within a terrorist organization might be fulfilled elsewhere.  Terrorism is a social activity.  Individuals join a terrorist group usually after they have tried other forms of political involvement.   The emotional links between individuals and the strength of commitment to their ideology appear to become stronger by the group living in the underground and facing adversity in the form of counterterrorism.  Socialization in the underground is quite intense, and Ferracuti (1982), a criminologist, has documented the "fantasy wars" that go on in the terrorist underground.  An individual's identity may become tied to the group's identity, but it is just as likely that emotional relationships become as important (if not more) than the group's purpose.  This means that the distribution of beliefs among members in a terrorist group may be uneven.  There may be major differences between individual and group ideology.  Ideology may not necessarily be the main component of motivation.  From profiling terrorists for many years, we know that most of them are action-hungry practitioners, not theoreticians.  This knowledge may provide new counterterrorist strategies which attempt to change individual beliefs and weaken group cohesion.


    The leading exponent of the terrorist-as-mentally-ill approach is Jerrold Post (1984; 1990), who has gone on record saying that the most dangerous terrorist is likely to be a religious terrorist, and that all terrorists suffer from negative childhood experiences and a damaged sense of self.  His analysis of the terrorist "mindset" (a word that substitutes for terrorist personality, and technically means a fixed mental attitude or inclination) draws upon a view of mental illness that compels, or forces, people to commit horrible acts.  It should be noted that we know from criminal justice that this is not the only possible view on mental illness.  More "crazy" people come into contact with the law through sheer folly and foolishness than a compulsion their mental illness made them have.  Post (1990) makes a somewhat neo-Freudian distinction between terrorists who desire to "destroy the nation, or world, of their fathers" and those who desire to "carry on the mission, or world, of their fathers."  In short, it boils down to the Oedipus Complex, which is hating or loving your father, or at least the "world" they represent.  There is actually some empirical support for this viewpoint.  For example, when solitary terrorist offenders are studied, such as skyjackers and mail bombers, a severely dysfunctional relationship with their father is often found.  The "anarchic-ideologue" terrorist, according to Post (1984) is rebelling against their father, and according to Kaplan (1981), has a pathological need to pursue absolute ends because of their damaged sense of self-worth.  For a review of these and related theories, see Ruby (2002). 

    Another analysis is provided by Jessica Stern (1999) who attempts to gain psychological insight into the distinction between "doomsday" terrorists, who would use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that might end all life on earth, and "dangerous" terrorists, who would limit themselves to the conventional arsenal of terrorism.  Stern's concern is primarily with the counterproliferation of WMD, but cases studies of groups such as Aum Shinrikyo, the Tamil Tigers, Al-Qaida, and Hizballah show that terrorists most likely to order the use of WMD tend to be afflicted with paranoia and megalomania.  Of these two illnesses, the megalomania is more severe, and the paranoia is at such a moderate level that it enhances their intelligence and keeps them from becoming schizophrenics or sociopaths.  Stern (1999) takes exception with arguments that terrorists suffer from any antisocial, psychopathic, or sociopathic disorder.

    Walter Laqueur (1999) offers yet another distinction, between terrorists who are "fanatics" and those who are "extremists."  The standard meaning of these terms is that fanatics are religious zealots and extremists are political zealots, but Laqueur (1999) strips away any religious connotation, and says that most terrorists are fanatics.  The concept of fanaticism carries some implications of mental illness, but is not in itself a diagnostic category.  Laqueur (1999) claims that fanaticism is characterized by excessive cruelty and sadism, but others (Taylor 1994) have pointed out that fanaticism is characterized by the following:

    To this, we might add the concept of Machiavellianism (Oots & Wiegele 1985), which refers to an extreme form of the psychological trait of manipulativeness.  Terrorists are disposed to not only manipulate their victims, but the audience as well.  Both the timing of a future event and the aftermath of a completed event are manipulated by terrorists.  For example, the counterterrorism reaction by authorities is manipulated.  The press and public are manipulated, with terrorists doing everything they can to work the media and obtain liberal press coverage.  The fact that terrorism is aimed more at the audience than victim has provided numerous points of conjecture for researchers.  It has been the source of most theoretical models of terrorist contagion, whereby different terrorist groups compete with one another for media attention, most theoretical models of copycat behavior, whereby different terrorist groups try to outdo a previous group with the harm inflicted, and more importantly, the contributions of biological and physiological researchers.


    David Hubbard (1983) was one of the first biological researchers of terrorism, and his line of work is similar to the familiar cycle of violence hypothesis in criminal justice.  In this view, people who commit repetitive and cyclical acts of violence (which would include wife beaters, rapists, and serial killers) are driven by hormonal or neurochemical fluctuations in their body or brain chemistry.  Three compounds, in particular, have been singled out as having abnormal levels among terrorists:  norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and endorphins.  Of these, norepinephrine is suspected as being the most influential, as it is associated with the so-called flight or fight mechanism in human biology.  The theory of "fight or flight" was developed by W. B. Cannon back in 1929, and refers to a state of arousal under stress in which the heart, lungs, and muscle operate more efficiently.  As it applies to terrorism (and crime), the behavioral requirements of such activities (fighting exhilaration before an event, and fleeing manipulation of audience after an event) produce a syndrome of physiological need for arousal at fairly regular intervals.  For more information on biological factors as a cause of criminal behavior, see my lecture on Psychobiology and Crime.                            

Anarchy Archives Research Center on History and Theory of Anarchism
Anarchosyndicalism by Rudolf Rocker
Are Terrorists Psychotic or Psychopathic?
Islamism, Fascism, and Terrorism
Peter Kropotkin's 1910 Encyclopedia Article
Psychological Qualities of Machiavellianism
Religion as Opposition: A Gramscian Model
Review of Latest Books on Terrorism
Talking to Your Kids about Fascism
Terrorism as Fascism's Most Loyal Helpmate in Ending Democracy
Terrorism and Political Violence: A Bibliography
The Anarchist FAQ Webpage
The Emma Goldman Papers
The New Evil of Islamo-Fascism
The Psychology of Terrorism: Mind of a Terrorist
The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism [HTML Exec. Summary]
Understanding Evil: The Psychology of Terrorism

Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why (pdf)

Arendt, Hannah. (1951). The Origins of Totalitarianism.  NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
Bell, Bowyer. (1982). "Psychology of Leaders of Terrorist Groups." International Journal of Group Tensions, 12: 84-104.
Bocock, R. (1986). Hegemony. London: Tavistock.
Burton, Anthony. (1978). Revolutionary Violence: The Theories. NY: Crane, Russak.
Cohan, A.S. (1975). Theories of Revolution. NY: Wiley.
Cohen, Lawrence & Marcus Felson. (1979). "Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activities Approach." American Sociological Review 44: 588-608.
Crenshaw, Martha. (1981). "The Causes of Terrorism." Comparative Politics 13: 379-99.
Crenshaw, Martha, (ed.) (1995). Terrorism in Context. University Park: Pennsylvania St. Univ. Press.  [sample excerpts]
Crenshaw, Martha. (1998). "The Logic of Terrorism: Terrorist Behavior as a Product of Strategic Choice," in Walter Reich (ed.) Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind. NY: Woodrow Wilson Center Press.
Ferracuti, Franco. (1982). "A Sociopsychiatric Interpretation of Terrorism." P. 129-41 in Annals of American Academy of Political & Social Science, 463: 129-41.
Ferrell, Jeff. (1997). "Against the Law: Anarchist Criminology," In Brian D. MacLean and Dragan Milovanovic (eds.) Thinking Critically About Crime. Richmond, British Columbia: Collective Press. [full text]
Ferrell, Jeff. (1999). "Anarchist Criminology and Social Justice," Pp. 91-108 in Bruce Arrigo (ed.) Social Justice/Criminal Justice. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Galvin, Deborah. (1983). "The Female Terrorist: A Socio-Psychological Perspective." Behavioral Science & Law 1: 19-32.
Gibbs, Jack (1989). "Conceptualizations of Terrorism." American Sociological Review 53(4): 329-40.
Gurr, Ted. (1970). Why Men Rebel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hacker, Frederick. (1996). Crusaders, Criminals, Crazies: Terror and Terrorists in Our Time. NY: Norton.
Hoffman, Bruce. (1993). Holy Terror. Santa Monica: RAND.
Hubbard, David. (1983). "The Psychodynamics of Terrorism," Pp. 45-53 in Y. Alexander et. al. (eds.) International Violence. NY: Praeger.
Hudson, Rex. (1999). Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why: The 1999 Government Report on Profiling Terrorists. Guilford, Ct: Lyons Press.
Juergensmeyer, M. (2001) Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. [sample pages]
Kaplan, A. (1981). "The Psychodynamics of Terrorism." Pp. 35-50 in Y. Alexander & J. Gleason (eds.) Behavioral and Quantitative Perspectives on Terrorism. NY: Pergamon.
Kraemer, E. (2004). "A Philosopher Looks at Terrorism." Pp. 113-131 in Nyatepe-Coo, A. & Zeisler-Vralsted, D. (eds.) Understanding Terrorism: Threats in an Uncertain World. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kushner, Harvey. (2003). Encyclopedia of Terrorism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Laqueur, Walter. (1999) The New Terrorism. NY: Oxford Univ. Press.
Leeman, Richard. (1991). The Rhetoric of Terrorism. NY: Greenwood Press.
Long, David. (1990). The Anatomy of Terrorism. NY: Free Press.
Margolin, J. (1977). "Psychological Perspectives in Terrorism." In Y. Alexander and S. M. Finger (eds.), Terrorism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. New York: John Jay Press.
Martic, Milos. (1975). Insurrection: Five Schools of Revolutionary Thought. NY: Dunellen Publishing.
Marty, Martin & & R. Scott Appleby, eds. (1993). Fundamentalism and the State. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
Merari, A. (1990). "The Readiness to Kill and Die: Suicidal Terrorism in the Middle East." In W. Reich (Ed.), Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies and States of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Muller, Edward & Karl-Dieter Opp. (1986). "Rational Choice and Rebellious Collective Action," American Political Science Review 80: 471-87.
Nyatepe-Coo, A. (2004). "Economic Implications of Terrorism," Pp. 77-89 in Nyatepe-Coo, A. & Zeisler-Vralsted, D. (eds.) Understanding Terrorism: Threats in an Uncertain World. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
O'Connor, Thomas. (1994) "A Neofunctional Model of Crime and Crime Control" Pp. 143-58 in G. Barak (ed.) Varieties of Criminology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Oots, Kent & Thomas Wiegele. (1985). "Terrorist and Victim: Psychiatric and Physiological Approaches," Terrorism: An International Journal 8(1): 1-32.
O'Sullivan, Noel. (1986) Terrorism, Ideology, and Revolution: The Origins of Modern Political Violence. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Passmore, Kevin. (2002). Fascism: A Very Short Introduction. NY: Oxford University Press.
Post, Jerrold. (1984). "Notes on a Psychodynamic Theory of Terrorist Behavior." Terrorism 7:241-56.
Post, Jerrold. (1990). "Terrorist Psycho-Logic: Terrorist Behavior as a Product of Psychological Forces," Pp. 25-40 in W. Reich (ed.) Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Purkis, Jon & James Bowen, eds. (1997) Twenty-First Century Anarchism. London: Cassell.
Ranstorp, Magnus. (1996). "Terrorism in the Name of Religion," Pp. 121-36 in Russell Howard & Reid Sawyer (eds.) Terrorism and Counterterrorism. Guilford, CT: McGraw-Hill.
Rapoport, David & Yonah Alexander, eds. (1982). The Morality of Terrorism: Religious and Secular Justifications. NY: Pergamon Press.
Rapoport, David. (1984). "Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions." American Political Science Review 78(3): 668-72.
Ross, Jeffrey Ian. (1996). "A Model of the Psychological Causes of Oppositional Political Terrorism" Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 2-11.
Ross, Jeffrey Ian. (1999). "Beyond the Conceptualization of Terrorism: A Psychological-Structural Model" in C. Summers & E. Mardusen (eds.) Collective Violence. NY: Rowen & Littlefield. 
Ruby, Charles. (2002). "Are Terrorists Mentally Deranged?" Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 2(1): 15-26.
Russell, Charles & Bowman Miller. (1977). "Profile of a Terrorist." Terrorism: An International Journal 1(1): 17-34.
Stitt, B. Grant. (2003). "The Understanding of Evil: A Joint Quest for Criminology and Theology." Pp. 203-218 in R. Chairs & B. Chilton (eds.) Star Trek Visions of Law & Justice. Dallas: Adios Press.
Stern, Jessica. (1999). The Ultimate Terrorists. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Strentz, Thomas. (1988). "A Terrorist Psychological Profile," Law Enforcement Bulletin 57: 11-18.
Taylor, Maxwell. (1988). The Terrorist. London: Brassey's.
Tifft, Larry. (1979). "The Coming Redefinition of Crime: An Anarchist Perspective." Social Problems 26: 392-402.
Wardlaw, Grant. (1989). Political Terrorism: Theory, Tactics, and Counter-Measures. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Young, Jock. (1999). The Exclusive Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. [sample articles by author]

Last updated: 06/29/04
Syllabus for JUS 429
MegaLinks in Criminal Justice