What are the Causes of Terrorism?


SEATTLE — The FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” While horrific tragedies such as 9/11, the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Paris attacks, the Brussels bombings and the Nice rampage are etched into recent Western memory, the Middle East has seen more than 1,500 terrorist attacks since the beginning of 2015. These events beg the question: what are the causes of terrorism and can it be prevented?

Social infrastructure

Social conditions like poverty can leave populations vulnerable to terrorist activity. In 2015, the executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP) Ertharin Cousins explained that many young men struggle to feed their families and terrorists often exploit this vulnerability. As food prices in Pakistan soared in 2009, extremist groups used food to advance their causes. Social psychologist Albert Bandura has concluded that social conditions matter more than personality traits when it comes to committing atrocious acts.

Following this logic, some argue that lack of education can also cause terrorism. Some madrassas — Islamic religious schools — embed extremist philosophies in their curriculums. In an interview with Vali Nasr, an authority on Islamic fundamentalism, PBS discovered that poor children of Afghani and Pakistani peasants encounter radical indoctrination when enrolling in these madrassas. To meet the need for proper education and to combat this issue, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Reinforcing Education Accountability Act (READ) to improve basic quality education in developing and war-torn countries. This Act is awaiting a vote in the U.S. Senate.

Having been on the frontlines of the global war on terror, many in the U.S. military have argued for greater investment in non-military tools of development. Approximately 75 percent of soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq believed that non-military tools, such as diplomacy and development assistance, would have helped make their work more effective. After multiple deployments, Force Recon commander Jake Harriman suggested that terrorism is primarily caused by extreme poverty. In 2010, 50 retired three and four-star generals called on Congress to increase the International Affairs Budget. The International Affairs Budget is roughly one percent of the federal budget.

Yet, many still dispute that poverty is a root cause of terrorism, and a number of scholars have demonstrated that national income is not significantly associated with terrorism. However, David Sterman, a research associate for New America’s International Security Program, argues that researchers must focus on how poverty might have different effects depending on the context. One cannot completely erase the relationship between poverty and terrorism in Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries with the second-highest level of terrorist activity.

A struggle centuries old

Other suggested causes of terrorism are Western imperialism and apathy. A 2001 article in the New Yorker outlines Muslim history, a culture that emphasizes its deep roots and a religion that became the basic unit of organization between nations. During the medieval ages, the Islamic empire was the richest, most powerful and most enlightened civilization on earth. Napoleon Bonaparte’s landing in Egypt in 1798 marked the first time that a small Western force had invaded the heartland of Islam. The article argues that the Muslim world, after failed partnerships with Germany and the Soviet Union, viewed the U.S. as an imperial overlord.

Even without direct interference in Middle Eastern nations, American leaders complied with the corrupt tyrants that ruled over them. After Syria’s Hafiz-al-Assad murdered more than 10,000 civilians in response to a 1982 uprising, U.S. leaders continued to court the former president. In 1991, the U.S. called for the Iraqi people to revolt against Saddam Hussein. In 2015, Al Jazeera, a Doha-based state broadcaster, reported that approximately one million Iraqi civilians were killed during the war on terror. This represents five percent of the country’s population.

Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative Amaryllis Fox described an encounter she had with a former Al Qaeda fighter. From the perspective of a scrappy rebel fighter without many resources, he described the U.S. as a technologically advanced invader. The rebels portray themselves as the underdogs. Fox emphasizes the need for a dialogue between the two sides to end this cycle of violence.

Where are we now?

The psychological causes of terrorism are both individual and collective. At the individual level, terrorists romanticize their cause to younger men, especially through social media channels. Social camaraderie and a sense of identity are vital for extremist recruitment. As globalization brings people of many different cultural values together, the American Psychology Association (APA) suggests the existence of a rise in a cultural version of “survival of the fittest.”  Online news magazine Vox argues that terrorists seek this type of ideological war.

As President Trump’s rhetoric has begun to legitimize this ideological war, a poll conducted by USA Today found that 55 percent of 10,000 people surveyed in 10 European countries supported Trump’s immigration ban centered on Muslim-majority nations. The Institute for Economics and Peace discovered that many foreign fighters join terrorist networks due to feelings of exclusion in their home countries. Although the underlying causes of terrorism may not be straightforward, there is reason to believe that the kind of ideological justification for an immigration ban policy could potentially leave people vulnerable to terrorism.

Andy Jung

Photo: Flickr


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