Sunday, 25 June 2017

The Motivations of Terrorists.

Title: The Motivations of Terrorists.

Box, M. (2017). The Motivations of Terrorists. Retrieved from


In examining terrorism it is essential to have a working definition of terrorism and what are the motives of terrorists. Terrorism is more than just an act which causes ‘terror’. However, this is a problematic as it is complicated by ideological viewpoint on the individual groups: one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter.

A short survey of the literature on terrorist motives provided below. Based upon that snipped it is argued that terrorism is made up of the following elements:
  1. preformed by an irregular non-state actor wishing to achieve a political/politico-religious aim;
  2. targets non-combatants to cause fear so as to force them to undertake or refrain from undertaking  a political action; and  
  3. produce an overreaction by government so as to undermine its legitimacy.

Contribution to understanding of terrorists motives
Alexander and Klein (2003)
 “Terrorism is psychological warfare…” (p. 494).
Cary (2009)
Outlines that terrorists are “. . . determent to impose their will upon others. Unlike nation states . . . terrorists resort to violence as the first and final solution...” (p. 13).
Gearson (2002)
Argues that the essence of terrorism is the utilisation of fear. The ability to cause fear is an important element of terrorism as fear and panic will undermine public resolve or cause an overreaction that undermines legitimacy (p. 8).
Hoffman (2006)
“By distinguishing terrorists from other types of criminal and irregular fighters and … other forms of crime and irregular warfare, … terrorism is:
·         ineluctably political in aims and motives;
·         violent – or, equally important, threatens violence;
·         designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target;
·         conducted either by
o   an organization with an identifiable chain of command or conspiratorial cell structure …
o   individuals or a small collection of individuals directly influenced, motivated, or inspired by the ideological aims or example of some existent terrorist movements and/or its leaders; and
·         perpetrated by a subnational group or nonstate entity…” (p. 40). 
Manningham-Buller (2003)
The former head of British intelligence agency MI5 argues, “[n]ormal life is what the terrorist seeks to destroy and creating fear is part of their agenda…”(p. 3).
Pinto and Wardlaw (1989)
Argue terrorism has two broad goals:
1.       to induce widespread fear in the population; and
2.       provoke the government to overreact and thereby undermine their legitimacy (p. 4).
Richardson (2006)
Summed up the motives as to achieve:
1.       revenge: the grievance directed towards the perception of a wrong whether that is actual or imagined (p. 113);
2.       renown: achieving publicity to the cause and spread fear (p. 120); and
3.       reaction: the ‘propaganda by deed’ sending a message to instil fear and cause a response based upon fear (pp. 128-129).
Stern and Berger (2016)
“… define terrorism as an act or threat of violence against noncombatants, with the object of extracting revenge, intimidating, or otherwise influencing an audience…” (pp 9-10). They further add that there are two characteristics which distinguish terrorism from other forms of violence:
1.       it is aimed at noncombatants; and
2.       is designed for dramatic effect where causing fear is more important than the physical act (p. 10).
Tucker (1999)
Classifies terrorist motives into four main groups:
  1. nationalist or separatist agendas;
  2. retaliation or revenge for real or perceived injury;
  3. protest government policy; and
  4. defend animal rights.
These motivations are not necessarily mutually exclusive (p. 501).
Weimann (2006)
In a survey of academic writings on terrorism, Schmid and Jongman found the following key elements:
  1. use of violence;
  2. symbolic choices of victim;
  3. performance by an organisation;
  4. advanced planning;
  5. operational seriality;
  6. an absence of moral restraint;
  7. political motivation; and
8.       the use of fear and anxiety (p. 21).
White (2009)
Sums up terrorism in simple terms consisting of three parts:
1.       use of force;
2.       against innocent people; and
3.       for political purposes (p. 10).
Wilkinson (2011)
“Terrorism can be conceptually and empirically distinguished from other modes of violence and conflict by the following characteristics:
1.       It is premeditated and designed to create a climate of extreme fear;
2.       It is directed at a wider target than the immediate victims;
3.       It inherently involves attacks on random or symbolic targets, including civilians;
4.       It is considered by the society in which it occurs as ‘extra-normal’, that is in the literal sense that it violates the norms regulating disputes, protests and dissent; and
5.       It is used primarily, though not exclusively, to influence the political behaviour of governments, communities or specific social groups…” (p. 6)
Williams (2004)
Defines terrorism as “. . . politically . . . motivated violence, directed generally against non-combatants, intended to shock and terrify, to achieve strategic outcomes…”(p 7). Strategic outcomes are usually to polarise the population, undermine the government, or cause government forces to react violently (p. 9).




Alexander, D., & Klein, S. (2003). Bio-chemical Terrorism: Too Awful to Contemplate, Too serious to Ignore. British Journal of Psychiatry, 183, 491-497.

Cary, S. (2009). The Tipping Point: Biological Terrorism. Journal of Strategic Security, 2(3), 13-24.

Gearson, J. (2002). The Nature of Modern Terrorism. In L. Freedman (Ed.), Superterrorism: Policy Responses. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Hoffman, B. (2006). Inside terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Manningham-Buller, E. (2003). Countering Terrorism: An international blueprint. Paper presented at the The Royal United Institute Conference: The Oversight of Intelligence and Security.

Pinto, S., & Wardlaw, G. (1989). Political Violence. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Richardson, L. (2006). What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Terrorist Threat. London: John Murrary (Publishers).

Stern, J., & Berger, J. M. (2016). ISIS: The State of Terror. London: William Collins.

Tucker, J. (1999). Historial Trends Related to Bioterrorism: An Emerical Analysis. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 5(4), 498-504.

Weimann, G. (2006). New Terrorism, new Media Terror on the Internet: The New Arena The New Challenges. Washington: United States Institute of Peace Press.

White, J. (2009). Terrorism and Homeland Security (6th ed.). Belmont: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Wilkinson, P. (2011). Terrorism versus Democracy: The liberal state response (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.

Williams, C. (2004). Terrorism Explained: The facts about terrorism and terrorist groups. Sydney: New Holand.


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