Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Introduction to the motivations of terrorists.



Introduction to the motivations of terrorists.


Box, M. (2019). Introduction to motivations of terrorists. www.scholaratlarge.com


Doctor of Philosophy. Federation University


This paper introduces the motivations of terrorists in the context of a study of national security policy. It is an extract of a wider document prepared as part of the conformation of candidature process for a Doctor of Philosophy



The first decades of the twenty-first century have been dominated by the threat which terrorism poses not just at national level but to the whole of the globe. For instance, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is created under chapter five of the United Nations Charter to have “... primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security...” (article 24(1)). The Security Council Report is a non-government organisation whose mission is ‘to advance the transparency and effectiveness of the UN Security Council’ and is sponsored by a number of governments including Australia. As part of its transparency work, the  Security Council Report (n.d.)  has identified UNSC resolutions relating to terrorism: during the period 2001 (9/11[1]) to 2015 39 resolutions were made relating to terrorism whilst only six were made prior to the attack.

Defining terrorism is a legal, political and ideological process which like nationalism has many different interpretations and theories most succinctly summarised in the old adage: ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ (Hoffman, 2006). Nevertheless, this section will take a different tack focusing more on the motives of terrorists rather than defining the act itself. The rationale for this is due to the focus of this project on how actors within the political sphere have responded to this threat – real or perceived – which has become a dominant aspect.  In essence, according to Alexander and Klein (2003, p. 494), “[t]errorism is psychological warfare.” Cary (2009, p. 13) agrees, arguing terrorists are “. . . determined to impose their will upon others. Unlike nation states . . . terrorists resort to violence as the first and final solution.” What Cary has brought to this discussion is the separation of state and non-state actors which would preclude one of the earlier twentieth century’s labelling of terrorism: the strategic bombing campaigns of both Britain and Germany during the Second World War or more recently the ‘shock and awe’ of the 2002 Iraq War. Furthermore, such a distinction is useful when examining the responses of moral entrepreneurs (Morgan, Dagistanli, & Martin, 2010). The non-state distinction was highlighted by Justice  Hope (1977, p. 59) in his Royal Commission report into Australian intelligence and security agencies: “Terrorism may be so widespread as to approach a state of civil war; it may be isolated or irregular and have a limited direct effect upon the country in which it is manifested in violent action.” Tucker (1999) has gone further placing terrorist motives into four, not necessarily mutually exclusive, political aims: (i) nationalist or separatist agendas; (ii) retaliation or revenge for real or perceived injury;  (iii) protest government policy; and (iv) defend animal rights. To which I would add a religious or more rightly a politico-religious aim.

How terrorists go about achieving their aims does form an essential element of their motives though the use of fear which John Gearson (2002, p. 8)  illustrates with a quote from the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu: “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not the supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” Kilcullen (2010, p. 184) concurs, arguing that terrorism is “… politically motivated violence against civilians, conducted with the intention to coerce through fear…”. This nicely brings together the notion that the fear is directed towards civilians just like the moral panic aims to utilise the populous’ fear of a demonised group or the ethnic mobiliser’s identification of the ‘other’.  Williams (2004) also believes that the strategic desire of terrorists is to polarise the population, undermine the government, or cause government forces to react violently. Richardson (2006) summed up these points quite succinctly with her ‘three Rs’ of terrorism:  revenge, renown and reaction.  The reaction in Richardson’s ‘three Rs’ is the blowback elements of terrorist motives. That is, as Pinto and Wardlaw (1989) highlight, to provoke the government to overreact and thereby undermine their legitimacy. This is the essence of the moral panic: the causing of a disproportionate response to a perceived threat.  As Manningham-Buller (2003, p. 3), the then 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.”

Therefore, in summary, it is possible to identify three elements that mark the motives of terrorism according to the literature:

1.       It is performed by an irregular non-state actor wishing to achieve a political/politico-religious aim;

2.       It targets non-combatants to cause fear so as to force them to undertake or refrain from undertaking  a political action; and 

3.       It produces an overreaction by government so as to undermine its legitimacy.

The third point is particularly pertinent as it has commonality with both nationalism and moral panics and hence can cause ‘blow back’ in the national security space.




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.

Hope. (1977). Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security -- Fourth Report -- Vol 1. Canberra: Australian Government Printing Service.

Kilcullen, D. (2010). Counter Insergency. Melbourne: Scribe.

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

Morgan, G., Dagistanli, S., & Martin, G. (2010). Global Fears, Local Anxiety: Policing, Counterterrorism and Moral Panic Over ‘Bikie Gang Wars’ in New South Wales. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 43(3), 580–599.

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).

Security Council Report. (n.d.). UN Documents for Terrorism: Security Council Resolutions Retrieved from https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/un_documents_type/security-council-resolutions/page/4?ctype=Terrorism&cbtype=terrorism%2F#038;cbtype=terrorism%2F

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

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

[1] 9/11 is the attacks by al-Qaeda on the United States by crashing hijacked commercial aeroplanes into  the World Trade Centre (New York) and Pentagon Building (Washington) which occurred on the 11 September 2001