What Motivates Terrorists?
One of the most frequently asked questions about terrorism is also the most intractable. Why? Why do they do it? Why do people join terrorist groups and participate in acts of terrorism?
There are as many answers to this question as there are terrorist groups, and everyone from clericsto caustic cab drivers seems to have a confident opinion on the subject, as though the interior world of terrorists can be easily mined and mapped. But this confidence is often misplaced, given how little scholars actually know about terrorism and the people who are involved in it. It also betrays an epic obliviousness about just how difficult it is to access the internal, subjective desires and emotions that shape the outer world. Instead of asking why people join terrorist groups and commit terrorist atrocities, a more worthwhile starting point for explanation is to ask how.
One culturally prevalent answer to the why question is that terrorists are “driven” or “pushed” to do it, and that the decisive driving or pushing agent is pathology. This answer has evolved in recent years in line with advances in knowledge and moral sensibilities. In terrorism studies in the late 1960s, it was not uncommon for scholars to conceive of pathology as a psychological abnormality or affliction rooted inside the individual. Since the 1980s, this idea has fallen into disrepute, and the scholarly consensus now holds that the roots of terrorism lie not in the individual, but in the wider circumstances in which terrorists live and act.
This reflects a broader consensusin the social sciences about violence: namely, that it is “socially determined,” a product of deeper historical, economic, or cultural forces over and above the individual. It is perhaps best summarized by the renowned social psychologist Albert Bandura. Drawing on studies of violence from across the human sciences, Bandura concluded that “it requires conducive social conditions rather than monstrous people to produce atrocious deeds. Given appropriate social conditions, decent, ordinary people can be led to do extraordinarily cruel things.” Social scientists argue about the nature and impact of the “social conditions” in question, but few would question the essential point that violence, however personalized or idiosyncratic its expression, is primarily rooted in historical structures or social relationships, not individuals, still less their “pathological” mindsets.