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Victoria Schofield

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The Sociology of Terrorism

'There's an inner thing in every man/ Do you know this thing my friend? It has withstood the blows of a million years/ And will do so to the end. It lights the dark of this prison cell, It thunders forth its might. It is "the undauntable thought", my friend/ That thought that says "I'm right!"'
Bobby Sands, MP. (1)

'We should on all Occasions avoid a general Action, or put anything to the Risque, unless compelled by a necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn.'
George Washington, advocating the use of guerilla tactics against the British government in the American War of Independence. (2)


Using violence to achieve a particular objective is not a new phenomenon. The list of those who have taken up arms to fight for ‘freedom’ is endless and ubiquitous. Throughout history, there have been movements of rebellion and revolution in which violence has been used to achieve a political, social, and/or economic goal. All those who have used violence inducing terror in other human beings could be described as ‘terrorists’. The reasons why they have resorted to acts of terror may vary but what they have in common is a belief that their, invariably, heinous methods are justified because they have a ‘just’ cause. As the Kashmiri militant, Maqbool Butt, pleaded before his execution in 1984: ‘My only crime is that I have rebelled against slavery, oppression, poverty, ignorance and exploitation of my people.’ (3)

As the boundaries of nation states formalised in the 20th century, the most common form of terrorism is that perpetrated by a group of individuals against a government in whose terrain they reside. They may be a minority population who have different cultural and ethnic traditions and do not wish to remain under the jurisdiction of the nation state in which they are living. Since secessionists movements are generally resisted by the de facto government, the only way for them to achieve their stated goal is through force, often using the characteristic tools of terror: kidnapping, extortion, assassination, suicide bombings, hijackings. However, although their actions are violent, those who perpetrate them would not use the pejorative term ‘terrorist’; rather they would call themselves ‘separatists’ or ‘freedom fighters’ engaged in a ‘war of liberation’ (for example the Basque separatists in Spain, the Kashmiris in India, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and the Chechnyans in the Russian Federation). Therefore, to understand the sociology of terrorism, one must also analyse the compulsions of those who call themselves ‘freedom fighters’.

In some cases, where such movements receive the support of a significant proportion of the population, the situation can become one of more widespread civil war, on occasion aided by one or more neighbouring countries, who may also believe that the separatists have a ‘just’ cause. If successful, those who have taken up arms against the previously legitimate ‘de facto’ government will assume legitimacy, as happened in the American War of Independence and the war against West Pakistan in 1971 when the Eastern section seceded to become independent Bangladesh. Those who are unsuccessful (for example, the Biafrans of Nigeria in the 1960s, the Sikhs in India in the 1980s) will continue to be classified as terrorists by the government. In addition to those with nationalist aspirations, terrorists may also be a group of disaffected individuals engaged in some form of social rebellion or ‘class war’ (for example the Baader Meinhof in West Germany, the Red Brigade in Italy, or the more anarchic Shining Path in Peru and Maoists in Nepal.)

However, although in the post-colonial era, there are still numerous ‘wars of liberation’ being fought against governments throughout the world, the distinction between what constitutes a war of liberation and what is a terrorist movement is becoming increasingly blurred. (4) This is not just because of an abhorrence of the violence which is used but because of the general instability caused by shifting boundaries or a vested interest in not relinquishing territory. So explosive are the potentially divisive effects of ‘wars of liberation’ that it is all too easy to classify any armed struggle against a de iure or even unpopular de facto government as constituting terror.

Exceptionally, the Soviet Union re-emerged as the Russian Federation and accorded independence to several former republics (excluding Chechyna); the East Timorese movement against Indonesia was brought to a peaceful conclusion by a referendum. But when the Marsh Arabs rebelled against the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 1991 they did not get the external support they felt they deserved as ‘freedom fighters’ and consequently their rebellion was crushed internally as a terrorist movement. In the present day, the identity of those categorised as terrorists has come round full circle and there is now a situation where supporters of the former government of Saddam Hussein are indulging in acts of sectarian terror against the current Iraqi government. Likewise in Afghanistan, the Taliban were the ‘de facto’ government between 1996 and 2001, but now they are the ‘terrorists’.

Understanding terror

‘[My goal is] conquest of the homeland by force.’
Menachem Begin. (5)

‘I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.’
Yasser Arafat addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations, 1974.(6)

In order to comprehend the sociology of terror, it has to be recognised that both internal and external compulsions can create a terrorist. In certain situations, the conversion is prompted by an external state of affairs lying initially outside the subject’s own mind or awareness. Britain’s continuing presence in Palestine caused Menachem Begin to resort to violence to further the cause of a Jewish homeland. At the same time, the fact that the Palestinian Arabs were obliged to share their land with an immigrant Jewish population, provided an external stimulus which prompted varying reactions amongst the Palestinians; whereas some accepted the change in status without recourse to militant activity, others decided that the use of violent means was the only way to alter or alleviate a situation which they found intolerable.

The same was true of the insurgency against the Indian government, which erupted in 1989 in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In this instance, the militant activists fighting for the state’s independence from the Indian Union did not believe that they could defeat the Indian army. Their objective was to draw the attention of the world community to what they believed was a ‘just cause’ so that other countries would intervene to assist them. In their opinion, political dialogue had failed: only by resorting to an ‘armed struggle’ did they believe they could make sufficient impact. They too refuse to call themselves terrorists and have been known to condemn acts of terror (for example the kidnapping and execution of tourists in 1995) when they exceeded the norms of ‘legitimate’ violence permissible in a ‘war of liberation’ i.e. attacks on Indian military personnel. But the Indian government has branded them as terrorists and the Kashmiri ‘liberation’ movement, like the Sikh insurgency in the Punjab, has been suppressed.

However, as happened when supporters of the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, finally made it to the negotiating table in Northern Ireland, some of the Kashmiris who initially condoned violence, have now conceded that although ‘the gun took the issue of out cold storage’, the next step towards resolution of their grievances has to be peace talks. In Kashmir, as elsewhere, those who refuse to give up the armed struggle are in danger of becoming institutionalised as perpetual terrorists, with the result that ‘terrorist’ activity is no longer a means to an end but becomes an end in itself and an intrinsic part of their identity.

In addition to external motivation, there are internal reasons why people are drawn to terrorism. Persuasion, by encouragement or force or by the offer of monetary gain, can compel one person to resort to acts of terrorism in circumstances, where left to himself, he might not have felt the same compulsion; amongst these sets of individuals will be some who are more responsive to persuasion than others. Those whose friends or relatives are already involved in terrorist activity are also likely to become drawn in by association. Young men who are orphans, homeless and poor, or are ‘looking for a cause’ in an attempt to give meaning to their lives, are likely to be more susceptible. Lonely students on university campuses can also be attracted to radical groups, whose objectives require the use of terrorist methods. In general, those who resort to violence are men, but not exclusively. The case of an educated Palestinian girl who became a suicide bomber was unusual although not exceptional. The Tamil assassin of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was a woman. Inspiration to take up arms can also be provided by leadership, such as that of Yasser Arafat who dominated the Palestinian movement in its early days; charismatic individuals can also become symbols of revolution even if the theatre of action is different; the iconic status of the guerilla fighter, Che Guevara, extended well beyond the confines of South America and endured long after his death in 1967. In 2001 a militant cleric, Muhammed Akram Awam, demanding the institution of the Sharia law in Pakistan, styled himself as a supreme leader in the mould of Che Guevara. (7)

The psychological make up of the individual, both innate and fashioned by his or her environment also determines who will become a terrorist. Generalisations are difficult but common trends emerge: for all those who have led a pitiable existence, some may still not resort to violence (either because of fear of using a weapon or moral revulsion towards doing so), but there will be others who, living in the same conditions, will be prepared to take violent action to alter their lives. In view of the desperate circumstances in which they have grown up or to which they have been relegated, they may have scant concern for the sanctity of life. Therefore there will be less regard for the consequences of using violence against others, even if those they have targeted are ‘innocent civilians’ with no direct connection to their ‘cause’ and no role to play in alleviating their grievances.

The important psychological triumph of an act of terrorism is to have attracted attention beyond the narrow confines of a limited geographical space, ever hopeful that this broader publicity will assist in achieving their goals, which sometimes may extend no further than the release of comrades in prison and a demand for money. Although, for obvious reasons, the convention at government level is not to give way to demands made under the threat of terror, the vastly increased media coverage possible in the 20th and 21st century has brought more acts of terror into the public domain and given the terrorists the limelight they are seeking. (8) Access to lethal weapons, including those of mass destruction, makes the threat of the use of violence even more deadly. Horrific as is an act of terror perpetrated by a man with a gun to the head of a political opponent, journalist or aid worker, a thousand times more so, is the threat to detonate a nuclear bomb in a city inhabited by thousands. To date, this is a nightmare scenario enacted only on screens in the cinema, but it is rapidly gaining the potential to become a reality. .

In order to understand the motivation, one must therefore look not only to external stimuli but also to what makes those external stimuli so compelling. Those most likely to resort to violence are at the bottom of the economic and social scale. Those who feel frustrated politically due to the repressive nature of regimes are also more inclined to use violence than those who have freedom of political expression. Where the quality of life is miserable, there is a greater likelihood that people will become terrorists because they have less to lose. The prisons in Israel are well-known to have been a breeding ground for terrorists including suicide bombers. ‘When a man’s life is so degraded, he does not value it nor the lives of others’ is a much cited ‘truth’ amongst analysts seeking to determine the psyche of a suicide bomber.(9) Refugee camps are also regarded as a natural breeding ground for terrorists on the assumption that when a man has lost everything, he has nothing more to lose. Consequently progress in alleviating social and economic deprivation as well as ensuring freedom of political expression is essential to counter the will to resort to terrorising fellow human beings.

Religious terrorism

‘Our Muslim brothers throughout the world.. ..they are asking you to participate with them against their enemies, who are also your enemies – the Israelis and the Americans - by causing them as much harm as can be possibly achieved.’
Osama bin Laden. (10)

In the late 20th and early 21st century, the momentum behind acts of terrorism has been revitalised by the use of the Islamic religion to induct recruits to fight against the perceived enemy. The Afghan response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s was predicated on religious fervour. The Soviet Union was portrayed as a godless society and the Afghans (and Muslim sympathisers from neighbouring countries in the Middle East and North Africa who either assisted or contributed financially) were encouraged to fight a holy war or ‘jihad’ against the infidel. In their struggle, they were indulging in violent activity against their co-nationals defending the de facto Afghan government. However, the justness of their cause was accepted not only by their Muslim sympathisers but also by western governments; as a result, they were never referred to as terrorists (except by the Soviet Union) but always as ‘freedom fighters’ or ‘mujaheddin’ ( ‘soldiers of the holy war’).

But the introduction of a world-wide jihad by the Al Qaeda network as justification for acts of terror has complicated the sociological interpretations and made resolution much harder, firstly because the objective of the terrorist is less clear (what did the 9/11 suicide bombers believe they were achieving by attacking the World Trade Center?); secondly, because the use of religion, dependant on faith, provides a compulsion which neutralises reason. If a man, especially one who is poorly educated, is instructed to perform an act of violence to secure his place in Paradise, then he is less likely to undertake a thorough assessment of the rationale behind his action. Furthermore, these terrorists are no longer a group of disaffected individuals waging war within their respective nation states. Instead the acts of violence have become more indiscriminate in terms of location with the population of the United States and Britain as the main targets but embracing other nationalities as well (for example, in Spain and Bali) and also including, by accident rather than design, fellow Muslims.

What is also unusual is that the perpetrators, such as those who undertook the terrorist attacks on ‘9/11’ in the United States in 2001 and on ‘7/7’ in London in 2005 were not subject to social, political and economic deprivations as have been, for example, their counterparts in the Palestinian refugee camps; their material circumstances were also much more comfortable than their parents or older relatives. In addition, they enjoyed freedom of political expression and movement. Rather their motivation appears to have been fuelled by a feeling of alienation and hatred, embellished with the false assertion that ‘Islam is in danger’. Osama bin Laden’s demand for Jews and non-Muslims to leave all Muslim countries may be so wide sweeping as to be unrealisable, but its appeal amongst those who feel downtrodden is extremely compelling. In the present day, the character of ‘terrorism’ has altered so dramatically that it has become impossible to predict where and who the next targets will be. Sadly the western response is equally obtuse. As commentators have frequently derided, to instigate a war against an abstract noun fails to look concertedly at the causes of such deep hatred, nor to differentiate between the primary and secondary players.


To comprehend terrorism we have to understand what causes it. All acts of terror have to have some motivation; there has to be some objective; no one is born a terrorist; circumstances induce such behaviour. Political injustice is a major stimulant. Poverty, social deprivation and inequality as well as ignorance also assist. An individual can be turned into a terrorist if he is less educated because he needs only to be presented with certain ‘truths’, which childlike, he adopts in order to provide the required motivation. Once that truth has been accepted (for example, that the United States is the ‘Great Satan’), a terrorist will go unquestioning into battle. The use of religion as a convenient clarion call to inculcate the view that the perpetrators of acts of terror are engaged in a holy war avoids the need for political debate; it also means that the terrorist will more willingly sacrifice his/her own life and therefore be in a position to inflict maximum damage. In such situations, the terrorists are deaf to their own religious scholars who insist that terrorist activity in the name of Islam is an evil perversion of their faith.

It is no coincidence that repressive regimes which indulge in terror at a state level also incite acts of terror against them. The insurgency in Kashmir gained its largest number of recruits in the early 1990s following severe repression by the government of India of a mass political movement ( a mistake the Indian government later admitted). Israel’s repressive methods towards the Palestinians have polarised Arab-Israeli relations and drawn sympathy for the Palestinians from Muslims world-wide. Thus to eliminate or reduce acts of terror, the first step is to understand the cause. Dialogue with terrorists may appear to legitimise the use of indiscriminate violence, but understanding the sociological compulsions of terrorism is critical.




1 Bobby Sands, MP (1954-1981). Citation from his poem, The Rhythm of Time (Bobby Sands Trust). A member of the IRA and sentenced to 14 years in prison, he died in HM Maze Prison on hunger strike in May 1981.

2 George Washington (1732-1799),Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army which fought for independence against the British. Later 1st President of the United States.

3 Maqbool Butt, a militant activist in the valley of Kashmir who was caught by the Indian authorities and executed in Tihar Jail, 1984. see

4 Recent ‘wars of liberation’ have been fought in Acheh against the Indonesian government, in Assam, Jammu and Kashmir against the Indian government, in Chechnya against the Russian Federation and throughout Africa.

5 Menachem Begin (1913-1992), as quoted in Leader of the Zionist underground group Irgun, he was reponsible for bombing the British headquarters in the King David Hotel in 1946, killing 91 people. He was 6th Prime Minister of Israel

6 Yasser Arafat, (1929-2004), leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Chairman of the Palestinian Authority. He was called ‘an inveterate terrorist’ by his critics but hailed as the embodiment of the Palestinian cause by his supporters. BBC obituary, 11 November 2004.

7 ‘Pakistan’s “Che” sets deadline for Islamic state, The Times, January 17, 2001 Che Guevara (1928-1967). He was executed in Bolivia.

8 An exceptional case was the Indian government’s agreement to the demands of a group of militants who hijacked a plane en route from Nepal to India in December 1999.

9 ‘The threat of international terrorism to world peace in the 21st century’, International Conference, New Delhi, India, December 1998.

10 Osama bin Laden, leader of Al Qaeda, 23 August 1996, as quoted in Holy War Inc, Peter L. Bergen, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001, p. 103.


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