Why are some societies more exposed to terrorism than others? What are the common theories and hypotheses concerning the causes of terrorism? Published by the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, this paper surveys theories on the causes of terrorism, as well as those for explaining terrorism on an international or world system level of analysis.
Discussions about the causes of terrorism are controversial, with many people viewing the focus on underlying causes, motivation and grievance as implicit with justifying violence. A dispassionate outlook is required to understand the driving forces and devise effective long-term counter measures.
However, no comprehensive review of why some countries experience terrorism more than others, exist. Explanations are varied and disagreements occur. For example, psycho-pathological explanations for terrorism tend to divest terrorism of socio-economic and political motivations. While researchers agree that one of the characteristics of a terrorist is normality, psycho-pathological factors amongst group leadership can play a significant role. Other theories over the causes of terrorism include:
- Perceptions of deprivation and inequality, especially amongst culturally defined groups. This can lead to civil violence, of which terrorism may be a part. Terrorism represents social control from below, as attacks are directed upon targets symbolising central government or a superior community.
- A lack of political legitimacy and continuity, as well as a lack of integration for the political fringes, encourages ideological terrorism. The potential is exacerbated by ethnic diversity.
- Terrorism in one country can spillover into neighbouring areas. Mass media can influence the patterns of terrorism by enhancing agenda setting, increasing lethality and expanding the transnational character.
- A skewed gender balance and high proportion of unmarried males increases the association with intra-societal violence and instability. Political and criminally motivated violence is largely the work of young unmarried men.
- Windows of opportunity when terrorist violence can serve to influence opinion and resource. In the case of peace agreements, radical members of coalition groups resume and escalate hostilities to undermine confidence and prevent compromise, thus regaining the initiative and avoiding marginalisation.
- Hegemony in the international system by one or two actors will cause a high level of transnational anti-systematic terrorism as a war by proxy develops. Therefore, terrorism can represent a backlash against globalisation and modernisation.
Terrorism can occur in a variety of manners and instances. Terrorists may be deprived, uneducated, affluent and from both sexes. It can occur in developed and undeveloped countries, in a variety of regimes. It encompasses ideology and religion. Though what gives rise to terrorism may be different from what perpetuates terrorism over time. Societies that are more exposed tend to be:
- Poor societies with weak state structures. These are more exposed to civil wars than wealthier countries, and therefore the risk of terrorism increases.
- States engaged in democratic transition rather than democratic or authoritarian regimes. Levels of transnational terrorism are highest in semi-authoritarian states.
- Undergoing societal changes brought through modernisation. Thus creating the conditions for terrorism through mobility, communication, widespread targets and audiences.
- Weak and collapsed states that contribute to international terrorism. Ongoing or past wars can have terrorism motivations rooted within. Armed conflicts also have facilitating influences on transnational terrorism.