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Essay: Terrorism – definition, evolution & root causes

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Defining Terrorism

The term terrorism is mired in a definitional quagmire. Although several definitions have been postulated by experts, policy makers and security agencies; no consensus has been reached. This lack of definition has rendered the term an “opportunistic appropriation” (Saul, 2008, P. 3); and an “essentially contested concept” – “concepts the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users” (Gallie, 1956, p. 169); resulting in quips like one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Between the 1970s and 80s, several studies were focused on arriving at a widely agreed upon definition of terrorism, however, the efforts were largely futile (Silke, 2004). Recognising the arduous nature of the task, Laqueur (1977) summarily suggested that the quest for an all-embracing definition of terrorism be abandoned. While, terrorism-focused studies seems to be on a decline, due in part to the limited number of experts in the field, and consequently, the volume of available literature, the number of conceptual papers focused on the definitional problem of terrorism has also been negligible. For instance Silke investigated articles published within a 10-year period (1990 – 1999), and found that only eight of the 490 articles used for the study were dedicated to resolving the definitional quagmire (Silke, 2004). Additionally, Weinberg, Pedahzur and Hirsch-Hoefler (2004) also remarked that only a few of the researchers in their study placed premium on the definition muddle (p. 782-783).

While, Silke (2004) had warned that the war-weariness exhibited by researchers regarding the terrorism definition challenge, needed to be surmounted (p. 208), others like Grob-Frizgibbon (2005) had indicated that arriving at a generally acceptable definition remained critical, especially in the post 9/11 environment. In addition, resolving the debate holds great benefits across the different layers of society. For instance, it would amount to a significant breakthrough in the theoretical advancement of the field of terrorism studies, and by extension positive outcomes for policy formation and legislation (Richards, 2014); aid in the understanding of the various shades and expressions of terrorism (Schmid, 2004a); curb terrorism (Schmid; 2004b); rein in the excesses of state apparatus in counterterrorism campaigns (Golder & William, 2004); and assist in the litigation process by delineating what counts as terrorism and who a terrorist is (Hodgson & Tadros, 2013). Resolving this debacle is also critical for addressing some of the challenges encountered by terrorism databases as well as their sources. Although most of the criticisms against the data sources are traceable to their methodologies, at the core lies the issue of definition. The question, then is, why has it been near impossible to arrive at a consensual definition of terrorism?

One of the principal challenges of the terrorism definition debacle is linked to the nature of the word itself. Terrorism as will be discussed on the next of section, has had varied implications, meaning and expressions overtime. The flexibility in the use of the word is akin to most socially constructed concepts, which are subject to bias and multiple interpretations by powerful social actors. Jackson, Jarvis, Gunning and Smyth (2011) have also noted that arriving at a fixed definition of terrorism would be paradoxical, and would rid it of its “ontologically unstable” feature (p. 119). Yet, Richard (2014) had argued that the adoption of a generally acceptable definition remains crucial, especially one that would represent the current expressions of terrorism. However, his claim that terrorism-based literature in the past 40 years had signified “that terrorism entails the intent to generate a wider psychological impact beyond the immediate victims” (p. 219) is in direct conflict with Weinberg, Pedahzur and Hirsch-Hoefler’s (2004) findings, where the pundits observed that lesser emphasis was placed on the psychological component of terrorism, due to the non-observable nature of the phenomenon.

Another challenge confronting the definition of terrorism is probably linked to the various contexts in which the word is applied. For example, Schmid’s (2004a) article: Frameworks for conceptualising terrorism, described the various contexts in which terrorism is applied: “crime, politics, war, propaganda and religion” (p. 197). Although the author presented five conceptual lenses for examining terrorism, which would contribute to a robust understanding of the concept. He, however, also noted the limitation of the framework, as not being all-encompassing. This suggests that the breath of application of the concept, opens it up to several interpretations and thus, serves as another obstacle to the adoption of a unitary definition. Still on the subject of the various contextualisation of terrorism, Santiago Ballina refuted the existence of a clear cut distinction between crime and terror, a dichotomous relationship where crime are regarded as mainly profit – and terrorism as ideologically-driven (Ballina, 2011). The author’s CVO three-dimensional model, however, highlights the possible existence of hybrid organisations that could alternate between profit and ideology, due primarily to their social cultural environment (pp. 130-131).

According to Lizardo (2008), other inhibiting factors to the emergence of a unified definition are results of some of the already existing definitions of the concept proffered by authors in the field. Lizardo asserted that the extant definitions fall within the ambience of vagueness or over specificity; place salience on some terrorism elements or the various groups that execute acts of terror (p. 91). Considering the broad frame of violent groups that employ this tactic, arriving at a definition would be challenging. For Grob-Frizgibbon (2005), some of the definitions are too inclusive (p. 235), while neglecting the vast applicability of the strategy as well as the distinctions between the groups that adopt the approach. According to the author, the all-embracing nature of the definition of terrorism, does not account for the differences in state – and sub-state terrorism; as well as the distinctions between the objectives of the diverse categories of sub-state terrorism (national, revolutionary, reactionary and religious terrorisms) (p. 236).

The border and membership (BM) and stretching and travelling (ST) problems of the terrorism concept as expounded by Weinberg, Pedahzur and Hirsch-Hoefler (2004, p. 778-779) to a large extent sum up the challenges that may have contributed to the lack of a generally accepted definition. Regarding the BM, the authors highlighted the difficulties in distinguishing terrorism from other forms of political violence, such as insurgencies, guerrilla warfare, and civil wars. Terrorism also encounters literal and analytical STs. While literal STs are a product of the author’s geographical or psychological distance from the terrorist act, which ultimately determines what event is tagged a terrorist act, or an uprising; analytical STPs occur as a result of over generalisation of the concept. Collier and Mahon described it as follows:

When scholars take a category developed for one set of cases and extend it to additional cases, the new cases may be sufficiently different that the category is no longer appropriate in its original form. If this problem arises, they may adapt the category by climbing the ladder of generality, thereby obeying the law of inverse variation. As they increase the extension, they reduce the intension to the degree necessary to fit the new contexts (Collier & Mahon, 1993, p. 846).

Thus, on the one hand, terrorism could stretch to the point of abstraction or require the invention of a new word that would represent a broader set of actions (Weinberg, Pedahzur and Hirsch-Hoefler (2004, p. 779).

Irrespective of these challenges and in recognition of the vast range of benefits which a consensual definition of terrorism would yield, scholars have continued to explore different approaches towards combating the definition menace. Although, no consensus has been reached, the efforts by the authors have yielded some degree of success. On the one hand are authors who emphasise the psychological element of terrorism, on the other are those, who recognise the empirical deficiency of such a route and have adopted, safer, observable components in crafting their definitions. An examination of two separate studies will serve to elucidate these differences, as well as highlight the merits and demerits of each stance. The researcher’s expression of terrorism as a politically motivated tactic involving the use or threat of violence, with the primary purpose of generating a psychological impact beyond the immediate victims or object of attack in which the pursuit of publicity plays a significant role, is a product of the merits of the definitions proposed by the authors in these studies.

Towards resolving the 30-year terrorism definition conflict, Weinberg, Pedahzur and Hirsch-Hoefler (2004) compared Schmid’s definition, (see excerpt below), a product of a survey in which 22 definitional elements were identified in the 109 definitions of terrorism retrieved from 200 participants; to the application of the concept in three terrorism-based academic journals: Terrorism, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, and Terrorism and Political Violence. Of the 22, Weinberg, Pedahzur and Hirsch-Hoefler (2004) observed that only 16 elements appeared in Schmid’s definition (p. 780).

Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual group, or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal, or political reasons, whereby – in contrast to assassination – the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat – and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organisation), (imperilled) victims, and main target (audiences (s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought (Schmid & Jongman, 1988, p. 28)

For their study, Weinberg, Pedahzur and Hirsch-Hoefler selected 73 definitions from the 55 articles and compared these to Schmid’s (1988) 22 elements. The exercise yielded mixed results. For example, while some components such as the psychological elements of terrorism were in decline (41.5% to 5.5%), probably due to the absence of contributors from the field of psychology; the authors of the articles in the three journals made no variations between terrorist targets, that is – “combatants and non-combatants” or the “immediate target and wider audience” (p. 782). However, certain traits remained prevalent across both studies, and were used by the authors to generate another definition: “terrorism is a politically motivated tactic involving the threat or use of force or violence in which the pursuit of publicity plays a significant role” (p. 782).

The significant achievement of the trio lay in the ability to adopt observable and measurable terrorism components in designing their definition of terrorism. Thus, a remarkable achievement for research in the field of terrorism, especially media-related terrorism research as a result of the renewed focus on the publicity component, an element, which has remained relatively constant across both studies (p. 781).

However, in line with Sartori’s (1970) assertion that “the rules for climbing and descending along a ladder of abstraction are thus very simple rules ….We make a concept more abstract and more general by lessening its properties or attributes …” (p. 1041), the definition by the trio, may have lost one of the core ingredients of terrorism – the psychological impact. The trio had, however, explained that the reduction in salience accorded the psychology element, is not unconnected to the temporal differences from Schmid’s study. They also suggested that the writers of the published articles, which they used for their study may have adopted definitions that reflected the expressions of fourth wave terrorism, as opposed to third wave terrorism, which was in operation during Schmid’s study.

Furthermore, the authors had also noted that the country of origin of journal contributors also played a role in their choice of definition elements. For example, an examination of the “civilian” and “fear” definitional elements by authors from Middle East (ME), Western Europe (WE) and North America (NA) showed marked differences. While experts from the ME had a 0% civilian component, 50% included fear in their definitions. Contrarily, WE and NA authors had a 40% and 20% civilian element and 20% and 17% highlighted the fear component respectively. This to some extent confirms Drake’s (1989) assertion regarding the nature of the definition of terrorism, when he argued that no singular definition can sufficiently capture the meaning of the word. Thus, the word is open to the subjective interpretations of speakers depending on their cultural, political or social leaning (p. xiv).

Richard (2014) study approached terrorism as a mode of violence, appropriated by different groups, states, and ideologies. His definition of terrorism is a product of three key assumptions:

a. No act of violence “is in and of itself inherently terrorist” (p. 222).

According to the author, terrorist’s events are products of a host of violence-based techniques such as bombing, kidnapping for ransom, theft, hostage taking, and more. These approaches are not unique to terrorist organisations, but are also employed by different groups, from social movements to ‘legitimate’ states. However, the techniques adopted become terrorist, only when layers of meaning are applied.

b. Terrorism as a method of violence is vastly applied across groups, causes and ideologies (p. 224).

Terrorism as a method of violence relates to the end-game of a particular act of violence, which is mainly to terrorise; not the specific techniques adopted. The author asserted, therefore, that since this method has been adopted by different groups, there is a need to distinguish terrorist groups, from groups that employ the strategy.

c. Terrorist attacks are not only targeted at civilians or non-combatants (p. 226)

Terrorists attack just about anyone, at times of peace or warfare, as long as the victims or object of attack serve sufficiently as message generators to a wider group or audience.

He conceptualised terrorism thus: “the use of violence or the threat of violence with the primary purpose of generating a psychological impact beyond the immediate victims or object of attack for a political motive” (p. 230)

While Richard’s definition included the psychological component, an element, which for many is a core definer of terrorism, it still had not met the criteria for scientific definitions. This is especially because intent cannot be readily empirically determined. According to De la Roche (2004)

That others may use the term terrorism pejoratively-or that violent actors or their opponents may like or dislike the word-is irrelevant to a scientific definition of the phenomenon. A definition is not a value judgment and cannot be evaluated from a moral or ideological point of view. And because it is a conceptual rather than a factual or explanatory statement, a definition cannot be evaluated as right or wrong. Instead we evaluate a scientific definition solely by its usefulness in the ordering of facts (p. 1)

Opposing this view, Richard (2014) had maintained that since terrorists measure their success based on the degree of psychological impact their actions trigger, ridding the definition of terrorism of this core component would be counterproductive, despite the obvious challenge.

The Evolution of Terrorism

Several authors have presented different accounts on the origins of terrorism. While Munson (2008) linked the genesis of the word to the late eighteenth century French Revolution, a period when absolute monarchical structures were overturned and replaced by liberal democracies; Silke (2004) suggested that terrorism has been expressed in different formats for over 2,000 years (p. 209). Albeit, within the larger body of literature on the history of terrorism, there are two distinct debates. The first category consist of authors such as Lesser et al. (1999); Zanini and Edwards (2001); Hoffman (2006); and Neumann (2009) who make clear distinctions between old and new forms of terrorism. For instance, Zanini and Edwards (2001) described newer terrorist groups that have adopted principles captured in Arquilla and Ronfeldt’s Netwar – “an emerging mode of conflict and crime at societal levels, involving measures short of traditional war in which the protagonists are likely to consist of dispersed, small groups who communicate, coordinate, and conduct their campaigns in an internetted manner, without a precise central command” (p. 30). The second, are those who ignore this difference, and argue that the various expressions of terrorism are interlaced and operate in a continuum Copeland (2001); Tucker (2001); and Crenshaw (2008). According to Copeland (2001), “terrorism seems to be returning to its historical roots in many ways” (p. 102).

Authors who emphasise the dichotomy between old and new forms of terrorism, usually draw on the seminal work of David Rapoport’s titled the four waves of modern terrorism. Rapoport’s (2004) waves were an analogy highlighting the different terrorist groups that have emerged over time, as well as the strategies employed, and the principal targets of these groups. His study revealed that there were four distinct waves of terrorism, lasting approximately 40 years per period (See Table 1).

Table 1

Waves of Terrorism/

Time frame / Key Technique

  • Anarchist (1870 – 1910) Assassination/Robbery
  • Nationalist (1920s – 1960s) Guerilla warfare
  • Marxist (1960s – 1980s) Hijacking/Kidnapping/Assassination
  • Religious (1970s – 2020s) Suicide Bombing

Rasler and Thompson’s (2009) study, which employed the International Terrorism: Attributes of Terrorist Events (ITERATE) data between 1968 and 2004, confirmed Rapoport’s (2004) wave theory; by noting that terrorism waves tend to lapse with the passage of time, while making room for the emergence of newer groups. Weinberg and Eubank’s (2010), inquiry into the likely demise of fourth wave terrorism also confirmed Rapoport’s stance. They concluded that although terrorism founded on religious ideologies tended to have an extended time frame, heightened religious consciousness also faded with time. Apart from the alternating phases of religious thrills, increased counterterrorism efforts by the state; the nature of terrorist groups; and loss of mass support could also contribute to the demise of the current wave of terrorism.

Yet, there are experts who have on one hand queried the number of waves identified in Rapoport’s study. For instance, Thompson (2006) noted two other terrorism waves prior to Rapoport’s Anarchism, and Sedgwick’s (2007) work, while incorporating elements from previous studies, identified alternative time frames and sued for a relabelling of the waves thus: Italian, German, Chinese and Afghanistan, representing the hotspots for each of the waves. On the other hand, Proshyn (2015) has summarily dismissed the utility of wave theories in the light of European Jihadism. The author had argued that the rise of homegrown terrorism cannot be singularly traced to the Iranian Revolution [the key driver of Rapoport’s fourth wave terrorism], while ignoring present day societal issues such as “xenophobia, social frustration and alienation” that pose serious challenges in Europe (p. 105).

Although the crux of the present study is far removed from the debate on wave theories, Rapoport’s perspective has been adopted to aid future analysis. Apart from its application, adoption and confirmation by several studies; the theory will aid conversations in this work since it highlights the mutation of terrorism overtime as well as the differences in applied techniques and targets.

The first expressions of modern terrorism around the late eighteenth century represented the efforts of those who sought to depose the existing autocratic political structures. Crushing empires and self-determination/decolonisation were the end game for terrorists. During this era, the rich and powerful, not civilians, were the major targets, and the rules of war were to a great extent upheld by the conflicting parties (Laqueur, 1998a). However, today, at the core of this new wave of terror lies fanaticism (Laqueur, 1998b), and conflict strategies styled after Lind, Nightengale, Schmitt, Sutton and Wilson’s (1989), fourth generation warfare. The authors had envisioned that as opposed to the previous three epochs of warfare, fourth generation warfare would be

widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants’ depth, including their society as a cultural, not just physical entity (p. 23).

Today’s terrepreneurs embark on large and small scale campaigns executed by established organisations or single individuals; target the military, civilians and non-combatants; and summon a vast range of audiences beyond their immediate targets. Furthermore, the effectiveness of their crusades are reinforced by advancements in technology; their ability to attract extensive media coverage; and the attention-grabbing techniques such as suicide bombing, which they readily employ.

According to Rathborne & Rowley (2002), terrorist organisations can either be “geographically concentrated and culturally and politically homogeneous” (p. 2) such as the Irish republican Army (IRA), Hamas, Hezbollah, The Shining Path; or “geographically dispersed and culturally and politically diverse” (p. 2) like Al Qaeda and the Islamic state (ISIS). Michael (2014), while addressing a similar subject, makes a distinction between well-structured organisations like Hezbollah, Hamas and Al Qaeda; which operate based on established hierarchical structures; and lone wolfs – made up of single individuals or a smaller number of persons, who though are guided by the ideological stances of these structured organisations, execute their missions without recourse to any unitary chain of command (pp. 45-46), also known as “leaderless resistance” (Kaplan, 1997, p. 80). Both categories have demonstrated capacity to unleash unprecedented terror not just to their immediate targets, but also to the host of audiences, who through the aid of technology are able to visualise, and therefore, spread the message of terrorists. This is as analysed in Luke Howie’s work witnessing terrorism. Howie (2015), with reference to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, which resulted in the deaths of about 3,000 persons, economic losses to the tune of over two trillion dollars (Rathborne & Rowley, 2002, p. 8) as well as a protracted war on terror; argued that the target audience of terrorists were those who were actively watching and listening. The author argued that for their tradecraft to be successful, contemporary terrorists capitalise on the hyper-mediated ecosystem to attract an unending flow of witnesses, spanning across diverse geographical divides, as a signalling strategy to their opponents.

Kydd and Walter (2006) identified changes in regime, territory, policy, social control and/or status quo maintenance as the prime objectives of terrorist campaigns (p. 52), reasons which are similar to Hoffman’s (2006) claim regarding political change as the ultimate objectives of terrorists. However, Morgan (2004) noted that there are differences between religious terrorists, that is, terrorists who kill in the name of god; and other groups that are affiliated to religious ideologies, but have political change as their sole objective. This is also in line with Laqueur’s (2003) stance that there are several types of terrorist organisations, including the Islamic strand, as exemplified by Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, and Boko Haram.

Religion as a motive for demonstrating violent behaviour is not new. In fact, according to Rapoport, before the rise of anarchists and nationalists who employed terror for the purposes of self-determination; religion served as the primary motivator for terrorism, and according to Cavanaugh (2004) “killing in the name of God is the only type of killing that could be legitimate” (p. 510). Yet, Hoffman (1995) creates a distinction between secular and religious terrorists and argued that while secular terrorists represent the cause of the disadvantaged within a societal framework; religious terrorists do not necessary represent a distinct population, which propels their propensity towards unleashing unfettered terror. Taheri (1987) has also outlined three key features of Islamic terrorism (IT) that sets it apart from other types of terrorism. Apostles of IT stand in opposition to other ideologies. They perpetrate violence as an act of holy war, which will come to end in the face of complete victory against unbelievers. They consider killing of infidels as service to god, a most worthy cause for individuals and a principal component of state policy (pp. 7-8).

Terrorism Databases: A Brief Assessment

The 2015 Global Terrorism Index (GTI), which relies on data generated from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response’s (START) Global Terrorism Database (GTD), indicated an increase from 3,329 in 2000 to 32,685 in 2014 in terrorism related deaths. In 2014, 78 percent of the deaths occurred in Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria (Institute for Economics and Peace, 2015, p. 2). Although the data from the GTD has been criticised due to its methodologies. For instance, the GTD generates data from news reports, which are influenced by a variety of factors, from ownership to their ecosystem. In addition, the different news sources could report conflicting information. Therefore, it is difficult to determine which report is factual (Chalabi, 2016, para. 4). The GTD like the other terrorism databases such as the Patterns of Global Terrorism Report (PGTR), Terrorism in Western Europe (TWEED), International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (IPIC), RAND-St. Andrew’s Chronology of International Terrorist Incidents, and the International Terrorism: Attributes of Terrorist Events (ITERATE); have also been criticised. For example, the TWEED present terrorism data for only a section of the world – Western Europe. Although Blomberg and Hess (2006) claimed that the RAND data was almost as good as ITERATEs’, they also observed that the RAND’s domestic terrorism dataset was incomplete – it holds information between 1998 and 2003 on domestic terrorism. Secondly, like the IPIC, the RAND’s dataset is also limited by time. The IPIC contains information from 1987, and the RAND from 1968 (p. 7-11). Yet the ITERATE contains only data on transnational terrorism (Sheehan, 2012). These shortfalls to a great extend limit their functionality for research in general or more specifically, for comparative analyses on terrorism related discourses, and by extension for policy. This is as evidenced in the opprobrium surrounding GTD’s flawed data on suicide terrorism. Pape, Ruby, Bauer and Jenkins (2014) had not only questioned GTD’s methodology, but had highlighted its implication on government policy. But, again considering most of the terrorism databases rely on similar sources for data (Sheehan, 2012), the usefulness of the datasets is subject to the specific enquiries. For instance, both Sandler and Enders (2004) and Blomberg and Hess (2006) found the dataset on ITERATE useful for their transnational terrorism focused studies. However, with respect to this study, which focuses on Boko Haram, a domestic terrorist group in Nigeria, the GTD would be more reliable. Generally, the GTD contains more terrorist attacks, over 150,000 cases between 1970 and 2015, as well as information on domestic terrorists including Boko Haram. Records on the GTD site indicated 1842 Boko Haram related events between July 2009 and 2015 (GTD, 2016).

The “Root Causes” of Terrorism

Terrorism is an age-long tradition. In fact Laqueur (2004) remarked that: “it is as old as the hills” (p. 49). However, like the concept, which is essentially contested, the root causes of the menace has remained at the centre of various debates primarily due to the upsurge in acts of terror, as well as the role such an understanding will play in counterterrorism efforts around the globe. Schmid (2005) had noted that one of the reasons for express knowledge on the where, why and how of terrorism is as a result of the contested nature of terrorism. For example, theorists that define terrorism as behaviours exhibited by non-state actors towards resolving political conflicts, would most likely associate the root causes of terrorism to the behaviour of the other parties [the state or state-sponsored actors] in the conflict. This also means that the researcher’s definition of terrorism as a politically motivated tactic involving the use or threat of violence, with the primary purpose of generating a psychological impact beyond the immediate victims or object of attack in which the pursuit of publicity plays a significant role – an amalgam of Weinberg, Pedahzur, & Hirsch-Hoefler’s (2004)and Richard’s (2014) definitions; would entail among others, an examination of the role of publicity agents such as the mass media in the causality framework. Newman (2006) identified another reason. The author argued that although the concept of root causes – the existence of a causal relationship between the social, cultural, economic, development and demographic compositions of specific locations [independent variables] and the incidence of terrorism and/or the emergence of terrorists [dependent variable] (Schmid, 2005, p. 129) – is intuitively sound, providing concrete evidence for such a stance methodologically, is quite challenging (749). Although some have decided to tackle the issue from this intuitive standpoint, thus dismissing any form of rigorous investigation, some others have tried to establish this causal link. This phase of the study explores both strands by analysing the various political and economic perspectives of the root causes of terrorism as espoused by authors in the field.

Certain factors, though lacking concrete empirical evidence have been identified as possible triggers of terrorism. Typical examples of such factors were identified by the participants of a conference organised by the International Peace Academy (IPA) [now International Peace Institute] in partnership with the United Nations and the Government of Norway in 2003:

inequalities of power creating incentives for recourse to asymmetrical warfare tactics and creating resentment of foreign intervention or repression; failures of state capacity and control; non-democratic, illegitimate or corrupt government; alienation of social groups by the state; rapid modernization or the experience of social injustice or discrimination; and a culture of violence and extremist ideology and leadership (IPA 2003, as cited in Malone 2005, p. lviii).

Munson (2008) argued along similar lines. In the words of the author, “organisations choose terrorism only when they or the populations they claim to represent have been previously subjected to significant violence by the state” (p. 78). However, this condition unassisted does not necessarily result in the eruption of terrorist campaigns. According to him, two other conditions further contribute to the rise of opposition forces. Firstly, terrorism is most likely to occur when large sections or subgroups within the society feel repressed and excluded from the political process. Secondly, the tendency for a terrorist group to adopt extreme violence is contingent upon their degree of international affiliation. For his part, Morgan (2004) pointed to economic inequalities between the richer and poorer nations, as well as the globalisation-enabled erosion of traditional forms of living; as some of the political factors that may have led to the exacerbation of terrorist activities. The author also noted that the paradigm shift from rigid and hierarchical based organisations to smart business organisations may have also impacted on the structure and tactics of terrorists. The author further alluded to the role of technology in the terror incidence index.

The claims made by the Munson (2008) and Morgan (2004) are not so different from the popular discourses on the subject of root causes. However, on closer examination, especially with respect to contemporary terrorist activities, these reasons are not generalizable. For instance, not all terrorist organisations are a product of state violence and not all subalterns consider terrorism as an alternative. These positions can thus be summed as being simplistic and cannot represent the why and how of terrorism in all instances. But again, the shortfalls in their perspectives, could also be linked to their specific definition of terrorism.

In addition, in the specific cases cited above, the authors may have taken for granted the diverse categories of terrorists, for example: sympathisers [those who agree with the ideological and political perspectives of terrorists, but do not enrol as members or participate in terrorist activities]; active terrorists [bona fide members of terrorist groups]; and suicidal terrorists [those who die in the name of god] (Caplan, 2006, p. 93); the origin or target terrorism; and the types of terrorism that is transnational [terrorist events involving citizens of more than one country] (Sandler and Enders, 2004) or domestic terrorism [terrorist activities carried out by citizens of a country when the terrorist activity occurred].

The studies examined in the next section have empirically factored in these parameters. Although, no consensus have been reached on the root causes of terrorism, the findings of the various authors are highly informative with respect to creating an empirical based understanding of the meaning of root causes. They have also contributed to the field by providing methodological alternatives, rather than an all-size-fits-all understanding of root causes.

Root causes: Empirical evidences

In line with the scientific principles of causality, the root causes of terrorism suggests the existence of a causal relationships between the social, cultural, economic, development and demographic compositions of specific locations [independent variables] and the incidence of terrorism and/or the emergence of terrorists [dependent variable] (Schmid, 2005, p. 129). This position, if effective, could provide support for understanding the where, why and how of terrorist activities and could also determine the efficacy of counterterrorism efforts.

Based on this understanding, several scholars have undertaken projects aimed at investigating relationships between certain economic conditions and terrorism. These efforts have yielded mixed results. For example, poor socio-economic conditions have been fingered as an oxygen for terrorist activities. This is because, in poor countries, there are no sufficient resources to cater for the educational, health, employment and other material needs of the people. This could be owing to poor leadership or the prevalence of corruption. According to O’Neill, 2002) “poverty of resources, combined with poverty of prospects, choices and respect, help enable terrorism to thrive” (p. 9). However, Hassan’s (2001) work, which entailed interviewing around 250 terrorists and their sympathisers, dedicated to the Palestinian cause from 1996 to 1999, revealed that educational qualification was a requirement for recruitment. According to the author, all the suicide bombers interviewed were neither illiterate nor poor (para. 14). Another study by Krueger and Maleckova (2003) also came to a similar conclusion, as they found limited evidence for any direct relationship between poverty and terrorism (p. 119).

Additionally, Kreiger and Meierrieks’ (2011) study which entailed an examination of some empirical research on the subject, further highlights the prevalence of mixed findings regarding the root cause-terrorism linkage. Firstly, the authors identified the global hypothesis (GH) as postulated by pundits in the field that highlight the relevance of certain elements in the determination of terrorism. The authors also indicate the various expressions of these GH as well as their measurement parameters (see Table 1).

Tests carried out on each of the global hypothesis when applied to Origins of Transnational Terrorism (OTT) or Targets of Transnational Terrorism (TTT) have produced mixed results. For example, regarding the economic deprivation hypothesis (GH1), which questions whether terrorists originate from economically poor countries or if these countries are suitable targets for terrorism, research on OTT as indicated in studies by Lai (2007), and Blomberg and Hess (2008) have affirmed that countries with high GDP per capital are less prone to producing terrorists. However, Krueger and Maleckova (2003); Kurrild-Klitgaard, Justesen and Klemmensen (2006); Basuchoudhary and Shugart (2010); Plumper and Neumayer (2010); and Freytag, Kruger, Meierrieks and Schneider (2011) reported a limited relationship between OTT and the economic status of countries. The various findings suggest that at best, there is only a weak link between how economically poor a country is and the likelihood of the emergence of terrorists from the country. A typical example are the various incidents of lone wolf terrorists in Europe and the United States of America, economies that are very stable. Also, some of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were from the oil-rich Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate.

On TTT, and with respect to the role of the political and institutional order prevalent in a country, Blomberg, Hess and Weerapana (2004); Blomberg and Hess (2006, 2008); and Eubank and Weinberg (2001) observed that the likelihood of terrorist attacks on democratic societies are higher. Yet, on the other hand, Koch and Cranmer (2007) and Plumper and Neumayer (2010) found no such relationship.

Although Krieger and Meierrieks’ (2011) examination of extant literature on the determinants of terrorism provided more support for the role of the institutional framework of countries as opposed to economic conditions, their focus on only transnational terrorism may have skewed these findings (Sanchez-Cuenca & Calle, 2009) and failed to provide the necessary explanations for the lack of an “empirical mainstream” (p. 4) for the diverse manifestations of terrorism. Newman (2006) provided a more detailed explanation, one that debunks any all-embracing linear relationship between root causes and terrorism in general.

Newman’s (2006) article was aimed at elucidating the meaning of root causes, and proffering alternative methodologies at examining the relationship between these root causes and terrorism. Although the author alluded to the existence of root causes, he categorised them as condition variables (permissive conditions); Independent Variables (direct conditions); and Intervening variables (catalytic conditions), a combination of which, could produce the dependent variable – terrorism (p. 764). This also provided a possible explanation for the lack of a direct causal link between condition variables such as poverty, urbanisation, population and unemployment and the dependent variable, terrorism.

Newman (2006) also explored other methodological routes in explaining the role of root causes in terrorism by shifting focus from the targets of terrorists to the terrorist organisations themselves towards unravelling any existing themes in terrorism. In Case A, the author focused on terrorist organisations in general. Domestic or transnational, based on data provided by the United States Department and the European Union list (p. 762). Although the lists were not exhaustive, he noted that examining terrorists groups as a single cache yielded limited findings, due to the inherent differences in their “background, composition, objectives and social base” (p. 762). Case B, entailed an examination of the locales from which the terrepreneurs emerged and were located. The data retrieved from the National Memorial Institute for the prevention of terrorism (MIPT) in this instance revealed four distinct patterns. These organisations were all found in countries at the lower rung of the human development index scale; weak political and civil liberties and they had a larger youthful population. The author, however noted that some of these organisations such as Al Qaeda have cells around the globe, thus cannot be associated to a particular country. Case C involved a case analysis, an examination of a specific terrorist organisation so that conclusions could be drawn based on the unique elements of that particular organisation and its location.

Newman’s (2006) case analysis may have solved the root causes riddle, owing to the idea that generalisation cannot be made due to the contested nature of the definition of terrorism as well as the methodological pitfalls in embarking on such an enterprise. The author noted that adopting such an approach held a number of benefits including the avoidance of statistically poor generalisations. This approach would also enhance the production of robust narrative, thus showcasing “how root causes relate to other factors in a concrete sense” (p. 768).


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