Although terrorism has a long history of use as a political tool, it has recently become an object of intense political and scholarly focus throughout the world, as acts of terror become increasingly frequent, dispersed, complex, innovative and unpredictable. This is especially true since 9/11, which ushered in a `new' era of terrorism characterised by elusive structures, competing or ambiguous ideologies, and often fanatic religiosity (Crenshaw 2000: 411-15). The rationality and utilitarianism of the new terrorism is less clear as it was in the days of terrorism characterised by nationalist insurgencies or Marxist ideologies. This is compounded by the mutating nature of the new terrorism. Today's terrorist movements may begin with one item on their agenda but add other items to the agenda over time, with the original rationale shifting as the movement evolves.
The complexity of today's terrorism plagues scholars, policy makers and politicians who seek to analyse and interpret terrorist behaviour in a way that facilitates understanding of terrorists and their activities. Often scholars continue to attempt to understand and explain terrorism in yesterday's terms, as a contained phenomenon driven by groups with single-issue ideologies. For other scholars who strive to find order within the seeming disorder of terrorism, the search for unifying theories is a great temptation. Some unifying theories focus on categorisation and classification of terrorist groups and their activities by focusing on their common structural features (see Knorr Cetina: 2005; Urry: 2002), while others focus on explanations for the underlying causes of terrorism. Strategists involved in creating short or longer-term counter-terrorist policies have relied on both types of analysis. Whilst structural analyses of terrorism have been somewhat successful and relatively free of controversy, they are often of limited practical use. Theories relating to the causes for terrorism may be of more benefit, however they attract considerable debate and will also continue to be of limited use if they do not take into account the diversity of terrorist phenomena.
In this essay I will deconstruct this diversity by examining some of the many types of terrorist activities and the reasons contributing towards their perpetration, and in the process reveal why terrorism is so varied as to be unsuited to rigid universalisations. That said however, I do agree with Albert Bandura's contention that terrorism is better understood as a `principled resort to destructiveness' than as an intrinsic impulse towards violence (Bandura 1990: 191). In arguing Bandura's thesis I will show how theses that dismiss terrorist individuals as abnormal are not only as flawed today as ever before, but more importantly increasingly irrelevant in the face of the new terrorism, which cannot be discerned in such one-dimensional terms. The caveat is that rationality for the terrorist may not be the same as rationality as we understand it, so that what may seem senseless or gratuitous to us may be of strategic logic to the terrorist in a way that we are not privy to or do not recognise.
Moving beyond Bandura's thesis, I believe that what is ultimately required is a more nuanced and holistic analysis such as that proposed by Victoroff (2005). Victoroff suggests that such an analysis should take into consideration the many varying factors that influence the terrorist individual or group's trajectory, including “innate factors, biological factors, early developmental factors, cognitive factors, temperament, environmental influences and group dynamics” (Victoroff 2005: 35). To this end he advises that productive research must aim at categorising and profiling sub-types of terrorism rather than creating universal theories for terrorism. It is my belief that without this approach we will continue to grope in the dark in our understanding of the sophisticated, innovative and elusory terrorism we are facing today.
In any discussion of terrorism, what must first be established is the author's working definition of the term. This is no easy task. As Martha Crenshaw has pointed out, terrorism defies simple definition and its conception is `deeply contested' (Crenshaw 2000: 406). Nevertheless a clear understanding of the word's meaning is imperative for setting the parameters of discussion and for facilitating clarity for the reader, and so this is where I shall initially focus my attention.
It is commonly understood that terrorism involves the perpetration of violence by small numbers of people against relatively small numbers of people, with the intention of creating disproportionate effects that will ultimately advance the political, social, ideological or religious objectives of the terrorists. David Whittaker adds that terrorists often undertake terrorist activities in order to gain media attention and publicity for their cause. (Whittaker 2004: 1-2). Terrorism appears to be primarily an activity that aims to influence governments and instil fear in society (U.S. Congressional Code, cited in Chomsky 2002: 16). Bandura notes that it does this by targeting civilians (Bandura 1990: 162). These causes, objectives and civilian targeting are what distinguishes terrorists from ordinary criminals, and account for most terrorists' readiness to lay claim to their actions.
Terrorism is generally a pre-meditated, well-planned and clandestine activity (Whittaker 2004: 1-2). Guerilla warfare may be very much like terrorism according to this definition, and indeed many guerilla movements have used terrorist strategies within their campaigns, as for example with Basque separatists and the revolutionary independence movements of the 1970s. However Crenshaw believes that there is a difference in that guerilla warfare is primarily militaristic, whereas terrorism is `pre-eminently…symbolic' and `meant to harm only a few… not to destroy' (Crenshaw 1990: 406). Bandura notes by contrast that terrorism is essentially destructive (Bandura 1990: 191). Paradoxically, the two positions are mutually compatible, because while terrorism uses destruction as a tool for influencing politics, it is generally not destructive for its own sake; the primary aim is intimidation rather than obliteration.
That said however, terrorism today is a different animal than in the past, and there are increasing instances when destruction appears to be an end in itself; the motives of the suicide-bomber and the apocalyptic group such as Aum Shinrikyo for example may be grounded in long-term cosmological objectives that justify such destruction. In addition the objectives of intellectual elites in a terrorist group may be esoteric and religiously motivated, while foot soldiers may have more tangible personal rewards or local concerns in mind as well when they commit terrorist acts, as we will later see.
Some religious terrorist groups are driven by a large number of varying concerns, motivations and interests. The Aum group for example was not only characterised by its belief in an impending apocalypse (and desire to expedite this apocalypse), but also by its paranoia, anti-Semitism, anarchism, criminality, political aspirations and internal culture of violence, piety, cult activities or rituals, and absolute obedience to its megalomaniacal cult leader Shoko Asahara (U.S. Senate 1995). The search for al-Qaeda's objectives, core-values and motivations can be equally elusive and baffling. While some of its members see their relationship with al-Qaeda in structural terms (“the base of operation”), other members prefer to think of al-Qaeda as a “precept” or “method” (Burke 2003: 18). With its evolution into a fragmented network of diverse members it has come to include differing and in many cases somewhat obscure objectives.
State violence against individual civilians has also been a sticky point in definitions of terrorism, with some avoiding it in their analyses and others advocating its inclusion (see Chomsky 2002; Williams 2004; Barker 1988). McCauley notes that in fact the first use of the term terrorism was in regard to state terrorism during the French Revolution, however he adds that today terrorism is usually understood as terror by non-state actors, and most particularly by non-state actors acting against recognised states (McCauley 2007: 14-15). Crenshaw agrees, labelling the violence of those in power as “violence from above” rather than terror (Crenshaw 1990: 406). Nevertheless, this is an unresolved and important point that I shall return to later in this essay. In the meantime my discussions will focus on sub-state terrorists and their activities.
In sum, terrorism as understood by most analysts is unsanctioned and pre-planned violence, perpetrated by small numbers of people against relatively small numbers of a civilian population as a form of political blackmail. Additionally, what distinguishes sub-state terrorists from ordinary criminals is the fact that their violence is a means to a political end and that they will therefore usually aim to attract media attention for their terrorist activities in order to publicise their cause. However `new' forms of terrorism such as al-Qaeda may not share all of these features and may be motivated by objectives that are not easily qualifiable.
Trajectory of explanations of terrorism
Now that I have outlined the parameters for discussion, the perplexing problem becomes how to identify the causes for an individual's path to terrorism and whether or not terrorists are rational, sane and principled. Laudably, valuable contributions to this discourse have come from academic fields as diverse as historiography, political science, linguistics, mathematics, and psychopathology. Unfortunately however, there has been tendency for unsubstantiated and pejorative psychological evaluations of terrorism to dominate the scholarship.
In the 1970s, terrorism was predominantly viewed as a manifestation of psychopathology. Later it came to be thought of as resulting from a propensity towards violence because of certain negative dispositions or personality traits within individual terrorists - a viewpoint that is a mutation of the pathology argument, and one that continues to have much influence today.
In more recent times terrorism has been analysed in less polarising terms by those who focus on the external factors that influence individuals to commit seemingly acts of terror. Productive research by scholars such as Victoroff (2005) has effectively identified how tangible grievances prime frustrated individuals and even societies for politicisation and for the temptation to join active political groups that offer solutions and courses of action. Crenshaw (1990) demonstrates how terrorist groups work their way up towards violence, and how once inside the terrorist group, members become susceptible to the powerful psychological forces of group dynamics. Bandura (1990) reveals how individuals use mechanisms of `moral disengagement' to desensitise themselves to the violent acts they commit as I will later explain. As Crenshaw argues, it is this interplay between individuals, groups and societies that leads to terrorist behaviour (Crenshaw 2000: 409).