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Causes of terrorism is varied

A Relook at the Spectre of Terrorism in Modern Times


Terrorism affects us all. It exerts a deep psychological impact on the mind of the perpetrator as well as the victim. It leaves behind in its aftermath shattered economy, a petrified populace and the state vowing to bring the perpetrators to account. Having said that, terrorism is a complex phenomenon which requires an in-depth examination and analysis of its nature, its different forms, geographical coverage, the contemporary debates on terrorism, the political objectives and the ideology of terrorists, whether religion and a chronic sense of injustice leads individuals to commit acts of terrorism etc. This research paper will look into these issues in an in-depth manner. It focuses on the nature of terrorism, its types, causes, doing in the process an anatomy of what the phenomenon of terrorism actually is. Lastly the research paper will deal with different effective strategies to deal with the menace of terrorism on a national and transnational basis and how nation states can deal with terrorism in an integrated manner.


Terrorism is one of the most dangerous malice that is afflicting humankind today. It knows no border, no country, no region etc. It only seeks to destroy and bring about mayhem and death. Terrorism defies traditional notions, day by day it is becoming innovative in its nature and scope, it is acquiring new forms, new shapes and is morphing into manifestations which hitherto were unseen and is becoming more lethal. In that context it is absolutely essential that a definition of terrorism is understood.

Ken Booth and Tim Dunne, in their book Worlds in Collision have given the following definition:

Terrorism is a method of political action that uses violence (or deliberately produces fear) against civilians and against civilian infrastructure in order to influence behaviour, to inflict punishment or to exact revenge. For the perpetrators, the point is to make the target group afraid of today, afraid of tomorrow and afraid of each other. Terrorism is not an ideology but an act. Its instruments are assassination, mass murder, hijacking, bombing, kidnapping and intimidation. Such acts can be committed by states as well as private groups.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the domestic investigative agency of the US government offers to distinct definition of terrorism-

International terrorism: Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups who are inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored).

Domestic terrorism: Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.

Nature and Types

Terrorism by nature is purely a political act which is given revolutionary, religious, social or other characters by the perpetrators. Terrorism is primarily directed at the civilian population as they are the least able to defend themselves. The purpose behind harming civilians and damaging civilian infrastructure is to send messages to the state and the incumbent political regimes that the terrorists mean business and want to establish their idea of a society, socio-political institutions and an economy which is considered as the right kind by them.

Terrorism’s goal is to ‘alleviate’ human suffering and bring a paradigm change in the society, country etc by committing acts of violence even if it leads to the death of innocents, sometimes in the hundreds and thousands. Having said that, it is important to take a look at the different types of terrorism and its forms-

State terrorism- when the state uses methods such as committing mass murder, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings with the intention of terrorising either the entire populace or a substantial section of it for the purpose of ruling without any opposition or minimum dissent is known as state terrorism. History is replete with examples of state terrorism. The totalitarian state of Nazi Germany is the quintessential epitome of a state using terror methods. The final solution followed by the holocaust- the systematic extermination of over six million Jewish people inter alia prisoners of war, mentally challenged, gays, bisexuals etc by ghastly means such as the use of gas chambers, firing squads, sick medical experiments conducted by doctors etc serve as a reminder that the state can use these and other terror methods to instil a sense of fear among the population.

Other examples include the recent crackdown on opposition parties and people rallying for the cause of democracy in Myanmar. Over a thousand people have killed in the ensuing crackdown. The Myanmar military uses tactics such as burning villages, bombing cities and executing political opponents to eliminate opposition. The Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia and Stalinist rule in Soviet Russia from 1924-1953 also saw communist regimes using terror tactics.

Revolutionary terrorism- the procedures and methods used by freedom fighters to fight against a repressive colonial and imperialist regime in power which involves the targeted assassination of officials and people who collaborate with the regime out of monetary gains,  destroying or substantially monuments, buildings etc which are considered symbols of the colonial regime is known as revolutionary terrorism. Terrorism by adopting revolutionary means is not a recent phenomenon, it dates back to the days of the Russian nihilists, the Bolsheviks were experts in the use of revolutionary terrorist methods and that was one of the reasons for the downfall of the Tsarist regime followed by the Kerensky regime. Other examples include the tactics used by Irish Republican Army against the British mainland in order to successfully orchestrate the secession of Ireland from Great Britain.

Religiously inspired terrorism-an important yet highly controversial type of terrorism is the one inspired by religion. It has been debated by intellectuals, nation states, civil society and other institutions whether religion exhorts individuals to commit acts of terrorism. While there is no straight answer it is clear that religion continues to act as a potent source of terrorism.  The Middle East, South Asia, Western Africa are considered some of the hotbeds of terrorist activity. USA and even Europe now has borne the brunt of this type of terrorism. Al Qaeda, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant all operate on the diabolical principles of Wahabbism and Salafism geared towards to the objective of eliminating the Dar-Al-Harb (land of infidels and impurity) and establishing in its place Dar-Al-Islam (land of purity). In India such religiously inspired terrorism is found in the form of Khalistani propaganda along with Islamism.

Having said that it is absolutely essential to note that no religion teaches its true followers to murder or persecute people who do not adhere to their version of religion or are atheists or agnostics. It is only due to certain fringe elements that deliberately distort the purity of any religion and spread hatred and sow the seeds of division and perpetuating their divisive agendas.

Proxy terrorism- A state sponsoring particular groups to be used in a proxy war through financing, training, logistical support to injure interests of the adversary is known as proxy terrorism. Iran and Pakistan are two countries which have acquired an infamous reputation for proxy groups to harm and destabilize countries, India in the case of Pakistan and Lebanon, Iraq and Israel in the Middle East by Iran. Iran’s proxy groups are especially noteworthy- Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in West Bank and Palestine respectively. States may sponsor terrorist groups, especially when the objectives of the state and the terrorist group are similar. For example, Libya used terrorists to explode a bomb aboard Pan Am 103 flying from London to New York in 1988, allegedly in response to U.S. and British bombing of Libya.

Pakistan and Iran do so through the use of their respective deep states, in case of Pakistan it is the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) the powerful spy agency of the Pakistani army and in case of Iran it is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s elite Quds Force.

Geographical coverage

Terrorism has affected almost all regions and countries of the world; however some are more affected than the others. These include MENA (Middle East and North Africa), South Asia, South East Asia and Central Asia etc. The regions which experience the highest impact and deaths are South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East and North Africa. In South Asia it is particularly India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Figure-It shows the deaths caused by terrorism in different regions of the world

Source- Global Terrorism Database (2021)

 Causes of terrorism

One vital aspect of terrorism is its causes. Poverty and lack of opportunities propound a sense of deprivation and may instigate violent outbursts. But not all poor people become terrorists. Depending on the attitude of a particular individual, a person can become a terrorist for material benefits (money for him and his family leading to surrogate terrorists for a particular mission), power (ability to coerce others into submission) and a new identity of a fighter for justice and becoming a martyr. Apart from this, the vision for change where religion plays a significant role remains a potent motivation.

Further, the causes behind terrorism need to be understood from the psychological, ideological and strategic reasons.

Psychological reason- Those who engage in terrorism may do so for purely personal reasons, based on their own psychological bent of mind. Their motivation may be nothing more than hate or the desire for power. For example, in 1893 Auguste Vaillant bombed the French Chamber of Deputies. Prior to his conviction and subsequent execution Vaillant explained his motivation in terms of hatred for the middle classes. Vaillant wanted to spoil the sense of economic and social success, by tainting it with his violence. This explains the outcome of the influence of exogenous events like the fateful French revolution which drives individuals to commit such acts. In many respects this terrorist is interested in getting attention from others for his or her act, rather than some grand ideological or strategic goal. Another example was the daring assassination of the Austrian heir apparent Archduke Francis Ferdinand in June 1914 by a Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princep who belonged to a terrorist organization known as the Black Hand.

Ideological reason- Ideology is defined as the beliefs, values, principles by which a group identifies its particular aims and goals. Ideology includes religion or political philosophies and programs. Examples of terrorist groups motivated by ideology include the Irish Republican Army (IRA), in Sri Lanka the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The IRA is motivated by a political and militant program to oust the United Kingdom from Ireland and unite Ireland under one flag. Similarly the LTTE seeks to establish a separate state for their people, the Tamils in Sri Lanka by seceding from the Sri Lankan state. ISIS is motivated by the strong desire to establish a global caliphate by restoring the glory of Islam to its pristine nature as it existed in the 7th century CE. It established a proto state by acquiring large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria in 2014 only to see the caliphate fall in 2019.

Strategic reason- Terrorism is sometimes seen as a manifestation of the failure of politics to alleviate people’s needs. When people seek redress of their grievances through the state and its institutions, but fail to win government’s attention to their plight, they may resort to violence. From this viewpoint, terrorism is the result of a logical outcome of the goals and objectives of a group, and their estimate of the likelihood of gaining victory by utilizing the resentment of the people against the government in general and state in particular.

If victory seems unlikely using more traditional means of opposition, then one might calculate that terrorism is a better option. For example, in South Africa the African National Congress (ANC) only turned to the use of terrorism after political avenues to deal with the diabolical apartheid regime were explored and failed. Of course, not just individuals may feel let down by the political process. States may use terrorists in the pursuit of their own strategic interests.

Terrorism and the state

In the modern era, centralised states reduced the level of political violence within their territories; this happened particularly after World War II and in the last few decades Western countries largely managed to eradicate this. Command of trillions of dollars, millions of soldiers and thousands of ships with colossal arsenal of lethal nuclear and non nuclear capable supersonic and hypersonic missiles are being kept with nations without even firing a single shot.

However with the evolution of the nature and functions of the state, the reaction too varies invariably. These days even stray acts of political violence that kill a few dozen people are seen as a mortal threat to the legitimacy and even survival of the state.

The state has stressed many times that it will not tolerate political violence within its borders. Therefore the spectre of terrorism generates terrifying fears of anarchy, making the civilian populace feel as if the social order and institutions are about to come crashing down.  Therefore in order to bolster its legitimacy in front of the people, the states have to bolster their response in any equally proportionate manner with equally more fire and smoke. So instead of quietly and subtly handling the matter, the state releases a mammoth retaliation which sometimes fulfils the role of terrorists to delegitimize the popular perception of the state.

Combating terrorism

The first task should be to give a concrete globally accepted definition of terrorism. Currently there is no globally accepted definition what constitutes terrorism and its form, while governments, think tanks and public intellectuals around the world have given definitions of terrorism sadly any globally accepted definition of terrorism continues to elude us.

At the international level, strong countermeasures include prevention and suppression of terrorist acts through freezing of funds, financial assets and resources of terrorist persons and entities. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1267 (1999) developed a legal sanction oriented regime against known and declared terrorists such as Masood Azhar, Hafiz Saeed etc. Further the anti-terror financing and money laundering global watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF) designates countries on the basis of their action taken to combat terror financing. Pakistan, Turkey etc are on the grey list of the FATF for example.

Sustained de-radicalization programmes need to be carried out by the state, civil society etc to combat terrorism. An example is the Maharashtra model of de-radicalization. Also the religious leaders cutting across their ethnic, religious and cultural differences around the world should join hands to speak out against hate and enmity promoted in the name of religion. They should collaborate and clearly articulate that the terrorists do not serve the cause of any religion by murdering innocents and that every religion teaches humanity first. Multilateral collaboration, information exchange and joint mechanisms become necessary to tackle international networks of terrorists.

A successful counter terrorism campaign must be conducted on three fronts. Firstly, governments should focus on secretive actions against terror networks in the form of raiding hideouts and eliminating their supporters. Secondly, the media should observe restraint when covering issues related to terrorism both domestic and international and avoid hysteria so as to ensure that the terrorists are not given a platform to air and propagate their devious agenda and injure the peace of mind of the ordinary populace. Thirdly, is that we need to ensure that we are not held as hostages in our own imagination by terror groups. Terrorists hold our imagination captive and use it against us to harm us mentally. Ordinary citizens need to ensure that they a strong bent of mind.

The terrorists kill a hundred people and cause a billion people to face the horrific repercussions of experiencing a fear psychosis of terrorism affecting them directly. It is the responsibility of every citizen to liberate to his or her imagination from the terrorists and to remind ourselves that we will not be cowed with these dastardly acts. If we free our imagination from the terrorists and react in cool and balanced way terrorism is bound to fail.


Terrorism is a complex problem. It can neither be solved overnight nor can it be tackled with the power of just one nation. It needs to be dealt with an iron fist by people and nations together. Having said it, it is absolutely essential that countries around the world rally together to ensure that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations cannot be allowed to gain legitimacy and that the supporters of terrorism are isolated and dealt sternly both by the society and by the state.


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