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The Roots of Terrorism: an exposition into the causes & motivations for political violence

The Roots of Terrorism: an exposition into the causes & motivations for political violence

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Published by Bilal Mahmood

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Published by: Bilal Mahmood on May 29, 2010
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The Roots of Terrorism
An exposition into the causes & motivations for political violence
M. Bilal MahmoodDirected Reading: Professor SapolskyStanford UniversityMay 10, 2009
It has been seven years since the World Trade Center attacks, and still there is only a vagueunderstanding of the terrorist identity. Though terrorism can be broadly defined under the bannerof group organized political violence,
critics remain divided on the explicit motivations forcommitting such acts [1]. Politicians and pundits have argued that terrorism is the work of crazedfanatics who follow no reason or rationale [2].
On the other hand, academics have claimed that terrorists are merely criminals driven by comprehensible, but violent, political motivations [3].Scrutiny of both arguments indicates that the debate largely centers on the issue of a terrorist’spathology: namely, whether terrorism is a byproduct of some psychological abnormality, or merelythe consequence of a violent politically motivated behavior. A historical and psychological analysisof terrorism is thus warranted to comprehend its enigmatic nature and to, in turn, understand itsroot causes.
 A Brief History of Terror
The history of terrorism provides a unique glimpse into the phenomena’s violent 
 beginnings, and its ever‐evolving usage across human history. In its earliest instances, terrorismwas limited in scope and predominantly directed at occupying imperial authorities. Of notablesignificance were the assassinations conducted by the Jewish Sicarii in Roman‐occupied Jerusalemand Ismaili Hashshashin during the Crusades [4, 5]. Such assassination campaigns remained theprimary mode of terrorism well until the 20
century, whereupon terrorism began to spread to amore international scope. By in large due to the dissolution of traditional imperial modes of governance, heightened levels of politically motivated violence began to erupt all over the world.Multitudes of displaced ethno‐religious communities began to conflict amidst the development of ill‐defined nation‐states,
and representative groups such as the Irish Republican Army and Zionist Irgun began to resort to asymmetric warfare in the pursuit of self‐determination [4, 6].
Though there have been over 100 definitions of terrorism documented to date [1], for the purposes of this paperterrorism will be defined as group‐organized political violence. The benefit of this definition is that it encompasses themany different forms and creeds of terrorism. Another benefit of declaring terrorism as “political” violence is itsdifferentiation from criminal activities that have no over‐arching political objective. By defining terrorism as a groupphenomenon, however, violent solitary actors are not considered terrorists, given the difficulty in discerning between amurderer‐criminal and a politically motivated terrorist outside of a group dynamic. Consequently, murderers such as theOklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski will not be the subjects of this exposition.
Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has described Osama bin Laden as “paranoid and psychotic” [2].
In a 2007 study conducted by Lim
et al 
, historical data was used to develop a model for global pattern formations of ethnic and cultural violence. The resulting analysis found that moderate separation of cultures and races by 10‐100km,and
with ill-defined borders
, was a strong predictor of political‐ethnic violence [6].
Combined with developments in 20
century technology, such groups eventually began toemploy the more sophisticated terrorist tactics of today. Guerilla style terrorist campaigns becameever‐present, in part due to the growth of the weapons industry and illegal arms trade [4].Additional advancements in mass communication afforded groups greater spheres of influence,epitomized by the highly publicized 1968 El‐Al hijacking and 1972 Munich Massacre. Overall, theinfluence of such socio‐political factors as imperialism and weapons proliferation is rather telling inexplaining terrorism’s role as a politically, rather than psychologically, rooted medium of violence.
The Psychology of Terror
Understanding the evolving historical usage of terrorism, a majority of psychologicalliterature has actually shied away from a pathological explanation for terrorism [3]. Scholars arguethat if terrorism were indeed a psychological case it would necessitate some sort of 
based pathology. Terrorism’s ever‐evolving use across history by various races and creeds hencedefies such a clear‐cut pathological profile. Even studies on Palestinian suicide bombers have foundno pattern of mood disorders, instances of substance abuse, or suicide‐related risk factors in thebombers’ pasts [7]. Though some terrorist behavior may indeed be due to mental defect or abuse,
 it is more likely that any pathology is an acquired condition— similar to combat‐prone soldiers whoacquire ASPD like symptoms [3].
Still, the dearth of documented pathology in terrorism is quitelogical, as psychological instability would be a detriment to a terrorist operation that requiresdedication, perseverance, and selflessness.
 Hence in understanding the political and psychological dimensions of terrorism, it wouldseem that terrorism actually operates in a
capacity, rather than a pathological one[3].
According to noted sociologists, terrorism is a quite comprehensible, though certainlyunconventional, behavior that follows an autonomous logic of clear objectives [8]. The objectivecould be immediate and localized, as with the Umkhonto we Sizwe that fought apartheid in SouthAfrica, or more far‐reaching, as with Al‐Qaeda and its purported goal of driving out Western
In earlier psychological accounts of terrorism, it was common to label terrorist behavior as a byproduct child abuse.Though this theory has largely fallen out of favor, abuse during adulthood, such as lengthy incarceration periods, is notedto be a mild predictor for terrorist activity [7].
It is fairly common for terrorists to be portrayed as suffering from antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), given thestereotypes that they are socially alienated, aggressive, and action‐oriented. Though some terrorists may actually haveASPD, the overwhelming majority of academics have shown that this is not the norm [7].
Notable exceptions do exist. The Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Mad Bomber George Metesky are purported to havebeen clinically insane. Still, scrutiny of these individual actors is outside of the scope of this paper, as this paper focuseson terrorists who operate in a group dynamic.
Terrorism by definition is the pursuit of a political goal through violent mechanisms. If a terrorist group were not pursuing a clearly defined and
 politically motivated 
, it would be nothing more than a criminal organization.

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