The Making of a Terrorist: Common Misconceptions

A lot of people think they know what makes a terrorist. Among the common misconceptions are the ideas that religion causes terrorism, poverty or socioeconomic circumstances cause terrorism, political oppression causes terrorism, or that low education causes terrorism. None of these theories are empirically viable. It is my goal in this post to clear up some of these misconceptions and perhaps get you thinking on a deeper level about what leads to the development of a terrorist. Perhaps if we can understand it, we can better address it, because we’re not doing such a great job right now.

Let’s begin with the idea that such acts of violence occur because the perpetrators hate Western democratic ideals. There is little to no evidence to support this claim, and modern scholarship largely rejects it. While there are those like Syed Qutb and Osama Bin Laden whose words have commented on Western decadence, there is no religious terrorist who has publicly declared a hatred for democracy or Western ideas of human rights and popular representation. Even Qutb’s rants have focused on American materialism rather than government or politics. Bin Laden’s accusations revolve around American imperialism and policy in the Middle East. The letter found in Muhammad Atta’s luggage outlining the plan for the September 11th attacks does not comment at all on Western ideals. Rather, it focuses on attaining the favor of God and doing what is in accordance with His command. Scott Atran explains in his article Who Becomes a Terrorist Today:

“The correlation between terrorist acts and target countries, indicating that democracies are victims more than autocracies, is spurious. It requires accepting that attacks on U.S occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are attacks upon U.S. democracy. In fact, there have been very few attacks carried out directly against western democracies, and only three with significant casualties (USA-11 September 2001, Spain-11 March 2004, UK-7 July 2005). There have been no major attacks against the democracies of Israel or Indonesia in the last two years, and only one major attack in India outside the disputed territory of Jammu-Kashmir (11/07/06 in Mumbai). There have been 2400 arrests related to Takfiri terrorist activities in Europe, where civil liberties are guaranteed.”

The next common perception about terrorists is that they originate from impoverished socioeconomic backgrounds. This assertion seems to make intuitive sense. It is not a terrible stretch to imagine that poverty, lack of education, and the social circumstances associated with both must lead to all sorts of motivation to become a terrorist. This is to say that the conditions these individuals face precipitate an attachment to religion and a proclivity toward violence as an attempt to find a way out. Granted, this may be true in the case of the suicide bomber whose family receives a large sum of money, but it is certainly not true for all, or even the majority of terrorists. The evidence, in fact, points contrary to this argument. A higher level of education in Palestine correlates with a higher level support for terrorist acts, and correlates inversely with support for international peace agreements.[1] Income, furthermore, does not correlate at all with support for suicide attacks. Atran explains:

“My research group statistically regressed Palestinian support for suicide attacks against Israelis on education and income levels in three nationally representative surveys of Palestinians (West Bank and Gaza) from 1999, 2001 and 2005. We controlled for area of residence, refugee status, age, gender and religion. Income and education levels were unrelated to support for suicide attacks.”[2]

Examples of those like Muhammad Atta, the underwear bomber, Michael Bray, Osama Bin Laden, and the Aum Shinrikyo scientists all further serve to weaken this hypothesis as all these individuals were relatively wealthy and educated. An evaluation of Al Qaeda members detained in Cuba further shows an overall high level of education and societal status, many having graduate degrees and coming from wealthy families.[3]

The idea that religion causes terrorism is the final claim I would like to address. The empirical evidence that refutes this idea is that the majority of members of major religious groups are not terrorists. There are around one billion Muslims in the world, and the vast majority of them are not terrorists. The same can be said for Christians. If religion was actually the cause of terrorist behavior, then one would expect a much greater percentage of any religious group to be terrorists. Terrorists come from a variety of backgrounds and a variety of belief systems, neither of which necessarily cause them to become violent.

So the question then remains as to what does cause a person to become a terrorist. Well, I don’t have the answer. In fact, I’m working on figuring it out, though I do not suspect I will be able to give a concrete solution to the puzzle anytime soon. I only advise you to entertain the possibility that the reality is much more complicated than you may think it is. There is a host of psychological and environmental factors which may contribute to the development of a terrorist, and none of them may be universal, necessary, or sufficient conditions. While I suspect that there is a fundamental factor which contributes to the development of all terrorists, I do not know what it is. However, I have taken the time to understand that the common solutions which are thrown around to cavalierly in everyday discourse are hideously inadequate at lending insight into the making of a terrorist.

[1]    Conclusions derived from a series of polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. 9-14.

[2]     Atran, Scott. “Who Becomes a Terrorist Today?.” Perspectives on Terrorism 2, no. 5 (2008): 2.

[3]    Atran, Scott. “Who Wants to be a Martyr?.” The New York Times May 5, 2003


4 responses to “The Making of a Terrorist: Common Misconceptions

    • I do not doubt that this may be a component in regions where the West has an oppressive presence. When a person or population has its self-determination challenged, it is easy to think that they could be more prone to responding violently. Although, I suspect that the presence of an oppressor only exacerbates something which is already present. The examples of the Aum Shinrikyo attack on the Japanes subway in 1995, Baruch Goldstein’s massacre at the Cave of the Patriarchs, Timothy McVeigh’s bombings, and the assassination of Dr. John Brighton all suggest that political oppression is not a necessary condition. It is hard to believe that such oppression does not contribute to terrorism, though I am very hesitant to attribute it as a major, or even significant, causal factor.

  1. Feeling oppressed-I think it is the most significant factor that drives one to ‘terrorism.’

    Let’s consider this: Becoming a terrorist must be either the result of genetics or the environment. I assume that genetics/your genes play a little role. Now, what drives one to commiting murder/hurting another? They are either filled with hate or they are led to believe that they hate their targets. Otherwise, why do it? Of course, the other option is that they are forced to do it. But then they’re not the ‘real’ terrorists we are talking about.

    Now comes the question, why hate your targets? They, in some way, feel (or have been led to feel) violated. This is a form of oppression. It may be perceived oppression, but it is oppression nontheless.

    Sorry for the delayed response,

    • Well, there are several issues with your contentions. It makes sense that, in areas of political oppression, it would cause terrorism. However, this does not explain terrorism in populations which are not oppressed and not subject to the same sort of accompanying circumstances. The Aum attack in Japan, Timothy McVeigh’s attacks, and numerous incidents in Europe by domestic terrorists all serve to highlight this point. As such, political oppression doesn’t give us much in the way of a universal explanation. Not only that, but if political oppression was centrally motivating, then one would expect a greater proportion of people in oppressed regions to become terrorists. We must remember that such violent individuals are in the vast minority. People respond to oppression in a variety of ways. Bosnian Muslims, for example, responded by essentially becoming passive hippies. What separates them from the Palestinians? The goal is to identify that which separates the terrorist from others.

      As far as hate is concerned, new evidence suggests that hate may not always be present, or present even most of the time. I advise you to read Ruth Stein’s book “For Love of the Father.” She points out that many terrorist acts are not motivated by hatred. In fact, at times, the perpetrators are actually unaware of who the real target is. Rather, these attacks may be motivated by a desire for affection, for the love and acceptance of God. This is particularly relevant in domestic civilian-targeted terrorism. Take the recent bombings in Karachi, Pakistan, for instance. If they were motivated by hatred for an oppressor, then why would they target civilians who are just as oppressed as they are? Muhammad Atta’s letter also did not have a hateful message. Quite to the contrary, it spoke at length of gaining the love and admiration of Allah.

      However, I must note that I do not dismiss political oppression and hatred and contributing factors. As I said before, I find it hard to believe that a person robbed of their self-determination will not become more prone to violence or feel anger and resentment toward the oppressor. After all, how can they not? I do think, though, that the situation is slightly more complex.

      By the way, thanks for commenting! I really appreciate the discussion 🙂

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