Sociology of Terrorism
Books on Sociology of Terrorism,
Defining a terrorist or terrorism is not just
a theoretical issue. Terrorism is no longer a local problem of specific countries.
It is an issue involving a number of international implicatons. An effective strategy
requires a proper definition of a terrorist or terrorism.
|The September 11 attacks had come from non-state terrorism. The number
of victims, in particular, was unprecedented. The media and quite a few public
intellectuals like Salman Rushdie have highlighted these attacks as the worst case
of terrorism ever.
||On the night of July 27, 1943, the RAF raided Hamburg, known as the
Firestorm Raid. In the morning, when both the attack itself and the gigantic
firestorm it had created were over, some forty thousand civilians were dead. - M.
Middlebrook, The Battle of Hamburg.
It is a great irony that humans kill fellow humans in the name of God. It is
a greater irony that they look for rewards from such God. - vpr
a bomb is bad,
Dropping a bomb is good;
Terror, no need to add,
Depends on who's wearing the hood.
- R. Woddis, Ethics for Everyman,
Terrorist organizations operate in many
countries; the victims of attacks are of different nationalities; terrorist groups receive
assistance from different states, receive support from different ethnic communities.
International mobilization against terrorists
or terrorism, such as that which began in the mid-nineties and culminated in the
international conventions in the G-7 countries, Sharem el-Sheik Conference, will lead to
results only when the participants agree on a definition.
We need to answer questions like
what is terrorism or who is a terrorist?" in order to impose
responsibility on countries supporting terrorism, or combat terrorist groups.
Speaking about terrorism or the violent world
of fundamentalism Dr Salman Akhtar, of Harvard Medical School and professor of psychiatry
at Jefferson Medical College, said "there is the deepest dread of total mortality
which all human beings live with. The fundamentalist denies total mortality with fantasies
like: you'll go to heaven, you'll get 72 virgins, or that you'll be born again and you'll
come back, and if you believe, well you'll have a good next life -- it is simply not going
While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is
more difficult than to understand him. - Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky
"It is among the anarchists that we must
look for the modern martyrs who pay for their faith with their blood, and who welcome
death with a smile because they believe, as truly as Christ did, that their martyrdom will
"Islamic suicide squads are promised an afterlife replete with
gold palaces, sumptuous feasts, and obliging women". - Who becomes a terrorist
and why? Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, lcweb.loc.gov/rr/frd/.
Israel occasionally acknowledged the terrorist nature of its
strategy, most notably when its Prime Minister (and Defense Minister) Yitzhak Rabin
explained that the aim of shelling and bombing south Lebanon was to make it
uninhabitable and thereby force the Beirut government to repress the activities of
the Palestinian liberation movement on its territory.
the causes of terrorism
The concept of terrorism for "National
approach to terrorism
Involvement of States
Terrorist Group Typologies
Hypotheses of Terrorism
Guerrilla Warfare vs
Terrorism and of Guerrilla Warfare
Terrorism Indiscriminate Terrorism, Rural and Urban Guerrilla Warfare
What Motivates Terrorists ?
terrorism and WMD
Terrorism Related Terms
Terrorist Rationalization of
Terrorist's Ideology And
Terrorist Group and Group Dynamics
In brief, the psychology behind terrorist violence is normal psychology,
abnormal only in the intensity of the group dynamics that link causes with comrades.
- Clark R. McCauley.
The passion with which even socially advantaged group of young people who identify with
oppressed groups and the willingness of some fighters to commit suicidal acts in pursuit
of a distant goal is mysterious.
Group dynamics explains the reason-result relations within a group and the
formation and the functioning of them. Terrorism involves attempts by relatively small
groups with claims of mass representation to vindicate those claims by resorting to
exemplary violent action.
According to noted terrorism scholar Martha Crenshaw, for the majority of
terrorists who are followers, to become a member of the group is a dominant motive.
Involvement in terrorist organizations may be further reinforced by powerful group
dynamics such as groupthink, the subordination of the self before the group, and
personality cults. Consequently, terrorist groups, which are highly centralized, insular,
and cohesive units by nature, develop and enforce their own values systems, often evolving
their own subculture similar to many religious cults. For the terrorist, .The powerful
psychological forces of conversion in the group are sufficient to offset traditional
social sanctions against violence.To the terrorists their acts may have the moral status
of religious warfare or political liberation.
Social scientists have tried to apply their knowledge of the typical small-group behavior
to terrorist groups. Certain features of terrorist groups, such as pressures toward
conformity and consensus, are characteristic of all small groups, but there is a unique
agenda that creates and binds the terrorist group.
The transformation of individuals into terrorists with a political or religious
agenda takes place as a result of blind unquestioned faith among the members of the
terrorist group in that agenda.
There is a belief that their political or religious agenda is of utmost importance
and is a morally acceptable final solution. Final is the key word here and the privilege
of being part of the final solution provides a sense of belonging within the terrorist
The belief that they are the chosen agents to carry out the imperative act gives
the terrorist a feeling of self-importance and there is also honour at stake.
The view that membership in a terrorist group often provides a solution to the
pressing personal needs and the inability to achieve a desired niche in traditional
society, is no longer valid. Highly educated and successful individuals commanding great
respect in the society have been found to be members of terrorist groups.
Terrorist identity does provide free passage and escape to an individual without a
role, or very limited role in society. The group members feel a sense of power and
experience an intense and close interpersonal environment and social status. To some in
the group there is hope of potential access to wealth and a share in the glory and power
that may follow.
The terrorist group members believe that their acts have the moral status of
religious warfare or political liberation. Such psychological forces of conversion in the
group are sufficient to offset general social disapproval of violence.
Terrorist groups are similar to religious sects or cults who require total commitment and
promise an ultimate reward.
According to Post, "Terrorists whose only sense of significance comes from being
terrorists cannot be forced to give up terrorism, for to do so would be to lose their very
reason for being."
One generally accepted principle, as demonstrated by W. Bion (1961), is that individual
judgment and behavior are strongly influenced by the powerful forces of group dynamics.
Every group, according to Bion, has two opposing forces--a rare tendency to act in a fully
cooperative, goal-directed, conflict-free manner to accomplish its stated purposes, and a
stronger tendency to sabotage the stated goals. The latter tendency results in a group
that defines itself in relation to the outside world and acts as if the only way it can
survive is by fighting against or fleeing from the perceived enemy; a group that looks for
direction to an omnipotent leader, to whom they subordinate their own independent judgment
and act as if they do not have minds of their own; and a group that acts as if the group
will bring forth a messiah who will rescue them and create a better world. Post believes
that the terrorist group is the apotheosis of the sabotage tendency, regularly exhibiting
all three of these symptoms.
Both structure and social origin need to be examined in any assessment of terrorist group
dynamics. In Post's (1987) view, structural analysis in particular requires identification
of the locus of power. In the autonomous terrorist action cell, the cell leader is within
the cell, a situation that tends to promote tension. In contrast, the action cells of a
terrorist group with a well-differentiated structure are organized within columns, thereby
allowing policy decisions to be developed outside the cells.
Post found that group psychology provides more insights into the ways of terrorists than
individual psychology does. After concluding, unconvincingly, that there is no terrorist
mindset, he turned his attention to studying the family backgrounds of terrorists. He
found that the group dynamics of nationalist-separatist groups and anarchic-ideological
groups differ significantly.
Members of nationalist-separatist groups are often known in their communities and maintain
relationships with friends and family outside the terrorist group, moving into and out of
the community with relative ease. In contrast, members of anarchic-ideological groups have
irrevocably severed ties with family and community and lack their support. As a result,
the terrorist group is the only source of information and security, a situation that
produces pressure to conform and to commit acts of terrorism.
Pressures to Conform
Peer pressure, group solidarity, and the psychology of group dynamics help to pressure an
individual member to remain in the terrorist group. According to Post (1986), terrorists
tend to submerge their own identities into the group, resulting in a kind of "group
mind" and group moral code that requires unquestioned obedience to the group. As
Crenshaw (1985) has observed, "The group, as selector and interpreter of ideology, is
central." Group cohesion increases or decreases depending on the degree of outside
danger facing the group.
The need to belong to a group motivates most terrorists who are followers to join a
terrorist group. Behavior among terrorists is similar, in Post's analysis, because of this
need by alienated individuals to belong. For the new recruit, the terrorist group becomes
a substitute family, and the group's leaders become substitute parents. An implied
corollary of Post's observation that a key motivation for membership in a terrorist group
is the sense of belonging and the fraternity of like-minded individuals is the assumption
that there must be considerable apprehension among members that the group could be
disbanded. As the group comes under attack from security forces, the tendency would be for
the group to become more cohesive.
A member with wavering commitment who attempts to question group decisions or ideology or
to quit under outside pressure against the group would likely face very serious sanctions.
Terrorist groups are known to retaliate violently against members who seek to drop out. In
1972, when half of the 30-member Rengo Sekigun (Red Army) terrorist group, which became
known as the JRA, objected to the group's strategy, the dissenters, who included a
pregnant woman who was thought to be "too bourgeois," were tied to stakes in the
northern mountains of Japan, whipped with wires, and left to die of exposure. By most
accounts, the decision to join a terrorist group or, for that matter, a terrorist cult
like Aum Shinrikyo, is often an irrevocable one.
Pressures to Commit Acts of Violence
Post (1990:35) argues that "individuals become terrorists in order to join terrorist
groups and commit acts of terrorism." Joining a terrorist group gives them a sense of
"revolutionary heroism" and self-importance that they previously lacked as
Consequently, a leader who is action-oriented is likely to have a stronger
position within the group than one who advocates prudence and moderation. Thomas Strentz
has pointed out that terrorist groups that operate against democracies often have a field
commander who he calls an "opportunist," that is, an activist, usually a male,
whose criminal activity predates his political involvement. Strentz applies the
psychological classification of the antisocial personality, also known as a sociopath or
psychopath, to the life-style of this type of action-oriented individual. His examples of
this personality type include Andreas Baader and Hans Joachim Klein of the Baader-Meinhof
Gang and Akira Nihei of the JRA. Although the opportunist is not mentally ill, Strentz
explains, he "is oblivious to the needs of others and unencumbered by the capacity to
feel guilt or empathy."
By most accounts, Baader was unpleasant, constantly abusive toward other members
of the group, ill-read, and an action-oriented individual with a criminal past. Often
recruited by the group's leader, the opportunist may eventually seek to take over the
group, giving rise to increasing tensions between him and the leader. Often the leader
will manipulate the opportunist by allowing him the fantasy of leading the group.
On the basis of his observation of underground resistance groups during World War II, J.K.
Zawodny (1978) concluded that the primary determinant of underground group decision making
is not the external reality but the psychological climate within the group. For
action-oriented terrorists, inaction is extremely stressful. For action-oriented members,
if the group is not taking action then there is no justification for the group. Action
relieves stress by reaffirming to these members that they have a purpose. Thus, in
Zawodny's analysis, a terrorist group needs to commit acts of terrorism in order to
justify its existence.
Other terrorists may feel that their personal honor depends on the degree of violence that
they carry out against the enemy. In 1970 Black September's Salah Khalef ("Abu
Iyad") was captured by the Jordanians and then released after he appealed to his
comrades to stop fighting and to lay down their arms. Dobson (1975:52) reports that,
according to the Jordanians, Abu Iyad "was subjected to such ridicule by the
guerrillas who had fought on that he reacted by turning from moderation to the utmost
Pearlstein points out that other examples of the political terrorist's self-justification
of his or her terrorist actions include the terrorist's taking credit for a given
terrorist act and forewarning of terrorist acts to come. By taking credit for an act of
terrorism, the terrorist or terrorist group not only advertises the group's cause but also
communicates a rhetorical self-justification of the terrorist act and the cause for which
it was perpetrated. By threatening future terrorism, the terrorist or terrorist group in
effect absolves itself of responsibility for any casualties that may result.
Terrorism or Revolutionary Violence?
Salah Khalef (Abu Iyad) was Yasser Arafats deputy and one of the leaders of Fatah
and Black September. He was responsible for a number of lethal attacks, including the
killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In order to rationalize such
actions, he used the tactic of confounding terrorism with political
By nature, and even on ideological grounds, I am firmly opposed to political murder
and, more generally, to terrorism. Nevertheless, unlike many others, I do not confuse
revolutionary violence with terrorism, or operations that constitute political acts with
others that do not.
Abu Iyad tries to present terrorism and political violence as two different and
unconnected phenomena. The implication of this statement is that a political motive makes
the activity respectable, and the end justifies the means. I will examine this point
Targeting the innocent?
One of the prevalent ways of illustrating the cruelty and inhumanity of terrorists is to
present them as harming the innocent. Thus, in Terrorism: How the West Can
Win, Binyamin Netanyahu states that terrorism is the deliberate and systematic
murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends.
This definition was changed in Netanyahus third book, Fighting Terrorism, when the
phrase the innocent was replaced by the term civilians:
Terrorism is the deliberate and systematic assault on civilians to inspire fear for
political ends. Innocent (as opposed to civilian) is a
subjective concept, influenced by the definers viewpoint, and therefore must not be
the basis for a definition of terrorism. The use of the concept innocent in
defining terrorism makes the definition meaningless and turns it into a tool in the
political game. The dilemma entailed by the use of the term innocent is amply
illustrated in the following statement by Abu Iyad:
As much as we repudiate any activity that endangers innocent lives, that is, against
civilians in countries that are not directly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, we
feel no remorse concerning attacks against Israeli military and political elements who
wage war against the Palestinian people . . . Israeli acts of vengeance usually result in
high casualties among Palestinian civiliansparticularly when the Israeli Air Force
blindly and savagely bombs refugee campsand it is only natural that we should
respond in appropriate ways to deter the enemy from continuing its slaughter of innocent
Abu Iyad here clarifies that innocent victims are civilians in countries that are
not directly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict (implying that civilians in Israel,
even children and old people, are not innocent), while he describes Palestinian civilians
as innocent victims.
Terrorism, Indiscriminate Terrorism, Rural and Urban Guerrilla Warfare
Rural guerrilla warfare, is the use of violence against military personnel
and security forces in their area of deployment, activity and transport, in order to
attain political aims.
Urban guerrilla warfare involves targeting a specific urban military
facility or attacking a member of the military/security forces, or a political leader at
the decision-making level, in order to achieve political aims.
Indiscriminate terrorism entails using violence against a civilian target,
without regard to the specific identity of the victims, in order to spread fear in a
population larger than that actually affected, with the purpose of attaining political
Individual terrorism entails using violence against a specific civilian
target, or attacking a civilian who embodies a symbol to the public or to the attackers,
but who does not function as a political leader at the decision-making level.
The thorniest issue in defining terrorism and guerrilla activity is the fine line
separating urban guerrilla activity from individual terrorism. Both represent the
convergence of terrorism with guerrilla warfare, and are sometimes used interchangeably.
Urban guerrilla warfare is often used synonymously with terrorism. Schmidt argues
that the equation terrorism = (urban) guerrilla warfare is one which has
not only been used for political propaganda or conversely for guilt attribution, but has
been employed also by social and political scientists.
The difference between individual terrorism and urban guerrilla warfare again hinges on
the identity of the intended target.
An attack against military personnel, or against a leading decision-maker who
formulates policy, could be considered, according to the proposed definition, an
urban guerrilla activity.
If the target is a civilian not acting in a decision-making capacity, but merely
someone who is at most a political or social symbol such as a journalist, a past leader, a
judge, the head of a community or ethnic group, etc.
Aims of Terrorism and
The terrorist and the guerrilla fighter may have the exact same aims, but they choose
different means to accomplish them.
Political aims that terrorist organizations and guerrilla movements seek are: national
liberation, revolution, anarchism and changing the socio-economic system. An organization
is defined as terrorist because of its mode of operation and its target of
attack, whereas calling something a struggle for liberation has to do with the
aim that the organization seeks to attain.
The end of national liberation may, in some cases, justify recourse to violence, in an
attempt to solve the problem that led to the emergence of a particular organization in the
first place. Nevertheless, the organization must still act according to the rules of war,
directing its activities toward the conquest of military and security targets; in short,
it must confine itself to guerrilla activities. When the organization breaks these rules
and intentionally targets civilians, it becomes a terrorist organization, according to
objective measures, and not according to the subjective perception of the definer.