TERRORISM SALON: Eric Rosand on the Complex Motivations of Terrorists


(Eric Rosand is a senior fellow at the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation in New York and a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation).
There is not much one can usefully add to Matt’s excellent contribution, so apologies for any repetition…
I am not aware of any empirical data that shows a causal link between poverty and terrorism. If there was such a link then we would see poor people and communities more involved in committing/planning terrorist attacks than the current data shows. Poverty by itself simply does not have the direct radicalizing effect on individuals.
In fact, the majority of empirical studies on terrorism provides little indication of correlations between socioeconomic factors such as poverty, inequality, and unemployment and the incidence of terrorism. For example, the data in Alan Kruger and David Laitin’s global study of the origins and targets of terrorism lend little support to the notion that poverty leads to terrorism, instead suggesting that limited political rights and civil liberties tend to be the most influential in inciting people to terrorism and country-level economic factors such as poverty and high unemployment, tend to be most relevant in determining the targets of terrorism.

As analysis of the home-grown terrorist problem in Europe reveal, the reasons that may push certain second and third generation Muslim youth toward violence are generally not specific enough and include traits shared by a larger population that deals with similar situations in very different ways. In fact, as Matthew alludes to, the process of radicalization is a complex interaction of factors, external (such as poverty, perceived humiliation, radical ideology, and American foreign policy), social (e.g., social identification mechanisms or social network dynamics) and individual (e.g., psychological characteristics or personal experiences), which do not necessarily lead to violence and not every radical becomes a terrorist.
The challenge for the US and other government and non-government stakeholders is to better understand the mix of factors that are relevant to the particular country/region and develop policies and work with the right mix of government and non-government actors to try to address these factors. Given the heightened sensitivities surrounding any program aimed at countering the radicalization process that has the “Made in America” label on it, however, it is important for the US to work with (or under the cover of) partners, such as the UN, whenever possible (and certainly more than it currently does) in developing and implementing programs in the wide range of necessary fields (e.g., social/economic/political).
— Eric Rosand
This week long terrorism salon will continue to be hosted by The Washington Note and UN Dispatch.


18 comments on “TERRORISM SALON: Eric Rosand on the Complex Motivations of Terrorists

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  2. Paul Norheim says:

    An exercise in subject-changing? You suggested a reintroduction
    of the concept of “national character” in these discussions. I
    responded to that.


  3. Zathras says:

    Is this a serious response, or just an exercise in subject-changing? If one really wanted to discuss the relation of terrorism as defined by Peter Bergen and state terrorism, surely the most direct route is through examining the example of state terrorism I mentioned upthread.
    It’s true that plausible explanations for Darfur that blame the West, or better yet the Jews, are lacking. This may inhibit some people from considering the subject. But unless one’s intent is merely to excuse Arab terrorism today with the reasoning that “everybody does it” there doesn’t appear to be any good reason to ignore Darfur in favor of more historically distant episodes.


  4. Paul Norheim says:

    When you look at the actions, reactions and fate of the different
    European countries during the second world war, you`ll see that
    they differ so much that it almost seems not to be the same
    war. Germany, Italy, Spain, Rumania, Austria, Poland, England,
    France, Austria, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Norway… They
    all acted and reacted differently, due to size and population,
    political circumstances, historical background, military capacity,
    ambitions etc… But “national character”? What does that mean
    I agree that when looking at the USSR, you should also consider
    the Russian history – the religious idolization of the
    authoritarian tsar (transfered to Stalin); the atmosphere of fear
    and suspicion during the 19`th century; the nihilists and
    terrorists etc (Joseph Conrads novel Under Western Eyes is an
    early study in this). But again – national character?
    Peter Bergen talks about terrorism “defined as violence against
    civilians by non-state actors.” And you say that “ cultures
    productive of recruits to a group like al Qaeda probably contain
    within them a tolerance for specific kinds of violence regarded
    by most of the world as barbarous.” Beside the fact that some
    of these groups use terrorism as a mean to achieve universal or
    trans-national goals (like al Quaeda, and like those fighting for
    a “World Revolution” during the cold war) and others as a
    method in a context of national resistance or fight for
    independence (the Palestinians, Kurds, the Vietnamese guerilla
    fighters a generation ago, the Algerians in the 50`s and 60`s,
    the Mau Mau movement in Kenya…), i find it hard to discuss
    this without bringing in the second concept: state terrorism.
    The bombing of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are classical
    examples of terrorist acts done within the frame of regular
    armies and the political leaders of a state. And it requires “a
    tolerance for specific kinds of violence” that at least many
    regard as barbarous.
    Terrorism among non-state Arab actors can not be explained
    solely as reactions to the actions of Israel or the USA. But some
    of it is undoubtedly related to Israeli state terrorism, which also
    requires “a tolerance for specific kinds of violence”. Terrorist
    acts from Jewish groups (non-state actors) are among the
    central components in the foundation of Israel as a state. Later
    Israel has committed state terrorism frequently. The point here
    is that terrorism is an integrated part of Israel as a project, as it
    will be an integrated part of a Palestinian state sometime in the
    future. But does this say anything about the “national character”
    of the Jews or the Palestinians?
    Do you define national character as some kind of timeless or
    essential characteristica of people, or as a product of historical
    experience that somehow make anyone belonging to a certain
    nation tend to behave and evaluate things in specific ways? To
    me the concept represents a stereotyp, an extreme
    simplification of highly diverse historical circumstances, moral
    and religious beliefs, sociological and individual differences. I
    don´t think the concept of “national characters” will help us
    getting a clearer view of current conflicts.


  5. Zathras says:

    Several posters here seem to be placing themselves under stress in their efforts to keep eyes averted from the questions I raised upthread, and I don’t want them to injure themselves.
    But Paul Norheim asked a very peculiar question, clearly intended to be rhetorical, about what would happen if part of Norway were occupied. The question is peculiar because during the last century all of Norway actually was occupied for a little over five years, by a country with a considerably weaker claim on its territory than, say, Israel has on the West Bank of the Jordan River. Norwegians’ response to invasion and occupation is a matter of historical record, which it is not my purpose here to review except to point out that this response was different from that of other peoples subjected to the same treatment at the same time.
    This is the point. Nations and peoples do respond differently to disorienting changes in their condition, and the differences in their responses matter a great deal in a world in which people and cultures interact with one another to a greater extent than previously. As an academic question, of course it is true that we see terrorism in Pakistan sponsored by a group led and funded by Arabs and terrorism in Sri Lanka as well. But as a practical matter the problem with which we have to deal is not terrorism in general, and is not Sri Lankan terrorism either. It is Arab terrorism specifically.
    There is one view that the explanation for this phenomenon must be specific, justified grievances unique in their gravity (or all sorts of other people would mount campaigns involving suicide bombs or, as in Darfur, deliberate extermination of entire villages) that if addressed will solve the problem. I understand this view, though I regard it as illogical and rather simple-minded. Another view, closer to mine, is that cultures productive of recruits to a group like al Qaeda probably contain within them a tolerance for specific kinds of violence regarded by most of the world as barbarous. Because of that, they ought to be treated primarily with a view toward damage control; the values of such cultures ought to be recognized as deficient, and efforts to limit their influence made.
    Having made clear which of these views is closer to mine, I have to say either speaks to the practical problems of terrorism more persuasively than the academic approach to terrorism as pathology.


  6. JohnH says:

    Zathras said, terrorism is “a condition that could under the right circumstances arise just as easily among, say, Norwegians.”
    Hmm-I wonder what conditions turned Washington and Jefferson into what George III would have called terrorists, if the word existed then. Was there any economic justification for those educated white males becoming rebels? Any sense of oppression and alienation?
    If think tanks and elite foreign policy schools had existed back then, I bet they could have curned out reems of paper totally absolving the British government’s policies of any responsibility for the troubles in the colonies while concentrating their efforts on contamination resulting from the peculiar air, water and aberrant psyche of those living in North America.


  7. Arun says:

    Speaking of cultural attitudes, India faces/faced a problem in Kashmir – call it what you will, insurgency or terrorist threat.
    “Be all this as it may, a point must be made as concerns the earlier discussion of the need to examine the insurgency in its parts: it is not the human cost alone that makes for the notoriety of the conflict. Indeed, the internal war in J&K, when scaled, does not begin to approach the levels of criminal violence present in those US metropolitan areas best known for their murder rates. The ‘death count’ in Jammu & Kashmir for 2003 stood at 836 civilians, 1,447 militants, and 380 security personnel. If this violence is aggregated (2,663), which is unorthodox but certainly presents the worst possible statistical picture, it scales out at 24.5:100,000 population. This would place Jammu & Kashmir between Memphis (24.7:100,000) and Chicago (22.2:100,000), in the 2002 murder rankings when examining American cities with populations greater than 500,000, well off the pace established by the likes of Washington, DC (45.8:100,000) or Detroit (42.0:100,000).”
    This is from a US military college paper:
    Question would be – e.g., why is international terrorism seen as so much more terrible than domestic violence? There is a cultural attitude involved here. Which people are dying? Which people are living their lives in terror? is not asked.


  8. sdemetri says:

    …things they should not say…
    Seymour Hersh’s work on major-state funding of Sunni militias in Lebanon loosely, if not actually, related to Al Qeada…
    School of the Americas, repackaged for easier consumption as the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation…” and its work training the Contra “freedom fighters…”
    Or Hambali’s alledged early connections with the CIA and Indonesian intelligence, well before his involvement with the Bali bombing in 2002. (The blast of the bomb stripped concrete slabs meters from the blast clean of the concrete leaving bare lattices of rebar. The overpressure value necessary to do this level of damage far, far exceeds the reported amount of ammonium chlorate alledged to have been the explosive.) Financially strapped terrorists were not the likely culprits putting together the bomb on this one.


  9. ... says:

    in other words “it is all their fault” is the root cause, lol…. some of us aren’t buying into that..


  10. ManagedChaos says:

    I think an important factor that is often overlooked in the radicalization of Muslims is sexual repression/frustration. A good example of that is post-Taliban Afghanistan where women still cannot walk around without being fully covered for fear of sexual abuse. These men simply cannot control themselves around women who aren’t covered in sheets. I think religious leaders take advantage of these frustrations and channel it into desperation and hate. The effect of this environment where women live in fear of being raped, abused, or killed essentially keeps the situation in a status quo where women who would otherwise choose to be more independent are forced to hide. I think we tend to overlook or take for granted the effect that women can have on men. One day I’d like to study this theory as it relates to Muslim radicalization. There was a good reason why the Spartans took their children away from their mothers at a very young age.


  11. Paul Norheim says:

    Well, Zathras, if Israel had occupied, let`s say the western part of
    Norway, or if the US had invaded our country, ruined it, and then
    said that we should repair it with our oil resources, demanding
    that a substantial amount of those resources should go into the
    pockets of some American oil companies, nobody could say for
    sure that we wouldn`t have got malaria or the flu as well after a
    while. Or do you think our “national character” would prevent
    What precisely does the bombing of Dresden say about the British
    “national character”? Not much, as far as I can tell. But a lot about
    modern warfare and the increasing disrespect for civilian lives.


  12. Zathras says:

    My post upthread actually suggested several things, but one of them was certainly that the greater incidence of terrorism among Arabs probably has something to do with Arabs. I doubt the practical value of discussing terrorism as if it were malaria or the flu, a condition that could under the right circumstances arise just as easily among, say, Norwegians.


  13. Mr.Murder says:

    So the conclusion we can arrive at is that the sanctions used to pressure states in Western agreement lend to a likelihood of developing terrorists, when regime change seems to be the intent?


  14. Paul Norheim says:

    “I’ve just never been persuaded that it makes sense to talk about
    something like terrorism so generically, without reference to
    cultural attitudes among the populations from which terrorists
    most often emerge. It’s like discussing Communism a half century
    ago without reference to the Russian national character — at best
    a mildly interesting intellectual exercise, but hardly a reliable
    guide to policy.”
    Zathras, are you seriously suggesting that we should go back to
    the good old days, when politicians and intellectuals, supported
    by “scientific evidence”, interpreted world events by defining the
    “national character” of the Russians, the Americans, the Germans,
    the Brits and the French, the Arabs and the Jews?


  15. Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi says:

    Irrefutably, the most striking cause of promoting international terrorism has been the superpowers’ politics of oppresion, suppresion and deprivation of fundamental rights of the poor nations. And undoubtedly, the delay or the diplomatic-cum- political procrastination regarding the conflict resolutions of the political disputes, particularly , the Arab- Israeli dispute and the Kashmir dispute, has caused major motivation towards the politics of retaliation and the suicidal notions. On the otherhand, the sole superpower’s policy of making unwarranted military interventions remains the root- cause of expanding the international terrorism.


  16. ... says:

    the usa could go a long ways to nuetralizing terrorism, by being less of a terrorist itself as a country… not only does the usa have the military muscle to pull, but it pulls it for really lousy reasons, that in retrospect were obvious.. the military machine is now like a hungry animal that needs to be thrown some meat on a regular basis, whether it be a gov’t contract, or a place to go and make war, or the threat of war… the real terrorists are those in power using it against others and there own people – bush admin in particular…


  17. Zathras says:

    This discussion so far reads as if it were being conducted by people deeply conscious of the things they should not say.
    I appreciate the importance of the search for an academic explanation of the terrorist phenomenon (translation: I regard this importance as being very much less than do the contributors to this online salon, but will not go so far as to say it does not exist at all). Honestly, though, are we really supposed to discuss terrorism driven primarily by Arab men and money and justified by Arab grievances without considering whether Arab culture might foster feelings of humiliation and impotence among those prevented from murdering their enemies or despoiling their neighbors? Does it make sense to talk about the history of Western domination and imperialism in the Middle East with our minds made up that the intervening period, which saw political power in so many countries monopolized by the state and the entire region become awash in personal weaponry, never happened? Are we well advised to consider a terrorism infrastructure in Pakistan now devoted to blowing things up in Afghanistan without taking into account the state policy there that for years encouraged blowing things up in Kashmir? And should we really be as certain as the contributors here appear to be that terrorism in Arab countries and terrorism in Europe are related, but that terrorism in Arab countries and genocide sponsored by an Arab government are not?
    I’ve just never been persuaded that it makes sense to talk about something like terrorism so generically, without reference to cultural attitudes among the populations from which terrorists most often emerge. It’s like discussing Communism a half century ago without reference to the Russian national character — at best a mildly interesting intellectual exercise, but hardly a reliable guide to policy.


  18. Mr.Murder says:

    Ireland and Mexico City serve as examples. Lack of voice drove one factor, other items played into the other to greater degress, but it also had a recent election whose results were entirely questionable. Lack of political voice is the prime catalyst.
    Right now the city that has the largest US Army recruiting office in the world is also hosting the most horrific casualty rate for narco warfare on citizens, including kidnapping and ransom.
    Strange that has yet to be addressed effectively.


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