This paper will seek to understand what really motivates terrorists to commit the acts that make them so infamous. We are assuming that the chief motivating factor behind the decisions of terrorist organizations is the political outcome of their acts balanced against the risk and collateral damage inflicted to achieve this end. We will also weigh in the appeal of terrorism on potential recruits in weak states and determine how the motivations of the group become the motivation of the individual and how this benefits the decentralized organization of terrorist organizations like al Qaeda.
What Motivates Terrorists?
“Demoralize the enemy from within by surprise,
terror, sabotage, assassination. This is the war
of the future.”
- Adolf Hitler
We know that terrorism is violence. The actual aim of that violence is the use of terror and fear. The difference between violence and fear in terrorism and regular crime is that terrorist organizations use the two concepts as tools to a wider end rather than just for their sake or the selfish needs of the criminal. In specific, there is often the further aim of coercion or, often more specifically, some political objective.
Psychopaths murder innocent civilians because of disassociate mental problems or some skewed reasoning that appears more than valid to their minds. Terrorists not only provide their own valid reasoning, but also often back their actions with religious texts and teachings to pacify their conscience, presumably, and add false morality to their deeds. Since the organization of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups is more decentralized than groups in the past, the goals of those groups require a collective rationality (Crenshaw, 1998). This helps to reinforce the collective morality that adds to the motivating factors of terrorists and strengthens their political goals.
Terrorism can be defined as “a political tactic, involving the deliberate frightening of people for political advantage” (Goodin, 2006). This brings us back to our chief question of what motivates a terrorist to commit the heinous deeds they view as necessary to their end. Kai Nielsen provides a reasoning that says terrorists can justify their actions for violence against innocents with a thought that their type of violence in order to achieve their goals will in turn decrease injustice, suffering, and degradation as a whole (Nielsen, 1981).
From personal experience I have noticed that much of the public, and even military servicemembers, take to referring to terrorists as crazy or irrational. Possibly out of fear and terror itself, we seek to justify their actions as abnormal. This is most likely a psychological reaction to a threat. We know that our lives are at risk, but instead of logically addressing and analyzing the problem, we try to discredit our fears by degrading the potential threat. We can maintain a level of calm and supposed superior tactical expertise if the enemy is simply unorganized and insane. This is not the case. In his article from our text, Bruce Hoffman offers the following definitions of a terrorist, “The terrorist is fundamentally an altruist: he believes that he is serving a ‘good’ cause designed to achieve a greater good for a wider constituency. The terrorist is [also] fundamentally a violent intellectual, prepared to use and, indeed, committed to using force in the attainment of his goals” (Hoffman, 2006). We can also learn from Louise Richardson that in psychiatric profiles of terrorists their “primary shared characteristic is their normalcy” (Richardson, 2006). In fact, well-educated and well-bred individuals typically lead modern terrorist organizations, as with the case of al Qaeda. The groups don’t want psychotic individuals in their ranks. Crazy people are unstable and bring too much risk associated with them. Of course, can someone who...