The Roots of Terrorism

Terrorism is a hot topic these days, but its dynamics evidently still aren't broadly understood, if a recent experience of mine is any indication.

I attended a public debate not long ago where the topic of discussion was what Canada's role ought to be in opposing the Islamic State. During the length of the discussion I had the displeasure of listening to the hawkish historian and columnist John Robson – arguing in favour of sharply escalating Canada's military presence in the Middle East as a remedy to ISIS – give what amounted to a farcical account of terrorism's nature and causes, though he meant it all quite seriously.

Unfortunately, he is not alone in his naive worldview. During his closing remarks he echoed, nearly verbatim, George W. Bush's famous line that Islamic terrorists simply “hate us for our freedom” – a spurious statement that would prove to foreshadow the War on Terror's anti-intellectualism, and whose legacy continues to cloud the minds of many. By invoking evidence and sociological reasoning to uncover the real causes of terrorism, my aim is to try to undo some of the damage done fifteen years ago, despite John Robson's best efforts to the contrary.

There's rather fierce disagreement among public intellectuals and pundits like Reza Aslan, Chris Hedges, Bill Maher, and Sam Harris over whether or not violence is an inherent facet of Islam. That conversation is very complex because it requires exegetical examination of scripture, and even then Islamic scholars differ in their jurisprudential opinions. Instead, I'm going to focus on what motivates terrorists specifically, including those who are willing to commit suicide in the process.

Without being familiar with terrorism's long history, a layman could be forgiven for automatically associating terrorism with Islamic jihad. Outside of intelligence circles, and perhaps aside from the Israeli public, the threat of terrorism did not dominate the West's collective attention before the attacks of September 11, 2001. From that point on, the majority of the terrorist threats facing the West have been posed by Islamic extremists, so it's not surprising that Islamic jihad is usually the first thing that comes to mind when we think of terrorism. In reality it's not that simple. Religious violence is, at its core, political violence, so first we need to break down what that means.

Politics is the process of collective action among a group of people, in the name of whatever values they hold dear, to decide on how to allocate resources and regulate the behaviour of people in their society. In a democracy, elected officials make decisions on behalf of their constituents. But also in non-democratic societies, even if decision-makers are not held accountable legally for crimes or widely unpopular policies, they can still be held accountable politically through public demonstrations, riots, and in extreme cases, uprisings and civil war. Each of these reactions was displayed during the Arab Spring that took place across the Middle East in 2011, and the Syrian and Libyan civil wars that began then still continue today.

Terrorism is the use of violence with the aim of achieving a political goal. As the name indicates, the use of violence is designed to terrorize and coerce a target population, which has the collective power to influence political decisions, as outlined. That's most easily achieved through shocking acts of public brutality – the bloody aftermath of which social media and news cameras eagerly broadcast to billions of voyeurs around the world – that maim and murder random people, making anyone and everyone a potential target. This use of minimal material investment for maximum effect is why terrorism is traditionally thought of as being the weapon of the weak. Blowing up a bus doesn't require advanced and expensive military hardware, but it certainly forces people to take notice. It should also be noted that White terrorism is very real, as was the case when Dylan Roof murdered nine black members of a church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, with the stated intention of provoking a race war.

However, it would be more accurate to call terrorism the weapon of the politically weak. We can observe from the Arab Spring revolutions that when people no longer feel that they have any democratic avenues through which to address their concerns, they will inevitably turn in desperation to other, sometimes violent, channels to make their voices heard. This, of course, does not justify acts of terrorism, but it does help to explain why they are committed.

Understanding terrorism as a tool used by the politically weak also reveals – though it's rarely considered or discussed in mainstream Western media – that states commit acts of terrorism regularly, if terrorism's definition is to retain any meaning. Political weakness can apply both domestically and abroad. There have been numerous examples of government regimes brutally cracking down on their own citizens' peaceful protests, including the Chinese government in 1989, and the ruling Libyan, Egyptian, Bahraini, and Syrian regimes in 2011. In terms of foreign aggression, since 1945, and certainly in the post-Cold War era, the United States takes the cake as the worst offender by a long shot; being the world's self-declared policeman means that it has its fingers in many pies. In all of these instances, the aggressor had a certain objective (e.g. protecting the status quo, provoking regime change, gaining control over coveted resources or territory), but lacked the requisite popular support to accomplish that objective democratically, making it weak politically.

In other words, terrorism is not limited to who most people think of as “the terrorists.” Of course, the West's actions abroad are not called terrorism here, because that would make us uncomfortable. It's impolite to make people feel uncomfortable.

The Pakistani, Afghani, and Yemeni wedding parties that have found themselves on the receiving end of Predator Drone missile strikes, to name but one example, have a somewhat different opinion on the matter. The West's military engagements, both overt and covert, have long sought to achieve political goals abroad. Military engagements involve large-scale acts of violence that inevitably inflict collateral damage on civilians which, unsurprisingly, they find terrifying. That is textbook terrorism, at the very least from the perspective of those in the line of fire. And even if the bulk of such escapades were carried out with the most pure-hearted intentions – a generous assumption, to put it mildly – we are all familiar with a certain road that those good intentions are used to pave.

America's imperialist reach is far wider than most Westerners realize, though its impact is certainly not lost on the rest of the world. America's annual military budget is larger than the next ten countries combined, partly because it maintains a physical military presence in most of the world's countries. In a 2014 Gallup poll that surveyed 66,000 people across 65 different countries, a 24 percent plurality of all respondents answered that the United States “is the greatest threat to peace in the world today.” The next largest perceived threats posed by Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, Israel, Iran, and even North Korea trailed far behind in aggregate world opinion.i It should not come as a surprise to anyone that such an enormously arrogant footprint would ruffle a few feathers. If statistics like these don't give hawkish neoconservatives pause, one can only conclude that they are impervious to facts that don't support their ideology. As they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

During the debate I watched, John Robson attempted nonetheless to make the case that terrorists are simply out to impose their insane, utopian ideology on the rest of us by force, quoting Usama bin Laden as saying, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, that “from north to south and east to west, [the US] is trembling with fear.” What Robson neglected to mention was that bin Laden was gloating about Americans' fear in vengeance, alluding to the fear that the US has facilitated or brought upon the people of the Middle East for many decades, let alone its countless victims in other corners of the world throughout its history. Incredible as it may seem, people like Robson have failed to understand one very crucial detail:

History did not begin on 9/11.

The inconvenient truth is that over the course of several interviews given both before and after 2001, bin Laden repeatedly articulated his laundry list of grievances, no doubt shared by the jihadists of today, which in his mind justify acts of terror against the West as a means of reciprocal justice. Those included:

  • The ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of Israel's illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, for which America shares responsibility;

  • Iraqi deaths, both as a result of the 1991 Gulf War, and resulting from the post-war sanctions regime imposed on Iraq by the UN, at the behest of the US. It was widely reported that the sanctions had resulted in the deaths of up to half a million children, although those numbers are likely too high. Regardless, ordinary Iraqis suffered immensely as a result of the sanctions.

  • The US military's permanent presence in Islam's holy land of Saudi Arabia since the 1991 Gulf War, and its support for the ruling Saudi monarchy, which bin Laden viewed as America's puppet regime;

  • Iraqi deaths as a result of the 2003 US/British invasion, many of whom were non-combatants. Because of the difficulty involved in estimating body counts, the numbers are disputed and the estimated range is wide. While the low end is about 100 000, the true total is probably closer to 1 million deaths;

  • NATO's invasion of Afghanistan. Since 2001, nearly 100 000 Afghanis have been killed, about a quarter of whom were civilians, and another 100 000 have been injured;

  • More broadly, he pointed to America's history of crimes as a testament to its hypocrisy, including, in reverse chronological order:

    • The wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, for which the death toll is estimated at up to 3 million people, although the true number will never be known;

    • The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, which together had killed between 150 000 and 200 000 people by December of that year, and wounded countless more;

    • The genocide committed against America's indigenous population.

Despite holding a Ph.D in American history, Robson's curious stance suggests that, in terms of educating people on the dynamics of conflict in the Middle East, bin Laden himself would have been a better candidate. Neoconservatives cling desperately to the notion that terrorists acting under the banner of Islamic groups like ISIS are doing so for no reason other than to impose Sharia Law on the rest of us, with geopolitical grievances being only a small footnote for their cause. That is awfully convenient for a neoconservative, who then isn't forced to reflect on or apologize for the terror that his own state's actions have brought upon helpless communities far away. Insane worldviews, as it turns out, are not exclusive to Islamic extremists.

Lo and behold, the main external driver of Islamic terrorism is prior acts of terrorism. This was as true during the 1980s as it is now. Back then, the Mujahideen – or defenders of Islam – were struggling to repel the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and topple the puppet government it had installed. They finally succeeded after the American CIA, in an effort to thwart Soviet expansionism, decided to fund the fighters with billions of dollars, not fully realizing the future repercussions that would have. Usama bin Laden was among the fighters who had come from abroad to oppose the “injustice [that] had been committed against the people of Afghanistan.”ii Al-Qaeda would come to be born from this movement. Like those fighting on behalf of ISIS today, bin Laden believed he was answering the call to jihad, and defending the Umma (the global community of Islam) from aggression. People may do bad things, but from their own perspective, they always believe that they are doing what is right. Sound familiar?

Obviously, whether or not we can influence a terrorist's will to act violently depends on what his goals are. If his sole demand was, say, that the United States burn its constitution and install Sharia Law as the law of the land – as neoconservatives would have us believe – there's clearly no room for compromise or even introspection on our part. It would be foolish to deny that the Islamic State includes among its ranks theological fundamentalists, who would love nothing more than to bring the Middle East, and theoretically the entire world, under the rule of a Salafi interpretation of Sunni Islam. Such a mission's prospects of success, on the other hand, are laughably fanciful, yet people like Robson never tire of lecturing us on the “existential” threat that ISIS poses to our civilized society, which rests across an ocean and under the umbrella of the most organized and sophisticated mass killing machine the world has ever known. But you can never be too careful.

The truth is that the Islamic State's religious fundamentalists are vastly outnumbered by its members who are fighting primarily because they feel aggrieved or disenfranchised in one way or another. Most of its top military commanders, for example, are remnants of Saddam Hussein's military, who were left bitter and unemployed when the Iraqi armed forces were disbanded in 2003. Iraq's religious composition is at least 60 percent Shia, and at most 37 percent Sunni, so when the Shia majority regained control of the state after decades of brutality under Saddam's Sunni Baathist rule, certain policies were implemented that many Sunnis resented. Many Iraqi Sunnis, and particularly unemployed young men, were thus given ample incentive to oppose the occupying Western forces and the new Iraqi government, regardless of who that required allying with. In fact, al-Qaeda and ISIS often refer to Western forces as “Christian Crusaders,” alluding to the military expeditions launched by various Popes between the 11th to 15th centuries CE in an attempt to reclaim the Holy Land from the Islamic empire.

But what about the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who have travelled across the world to join ISIS? Many extremists come from relatively affluent backgrounds (Usama bin Laden was a member of the Saudi royal family!), so it's not necessarily a question of poverty or material disenfranchisement.

Our difficulty in the West to understand the factors that could motivate someone to risk their life in a battle far from home, or to carry out a suicide operation, speaks to our relative ignorance of where people ultimately find meaning in their lives. Ideally, almost every human being desires material comfort. But in the affluent West we have become accustomed to a standard of material wealth that is significantly higher than what is enjoyed in the rest of the world, and it has skewed our worldview accordingly.

As a society I think we tend to underestimate the human need for belonging and purpose, which is a force so strong that it sometimes pushes people to their breaking point. The angst felt due to a lack of belonging or personal recognition can in extreme cases lead some to become homicidal and/or suicidal. When a person becomes convinced that their own life is worthless, whether because of frustration at failing to attract social validation or some other reason, they may decide that the only way to seize recognition is through a spectacular death. From this point of departure, it's not hard to understand why martyrdom in the name of Islamic jihad can look appealing as a last-ditch effort to be part of a purportedly meaningful cause, a chance to leave a personal legacy that will be appreciated by someone, or an opportunity to avenge the death of a loved one. In addition to helping to explain the mindset of a suicide bomber, this analysis also does much to explain a number of tragedies that have occurred in North America, including the 1989 École Polytechnique Massacre, the 1999 Columbine shooting, the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, and the 2014 Isla Vista killings. Indeed, emotional pain and frustration was a common expression among the manifestos (excerpts of which you can read herehere, and here) left by some of the perpetrators of these atrocities.

What's more, a person who lacks meaning in their life is more likely to be vulnerable to the type of religious pretense that ISIS propagandizes, because they're in search of a belief system that will give them purpose. The promise of being a warrior for a “righteous” cause can be very tantalizing, especially when having God Almighty on their side solves any moral conundrums they might encounter. The process of radicalization is normally a gradual one, and studies on it refer to these sorts of fragile individuals as being in the pre-radicalization phase, at risk of gravitating toward the Salafi ideology.iii

As mentioned earlier, whether or not Islam justifies killing is a highly abstruse matter, but if we are to judge based on the opinions and actions of the world's Muslims as a whole, Islam is overwhelmingly a religion of peace and kindness. However, that doesn't stop Islamic extremists from cherry-picking passages from their religious texts that will suit their own political agendas, all while insisting that their version harks back to Islam's “purest” form. Mainstream Islam, whether Sunni, Shia, or otherwise, is far too nuanced to be useful to a near-fascist ideology that desires such radical change.

But beyond a disillusionment with the Western world, and likely some degree of personal search for purpose, the “terrorist profile” remains mostly inconclusive, according to leaked details of a classified MI5 report. Regarding British terrorists at least, they fit “no single demographic profile,” and there is no single “pathway to violent extremism.” They “are not unintelligent or gullible,” and “their educational achievements range from total lack of qualifications to degree-level education. However, they are almost all employed in low-grade jobs.” Furthermore, and crucially,

Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households, and there is a higher than average proportion of converts.iv

In other words, while the Islamic State's clerical leaders and recruiters may be well-versed in the Qur'an, Hadith, and Sunna, the vast majority of its followers are not. While all of the Islamic State's members are fighting to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the Levant, and that mission is draped in religious diction, geopolitical grievances and objectives remain at the project's heart. As this video shows clearly, putting an end to the Sykes-Picot line that separates Iraq and Syria – a product of European colonialism – was regarded as a symbolic milestone.

The neoconservative conception of the Islamic State's nature is erroneous, and does nothing to advance our understanding of terrorism's causes. But even worse than that, taking a hardline view toward political violence puts us in even greater danger, because it plays directly into the extremist's gameplan by reinforcing stereotypes of the West as brutal, uncompromising, and arrogant. Hardliners feed off of one another. Hawks in the West rationalize our enormous violence by claiming that the terrorists are just crazy, can't be reasoned with, and must be defeated at all costs – including any and all ensuing harm to non-combatants. Islamic extremists point to an ongoing pattern of Western imperialism, and an ever growing Muslim civilian body count, to justify continued attacks against Western and Western-backed targets. This theme forms the core of the current crisis we face, but it's buttressed by sub-narratives of racism and religious division, which are often misdiagnosed as primary narratives. The irony is that each warring side gives purpose to the other, yet the cycle continues endlessly because hatred is the most expedient of human emotions.

By equipping ourselves with only hammers, we are forced to view all our problems as nails. If we ever hope to break the tragic cycle of hatred and violence, we must stop denying that we bear any responsibility for its continuation, and we must begin to think of courage in moral terms rather than in military ones. Western culture has long revered the language of violence far too highly for us to be astonished when our victims reply to us in kind. We are all each other's victims.


iEric Brown. In Gallup Poll, The Biggest Threat To World Peace Is … America? International Business Times. January 2, 2014. Available at <>

iiInterview with Robert Fisk, March 22, 1997, 'The Great War For Civilisation', 2005, p.7.

iiiKris Christmann. 2012. Preventing Religious Radicalization and Violent Extremism: A Systematic Review of the Research Evidence. Youth Justice Board for England and Whales.

ivMI5 report challenges views on terrorism in Britain. The Guardian. August 20, 2008. <>