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Go Back       IAR Journal of Humanities and Social Science | IAR J Huma Soc Sci; 2021; 2(5): | Volume:2 Issue:5 ( Sept. 10, 2021 ) : 15-24
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DOI : 10.47310/iarjhss.2021.v02i05.003       Download PDF       HTML       XML

Terrorism: Origin, Nature, Causes, and Trends Revisited

Article History

Received: 10.08.2021 Revision: 20.08.2021 Accepted: 31.08.2021 Published: 10.09.2021

Author Details

Osondu Chukwudi S. PhD

Authors Affiliations

Department of Public Administration Federal Polytechnic, Oko Anambra State – Nigeria

Abstract: Terrorism has remained one of the gravest threats to contemporary global advancement and sustainable development. No meaningful development can be achieved in societies beset by conflicts. In many contemporary societies, attained developmental gains have been reversed by upheavals and years of conflicts. The level of global insecurity has in recent times been accentuated by dimension of the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq. The environment of the failed state of Somalia has indeed become very important in any discourse of currency regarding global security/insecurity architecture. The collapse of the Somali state over three decades ago left in its wake an ungoverned environment which has been exploited by the international Islamist Organizations to develop a “viable” terrorist hub in the Horn of Africa. The alliance of the local Somali Islamists, the al-Shabaab, with the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the ISIS increased the security profile of Somalia. The Libyan domestic conflict also escalated the Boko Haram insurgency in the Lake Chad Basin and throw up a strong and very connected Islamic State in West Africa Province. The linkage of al-Shabaab with the Islamist insurgency in Nigeria, and the upheaval in Yemen has rekindled global attention to the increased attention to the study of Terrorism. It is in this light that this paper devotes itself to going back to the basics in the study of terrorism: the definition, origin, causes and trends. It is the contention of this paper that a good understanding of these perspective will present veritable instruments in the efforts at dealing with Global Terrorism.

Keywords: Terrorism, insurgency, insecurity, development, conflict.


In a discourse on contemporary global issues, terrorism may well have continued to come up as one of the top three issues; the others being the environmental issue of global warming and the HIV and AIDS pandemic. When it comes to security matters, there may not be any word that is more frequently used today than terrorism. This paper reflects on terrorism, attempting to define the concept. It also X-rays the arguments around the nature, causes, trends and the driving force behind contemporary global terrorism. Most conflicts around the globe have got some measure of involvements. Where there is no conflict, they try to create one, and get involved. It so much holds that there is still the need to accurately define terrorism and give attention to its causes.

The Definitional Issues with Terrorism

There is no consensus among scholars and commentators concerning the standard definition of terrorism (Franks 2006: 1; Kapitan 2003: 47). In fact, to argue a comprehensive and generally agreed-on definition of terrorism seems virtually impossible, because a wide spectrum of violent actions, circumstances and competing causes lend well to such definition (Laqueur 1977: 10). There is even the argument in some quarters that the elevation of terrorism to the level of global significance is just a ploy by the West, aimed at diverting the attention of the global public from the pervasive impact of the globalization of western values and its destructive implication around the world (Weinberg 2005: 2).

The definitions of terrorism have also suffered from their inability to be value-neutral. The statement, “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” is commonplace.  This assumed subjectivity compounds the already definitional difficulties. Another serious problem in defining terrorism is the seeming difficulty in drawing a clear line between acts considered as terrorism and other legitimate political actions geared towards the exercise of the right to self-determination, freedom and independence (Chomsky 2003:70). For example, Kapitan (2003 in Sterba et al., ed.2003: 48) defines terrorism as “the deliberate use of violence, or the threat of such, directed upon civilians in order to achieve political objectives”. Wilkinson (2000:12-13) has also defined terrorism as “the systematic use of coercive intimidation, usually to service political ends” and commonly targeting “innocent civilians.” Some commentators believe that the above distinction is very necessary, considering the political experiences of a great number of peoples in history. This explains why the historical, political, religious and ideological contexts in which certain acts are committed then condition, in most cases, the categorization of such acts as whether they are terrorist acts or not. This explains why the use of the above adage “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” is very common. But most of the definitions encompass the goal (motive), method and the target as the characterizing definitional contents of terrorism.

Wilkinson (2000:12-13)) defines it thus: “Terrorism is a type of political violence that intentionally targets civilians (non-combatants) in a ruthlessly destructive, often unpredictable, manner, employing horrific violence against unsuspecting civilians, as well as combatants, in order to inspire fear and create panic which, in turn, advances the terrorist’s political and religious agenda”. ‘The use of violence or the threat of it’ occurs in almost all the many definitions of terrorism. But what qualifies an act as terrorism lies beyond this. There seems to be a convergence around the view that for an act to qualify as a terrorist act, the motive and the target are of significant importance. These seem to be the factors that distinguish terrorism from other common crimes. The motive is mainly agreed to be, in most cases, ‘political’. Sterba (2003: 1) observes that the use of violence or the “striking of terror” may not be enough to categorize an act as terrorist. Horgan (2005: 34) argues that “the terrorist’s use of violence is instrumental”, all with the intent of achieving the goal of creating “widespread fear, arousal and uncertainty” beyond the direct victim(s), with the aim of “influencing political process” and the outcome. Weinberg (2005: 7) feels that, rather than being a goal, terrorism is a “tactic” employed in the course of pursuing a goal, which, in most cases, is political. The act of choosing civilian targets is carefully made to possibly create a feeling of general insecurity within a society among the civilian population (Weinberg 2005: 4). It is also aimed at attracting attention and publicity, where a single terrorist act can “catapult” an obscure terrorist group into the international limelight, and bring about not only the acknowledgement of their existence but also the discussion of their grievances, however unpopular they may be (Weinberg 2005: 5).

Some scholars suggest that sometimes terrorist acts are targeted at forcing the government into an over-reaction, as a result of panic which may become counterproductive, such as taking stern security measures that compromise individuals’ freedom, resulting in a backlash from civil right groups and the general public (Smith 2004: 74; Weinberg 2005: 7). The situation in Pakistan is a clear example of this scenario. The government of the United States has had to contend with constant challenges from within Congress, public outcries and sometimes outright condemnation, following a number of the security measures it put in place in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. An example is the selective phone-tapping measure granted the FBI, authorizing it to selectively intercept phone-calls coming into or going out of the US, a measure which has received enormous challenges, including court actions, as having greatly infringed on the individual’s right to privacy. Terrorist acts may not always be aimed at changing an existing political landscape but may also be aimed at forestalling a possible reversal of a status quo. An example of this tactic was Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s use of consistent terrorist attacks on Israel to scuttle the 1993 Oslo peace deal between Israel and Palestine. Most scholars agree that for an act to be termed terrorist, it must be a violent act, committed for political reason(s), targeted at victims that may not be direct sources of anger, and aimed at creating fear, therefore, upholding motive and target as central to the definition of terrorism (Horgan 2005: 3; Wilkinson 2001: 16; Kapitan 2003: 48).

Nature of terrorism

Weinzieri (2004: 31) tries to distinguish between a terrorist and a guerrilla group and, by extension, acts of terrorism and those by guerrilla fighters. He posits that terrorists as much as practicable avoid face-to-face combat with states’ regular security forces. They concentrate rather on committing acts of violence against civilian populations to engender fear, influencing political change by coercion. By contrast, guerrilla fighters confront government soldiers and despoil whatever they can in such attacks, ranging from advantaged positions to military equipment. Hoffman (1999), quoted in Horgan (2005: 11), stresses that terrorism is never a war tactic. He asserts that:

even in wars there are rules and accepted norms of behaviour that prohibit the use of certain types of weapons…, prescribe tactics and outlaw attacks on specific categories of targets …The rules of war … not only grant civilian non-combatants immunity but also prohibit taking civilians as hostages; impose regulations governing the treatment of captured or surrendered soldiers (POWs); outlaw reprisals against either civilians or POWs; … and uphold the inviolability of diplomats and other accredited representatives.

Contrary to the above known “norms”, weak states that sponsor terrorism see it as an instrument of war against the West (Hoffman 1999: 28). Whether terrorism is seen as a tactic of war or not, as a strategy, it has, over the years, served the motives of the user. This may explain its continued employment as a viable line of action.

Cilliers and Sturman (2002: i. d) raise the issue of the efforts at domain restriction or broadening. They argue that countries that perceive themselves as terrorist targets or organizations in areas where they have overwhelming influence tend to broaden the crimes and acts of violence categorized as terrorist. Conversely, countries and organizations that see themselves as possible targets of such “over-broadened” definitions tend to cautiously and consciously narrow the defining features of terrorism. A good example of this is the OAU 1999 Algiers Convention, which clearly excluded actions conducted in the struggles for self-determination from its definition of terrorist acts. In Article 3 of the Convention, it provides that ‘armed struggles against colonialism, occupation, aggression and domination by foreign forces shall not be considered as terrorist acts’. This standpoint can be understood when a number of African states fought wars of independence and political decolonization, but this is at variance with the Western perception of armed struggles as terrorist acts and some liberation organizations, including organizations like the anti-apartheid African National Congress, as terrorist organizations. There still exists a measure of consensus regarding issues such as hijackings, hostage-taking and diplomatic attacks as terrorist acts.

As can be seen from the definitions and/or attempts at defining terrorism as diversely as is represented above, all seem to view terrorism from the orthodox theoretical perspective. This perspective is state-centric, in that it looks at terrorism as “illegitimate” acts committed against an established authority or a state. Franks (2006: 1) has observed that defining or understanding terrorism “relative to the legitimacy of state governance” (as being an illegal or illegitimate act) restricts most works on terrorism at categorization of “what is” or “what is not”. He argued that the orthodox, traditional, state-centric approach leaves out an important ingredient, the roots of terrorism, in its definitions. Such inclusion would amount to legitimizing non-state violence, terrorism already seen primarily as “a challenge and threat to state authority by an illegitimate body” that has no locus whatsoever to contest whatever it is canvassing (Franks 2006: 3). Laqueur (1987: 72) emphasized that the “disputes about a detailed, comprehensive definition of terrorism will continue for a long time and will make no noticeable contribution towards the understanding of terrorism”. For example, while the US Defence Department defined terrorism to be “unlawful use of force or violence against individuals or property to coerce and intimidate governments to accept political, religious or ideological objectives”, the spiritual leader of the Hezbollah, Sheikh Fadlallah, defined it as “fighting with special means against aggressor nations in religious lawful warfare against world imperial powers” (Franks 2006: 13). This kind of mixed signals has led some scholars to suggest the need to move the definition of terrorism away from the moral legitimacy environment, to a more value free landscape. This approach canvasses for terrorism to simply be seen in the realm of conflict. In line with this approach, Gurr (1988: 116) defines terrorism as “a doctrine about the efficacy of unexpected and life-threatening violence for political change and strategy of political action which embodies that doctrine”. Franks (2006: 17) simply defines it as: “an act of lethal violence for a political agenda”.

Origin and trends of terrorism

The use of the word “terrorism” dates back to 1793-1794 when the French revolution was called “the Reign of Terror”. This describes the situation during the reign of Jacobin, when the “Committee of General Security and the Revolutionary Tribunal” were given broad powers to deal with counter-revolutionaries. Violence was employed by the government as an instrument to consolidate the revolution and power against the enemies of the state and the people (Hubshle 2006: 3; Weinberg 2005. 3). Weinzieri (2004) in Nyatepe-Coo and Zeisler-Vrasled (2004: 34), pointed out that there exists a clear difference between the nature and trend of the ‘state terrorism’ of the then French state and the ancient and medieval period, to the effect that the French state’s use of violence was done as a socio-political platform to safeguard the revolution in the name and or ‘interest’ of the people – the masses or proletariat – and not in the name of God. It was a secular phenomenon, a deviation from the nature of group religious fundamentalism that was before it, and was to come centuries later, in the contemporary global, transnational and international terrorism. The French Revolution and its ‘violent’ defense sparked nationalism and intellectual (ideological) revolution across the world, especially in Europe.

Earlier acts of organized violence were not called terrorism. The earliest recorded organized violence was associated with the Jewish extremist Zealot sect, the Sicarii. This sect, whose motive was to provoke a revolt by the Jews against the “occupying” Roman government and bring it to an end, employed assassination by dagger against the Romans and moderate Jews, who were regarded as collaborators with the Roman authorities. The Roman authorities and Greeks were equally targeted (Weinzieri 2004: 31). The Jewish revolt of AD 66-70 is ascribed to the Zealots. Its failure not only inflicted great destruction on the Jewish nation but also marked the end of the Sicarii. In the medieval period, between 1090 and 1275, the Assassins, a radical Shiite Ismaili sect waged a violent campaign aimed at purifying Islam (Weinzieri 2004: 31). They operated in the region occupied by the modern day Iran, Syria and Israel. The Assassins targeted mainly the Sunni Muslim religious and political leaders, who they accused of hijacking and corrupting Islam (Weinberg and Davis 1989: 19; Weinzieri 2004: 31). Many Christians were also victims of their activities. Weinzieri (2004: 32) observes that one of the intriguing elements of their operations was their readiness to die after killing their victims. The Assassin would trail and “kill the enemy and, rather than flee, would calmly await capture and execution” in a fashion depicting martyrdom. This attitude is viewed as the origin of suicide terrorism (Weinberg and Davis 1989: 21).   

Before World War 1, terrorism was associated with left-wing revolutionaries in their contest for power and control of the state. Citing the anarchist Narodnaya Volya (meaning the people’s will) in Russia (1879), (Hubshle (2006: 5) observed that these organizations were not part of the core socialist revolutionary strategy, but rather a product of perceived “necessity in raising the consciousness of the masses”. Laqueur (1987: 62) pointed out that Lenin charged that left-wing revolutionary terrorism restricted itself to group action, as opposed to mass action by the working class and the peasants, thereby complicating the efforts at galvanizing the masses. The end of World War I coincided with the rise in right-wing groups that engaged in terrorist acts, either to scuttle rising revolutionary activities or to guard the status quo. For example, the activities of the ultra-right Ku Klux Klan, formed in the United States in 1865, became more prominent after WWI, spreading hate against non-Anglo Saxons (especially blacks and Jews) in the US and organizing violence against them to inspire fear and intimidate the rising black consciousness and Jewish influence (Weinzieri 2004: 35). In Europe, some governments that feared the incursion of communism reacted to the 1917 Russian revolution by initiating activities aimed at stemming it. The Nazi movement in Germany and the Fascist Movement in Italy resorted to the use of state terror against suspected ‘enemies of the state’ (Hubschle 2006: 6; Townshend 2002: 54). The trend shifted again to a new phase of terrorism associated with revolutionary motives by the end of World War II. Nationalist movements emerged in many colonial territories in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East in the 1940s and 1950s. These groups waged struggles for independence and self-determination, with some employing violent means. While such groups saw themselves and were also seen by anti-colonial forces around the world as freedom fighters, most colonial powers and some other Western countries regarded them as terrorists. Hubschle (2006: 9) quoted Yassir Arafat, the former chairman of the PLO, as having reasoned that: “The difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist lies in the reason for which each fights. For whoever stands by a just cause and fights for the freedom and liberation of his land ….cannot possibly be called terrorist.”  This argument, which was made on the floor of the UN General Assembly in 1974, prompted a debate aimed at drawing a distinction between anti colonial groups and nationalist-separatist groups operating “outside colonial and neocolonial framework” in the 1960s and 1970s. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Basque separatist group (ETA) fall into this category (Hubschle 2006: 9).  

The notion of ‘international terrorism’ made its way into security discourse in the 1980s. Townshend (2002: 28) traces it to Alexander Haig, a former American Secretary of State, who accused the Soviet Union in 1981 of being a sponsor of “International Terrorists”. This was to be followed in 1982 by The Terror Network, a book written by Claire Sterling, outlining how the Soviet Union was involved in organizing international terrorist networks, especially in the Third World. While it is not within the scope of this work to discuss the veracity of the above accusation against the Soviet Union, there is the need to observe that America’s reaction to the accusation led to a step-up in overt and covert military and political engagements around the world, especially in countries that leaned towards the communist East. By the middle of the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, left-wing motivated terrorism almost disappeared around the world, launching the contemporary world into a new phase of global terrorism inspired by religious motives (Hubschle 2006: 10-11).          


When terrorism is mentioned today, greater thought is given to non-state actors. The US State Department defined terrorism as ‘the premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually to influence an audience’ (Hoffman1999: 38). ‘The use of violence or the threat of it’ occurs in almost all the definitions of terrorism. But what qualifies an act as terrorism lies beyond this, in the motive and the target. Most scholars agree that for an act to be termed “terrorist”, the act must be violent, committed for political reason(s), targeted at victims that may not be direct sources of anger and aimed at creating fear. (Horgan 2005: 3; Kapitan 2003: 48).  One major difficulty in defining terrorism is the difficulty in drawing a line between acts considered as terrorism and other legitimate political actions geared towards the exercise of the right to self-determination, freedom and independence (Chomsky 2003: 70).


Weinzieri (2004: 30) posits that acts of terrorism are “well-planned, organized actions” and “not random” in the strict sense of the word. For him, they are clearly mapped-out combat methods engaged in by groups that may not be able to stand contemporary conventional wars. While Pojman (2003:140) calls terrorism “a type of political violence that intentionally targets civilians, Kapitan (2003: 46) calls it “the deliberate use or threat of violence” upon civilians and Hoffman (1999: 43) defines it as “the deliberate creation of fear.” One of the many definitions of terrorism by US agencies is that which defines terrorism as the use of violence or the threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious or ideological in nature (US Institute of Peace 2011: 8). The juxtaposition of these points of view brings us face-to-face with what is assumed to be the psychological state of a terrorist, especially the suicide terrorist. The investigation into the personality of the terrorist has attracted attention to working out possible personality traits that may be associated with terrorist tendencies. Scholars have continued to engage in research of, and debate over, the psychology or the mindset of the terrorist. Victoroff (2005: 9) points out that terrorists have been associated with certain personality or psychological dispositions that include being violent, alcoholic, deeply religious, sexually shy, poor social achievement, ambivalence towards authority, defective insight, strong adherence to convention, emotional detachment and low education, but was quick to conclude that these traits have not been able to clearly distinguish terrorists from non-terrorists. Equally, the contemporary terrorist trend and profile seem to have nullified some of these assumptions, such as in the areas of education and achievement. Wilkinson (2001: 27) argues that terrorism is ‘a rational’ course of action taken by a ‘relatively weak group in an asymmetric conflict with a high stake’. Smith (in Nyatepe-Coo and Zeisler-Vralsted eds.2004: 71) feels that terrorism should not be categorized with other forms of crime and ‘psychopathological actions’. He points out that most terrorists are ‘extremely shrewd and rational’ persons who execute clinically, well-designed plans, and in most cases undetected by the most intelligent security networks put in place.

Motivating Factors or Causes of terrorism   

The task of isolating any singular factor as the root cause of terrorism poses a serious difficulty. The character of the social formation that gives rise to terrorism may seem easy to configure, but an analysis of different terrorists known to history presents no clear evidence that a particular kind of environment would always produce terrorists. Diverse social systems have had terrorists grown from among them. There is a debate on the connection between terrorism and the prevailing economic conditions of a society. Strong argument is made on a clear correlation between terrorism and socio-economic factors such as unemployment, economic deprivation, poverty and income inequality, (Li and Schaub 2004: 231; Burgoon 2006: 176). Through the studies on the patterns of terrorism and the individual attitudes and actions, scholars have tried to present a connection between economic conditions, such as poverty and income inequality arguing that these, in a number of instances, have defined the “level of the feeling of deprivation and of injustice, and hence political tension” (Burgoon 2006:176). The US Department of State’s report, ‘Counterterrorism Office: 2001 – Patterns of Global Terrorism – Report: Africa Overview’ tends to lend support to this linkage. It identifies poverty, among other factors, as being responsible for the failure of the Somali state, a condition that has created an enabling environment for the growth of Islamist extremists and suspected terrorists.

Deductively, therefore, fighting negative economic conditions by ‘promoting economic growth and combating inequality’ may well be the starting point for any effort at stamping out terrorism (Tyson 2001, in Li and Schaub 2004: 235). However, some scholars challenge this argument. Weinberg (2005: 66) feels that it is too simplistic to argue that economic conditions cause terrorism. If it was that simple terrorism would disappear if governments and international bodies take decisions and implement policies that promote economic development and present people with a ‘secured future’. He stresses that if economic conditions were to be primary causes of terrorism, then sub-Saharan Africa and, indeed, most Third World countries would have been devastated by domestically grown terrorism, given their monumental economic crises. The official US position supports this view (The White House – CRS Report 2002). It challenges the linkage between poor economic conditions and terrorism, because the findings on the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States show the terrorists involved were educated Muslim youths with middle class backgrounds, supported and financed by very rich people (The White House – CRS Report 2002; Burgoon 2006: 117). Again, other studies of the characteristics of terrorists tend not to support the poverty and deprivation connection. For example, in interviews conducted by Hassan (2001) involving nearly 250 members of organizations that use terrorism, failed suicide terrorists and members of their families, it was found that none reported significant economic deprivation. In two separate studies, by Krueger and Maleckova (2002: 13), on the profiles of 129 Hezbollah militants killed in action, and Berribi (2003), on about 335 deceased Palestinian terrorists, the researchers could not establish association between poverty and the likelihood of becoming a terrorist. On the contrary, both studies found ‘that terrorists tend to be relatively well off by the standards of their societies’ (Tessler and Robbins 2007: 310). Victoroff (2005:8) revealed that the result of a research conducted in 2001 by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) involving about 1,357 adults living in the West Bank and Gaza, which tested the hypothesis that poverty and low level of education factor in influencing attitude towards political violence, found that ‘support for terrorism against Israeli civilians was even more among professionals than among labourers (43.3 vs. 34.6 percent) and more common among those with secondary education than among illiterate respondents 39.4 vs. 32.3)’. In fact, Pedahzur, Perliger and Weinberg (2003: 22) suggest that terrorist groups look for membership among individuals whose motivation are not monetary gains but rather a conviction and commitment to the cause of the group. Criticizing the US counterterrorism policy in Africa, Prof. Kinfe Abraham, the President, Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development (EIIPD) and The Horn of Africa Democracy and Development Authority (HADDA), reasons that the US support for security and intelligence network and capacity building in Africa since the September 11, 2001 attack is tantamount to a ‘“use fire to eliminate fire” approach’. He feels that:

This approach only addresses the symptoms, without dealing with the causes. Nevertheless, what the United States needs to do is help eradicate poverty, illiteracy and diseases from the Third World, including Africa. The above will help dry the swamp in which terrorists sprout and grow.  It is poverty, oppression and hopelessness that motivate people to die with those whom they perceive as living in luxury at their expense. Such people want a fair share of the wealth of the world. They see the current economic system as exploitative and unjust (Abraham 2005: i.d)  

Li and Schaub (2004: 238) counter-argue that sound reason prevails that economic development that positively impact people’s wellbeing in a society may have an “indirect negative effect on transnational terrorism”.  


The role of democracy, or lack of it, in encouraging terrorism, is equally contentious. Some scholars feel that the absence of democratic governance in some countries is a prime cause of terrorism. These analysts opine that “extremism emerges partly out of frustration associated with a lack of political freedom” (Whitaker 2007: 1022). This argument, which is also the position of the West (especially the United States and Britain), is based on the premise that the lack of democracy in any state tends to block channels for political discourses and open participation which, in turn, can drive individuals to become violent and resort to terrorism as a form of expression. Weinberg (2005: 66) states:

In countries where citizens are denied the right to participate peacefully in political process, they naturally turn to political violence. If all channels of open political expression are blocked, aggrieved individuals will turn [to] terrorism as the only means available to make themselves heard.

Accepting this argument to be true is to agree that the introduction of democracy in “undemocratic” societies becomes a veritable weapon to solving the problem of terrorism. This particular conclusion appears to be central in the US global campaign against terrorism. The United States, therefore, champions efforts at sustaining democracies and, at the same time, supports campaigns for “democratization” of “undemocratic” states as the cornerstone of its war on terror.  But the link between the lack of democracy and the growth of terrorism does not help to explain the surge in homegrown Islamist terrorist activities in Britain (or even the US itself). Since 2005, Britain has experienced an upsurge in domestic terrorist activities linked directly to British citizens (HM Government 2006: 1). There is also conflicting signals to this point of view generated by certain key elements in the global war on terror, as they concern certain basic democratic principles such as the fundamental human rights of the individual and the treatment of detainees and the fact that the West still co-operates with authoritarian and undemocratic regimes around the world, such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.  

A slightly different argument by some scholars tends to link the increase in the incidence of terrorism to the widening of democratic space, including the more liberal media, which become attractive to terrorists who are seeking publicity, constitutional provisions which guarantee freedoms of expression and organization, as well as individual freedom (Li 2005: 281; Eugene 2004: 25). Writing on Spain, Weinberg (2005: 68) states that “the installation of democracy coincided with the sharp increase in ETA terrorism: the greater the opportunity for free expression in Spanish political life, seemingly the more terrorist violence occurs”. For their part, Wade and Reiter (2007: 331) feel that both the absence of democratic environment and the widening of democratic space can only present “permissive or enabling preconditions for terrorism rather than being an immediate precipitant” of terrorism.

Concerning the sharp rise in the incidence in, and profile of, global terrorism since the 1980s, the issue regarding the extent to which coalesced efforts at stopping the perceived Soviet (communist) incursions into territories that were of significant global geopolitical interests in the 1980s has contributed to the rise in global terrorism, becomes part of the debate. Cilliers and Sturman (2002: i.d) point out that the surge in terrorist incidents in the 1990s was a product of the concerted efforts by the West aimed at ‘reversing Soviet expansion in central-South Asia, Afghanistan in particular’. They point out that the West, especially the United States, funded, trained and provided logistic support to the mujihadeens in Afghanistan. They blame the return of the majority of Afghan war veterans to North Africa (Egypt, Algeria and Sudan) at the end of the war in 1989, as marking a watershed in the history of international terrorism. In Algeria, for example, Cilliers and Sturman (2002: i.d) estimate that between 1986 and 1989, six hundred (600) to one thousand (1000) ‘battle-hardened Algerian nationals returned home. They provided a nucleus for the terrorist movement that would follow.’ Weinzieri (2004: 41) agrees with this position. He observes that the United States “actually engaged in state sponsorship [of terrorism] and helped train and fund al-Qaeda during the last phase of the Cold War, hoping to defeat the Soviets indirectly”. This illustrates the extent to which the global political environment may have influenced the character and shape of contemporary global and international terrorism. Thus, the saying ‘training for today’s just warriors may become the benefit of tomorrow’s terrorist’ is apt.

An overview of contemporary terrorism

A fundamental driving factor to contemporary international terrorism is the role of religion. The religious factor becomes even more important when we look closely at contemporary terrorists, who they are, where they come from (their background) and their targets and motives. Islamist fundamentalism has configured the modern-day terrorism to the extent that some scholars have a category, “Islamist terrorism” (Dalacoura 2006: 507; Tessler and Robbins 2007: 307). Since the 1990s, terrorist activities have seen a shift from predominantly nationalist-separatists and social revolutionaries, in the 1970s and 1980s, to more Islamist fundamentalist terrorism (Bjorgo 2005: 4). Bjorgo (2005) observes that the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union witnessed a rise in the emergence of religious terrorist groups following the sharp decline in global ideological polarization and by impact, a corresponding sharp decrease of ‘revolutionary terrorists’. To understand the Islamists’ fundamentalist activities clearly, Dalacoura (2006: 510) subdivided it into three: transnational Islamist terrorism, Islamist terrorism associated with nationalist liberation movements, and Islamist domestic insurgencies. The domestic fundamentalist terrorist insurgencies involve Islamist fundamentalists within Islamic countries, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which challenge national governments by attacking government officials and interests. The activities of these organizations are often focused on attacking the global impact of western values, especially as they affect the Muslim world including, crude materialism, sexual licentiousness and gender equality, which Western culture promotes. Islam, for them, has been corrupted and secularism has infected a number of Arab states and their leaders. The activities of the domestic insurgencies are aimed at changing the religious and political status quo and bringing the un-Islamic governments and leaders down, by Jihad.

The Islamist terrorists that are involved in nationalist liberation movements are those that focus on national liberation struggles, such as Hamas and Fatwa Brigade of Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon (Dalacoura 2006: 510). These organizations are known to be both social and political platforms, not just for their membership, but also for struggles over established socio-political issues of national significance. The Hezbollah, for example, which came into existence during the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s as a Shia militia, has since fought Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon on different occasions, has become a political party, participating in domestic national politics and elections and engages in social and civic roles among the Shiites in Lebanon. It has also become a rallying point for most Lebanese that oppose Israel (Dalacoura 2006: 216). This is also true of the Hamas and the Fatwa in the Palestinian struggle. Although they do not agree on the ideal path to achieving a settlement for the Palestinian state – while Hamas rejects a two-state solution, Fatwa sees that to be the feasible outcome of their struggle – both focus on the plight of the Palestinians and the struggle for an independent Palestinian state. These organizations resort to terrorist attacks in pursuit of their goals (Dalacoura 2006: 217).    

The transnational Islamist terrorists are those represented by the Islamic Front. Islamist organizations that fall under this group concentrate on the global unity of actions by all Muslims. At this level, both the members of domestic insurgencies and those concerned with nationalist struggles are united and connected to the global network of fundamentalist Islamist terrorists. The emergence of al-Qaeda as a global spearhead in international terrorism has injected much dynamism, co-ordination and precision into the planning, communication and execution of terrorist acts. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) are the ‘nexus’ of contemporary global terrorism. The Al-Qaeda, for example, is a loose organization of Islamist fundamentalist groups scattered all over the Muslim world, pre-occupied with a war (religious, cultural and historical) against the enemies of Islam – the West and its Jewish alliance (Schweitzer and Shay 2003: 25; Weinberg 2000: 74). Groups that may not have any physical connection find themselves brought together by the al-Qaeda network in the synergy presented by “a common ideology, a common enemy, mutual support and sponsorship” (Kiras 2005:484). Al-Qaeda was formally instituted in February 1998, with the establishment of the International Islamic Front for the Jihad against the Crusader and Jews. Al-Qaeda’s World View is contained in the Fatwa or religious edict which was signed by Osama Bin-Laden, the head of al-Qaeda; Al-Zawahiri, the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad faction; Sheikh Mir Hamza, the secretary of the Gamat alal Ulma of Pakistan; Fasslul Rahman of the Jihad Bangladesh Movement and Ahmad Rifai Taha of Egyptian Gymea’s a-Islamiyah, calling on all Muslim faithful throughout the world to take the killing of American and their allies (civilians and military alike) as personal duties geared toward liberating the holy temple in Mecca and the Jewish occupied lands, especially Jerusalem, from the ‘infidels’ (Schweitzer 2005:26).

It is important to highlight the worldview that was presented by Bin Laden, which informs the current escalation in the incidents of global Islamist terrorism since the mid-1990s. Schweitzer and Shay (2003: 27) quoted Bin Laden as declaring:  

The entire globe in general and the Middle East in particular constitute an arena in which a conclusive battle for survival prevails between the three main religions. In the struggle, a Christian Crusader-Jewish coalition has been formed which is expressed in the alliance between the United States and Israel… which has conquered Islam’s most sacred lands of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem and aspires to crush it… this alliance methodically and intentionally massacred Moslems… the massacre of Moslem Iraqi population by American forces in the Gulf war of 1991, the bombing of Iraq on December 1998, the massacre in Sabra and Shatilla during the war in Lebanon and the killing of the Palestinians in the lands occupied by Israel.

Islamist terrorists are not only armed against perceived enemies of Islam such as the United States and Israel but also “corrupt and sultanate Arab regimes that is the Gulf States, headed by the Saudi monarchy” (Schweitzer and Shay 2003: 27). The above presentation of violent acts as a religious (divine) duty to the terrorist recruits heightens the deadliness of these terrorists as the Islamist terrorist is given “unlimited” grounds to legitimize and/or justify the act. It shatters every measure of constraint by human morality, leading the terrorist to go all out to murder, including taking his or her own life, as part of the ‘divine obligation’ (Weinzieri 2004: 37; Hoffman 1998: 88) and recognizing no ‘ethical or human limits’ (Smith 2004: 71). This explains why the Middle East conflict (the Palestinian-Israeli conflict) has remained the most critical issue that encourages Islamist terrorism and shapes the contemporary international terrorism, whether transnational or domestic. As such, almost every single contemporary Islamist terrorist points at the Palestinian question as a grievance.

The impact of globalization on the surge in global terrorism is an ongoing debate. Victoroff (2005: 3) contends that globalization in the areas of “commerce, travel, and information transfer” has greatly affected the nature and the threat level of terrorism in the contemporary global system. The main characterizing feature of globalization is the fact of ‘knocked down’ boundaries, the reformatting of the world into a borderless community, compressing it in space and time, and greatly weakening and diminishing the sovereignty and influence wielded by states. Two major dimensions of the impact of globalization on terrorism seem to have played out over the years. Firstly, globalization can be said to have created and sustained an enabling environment for terrorists to operate, especially with the enhancement of terrorist operational efficiency through the use of modern technologies that are easily available to terrorists in the form of cheaper and more capable computers, software and wireless technologies, the uninhibited utility of the worldwide web, the unlimited electronic contact capacity, the advanced publicity enhancing globe-wide media and the lax international financial system (Kiras 2005: 489). Terrorists have been aided by this conduciveness of environment in their recruitment drives, ability to disseminate information to the widest possible audience and to control the content of their messages; tailoring the information they post on the websites to have the expected effect on the audience. It has become easier for terrorist groups to match and/or dilute external information (or propaganda), co-ordinate activities across the globe from a single base, evade security mounted against them and mount security on their detractors. Sourcing of funds and transactions are made more secure by the prevailing mode of international money transfers. Added to these is the revolution in the transport industry in the contemporary international system. Travelling is made easier, faster, safer and more secure, even for the terrorist.

Secondly, the dissemination of Western socio-cultural, economic and political values not only as the dominant value system but also as the defining parameter for measuring currency or “up-to-datedness”, has created tension and resentment in some quarters across the globe. This tends to have greatly sharpened the antagonism against the West and Westerners by fundamentalist Islam in the contemporary global interchange. Victoroff (2005: 7) observes that the demise of the Soviet Union, which signalled the end of the Cold War, and inaugurating a triumphant neo-liberalism, caused an observable rise in the global profile of ‘radical Islamist terrorism’. Islamist fundamentalism has emerged as an ‘aggrieved competitor with the market – economic, democratic and secular trends of modernity’ (Victoroff 2005: 3). The vehemence with which the fundamentalist Islamists harp on about the issue of the perceived erosion of Islamic values shows the extent to which this has been of critical appeal to most Muslims. Hoffman (1998: 38) points out that a large percentage of the global population and most Arabs perceive the United States as imperialistic, spreading its liberal values and eroding values, thereby heightening tensions within and across cultures. The al-Qaeda principles said that much when Bin Laden was quoted as charging that the Middle East, which symbolizes the soul of Islam currently “constitutes an arena in which a conclusive battle for survival prevails”, a battle he sees the US and Israel as having “conquered Islam’s most holy lands….”(Schweitzer 2005: 27). The military inversion of Iraq by the coalition led by the US received widespread reaction among Muslims across the world. It was viewed as a continuation of the strategy of the West to completely overwhelm Islam. The Iraqi conflict, therefore, added a new impetus to the galvanization of fundamentalist Islamists’ challenge of the role of the West in the Middle East and its implications for Islam. This has become an issue which remains relevant even with those moderate Arab governments such as Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This was especially complicated with the discovery that the allegation of possession or capability of possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) levelled against Iraq, on the strength of which the coalition against Iraq was built, was a flux. Insurgents from among Iraqis, as well as foreign fighters, coordinated by al-Qaeda continue to fight the coalition forces inside Iraq and still target Western interests across the world. Since the 1980s there have been not only a rise in the number of Islamist terrorist incidents but also of a more globalized and intense dimension. The casualties have risen to unprecedented levels.


While the audacious operations of the Islamic State and the activities of the Ai Qaeda seems to have been curtailed and the establishment of the “Islamic Caliphate” slowed down in the past decade, many terrorist cells are growing stronger. The Boko Haram in Nigeria over the past ten years has continued to gain ground, spreading into Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) has continued to gain grounds along the West African sub-region, linking up with the Sahel and the Islamic State in the Maghreb. The UN Security Council Press Release of 09 July 2020 observes that “Terrorists continue to exploit latent ethnic animosities and the absence of the State in peripheral areas to advance their agenda.” The Horn of Africa is also deepening in conflict. Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea are still contending with internationalised conflicts. Peace is steadily undermined globally. Africa’s case seems worse, and development becomes a only a dream in situations of conflict. A good understanding of the origin, causes of, and trend in terrorism will go a long way to mapping out strategies for combating the menace.


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