Why the Easy Generalizations About the Causes of Terrorism Are Wrong

Following is an excerpt from Mr. Laqueur's newest book, No End to War. To read the full chapter from which this excerpt is drawn click here .

The causes of terrorism have been a source of bewilderment and misconceptions for a long time. It was widely believed that terrorism was a response to injustice and that terrorists were people driven to desperate actions by intolerable conditions, be it poverty, hopelessness, or political or social oppression. Following this reasoning, the only way to remove or at least to reduce terrorism is to tackle its sources, to deal with the grievances and frustrations of the terrorists rather than simply trying to suppress terrorism by brute force. As an American linguist put it, "Drain the swamp, and the mosquitoes will disappear."

Such views had much justification in past situations. To give but two examples -- the Russian revolutionaries and the Irish patriots....

After World War I, and even more after World War II, the character of terrorism began to change. Terrorist operations were frequently carried out by groups of far-right and fascist inspiration, such as the Free Corps in Germany, the Romanian Iron Guard, or Japanese terrorists who drew their inspiration from the Samurai. There is no reason to doubt the idealistic inspiration of these terrorists and their willingness if need be to sacrifice their lives. But it became abundantly clear that terrorism was by no means a left-wing or progressive phenomenon. Those, for instance, who in 1922 killed the German Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau (who was of Jewish origin) were the precursors of the Nazi movement. Terrorism still occurred frequently on the basis of national conflicts, but it was no longer primarily directed against political and military leaders of the other side; it became progressively more and more indiscriminate. Furthermore, other forms of terrorism occurred, such as terrorism that was largely religiously motivated and terrorism which consisted of a mixture of ideological and criminal elements, such as the drug trade. All this was quite different from nineteenth-century terrorism, and generalizations trying to cover all these manifestations became difficult if not impossible.

The targets of nineteenth-century terrorism were kings, ministers, and generals. This was true even for terrorism in Europe and elsewhere up to the 1970s, though increasingly middle-level targets were included -- such as judges, bankers, or other figures who were not very much in the public eye. True, there had been the occasional pronouncement on the part of terrorists that "there are no innocents," but by and large the killing of bystanders had been accidental, not part of a strategy. More recently, especially in ethnically motivated terrorism, acts of violence have been indiscriminate. Hence the many attacks against "soft" targets such as tourism (Djerba, Bali, Mombasa).Relatively few political leaders or other prominent public figures were killed, and the strategy became to assassinate as many members of the enemy group as possible. The reason might have been, in part, that it is usually more difficult to assassinate a leading political figure who is often well guarded. But mainly the change in strategy was caused by the growing fanaticism, the beliefs (1) that not just a few figures but the whole enemy society was a legitimate target, (2) that the aim was not to propagate an idea but to destroy, and (3) that the murder of children, women, elderly people, and other noncombatants would spread even more fear and panic than attacks against soldiers and security forces.

The geography and the etiology of terrorism -- the analysis of where terrorism occurred and where it did not occur in the twentieth century -- is of some help in understanding its roots. If terrorism is the result of intolerable oppression, one should have expected terrorism in the most oppressive regimes: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union. There were a few attempts to kill Hitler and Mussolini (none to assassinate Stalin), but these were the actions of individuals and not systematic terrorism. In the Soviet Union (as in Spain under Franco), terrorism occurred only after the totalitarian regime had been dismantled. In Latin America in the 1970s, terrorism first occurred in Uruguay, the most democratic of the South American countries, not in the harshest dictatorships.

The reasons were obvious: In an effective dictatorship, the political police could prevent attempts to prepare terrorist campaigns. Even in a military dictatorship that was not particularly efficient -- such as Franco's Spain -- there was no terrorism. The operation of the Basque ETA began only after the dictator had died. Terrorism in Greece started after the Colonels had been ousted, not under their rule. On the other hand, terrorism of the extreme left did occur in democratic regimes such as Germany and Italy in the 1970s as well as regimes that were at least democratic to some extent. These terrorist campaigns led to the overthrow of democratic governments in some Latin American countries that were incapable of stemming the terrorist tide. But the military dictatorships that succeeded them suppressed terrorism without much difficulty. In brief, terrorism did not stand much of a chance against political regimes able to use unrestricted force against them, unhampered by laws, considerations of human rights, and public protests. Terrorism could flourish only in a surrounding that was at least partly democratic in character or, alternatively, in a wholly inefficient dictatorship.

It has been widely argued that a direct correlation exists between terrorism and poverty -- that poverty, especially in what used to be called the third world, is the most important factor responsible for terrorism. However, the historical evidence does not bear out such categorical statements. It stands to reason that if all mankind were to live in small countries, preferably in small cities, and if all human beings were well off, there would be less violence, be it crime or terrorism. But there is no reason to assume that violence would disappear altogether....

How to explain the persistent belief that poverty and starvation are the main, if not the only, causes of terrorism in the contemporary world? It has to do in part with certain political assumptions: that the misery of the third world is the fault of imperialism and the third world's exploitation by the developed countries, a version of the Leninist theory of imperialism which lingers on. Westerners have been told not only that the global division of wealth is unjust, but that it is their fault. Of course the colonial powers have exploited their colonies, but the powers also contributed to the colonies' economic development. The colonies rebelled against foreign rule not primarily because of economic exploitation; had they remained colonies, the economic situation of many would be better today. Underlying the belief that terrorism is generated by poverty is the assumption that in this case it might be relatively easy to remedy this state of affairs by offering much greater support to the poor countries, to have a redivision of wealth, by providing employment and thus restoring hope.

The misery of hundreds of millions in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, not to mention Africa, has a variety of reasons; it should figure high on the international agenda. But even those most sympathetic to the cause of the third world have realized for a long time that to account for violence in these parts, more sophisticated explanations are called for. As Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, put it: The poor of this world suffer enough; one should not in addition brand them as potential terrorists....

Terrorism has causes; ex nihilo nihil fit -- nothing comes out of nothing. There is a connection between terrorism and the economic and social situation. There is a connection with the political state of affairs, and at the present time, there is a connection with Islam. If all mankind would be as wealthy as the very richest countries are right now, there would, in all probability, still be violence, but there would be less of it.

Such conclusions do not, however, take us very far. Many terrorisms exist, and their character has changed over time and from country to country. The endeavor to find a "general theory" of terrorism, one overall explanation of its roots, is a futile and misguided enterprise. The motives of the Russian revolutionaries of 1881 have as much to do with al Qa'ida and the various jihads as does the terrorism of Oklahoma City with Peru's Shining Path or the Colombian revolutionaries and drug dealers.

To state the obvious again, terrorism has changed over time and so have the terrorists, their motives, and the causes of terrorism. A century ago terrorism was either socialist revolutionary or anarchist, or in some cases, nationalist separatist such as in Ireland and the Balkans. A world map of terrorism around 1970 still showed, broadly speaking, the same trends -- left-wing terrorism in some European countries and in Latin America, nationalist terrorism in the Middle East, but also terrorism carried out by groups of the extreme right -- in Germany and Romania in the 1920s and 1930s and in later decades also in Italy, Turkey, and other countries. This terrorism was predominantly internal, directed against the ruling government or other parties and social groups. Only in a few cases was terrorism based in one country directed against another, such as in the Middle East and on the Indian subcontinent.

During the 1980s and early 1990s there was a worldwide decline in terrorist action. The left-wing groups with a very few exceptions had disappeared, the right wing had declined in influence, and while the nationalist-separatist trend continued to operate, there were also signs that it was abating. The Irish and the Basque terrorists were negotiating on and off with the governments of their countries, and the peace process in the Middle East also caused a decline in the number of acts of terrorism. Some of the sponsors of state terrorism, including Libya and Sudan, became noticeably less active than they had been before, and the Iranians tried harder to obliterate their traces. As the annual report of the State Department for the year 2000 stated, only nineteen U.S. citizens had been killed that year in acts of international terrorism. (Seventeen of them perished in a single attack -- on the USS Cole in the port of Aden.)

However, during the 1990s, a new factor arose that became within a few years the most important by far on the map of international terrorism: Islamic terrorism. There had been, of course, such groups before, such as in Algeria, but sometimes they were overlooked; on other occasions they were thought to be mainly local and nationalist rather than religious in character, such as in the case of Kashmir and Palestine. (Kashmir and Palestine had been originally national conflicts, but they have become more and more religious-political -- Islamist in other words -- in recent years.) In other places the military operations by Islamic groups took the character of guerrilla warfare rather than terrorism in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

But with the attempts of al Qa'ida under Osama bin Laden to establish something like an international coordination bureau of Muslim terrorist groups and an International Brigade, the role of Islamic terrorism became predominant and most other terrorist groups became marginal -- except, of course, for the local authorities involved.

All this history has to be recalled for the simple reason that an analysis of the roots of terrorism at the beginning of the twenty-first century cannot be based exclusively on the experience of earlier phases. But to reiterate once again, it would be even more misleading to proceed with such an analysis from the assumption that terrorism has no prehistory. Both the features the new terrorism has in common with the old and the essential differences have to be taken into account. Religious and nationalist fanaticism is the predominant feature of terrorism at the present time, which does not preclude that in future decades terrorism might appear also in other guises.

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Jason - 1/16/2004

who cares

Derek Catsam - 8/19/2003

Actually, terrorism is the intentional targeting of civilian populations and is always unacceptable. Do not confuse guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

Josh Greenland - 8/17/2003

"Perhaps we should bear in mind Peter Ustinov's insight that "Terrorism is war waged by the poor upon the rich, war is terrorism waged by the rich upon the poor"."

Could the 9/11 attack be characterized this way? I thought the perpetrators were affluent Saudis.

Gus Moner - 8/15/2003

Brilliant point.

Gus Moner - 8/15/2003

Thanks, you have taken my comment and expounded on it as I should have, and unfortunately did not.

Geoff Egan - 8/15/2003

Yes, the omission of state-terrorism reduces severely the usefulness of the book.

Perhaps we should bear in mind Peter Ustinov's insight that "Terrorism is war waged by the poor upon the rich, war is terrorism waged by the rich upon the poor".

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/14/2003

Your point about including state-supported terrorism is a good one. But state-supported terrorism, like nationalism or religious terrorism, can have different modes of operation and different purposes.

It strikes me that a more fruitful approach is to analyze the roots and impact of terrorism from the perspective of goals, targets, and means of various groups and countries, remembering that allies may not have identical goals.


1. Most of the terrorism that Iran has been accused of aiding has had the goal of weakening Israel. Its means is to help support indepndently exisiting groups that use attacks on both military and civilian targets to weaken Israeli resolve or to deter other countries from aiding Israel.

Hezbollah has been identified as one of these groups. Its goals include the above but are broader. They wish to govern the regions in which they are strongest. In pursuit of that, they have, with some success, integrated themselves into the daily lives (and support system) of southern Lebanon.

Like them or hate them, but the Hezbollah are builders as well as killers (Just as the Iranian religous leadership is within Iran).
And with builders there is always a possibility of movement toward a truce.

2. (A similar approach could also shed light on the U.S./Contra relations in the 1908s by looking carefully at U.S. goals and by accepting that the Contra were more than simply American tools.)

3. Such an approach points out the difference of these sorts of terrorism with Al Qaeda. One of the things that made 9/11 so frightening is that Al Qaeda had targeted far more than the US. Its goal was to damage the international order associated with the relatively free movement of goods and ideas. They succeeded, at least in the short run, beyond their wildest dreams.

However, I have seen little indication of interest from Al Qaeda in building. The Taliban regime strikes me as revealing a contempt for any sort of consideration of the needs of the Afghanis. In this they strike me as different from Hezbollah or even from those Islamic Fundamentalist charities in Egypt that do so much to aid people on a day-to-day basis.
(I know there are some relations between some charities and Al Qaeda (and I may be wrong in this), but I think that there is a fundamentally different attitude concerning the best way to act building between the majority in Al Qaeda and the majority in the charities.

This approach is hardly a new idea of mine. And I may have miseed a fact of two; the Middle East is not my specialty. I do think that such a comparative approach can be a solid way to begin to sort out and understand the different groups and countries using terrorism today.

Gus Moner - 8/13/2003

I agree the ETA group was quite active prior to Franco's death and it is a good correction. Hoewver, I also must quibble.

The dictator Franco kept his police state with regular executions in a state of socio-economic backwardness until his deat. It has only begun to emerge from this Dark Age in the past 25 years of parliamentary monarchy. NOT before.

Outliving a bunch of fascist, genocidal counterparts is no feat at all in my eyes. He did not “guide(d)his country from pariah status to a respectable European power, modernized the economy, and helped restore democracy to the country.” No way.

It all happened after his death. This comment is very wrong on facts and analysis.

Gus Moner - 8/13/2003

Mr laqueur diminishes his article by engaging in the generalisation that terrorism is reserved for factions and grouplets. His comment would have offered more if it covered state terrorism as well.

John Doe - 8/13/2003

Lacquer is totally off base if he thinks there was no post-1939 armed resistance to Franco in Spain. I don't know if you would call it "terrorism" or not, this seems to be a case of "one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter". I seem to recall reading somewhere that those who engaged in armed resistance to the fascist Spanish state before 1945 were eligible for political asylum in the US, but not those who did so after that date, but I'm not sure of that. The following is excerpts from a page at:


which is the most detailed online discussion of this subject I could find in a quick search. The whole thing is worth reading, but here are some highlights:


Some 3,000 guerrillas organised in France with the very same weaponry they had used in their fight against the Nazis, mounted two main attacks across the Pyrenees in 1944. The first incursion was into Navarre on 3 and 7 October: the second came via Catalonia, the object being to establish a bridge-head in the Vall d'Aran and install a provisional Republican government. It was also taken for granted that, confronted by such a fait accompli, the Allies would be prompted to step in to bring down Franco. These incursions were easily repulsed - having been heralded in advance - for the Spanish government had taken all appropriate measures. Even so, there were lots of guerrillas who refused to return to their bases and opted instead to infiltrate into the interior in small groups. There they reinforced existing guerrilla bands and set up new ones where none existed.

The weapons they brought in were a lot more effective and better suited to guerrilla fighting. The most commonplace weapon was the British Sten gun, or the German M.P. 38. Both were rapid-fire weapons and used 9mm ammunition which was the most plentiful sort. American weapons like the Colt pistol flooded in, as did (in lesser numbers) Thompson sub-machineguns, a heavier but highly effective weapon. One burst of Thompson gunfire in the hills was reminiscent of an artillery salvo. The fighters entering Spain also brought with them a tried and tested morale forged in victories scored against the Nazis and in the staunch belief that Franco could not survive the downfall of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. They also had organisational experience behind them and solid ideological convictions, anarchist, socialist or communist, qualities that would quickly transform the guerrilla phenomenon as they afforded increased cohesiveness to countless scattered guerrilla bands.


The style and nature of the guerrilla struggle varied with the terrain and the resources of the individuals and groups involved. Activities included the bombing of strategic objectives, attendats (political assasinations), the movement of arms, the protection of individuals and groups involved in underground political activity; bank robberies and forgery to fund the struggle and destabilise the economy; as well as some more spectacular actions: rescue missions to free captured comrades, open fire-fights with fascist forces; and even an attempt to bomb Franco from the air! (three men in a light aircraft came within a hair's breadth of dropping incendiary and fragmentation bombs on the General and his Aides during a Regatta in 1948).


The armed opposition to Franco was no longer a serious problem after 1949 and, as we have said, it petered out around 1952. Aside from the severe blows dealt by the Civil Guard and the Army, the absence of a logistical system capable of keeping the fighters equipped, and, above all else, the fact that the opposition political parties had chosen to gamble upon diplomacy as a substitute for weapons, made it impossible for the resistance's offensive activity to continue.


In Asturias, in 1948, around 30 socialist guerrillas boarded a French fishing smack which had arrived specifically to collect them and deliver them to St Jean de Luz in France. In Levante, the last remaining guerrillas in the area, around two dozen survivors, made it out to France in 1952. In Andalusia, a few bands survived until the end of 1952, but their leaders - like the anarcho-syndicalist, Bernabe Lopez Calle (1889-1949) - had already perished in combat. A few managed to escape to Gibraltar or North Africa, but, for the most part, they were wiped out in armed clashes: others were executed by the garrote vil (death by strangulation)or firing squads: those who escaped that fate served prison terms sometimes in excess of 20 years.

In 1953, the United States signed a military and economic assistance treaty with Franco. Two years later, Franco's Spain was welcomed into the United Nations. However, even though all was lost, a few die-hards refused to give up the fight: in Cantabria, the last two guerrillas, Juan Fernandez Ayala (Juanin) and Franciscxo Bedoya Gutierrez (El Bedoya) met their deaths in April and in December of 1957 respectively. In Catalonia, Ramon Vila Capdevila (Caraquemada), the last anarchist guerrilla, was gunned down by the Civil Guard in August 1963. But the honour of being the last guerrilla has to go to Jose Castro Veiga (El Piloto) who died, without ever having laid down his arms, in the province of Lugo (Galicia), March 1965.

Jesse Lamovsky - 8/12/2003

"Even in a military dictatorship that was not particularly efficient -- such as Franco's Spain -- there was no terrorism. The operation of the Basque ETA began only after the dictator had died."

Actually, this is not quite the case. The ETA was very much active in the last years of the Franco dictatorship. In fact, the ETA claimed responsibility for the assassination of Spanish Premier Luis Carrero Blanco on December 20, 1973, almost two years before Franco's death. Also, I must quibble with the author's characterization of Franco's regime as "not particularly efficient". The Generalissmo ran Spain for 36 years, outlived his fascist counterparts in Germany and Italy by a good three decades, guided his country from pariah status to a respectable European power, modernized the economy, and helped restore democracy to the country. Hardly an inefficient use of power, whatever one thinks of Franco!

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