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To beat terrorism, understand it

Like the rest of us, terrorists have emotions and objectives.

Since 9/11, the Western public’s baseline expectation of a ‘normal’ terror-attack frequency has gradually shifted upward. These days, a period of several months without an attack in Europe or North America seems like a lengthy respite.

Major attacks have been fewer and further between thanks in large part to the work of intelligence agencies. Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism specialist at the RAND Corporation, writes that investigators in the US and the UK have thwarted most terror plots before they could be carried out. Nonetheless, the globalized free-flow of people and ideas that benefits humanity also makes terrorism a fixture of the modern zeitgeist — grievances are imported and exported just as easily. Terrorism isn’t going away anytime soon.

In spite of analysts’ best efforts, spontaneous attacks remain difficult to disrupt, especially if perpetrated by small groups or ‘lone wolves’ who have committed no crimes until the moment they strike. More terror attacks are almost certain to occur in Europe and North America eventually, including by white supremacists and neo-fascists. Public preparation for these traumas should include an effort to understand the logic of terrorism because, as French national security expert François Heisbourg warned after the 2015 Bataclan atrocity in Paris,

the success or failure of terrorists depends less on the number of lives wiped out than it does the manner in which the stricken societies have reacted.

Fear leads to anger…

Fear is the operative element of terrorism. Lacking the conventional means to wage war against a much stronger opponent, terrorists weaponize fear by randomly targeting civilians. Doing so makes anyone a potential victim, even though very few are ever harmed, statistically speaking. Despite causing a larger loss of life than any other terror attack since then, 9/11 didn’t even come close to posing an existential threat to the United States. Still, the panic it caused, and the political and military overreactions it provoked, have been far reaching. The events of that day led to the creation of an extensive surveillance apparatus, an extrajudicial targeted assassination program, and terrible human rights abuses in prisons such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. These phenomena have fundamentally altered the political culture in Western democracies, showing that a poor reaction to fear is indeed more destructive to our society than any terror attack has been.

Terrorism is defined according to three main pillars:

  1. Calculated, but indiscriminate, threat or use of violence designed to induce widespread fear
  2. Intended to coerce governments or societies
  3. Committed in the pursuit of political goals

This sort of strategy is usually employed in asymmetric conflicts where one side is heavily outgunned by its adversary, which is why terrorism is often called the “weapon of the weak.” It’s more accurate to think of terrorism as the weapon of the politically weak, however, because history is filled with examples of militarily-capable states using terror tactics to intimidate a disobedient public or influence an enemy state’s population during wartime. An authoritarian dictator who uses violence to repress domestic civil dissent is as much a terrorist as Usama bin Laden.

Terrorists of all stripes essentially take public peace-of-mind hostage, demanding that the government or community pay a ransom in the form of certain political concessions. Demands vary according to circumstances. For instance, among other desires, one of al-Qaeda’s central motivations for perpetrating 9/11 was to force the US government to withdraw its troops from Islam’s holy land, Saudi Arabia. Alternatively, Dylann Roof murdered nine black church-goers in 2015 in an attempt to start a ‘race war.’ Both parties committed acts of terror.

Dylann Roof (Source:

Human, all too human

Readying ourselves and tempering our reaction is an important step, but no analysis of terrorism would be complete without contemplating a terrorist’s motives. Recognizing the strategic logic of terrorism in a conflict is straightforward, yet that hardly explains why someone might feel justified in taking innocent human life. Seeing the world through the eyes of a terrorist is difficult, but not impossible.

In a previous article I briefly explored Islam’s relationship with violence. Religious influence clearly has some use in explaining how, in the right situation, one could feel morally justified in committing horrible deeds. Salafi jihadist ideology in particular offers some explanation, though suicidal terrorists are not always religious, let alone necessarily Muslim.

Perhaps the most crucial part of countering violent extremism (CVE) is to understand the radicalization process. In Dylann Roof’s manifesto, we get a glimpse of his path to becoming a terrorist. The interrogation recording of Alexandre Bissonette sheds light on the delusional mindset that led him to shoot several people praying in a Québec City mosque in 2017. Both men imagined terrifying threats that called for some valiant act of heroism, so far as they were concerned.

The steps in this journey are common among varieties of terrorists, but are also shared by gang members, and even by many soldiers in uniform. After all, no one ever sees themselves as the bad guy. Anyone who kills another human being needs to feel morally justified in doing so — if necessary, they’ll jump through mental hoops to convince themselves that murder is permissible given the circumstances.

Maajid Nawaz, himself a former radical, outlines the radicalization process as usually involving:

  1. A sense of grievance, real or perceived
  2. An identity crisis that emerges from that sense of grievance
  3. A sense of belonging, often provided by a charismatic recruiter
  4. An ideological narrative that provides the mission or the cause

The desire for personal meaning is a central motivation for embarking on such a journey, and often involves seeking recognition for contributing to what one perceives as a greater cause. Just as several other mass murderers have viewed themselves as victims making a noble sacrifice, Dylann Roof clearly saw himself as a martyr. Speaking about the human need for belonging, economist Mark Harrison points out that “You can get [social solidarity] in many different ways…[including] by joining together to commit acts of violence. Sometimes that’s [soccer] hooliganism, sometimes it’s terrorism.”


The Pakistani publishing company CFx Comics has produced a graphic novel series that tells the story of the radicalization process, in order to educate and discourage young people from falling victim to it. As the comic book illustrates, every terrorist is a victim in his own way, because he has to feel sufficiently aggrieved to pursue retributive justice. There are evil deeds, but there are no evil people.

Some people hold toxic beliefs that are simply unshakable, and they must be stopped. At the same time they must also be understood on a human level if we intend to defeat the phenomenon of terrorism while attempting to salvage the person inside the terrorist. In the long run, that’s the only way to win.

I write about politics, economics, and feminism. Check out my Table of Contents for a list of everything I’ve written on Medium.