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Thu. January 26, 2023
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What Causes Terrorism
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What causes terrorism? What are the factors that lead to an increase in terrorist groups? Is there one “smoking gun” issue that can be attributed as the cause of terrorism? It does not seem that this is the case. Terrorism is the byproduct of an amalgam of factors. In order to curtail the formation and spread of terrorist groups, it is necessary to learn what the motivations for terrorism are. Originally, I hypothesized that both the presence of a stagnant economy and an oppressive regime (see: autocracy) would lead to an increase in the number of terrorist groups within any particular state. Therefore, should this be the case, economic policies that promote growth and a shift of governance to allow more of both political and civil liberties should result in a decrease of terrorism. Since the events of 9/11 terrorism has become one of the most talked about global issues. Yet, even with a large amount of exposure in the media and numerous state and international level counter-terrorism strategies, the phenomenon  continues to persist. Juxtaposed with the lack of a global consensus on the definition of what terrorism is, it is imperative that a deeper understanding of terrorism attain.

Logic would dictate that terrorism would come from states where there is a lack of economic opportunity and where both civil and political rights are more repressed. However, there is extent theory that posits that democracies make better targets for terrorist groups. Max Abrahms tested the traditional theory that democracies are targeted because they can be coerced due to liberal constraints. Abrams found that illiberal regime types attract a disproportionate amount of terrorist attacks, rather than democracies. Is this the same for terrorist groups?

No, this does not remain true for terrorist groups. In testing economic growth and regime type against the number of terrorist groups, it was found that economic growth over a five year lag likely does not have a significant effect, but polity – an empirical measure for regime type from autocracy to democracy – does have an effect. It has been found that, a state with a fully democratic polity ranking compared to a fully autocratic ranking will have nearly five more terrorist groups.

The policy significance this outcome has is substantial, as the findings throw the Western – especially United States' – policy of democracy promotion into question. As F. Gregory Gause III of Foreign Affairs who wrote, “The United States is engaged in what President George W. Bush has called a "generational challenge" to instill democracy in the Arab world.” Note that democracy promotion has been a staple policy of large democracies since WWII, and has been a stalwart policy in the “war on terror.” The next logical step is to shift the policy paradigm from focusing on regime type and governance to other policies. The analysis has also shown that level of wealth, religion (specifically Christian or Islamic), and a completion of the primary level of education play little role in the formation of terrorist groups. This finding is increasingly important given that lack of wealth, religion, and education have largely been the factors attributed to what causes terrorism. It is important because the focus of further research will now have to be shifted. Scholars and policy makers must now find new factors that can possibly be the causes of terrorism. This may require analysis on several different levels,including the personal and international levels. Perhaps there is a specific type of personality that draws a person towards terrorism, or there is a global norm that allows terrorism to thrive in its current state. The focus of counter-terrorism research will now have to include securing democracies, given that democracies have a higher risk for terrorist groups forming.

There are several policy avenues that lack the data necessary to be examined at the empirical level. These include many social welfare programs, education completion rates at higher levels, or specific national level differences. What we do know, however, is that the “war on terror,” is not ideal. This war – which is against an ideology, not a specific faction – implies a series of reactive policies to punish terrorists, rather than proactive policies to circumvent the attacks in the first place. For this reason, democratic states should focus on grassroots engagement of young adults, given the majority of terrorists are in their early twenties. Policies that create jobs, protect civil and political rights, and local policies that engage these possibly ostracized members of society should be pursued. This will allow democratic states, like the United States, to continue its goal of democratization, while mitigating the higher risk for terrorism.

Kevin Rheinheimer is a 2014 Master's graduate from Seton Hall University's School of Diplomacy and International Relations. His areas of expertise are international security and counter-terrorism policy. He has been published in Illinois State University's "Critique: A Worldwide Student Journal of Politics." Kevin is also a 2012 graduate of Manhattan College with a degree in Political Science.


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