What are the underlying causes of terrorism?

The following Q&A on terrorism is part of Learning Life’s Big Questions Series.  The series offers experts’ short answers to big questions, with more information about the experts and their research for those curious to learn more.  We inaugurated the series on the 12th anniversary of 9/11 (2013) with three big questions about terrorism and provocative answers from three noted terrorism researchers.  This page offers their answers to our first question: what are the underlying causes of terrorism? 

Read expert answers to Question 2 (how big a threat is terrorism?) and Question 3 (how does news media reporting shape terrorism and public perception of terrorism?).


Dr. Ziad Munson:

This is the most important, and most difficult, question facing those who study terrorism.  The short answer is: we don’t yet have all the answers.  And there is no single “master cause” of terrorism; different terrorist campaigns arise from a different set of interrelated root causes.  We do, however, know that a number of well-publicized factors are NOT in fact at the root cause of terrorism.  For example, we know that poverty doesn’t cause terrorism.  We know that lack of education doesn’t cause terrorism.  We know that particular religious traditions don’t cause terrorism.  And we know that terrorism is not caused by those who are crazy (at least not in any clinical sense).

We do also know that terrorist attacks are almost all the responsibility of otherwise ordinary kinds of organizations.  “Lone gunman” terrorism is exceedingly rare – 99.8% of terrorism is planned and carried out by formal organizations, not individuals acting alone.   Organizations turn to terrorism as part of a strategy to pursue political objectives.  And yes, their objectives are almost always political, even when cloaked in religious ideology and language as is so often the case today.


Dr. Gary LaFree:

The START Center analyzed the top twenty most active terrorist organizations since the 1970s – including such groups as the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or Basque Homeland & Freedom) in Spain, the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in Ireland, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionarias de Colombia or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in Colombia, the Shining Path in Peru, the Taliban in Afghanistan – and found that the vast majority are fighting over land.  Moreover, they are fighting locally or nationally, not internationally.  The vast majority of terrorist attacks are domestic attacks by citizens, not foreigners.  al-Qaeda is a notable and more complex exception because they are like an international social movement franchise, with local affiliates in different parts of the world having somewhat different motivations and goals.

For more information on terrorism research, visit the University of Maryland’s National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).  


Gary LaFree is Director of the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland.  START is currently engaged in approximately 40 research projects dealing mostly with the human causes and consequences of terrorism.  Dr. LaFree is a Fellow of the American Society of Criminology (ASC), and a member of the National Academy of Science’s Crime, Law and Justice Committee.  He has served as President of the ASC and of the ASC’s Division on International Criminology.  Dr. LaFree has published more than 70 articles and three books.  Much of Dr. LaFree’s current research is on trends in criminal and political violence.

Ziad Munson is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Lehigh University, where he founded and currently directs the Social Science Research Center.  He received his B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1993 and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1996 and 2002.  His research and teaching focuses on the intersection of popular mobilization, civic engagement, and religion.  He is the author of The Making of Pro-Life Activists, a study of recruitment and mobilization in the American pro-life movement (University of Chicago Press, 2009).  He has also authored articles and chapters on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, religion and politics in the U.S., and the role of civil society in wartime.   He is currently working on a new project on the organizational infrastructure of international political violence.  Click here for more on Dr. Munson’s teaching and research.