As the number of victims from terrorism continues to escalate, it is obvious the “War” on Terror is not working.

Sitting comfortably in middle class clothes, casually munching on a long chain of malteasers, it came like the proverbial whack to the head. There on the silver screen was a disconsolate man of Middle Eastern appearance. He was carrying a toddler, limp and charred; still wearing the blue overalls his mother had dressed him in that morning. As he placed the blackened, lifeless form on the back of a rapidly filling utility he was crying out uncontrollably and although it was in another language you knew what he was saying: “WHY!” This scene from Michael Moore’s latest documentary film, Fahrenheit 9/11 is just one example of the countless victims of terrorism since the phenomena stormed back into the public consciousness since September 11, 2001.

Friedrich Nietzsche claimed ‘God was dead’ and Francis Fukayama hailed ‘the end of history’ when the Cold War finally concluded but religiously motivated terrorist activity targeting Western Culture calls these bold statements into serious question. Terrorism is a massive problem facing the world today and it is critical solutions are identified and implemented because simply declaring ‘war’ on terrorism is an insufficient answer to it. To find the solutions it is first essential that the root causes of terrorism are correctly identified. There appears in the evidence to be three themes which seem to underpin the majority of terrorist activity in recent history. They are, in no particular order, Imperialism, Capitalism, and Religious/Ethnic Fanaticism.

Before these themes are analysed however, a more basic analysis of what it takes to become a terrorist and to terrorise, even kill, your own kind as a result of that profession will prove useful. James Gilliam explains that “actions are symbolic representations of thoughts”. Thought of this way, violent acts are physical manifestations of violent thoughts, stemming from feelings of hatred, jealousy, fear, isolation and the like. In this light, acts of political violence are, it follows, brought into being from the violent thoughts towards political systems in which the terrorists feel affronted by. With this basic notion in mind, an understanding of the causes of terrorist activity will become clearer when the aforementioned themes are explored.

But this isn’t the full story. Terrorist acts are most often, measured, planned and exercised in cold blood, and have manifested as a result of grievances of a more intellectual nature. It requires more than just violent thoughts towards a political system to achieve such feats. If only armed with vitriolic hatred, the violence would be scattered acts of passion, rather than what is evidenced in most organised terrorist organisations. This is where military theory comes in. Military strategists have long recognised the difficulty of what Clausewitz calls “friction” – the problem that “men in battle have more in common with sheep than wolves.” To become effective terrorists against a political regime, as Sun Tzu first intimated, “Soldiers have to be thoroughly conditioned to kill their own kind.” Many crucial factors are necessary for potential terrorists to acquire such conditioning. These factors appear to be: Dissent of the system, to be a vast minority in that dissent, to feel extremely isolated and vulnerable in that dissent, and to become desperate enough to resort to violence as a result of those feelings of isolation and vulnerability. Wilkinson aptly shows this in relation to dissenters in the liberal state, describing terrorists as “desperate people, bitterly opposed to the prevailing regime”. This also explains why terrorist acts have been perpetrated against democratic nations. Democratic states are founded on popular support and thus dissenters against find themselves vast minorities due to the doctrine of majority rule inherent in the democratic system. The larger the public support for democracy, the less likely that dissenters against democracy will attempt to voice that dissent via legitimate political avenues, and the more likely that violence will be used instead.

The above general points on terrorism will prove to fit neatly within our three thematic explanations of the root causes of terrorism. Many terrorist groups in existence today are the illegitimate children (either directly or indirectly) of imperialism. The main reason for this is that to build an empire, a great amount of strength is required – and after generations of rule over Ireland, the British Empire, following the Anglo-Irish War (War of Independence), passed the Government of Ireland Act which created partition. Twenty-six southern counties become the Irish Free State and six north-eastern counties–Northern Ireland–remained part of Britain. This was a weak decision from a weakening empire and as a result unwittingly caused much of the political violence to follow, with the IRA since violently determined to kick Britain out of Northern Ireland. Similarly, the terrorist network Al-Quieda, was made a lot more powerful by the constant imperial manipulation of Afghanistan and the Persian gulf. The US and Russia brought Afghanistan to ruination as a result of their proxy war. Poverty and despair drives many to extremist views, and the case of Afghanistan is no different. The Afghan war of 1979-89 was a large factor in the swelling of Al-Quieda numbers , not only because Bin Laden fought with famous tenacity in this war , but also because superpowers Russia and the USA were not too popular as a result of the ruination they, directly or indirectly, caused in Afghanistan as a result of their ideological war . Al Quieda’s most famous act of terror: The September 11 World Trade Centre Attacks. Capitalism is another factor in the cultivation of modern day terrorism.

Like democracy, capitalism is an extremely dominant ideology in the international system. As such, those minorities opposed to capitalism have little other choice than to resort to political violence to gain any political leverage to achieve their ends. The Kurdish Workers Party began its violent existence as a communist revolutionary group before defining itself more along ethnic lines. Many environmental organisations, including Greenpeace, have resorted to political violence to have their green message heard, as against the capitalist system which has had a habit of ignoring the intangible value of the environment, in favour of the immediate financial value of resource exploitation. Many of the larger violent demonstrations in recent times have been linked to the significant anti-globalisation/anti capitalism people’s movement. Much of the tension between the US led west and the nations of Islamic faith could be defused if the US withdrew its’ military presence in the Arabian Peninsula – a constant source of anger amongst devout Muslims, wishing to honour the words of their prophet, Mohammed, who declared that “there shall be no two religions in Arabia”. But this of course is impossible, due to the Western world’s enormous dependence on the huge oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, to “fuel” their highly consumptive economies.

Finally, religious fanaticism is a crucial factor in many terrorist organisations which plague the world today. This factor is not so important in the creation of the terrorist networks, but it is extremely important in the organization’s ability to wreak incredible acts of chaos and violence upon other citizens. Osama Bin Laden has managed to attract many Islamic extremists to his flag. Islam, when misinterpreted in bin Laden’s way, makes this religion the most prone to terrorist abuse. Their concept of ‘jihad’, where to die in a holy war, is to become a martyr, lured by the promise of eternal rewards in heaven makes the impoverished Muslim extremist all too eager to die in a blaze of utter destruction upon his enemy. Bin Laden has successfully defined the US as the enemy of Islam, and as such can wreak incredibly disproportionate damage in comparison to the costs of his group’s activity. Aum Shrinrikyo is another example, where religious motivations were used to “justify not only the murder but the mass destruction ordered by its’ leader.” Following this, Qadir points out that, “terrorism seeks legitimacy from religion.” By defining every US act in the Middle East as an act of aggression against all Muslims, Al-Quieda has managed to harness the fanatical religious fervour to wreak disproportionate damage in relation to the damage done, as compared with the cost to create such damage. The PKK, seeks via the ruthless application of terror to establish a separate Kurdish state. Advancing the spurious argument that Kurds cannot fully express themselves in democratic Turkey, these separatist terrorists seek to divide Turkey along ethnic lines. Similarly to religion, ethnic motivations can increase a terrorist organisation to direct its ‘ground troops’, to do increasingly horrendous things. The above point relates back to the human potential for violence. Religion is an aid that can be abused in order to “condition” someone to kill. In military terms, religious fanaticism reduces the “friction”, that occurs during military activity – as their religious fervour eliminates any fears or doubts about killing the enemy. With Al-Quieda, this religious fanaticism is combined with sophisticated military training, and this makes for an incredibly dangerous product. That the CIA let the Pakistani ISI to direct funds to whomever it liked, including the fanatically religious Taliban group, is a mistake of foreign policy that the US will regret for a long, long time. Asahara Shoko, Leader of Aum Shinrikyo. With these root causes outlined, it becomes clear what the long term solutions are to the terrorist problem.

Obviously, these solutions are difficult to achieve and only reap long term benefits, but to slowly work towards them would be a step in the right direction. Imperialism should be scaled back to the point where independence and autonomy should be given to any nations that consider themselves such. Control over smaller nations should be tacit, not obvious, as this only pressures dissidents towards a violent alternative. More balance is required in the economic sphere. Social and environmental issues need to be voiced in the legitimate public arena, and the capitalist system needs to create avenues for positive dialogue between the entrenched elites, and the disaffected minorities. If dialogue is encouraged, a lot of the extremist fervency in the dissenting view dissipates. Lastly, the globe needs to be proactive in the promotion of religious tolerance, and societies which cultivate a moderation of political and religious views need to increase in number. Standards of living need to rise, across the board, as, the poor and hungry are increasingly likely to become extreme in their views. This is where the capitalist system needs to take a step back and to redress the vastly unequal distribution of wealth world-wide. These solutions are all very difficult, and for many, hard to swallow, but they are the only ones that will truly eliminate terrorism from the world in the long run.


  1. Sadly although it may be true that the only way to really combat and defuse terrorism is to address inequality and injustice, it seems also to be true that it is not in the vested interests of those in power and with wealth to facilitate this change in any way as to do so will only dilute their power and wealth. By contrast it is very much in the interests of the powerful and wealthy to talk of how to ‘fight terrorism’; how to ‘eliminate poverty’ and to stir up fear and discontent; to divide and rule. Indeed both terrorists and victims, all of us, are pawns in the great game for the rich and powerful. The only way to escape our enslavement is to become fiscally and physically independent of the powers that be by avoiding reliance on them and destroying their income base.

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