After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, along with other terrorist attacks occurring on that day, for example, the attack on the Pentagon, American foreign policy shifted towards what has come to be known as the “War on Terror.” This war endeavors to stop terrorism in all its forms after these events. However, this war on terror also possesses two fundamental difficulties: one, in order to understand how to stop terrorism, we have to understand above all why terrorism occurs. Here, one has to consider the causes and effects of terrorism. Secondly, in order to understand the phenomenon of terrorism, we are faced with the problem of deciding what makes an act of terrorism terrorism. In other words, what makes terrorism different from another set of violent actions, meaning how can we separate or should we separate terrorism from, for example, school shootings in the United States, and furthermore, how, for example, does terrorism differ from state-sanctioned violence, such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, this year marking its tenth anniversary? It appears that cause and effect are necessary to both questions: when we understand the causes of terrorism, we understand what makes a particular event terroristic, as opposed to an act of violence. Understanding the phenomenon can lead to its resolution.

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Obviously, examining the causes and effects of terrorism makes one key presupposition at the outset: namely, that we can identify a particular event as a terrorist act. Consider, for example, the current investigations revolving around the explosion at the Boston Marathon, which, at the time of the writing of this paper, have not yet produced any definitive culprits. It has been clear that bombs have been used to ignite and injure civilians in this incident: but can we say with the current information that this is a terrorist act? Perhaps, it is merely a random act of violence. In order to identify terrorism, then we need a more specific definition of what distinguishes terrorism from other acts of violence intended to hurt others. In this regard, Tore Bjorgo’s book Root Causes of Terrorism: Myths, Reality and Ways Forward, as the title indicates tries to take a cause and effect approach to precisely this problem. Bjorgo writes in this work that “terrorism is a subject preoccupied with value judgements and political interests.” (p. 107) This provides us two clear ways to inquire into the cause and effect of terrorism: firstly, it would appear that terrorism is an act of violence with a political intent. It is therefore caused by various political problems. Secondly, for an act to be labeled as terrorist act, this means that someone is labeling it as a terrorist act. This implies that the terrorist act is being called terrorist by the “other side” of the political problem, whereas the terrorists, perhaps acknowledging the violence of their actions, nevertheless think this action is justified because of some type of political injustice: i.e., as Bjorgo notes there are two value judgments at stake here.

Following this schema, we can therefore examine both of these points more closely to provide a more concise vision of the cause and effects of terrorism. Let us take the first point about politics. Every terrorist act is a political act: this is why terrorist attacks are often not associated with school shootings. These attacks are the results of psychologically disturbed individuals operating without reference to political debates or issues. Certainly, this is not to say that terrorists may not be psychologically disturbed. This could also be cause for the terrorist act itself. However, the attack must have a specific political connotation. Consider, for example, Al-Qaeda: the reasons why American civilians became a target for Al-Qaeda is because they pay taxes and therefore contribute to the American war machine, which is, in the view of Al-Qaeda, committing various atrocities against Muslims worldwide. Therefore, terrorist attacks here result as a form of political intervention. Terrorism as an effect is caused by interpretations of political and geopolitical situations, of policies undertaken by governments.

Now let us treat the second point. There is always a value judgment at stake, and this value judgment, following Bjorgo’s logic seems to work both ways. If we are objective for a moment, we can think that the terrorist sees no other way to resolve the political situation that they disapprove of. They therefore firstly judge this situation, for example, unjust, secondly, they make the value judgment that the situation is so unjust that it requires violence to resolve it. Hence, terrorism is caused by this type of reasoning. At the same time, we can also point out that what causes terrorism in a certain counter-intuitive manner, can only be identified once we have established a definition of terrorism: obviously, a state power with significant military might will call a terrorist act something organized against a civilian population, but will not call a terrorist attack when, for example, a drone strike kills an innocent family. This complicates our cause and effect analysis of terrorism, because here there are certain events that will be called terrorism, not because of the events themselves, but because of who is doing them. In this sense, a cause of terrorism is the fact that one side has political power to call an event terroristic, while the other side does not possess this same power.

Accordingly, we can see that terrorism has a very complicated cause and effect structure. This is obviously one of the reasons why terrorism is so difficult to defeat as a policy objective. It is not only that terrorism by definition is amorphous and hard to foresee: terrorism is the combination of political causes, i.e., political policies, and also value judgments regarding these policies, both in terms of the justness and unjustness of these policies, and whether terrorism itself is reflected in the response to such policies.

Hence, terrorism provides us with a violent yet inherently complex political phenomenon, which needs to be addressed: acknowledging the multiple layers of cause and effect relationships that produce terrorism can become a crucial foundational step in ultimately uncovering a solution.

  • Bjorgo, Tore. Root Causes of Terrorism: Myths, Realities and Ways Forward. London: Routledge, 2005.