Causes of Radical Jihadist Terrorism

In international relations the concept of terrorism usually always boils down to Islamic radical terror. Few other categories of terrorists operate internationally; therefore, most of the literature centers on violent Islamic Jihad. So what are the causes? How can we make sense of terrorists’ motivations. Below is a quick rundown of the various themes in international relations literature.

First, note that there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. These explanations should fit most definitions. Second, the literature is chock full of many explanations, and the best hypotheses usually include elements of multiple explanations.

A Constructivist Explanation

The constructivist explanation asks, what’s the software in the terrorist’s head? How do they see the world? How is their lens constructed? Constructivism as a theory rejects the concept of objective reality. This explanation is about terror groups’ perceptions. Many terrorists have a negative view of the West, believing the West—specifically the US—is trying to undermine Islam. This lens stems, in part, from their experiences with colonialism, where, often times, traditions and customs were derided by Western mercantilism and religious values. Holy Islamic sites are trampled by filthy, evil Americans. Operation Desert Shield was not to protect the sovereignty of an ally, but to belittle the traditional values of an entire religion. They also see local leaders, such as the Saudi Royal Family, as being in bed with Western colonial interventionism. And because of this, violence is a just response.

Of course, this view is marred by difficulties. If you cannot understand terror without understanding how terrorists’ lenses are constructed, then it cannot be a generalizable theory. Furthermore, it’s vulnerable to cognitive biases. You see what you expect to see, and therefore the lenses become more rigid, and it’s difficult to adjust your views with additional information.

A Deep Historical Explanation

This explanation suggests something went horribly wrong in the Muslim and Arab world. This is the Bernard Lewis (What Went Wrong?) approach. At one time the Muslim World was the driving global force for intellectualism. During the middle ages Baghdad was the capital of the Islamic Golden Age. Thanks to intellectually noble Islamic and Arab scholars, many of the Greek texts survived, translated into all the languages of trade. Mathematics and astronomy flourished. And its momentum finally inspired the rebirth of Europe. But the Islamic and Arab world went from the apogee of global leadership to a massive descent over several hundred years. This deep macro, historical explanation explains why Muslim societies still struggle. The effects continue to linger, and terrorism is merely an expression of the intolerable suffering which a quarter of the planet is forced to tolerate as the world moves on without them.

A Twin Motivation Explanation

This is the Clash of Civilizations. You have the near and the far enemies. In the Muslim World Riyadh is near and Washington, DC is far. Terrorism therefore has two motivations. Near enemy terrorists focus on apostate countries (Egypt, for example), heretical countries, and countries deserving of death. Initially al Qaeda focused on the near. Bin Laden’s hatred of the Saudi family as heretics drove him to attack locally. But over time he turned his attention to the West, as the head of the culturally inferior snake. From bin Laden’s, and to a much larger degree ISIS’s, perspective, a civilizational conflict is welcome, necessary, and foretold in the holy texts. Terrorism is merely self-fulfilling prophesy and doing what you must.

A Failed State Explanation

Failed states are states where the governing body essentially loses control of or diminishes its capacity to affectively administer large portions of their territory. Somalia is the best example we have, but also Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Lawlessness and insecurity promote mass human migrations. Refugees and internally displaced persons struggle for basic survival needs. Terror organizations thrive in such environments, sometimes feeding off the insecurities of vulnerable people, able to recruit normal civilians with promises of security, wealth, and immortality. On the other hand they might offer death to people who turn down their recruitment offers. And the government is powerless to stop it. This explanation might be suited for an undeniable reality: Most Islamic terrorists are highly educated, middle class people. Why have so many engineers and medical doctors joined ISIS? Maybe it’s because the fear of losing everything was overcome by people who could give them money, power, and prestige and murder anyone who scoffs at their proposal.

A Strategic Actor Explanation

Essentially this explanation proposes terrorists are cross-benefit calculators. Terrorism serves their strategic goals. For example, terrorists are not aggrieved. They are not injured by the collapse of their civilization. They are proud of their past and want their empire back. And terrorism is an attractive way to accomplish this goal. We can take this further and say terrorists view themselves as superior, and terrorism allows them to aggrandize before a public audience.

A Blame-the-West Explanation

So far I’ve only provided you with internal reasons. But what about external forces? Are we to blame? Don’t take this to mean I sympathize with terrorists or blame Americans or Europeans. No, I’m merely stating the obvious; we do things in the Arab World that harm people. Under this explanation, terrorism is a response to Western Occupations (see Robert Pape). Our foreign policy is venom in the Middle East, and America likes to invade the social space of others and poison everything, especially when uninvited. The American ideal of exceptionalism doesn’t play well on fringes of Muslim world. The US’s relationship with dictatorial monarchs and Israel makes the US a target. And the US needs to get the hell out of the Gulf (see Michael Scheuer).

A Western Role and Globalization

This is an indirect effect on behavior. Basically, Western-driven globalization runs up against conservatism. Conservatism is about keeping traditions. Globalization is a liberal ideal that promotes progress. As the world becomes smaller due to Western-driven globalized efforts and increased international interconnectedness, civilizations’ traditional values are undermined and diminish, and die hard adherents are scoffed at by the international community. The actions of the West trying to leave the past in the past and to forge a more connected world elicit strong reactions from people who were fine with the way things used to be in the good ol’ days.

Other Basic Explanations

Education Levels

While terrorists tend to be educated, there’s a strong correlation between low education and effective recruiting. Uneducated people are more likely to accept jobs of terror.


Similarly, although the literature has not yet reached a consensus, it could be that extreme poverty plays a role. On the other hand, the Arab World is significantly more wealthy than Sub-Saharan Africa, and we don’t see many Namibian terrorists.


While it’s debatable how oil plays a role in terrorism, it’s undeniable that it does.


This one might be slightly controversial, but some terrorists might be lashing out after being humiliated. Bin Laden was mocked by the Saudi Royal Family and stripped of his citizenship. He was then exiled to Sudan (and he really hated the Sudanese culture and climate). He carried this humiliation around with him as a driving motivator to attack Saudi Arabia. When this was impossible, he turned his attention to the Saudis’ most trusted ally, the US.

Mental Illness

This one is especially liked in the American Conservative Parties. And it is certainly the most controversial on this list. But there could be some merit to it. For example, forensic psychologist Stephen Diamond once analyzed bin Laden (not in person), finding the terrorist leader probably had a messiah complex. Furthermore, he was pathological—a psychopath. Similarly, political psychologist and psychiatrist Jerrold Post argues terrorists tend to receive pleasure as their kill count increases. This is a symptom of a personality of dissociation. Of course, dissociation is not inherently a mental illness. Surgeons must dissociate themselves from their patients’ pains. We don’t want doctors holding scalpels to flinch every time they cut into someone. But the ability to dissociate from pain in order to gain pleasure from killing people is concerning.

So There You Have It

There could be any number of other explanations, and none of them are mutually exclusive. If you have any additional ideas, feel free to let me know.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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8 Responses to Causes of Radical Jihadist Terrorism

  1. Islam has been waging it’s jihad since its inception, far before it could have possibly gotten ‘offended’ by Donals Trump. It’s simply innate in Islamic ideology, that’s all. Why aren’t poverty stricken Christian countries in Africa resorting to mass terrorism? Oh right, there’s no jihad there, is there?

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      Islam certainly informs the behaviors of far right Muslims (by definition); however, to place all the blame on a single variable ignores all other independent variables. As Robert Pape points out, and which has been adopted since Bush’s surge, blaming Islam and looking nowhere else increases terror. PKK? Buddhist terror? Hey sometimes people just want to kill a bunch of people for no reason, like all the Americans and Brits converting to Islam and joining ISIS.

      As for the Christian thing, I think you are forgetting Lebanon’s civil war. Israel also has a small Christian-terror phenomenon. In Sub-Saharan Africa the Lord’s Resistance Army is still operational, albeit reduced to a deadly menace rather than a deadly monolith. There are two Christian terror groups presently operating in India–the NCSN (~5,000 soldiers) and the NLFT (~1,000 soldiers). In the US there was The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (defunct) and a few other groups, some of which still operate. We continue to see sporadic Christian terrorism in the West, although most Western terror is nationalistic and not explicitly religious (although there’s some obvious overlap).

      • No doubt there are tiny non-Islamic terrorist movements here and there throughout the world. However, your own examples should prove my point — the largest organization you cited from non-Muslims is about 5,000 members strong, whereas the Taliban by itself dwarfs all the numbers you cite combined.

        Islam, in and of itself, is certainly not the main variable as you note. However, it should be remembered that it is the biggest variable at play here.

        Just ask yourself — out of the last ten terrorist attacks in Europe, how ,any were Islamic?

      • Rayan Zehn says:

        You should probably read the literature on terrorism. I can provide you with anything you need that is behind a paywall.

      • I’d be glad to read some of papers you may suggest to me on terrorism. I’m more into history, and so I don’t know any specific resources to access when it comes to terrorism. I can tell through your blog that you are probably quite knowledgeable on this so I will read a resource you think will strengthen my understanding of your claims.

      • Rayan Zehn says:

        I would begin with Robert Pape’s ‘Dying to Win.’ Used copies are available on Amazon for about a buck. As a history person Bernard Lewis’ ‘What Went Wrong?’ is good. Rapoport’s ‘Four Waves’ is available at

        You can follow that up with Jeffrey Kaplan’s ‘Terrorism’s Fifth Wave’ but it’s incredibly expensive. Therefore, if you want to know more about Islamic terror and the fifth wave but don’t want to shell out $80, and if you have access to Science Direct or Elsevier I’d recommend Anthony N. Celso’s ‘The Islamic State and Boko Haram: Fifth Wave Jihadist Terror Groups’ which seeks to analyze to what extent Jihadist terror is divorced from nationalistic-right wing terror.

        Really, just pick a source and then go to its bibliography. Then you can find out who has cited the original source to keep expanding.

      • I went through ‘Four Waves’, it seems to describe that the concept of modern terrorism is just over a century old, and can be divided into about four different waves in its existence. On page 61, Rapoport begins describing the fourth wave and accurately notes “Islam is at the heart of the wave. Islamic groups have conducted the most significant, deadly, and profoundly international attacks.”

        I think we can both agree that, by far, Islam *is* the largest cause of terrorism in the modern world, despite the fact that there are a few mini non-Islamic terrorist organizations here and there in Africa, India and other places.

      • Rayan Zehn says:

        Take special note of the fifth wave. And 1 through 4. There is an interesting pattern developing. Islam informs most Iraqi, Egyptian, and Afghani terror… for now. Now go check out Pape. It’s the most comprehensive study of suicide terrorism. Make your own inferences about how suicide terror informs non-suicide terror.

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