Terrorist Motivations

Publication Type:

Book Chapter


Combating Transnational Terrorism, Procon, Sofia, p.17-32 (2016)


Terrorists exist for political reasons. Groups that practice terrorism do so in order to bring about political change of some type. Usually, these groups are small and often lack broad public support. Therefore, they are unable to achieve their desired goals through a peaceful political process. Instead, they use acts of violence, inflicted upon deliberately chosen noncombatant targets, in order to bully and intimidate governments into changing policy or granting concessions.
Despite the prominence of terrorism as a global security threat, the majority of terrorist groups do not survive long. Seventy per cent of terrorist groups perish within a year after their first attack. There are a number of possible explanations that may clarify why some groups survive and thrive and others do not. However, one of the determining factors is the degree to which the group’s leadership has effectively planned their campaign, exploited the group’s resources and selected appropriate methods and tools to achieve their objectives, i.e. their strategy and tactics.
The core characteristics of strategy remain the same for both states and non-state actors. Hundreds of books by great thinkers such as Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, Liddell Hart and Lawrence Freedman have addressed the enduring features of strategy and its intricacies and nuances. For our purposes, however, we will employ a practical approach focused upon ends, ways and means. Ends are the goals and objectives of the terrorist group. Simply put, what they say about why they are carrying out their actions. Ways are the methods of influence and persuasion used by terrorist groups to achieve their stated goals. Means are the resources and tactics employed on the ground. The means reflect the broad methodologies (ways) which support the accomplishment of the goals (ends) of the group.
Terrorists can be quite open in laying out their strategy. It is useful for counter-terrorism (CT) professionals to examine and analyze these strategies whenever possible. They communicate their grievances, identify whom they hold responsible, and tell their followers what they should do about it. Terrorist strategies also provide insights into the group’s goals, likely targets, tactics and the audience they are trying to recruit. Gaining an understanding of these elements helps to illuminate the points at which governments must apply the instruments of national power to defeat, degrade or destroy these groups.