What Motivates the Terrorist or Potential Terrorist?

by Jayne Seminare Docherty, September 24, 2001

Our instinct is to assume that anyone who would fly a passenger jet into a building, killing himself, everyone on board, and thousands of other people in the building must be deranged. This judgement often finds expression in claims that such individuals are evil.

If this is the case, then crafting any kind of a preventive or cautionary message for individuals who might take similar actions is futile. See: Communicating with the Terrorists and Their Supporters.

It is more useful to begin with the assumption that the terrorists who acted on September 11 engaged in social action, that is to say, they were highly motivated, undertaking an activity that:

  • Was meaningful to them.
  • Was oriented to the past, present or expected future behavior of others.

All social actions are rational – which is to say they can be explained logically – but they are not all rational in exactly the same way. The sociologist Max Weber identified four types of rationality that explain social actions.

  • Goal-rational social actions are chosen as a means to an end. This is the most commonly recognized form of rationality and is often equated with rationality as such.
  • Value-rational social actions are oriented to an absolute value. The value commitment of the actor determines what is permissible and impermissible behavior and all actions must be congruent with the value commitments or “ultimate concerns” of the actor.
  • Affectual rationality arises out of the actor’s emotional states, feelings, and attachments. Actions are selected in order to honor and preserve emotional and social commitments to others.
  • Traditional rationality involves selecting actions based on the accepted norms of a community.

Western culture encourages individuals to value goal-rationality above the other forms of rationality, but every person operates out of mixed rationalities.

For example, in western culture we may make a value commitment to law and order or protecting United States interests abroad, and then we shift our focus to the means-end questions (goal-rationality) of how to accomplish this task in the most efficient and effective manner. Once this shift occurs, the value-rationality that supports our selected ends disappears into the background and we no longer consider it negotiable or subject to change.

The terrorists demonstrated a highly sophisticated capacity for goal-rational behavior when they selected efficient and highly effective means to achieve their end. So, in that sense, they were exceedingly rational in the way we normally think of rationality.

When we say the terrorists were deranged or irrational, we are really saying that we cannot answer the following questions

  • What value-rational commitments motivated these men to fly passenger planes into buildings?
  • What was their orientation to the past, present or expected future behavior of others (including Americans)?

We can start to answer these questions through a process of worldview analysis, which reveals that the terrorists’ motivation comes from:

  • seeing U.S. cultural influence in the Islamic world as a threat to Islam and the US presence in Islamic countries (particularly Saudi Arabia) as a violation of sacred space. Thus, they consider themselves to be engaged in a defensive battle against evil.
  • seeing the current battle between good and evil, sacred and profane, as taking place on a cosmic plane and not just in the historical reality that we all recognize as real. In short, they hold an apocalyptic vision of reality in which faithfully defending Islam will lead to the establishment of an empire ruled by Islamic law.
  • expecting retaliation from the United States, because only retaliation can legitimize their commitment to jihad, and only through the trial of jihad can the new Islamic order be ushered into being.

We must recognize that these apocalyptic themes and terrorist behaviors are not unique to Islam. Similar themes and behaviors have been associated with all of the major religions of the world at various times in history.

The important reality is that numerous sympathizers hold similar views, albeit in more moderate and less violent forms.

The moderation and nonviolence of the sympathizers can change, particularly if the claims listed above are validated by events in the international arena. Apocalyptic worldviews are validated by opposition from established authorities. Therefore, the United States response to the events of September 11 will:

  • help determine how many followers move from sympathizing with those who use violence to active participation in terrorist cells.
  • impact the political stability of governments in every nation-state with a significant Islamic population, by creating grassroots political unrest and violence in those countries that cooperate with the United States. This is particularly true for countries that host US military troops.

Why do policy makers ignore these realities?

U.S. policy makers operate from a goal-rational worldview. They ignore the existence and the motivational power of alternate worldviews.

  • They make strategic alliances with top leaders in other countries in response to changes in the geopolitical system.
  • They assume that managing dissident elements inside any given country is the responsibility of the political leaders of that country.
  • Sometimes they make strategic alliances with dissident movements in countries with “unfriendly” regimes (e.g., the Kurds in Iraq).
  • They do not analyze the symbolic motivations to action behind dissident movements inside other countries.
  • They do not analyze the worldviews of people with whom they create strategic partnerships.

This is why it may be accurate to say that the United States created Bin Laden and the Taliban. Based on their fighting prowess, these men were trained and equipped by the CIA during the Afghan war against Soviet occupation. They were designated as “freedom fighters” because no one in the U.S. government paid any attention to their openly expressed intent to establish a conservative Islamic regime from which to spread a pan-Islamic movement, which is now destabilizing numerous other countries.

In light of this motivational understanding, what should we think about when planning a “communication strategy” for “sending a message” to terrorists or would-be terrorists?

The U.S. response to the current crisis is being carefully scrutinized by thousands of individuals who believe the September 11 attacks were defensive rather than offensive in nature. For these persons, the attacks on New York and Washington are part of an effort to defend a way of life against those who would destroy it and a sacred territory – against those who have already encroached upon it.

Any military attack mounted by the U.S. particularly if it results in civilian casualties or requires the sustained presence of U.S. military troops in Islamic countries – will simply confirm claims that the terrorists were acting defensively. Such an attack is more likely to create a steady stream of new recruits for terrorist cells than it is to deter individuals from engaging in acts of terror.

Jayne Seminare Docherty, PhD, is the professor of Conflict Studies at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.