Terrorism. Criminological and Psychological Theories

Essay, 2017

11 Pages, Grade: Distinction


By synthesising relevant research and theory, critically contrast criminological and psychological theories of terrorism.

The field of terrorism has been explored widely across Social Science epidemiology, including political and psychological theory due to its varied nature, motivation and application (Coppock et al, 2014). There are a large number of identified definitions of what would constitute ‘terrorism’ under national and international law. Currently Dry Run terrorism; Cyber terrorism; Individual terrorism; Lone Wolf terrorism; Bioterrorism; Radicalised terrorism; and Eco-Home grown terrorism have been identified (Agnew, 2010; Canter et al, 2014; Danilović et al, 2013; Freilich et al, 2015; Gross et al, 2016; Meloy et al, 2014; Perry et al, 2015; Post et al, 2009). Due to these various formats of what would constitute ‘terrorism’ and a ‘terrorist act’, over a hundred definitions of ‘terrorism’ have been identified in the existing academic literature (Danilović et al, 2013; Schmid, 1983, 2004; Victoroff, 2005). However the international community has been unable to agree upon a universal definition (United Nations, 2004). The term of ‘terrorism’ however is rooted in the political discourse of the French, more specifically the French Revolution where the use of the term a ‘reign of terror’ came into being (Record, 2003). The French word terrorisme derives from the Latin verb terreȯ meaning ‘I frighten’ (Hoffman, 2006). The defeat of the Jacobins transformed the word into a powerful new governmental form of criminality. Despite its origins in governmental atrocities towards citizens, it now applies to individual citizen acts as well as organizations and national state governments (Agnew, 2010). In response intelligence services such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), have deployed broad and vast definitions to encompass all aspects of what constitutes terrorism:

‘The unlawful use of force or violence committed by a group or individual against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives’ (FBI, 28 CFR, Section 0.85).

Victoroff (2005) in his article critique of the existing psychological approaches to explaining terrorism identified two core components underlying the basis of contemporary ‘terrorist’ definitions. Firstly, that terrorism involves aggression against non-combatants; and secondly, that the terrorist action in itself is not expected by its perpetrator to accomplish a political goal but instead to influence a target audience and change that audience’s behaviour in a way that will serve the interests of the terrorist. This is the most reflective understanding of comprised definitions to date since it takes into account Schmid’s (1983) analysis of compiled 109 academic definitions of terrorism. Furthermore it does not suggest that terrorism is primarily political, but can be to influence any subjective group of the perpetrators’ choosing. This allows the application of ‘terrorism’ as a definition to issues such an environmentalism and social activism movements for instance. However, it is important to acknowledge that terrorist activities frequently have a political motivation (Khan, 2007).

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in September 2001 transformed terrorism research into a popular research subject not just of academic disciplines, but evolving to become interdisciplinary in theoretical assumptions exploring the nature, motivation and application of ‘terrorism’ (Saikayasit et al, 2013). The use of indiscriminate and civilian based attacks by radical organisations such as Al Qa’ida prompted increasing interest amongst the research based populace to identify motivations to commit such heinous acts (Kruglanski et al, 2006; Rose et al, 1999). The context of the destruction of the World Trade Centre was primarily to induce fear, and to instil a climate of fear in the Western World, particularly America as expressed by Bin Laden himself (Sandler et al, 2007). Since then a series of psychological and criminological literature, containing theoretical assumptions and real world terrorist actions have been examined to address the nature and motivation of terrorism (Kruglanski et al, 2013).

In order to understand the nature and premise of these theories, such as the Strain Theory; Rational Choice Theory; Identity Theory; Social Learning Theory; Left Realism; Classical and Positivism theories; Developmental theories and Psychoanalytical theories and many more, criminological and psychological theory must first be defined – with context to their differences of interpretation and focus. Through this application of definitions, theories can be identified as criminological or psychological in examination.

Terrorism is approached by psychological approaches as a behavioural phenomenon, governed by human agency that results from nature and nurture influences (Kruglanksi et al, 2006). Psychological researchers have taken an interest in such heinous criminal acts partially because of the carnage caused, but also because it often leads to the death, execution or life imprisonment of the perpetrator(s) (Abrahms, 2011). There are a number of identified psychological issues that have been examined in the speech patterns of terrorists and written vocabulary. Saikayasit et al. (2013) identified several themes upon analysis of convicted terrorists across conflicts like Bosnia, Kosovo, and Jihadi terrorist groups. They found that there were several psychological behaviours that explained the motivation for such acts. Firstly the desire for excitement; desire for glory; frustration; and the seduction of extreme violence were found in the interview(s) and emails of terrorists of recent History (Taylor & Horgan, 2006). These emotions have been shown to be of such power and influence on the mind of the perpetrator that they may even kill themselves for their perceived cause - termed as suicide terrorism (Kruglanski et al, 2013). Coaffee et al. (2006) argues that terrorism is primarily an emotional act, which is why, in his opinion, novelists have been the most successful at capturing the psychological complexities of those who commit terroristic attacks. The psychology of the perpetrator is of significance in understanding the motivations for terrorism; however the criminological approach is able to account for the sociological aspects of terrorism, such as political influences (Savelsberg, 2006). Akanni (2014) found that one of the primary reasons for engaging in terrorism in Nigeria is because of low youth employment, and lack of economic opportunities – therefore supporting the Frustration hypothesis and the sociological effects, such as the economy and deprivation, on the perpetrator that lead to such atrocities.

Criminology is a multi-disciplinary subject that draws conclusions on criminality based on other more specialised academic disciplines such as Psychology and Politics. The field is therefore sociological in nature when addressing causes of crime such as terrorism, and is able to account for political and cultural theories regarding the application of criminal behaviour such as terrorism (Savelsberg et al, 2002). These conclusions can include left or right realism theories, with the notion of the state engendering criminogenic behaviours due to governmental actions (Box, 1983, 2002). Furthermore they include theories such as Strain Theory and Rational Choice Theory - each of which will be examined.

General Strain Theory argues that there is a perceived grievance that has occurred in the mind of the terrorist – which acts as a kind of stressor factor psychologically (Agnew, 1992, 2001, 2006a, 2006b, 2010). This is a broad theory that has the application to apply to many sociological components of terrorism. The strain is often a collective response as part of a group or organisation – assuming that others outside of the group are assaulting or provoking that group to engage in retaliatory acts such as terrorist attacks (Agnew, 2010). Furthermore Agnew (2010) identified that ‘collective strains’ increase the likelihood of terrorist activity. Bin Laden in 2001 on television expressed that 9/11 was a response to US foreign policy interference for the past eighty years in the Middle-East on Muslim populations. Emotions are therefore triggered due to these perceived grievances, such as anger and resentment. The US as the hegemonic power of the West was of particular concern to Jihadist groups who resented the continued occupation of the Middle-East by US Forces (Canter et al, 2004). The act of terrorism is therefore a form of criminal backlash, or outlet to strike back at outside forces. This theory is able to encompass psychological components of the perpetrator(s) primarily anger and resentment. The grievance can be political, social or economical in nature thus accounting for any negative perception that the perpetrator(s) may have about their target(s) (Agnew, 2010). However psychologically it is not able to account for lone wolf terroristic actions, whereby the motivation is more narcissistic, and about solidifying ones’ mark on history, and laying the blueprint for future actions and self-Martyrdom (Kruglanski et al, 2013). Therefore more self-serving emotions are not accountable in theory, but rather negative emotions at the perceived grievance. It succeeds however at being impartial as to whether the grievance is true or not, it simply assumes that it exists within the mind of the terrorist(s). Therefore the theory is able to stay politically detached, if one allows, from any such political biases/projections in understanding terrorism. Furthermore it examines the context of what these grievances could possibly be, in order to better understand the context in which the perpetrator operates. A number of possible grievances have been identified such as: Material deprivation; threats from globalization and modernization; resentment of western dominance; territorial, religious and ethnic disputes; economic and political discrimination; problems with certain immigrant groups; denial of basic human rights; harsh state repression; challenges to group identity; displacement of home or land; military occupation; threats to status and movements to acknowledge the rights of civil, women’s and gay rights (Agnew, 2010). The theory does not however account for opportunity or gain on the part of the perpetrator, for example Usama Bin Laden in a 2003 sermon described America as ‘weak and degenerate’ which could be overthrown by a new power such as the Jihad (Kruglanski et al, 2006). The Rational Choice Theory however does take into account the cost and benefits internal analysis of such crimes.


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Terrorism. Criminological and Psychological Theories
University of Lincoln  (University of Lincoln)
MSc Forensic Psychology
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Forensic Psychology, Terrorism, Psychological Theories, Criminological Theories
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Alexander Syder (Author), 2017, Terrorism. Criminological and Psychological Theories, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/352074


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