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What Social Scientists Think They Know about Terrorism: Reflections on 9/11

By Kimberly Marten
Professor of Political Science

I was in New York when September 11 happened, and felt the same shock, fear, and sadness that we all did.  What sometimes gets forgotten is that September 11 was followed immediately by the anthrax attacks coming through the U.S. mail.  I lived in New Jersey then, and they seemed to be targeting people in New Jersey, so it was a very scary time.  I decided to process my fear by learning as much as I could—and helping my students learn as much as they could—about the real causes of terrorism, and what that meant for counter-terrorism policy.  So many people were saying such wrong and stupid things at that time, and I wanted to understand the reality.  I began teaching our department’s colloquium on “Political Violence and Terrorism.”  Putting together the course became easier with time because there was so much new and rigorous scholarly material coming out on these issues.

Social scientists look for patterns in human behavior, and for the relationship between causes and effects.  They usually don’t refer to “terrorists,” because that term implies that some individuals commit terrorism by nature; instead, they refer to acts of “terrorism,” and want to know why those acts occur sometimes and not others.  Most social scientists agree that a good working definition of “terrorism” involves acts of political violence carried out by non-state actors, against non-combatants, in order to impact political behavior.  In other words, acts of terrorism are purposeful and strategic.  A full review of what we know today about the causes of terrorism would take a longer paper, but I can sum up a few major things quickly. 

First, economic inequality, lack of economic opportunity, and lack of education are not associated with either the likelihood of carrying out a terrorist attack, or underlying societal support for acts of terrorism.  This has been definitively demonstrated by Alan Krueger of Princeton University, President Obama’s new nominee for Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.  He did exhaustive statistical work at a cross-national level to show this, and it’s supported by all of our anecdotal evidence.  Individuals throughout 20th-century history who planned and carried out acts of terrorism tended to come from the comfortable middle or upper class and tend to be well educated, just like the 9/11 hijackers.  Societies characterized by economic inequality are no more prone to acts of terrorism than others.

Second, though, political inequality and a lack of political opportunity are very much associated with terrorism.  This has been confirmed not only by Krueger, but by many others as well.  The vast majority of terrorism is committed locally, by people who are citizens of the countries where the acts take place, who feel desperate and unable to accomplish anything through non-violent political acts.  Terrorism is connected with authoritarian and exclusionary regimes.  Many scholars, including Martha Crenshaw of Stanford University (who has been studying terrorism since 1972), believe that the real targets of al Qaeda have been their home regimes, allies of the United States.  They couldn’t accomplish much in their home police states where they were always being watched, so they targeted the relatively more open U.S. to send a message designed to resonate at home.

Third, acts of terrorism can be designed to send a message not only to the outside world, but also in a domestic power struggle.  Mark Juergensmeyer, a sociologist at UC Santa Barbara, argues that this is why responsibility for some terrorist acts is never claimed—the internal audience already knows who did it.  Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University (another long-time scholar of terrorism) and his colleagues have demonstrated that in both Sri Lanka and the Palestinian territories, acts of terrorism increased every time it looked like the moderate opposition was about to succeed.  In these cases, terrorism sent the message that the extremists were still strong and couldn’t be sidelined.  The acts were also designed to make the state look weak in the face of extremism.

Fourth, individuals who commit acts of terrorism are usually encouraged to do so by the social network that surrounds them.  This was first proposed by James Coleman, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, who argued that social encouragement was how members of a group could be convinced to overcome the natural tendency we all feel to sit back and let someone else take the risk of action.  More recently, Marc Sageman, one of the first network analysts for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency during the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, argued that connections over the Internet would encourage “lone wolves” toward terrorist acts even when they didn’t belong to a close-knit group that practiced terrorism.  Amanda Johnson in her dissertation for the U.S. Naval Post-Graduate School demonstrated that Saudi Arabia has recently established a successful counter-terrorism policy in its prisons, where inmates who have committed acts of terrorism are provided with an enduring, positive mentor, and prisoners’ families are mobilized into the supportive effort to convince these individuals to forswear acts of violence in the future.

So what does all of this tell us about which counter-terrorism policies will succeed best?  It means that as a society, we need to send the message that we will not practice repression—all of the evidence indicates, for example, that torture and unwarranted imprisonment undercuts the goals of getting good information and convincing individuals to forswear terrorism—but that we will remain vigilant and strong.  We have to make supporting the state, providing information about potential terrorist acts, and taking part in non-violent political action look more attractive than supporting terrorism.  It also means that we need to cut the social networks that encourage terrorism, and do everything we can to convince individuals who might be thinking about committing terrorist acts that non-violence is a better alternative. 

© Kimberly Marten, September 2011.  All rights reserved.

Read more about the anniversary of 9/11 from Barnard scholars in religion, psychology and economics.