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There is much discussion and speculation about what causes people to decide to carry out actions of terrorism, i.e. the motivations behind those acts. Although there are many documented instances of potential terrorists being goaded into action by agents provocateur, it also seems likely that most acts of terrorism are committed for genuine motives, however ill-advised those motives may be.

Wikipedia suggests the following motives:

  • undermining state control by attacking those who cooperate with the state (noting that "This strategy was used in the USA in its War of Independence and in Ireland, in Kenya, in Algeria and in Cyprus in their independence struggles.")
  • undermining support of the state by inciting overreaction from authorities, e.g. by attacking targets that are high-profile or symbolic, such as national monuments
    • Although the 9/11 attacks incurred a large loss of life, this loss was not significant on a national strategic level and could not be repeated -- making the attacks largely symbolic, playing on the prominence of the World Trade Center and The Pentagon.

Max Abrahm suggests that terrorists may be motivated more by solidarity with other terrorists than by strategic goals, and that terrorist organizations choose targets primarily on the basis of what will motivate their members rather than what will best advance their strategy. This hypothesis rather pockets the question of what motivates terrorist organizations in the first place.


Thomas Homer-Dixon argues that it is important to analyze the root causes of terrorism. He describes changes in population which benefit extremist causes, and discusses ways in which poverty might help recruit people to extremist causes, regardless of whether they themselves are poor.


  • Thomas Homer-Dixon, "Why Root Causes are Important (Published title: We Ignore Misery at Our Peril)," Toronto Globe and Mail, September 26, 2001. PDF document