Terrorists Need an Ideology (2023)

Terrorism is not an end in itself but a means to a political end (Hutchinson, 1978; Drake, 1998: 53; Chenoweth and Moore, 2018). The act of terrorism can be defined as the intentional threat or use of force to create a psychological reaction, for instance, to evoke fear as a signal to the wider population or to achieve wider political goals such as affecting a political outcome (Chenoweth and Moore, 2018). Second, ideology, one of the most elusive concepts in social science (see McLellan, 1995), will be understood as ‘an action-orientated set of political ideas’ for the purpose of this essay (Heywood, 2017: 299; Brahami, 2019). Ideology specifically offers an account of: (i) the existing order; (ii) the desired future; (iii) an explanation of how political change ought to be brought about (Heywood, 2018: 4). This essay argues that terrorists need an ideology because an ideology is necessary to define an overarching objective and targets, to have an internal justification for attacks, and, for the terrorist organisation at large, to attract resources and recruits. This argument is structured as follows. Firstly, I present my main argument that an ideology is necessary for the intention, execution, and expansionof terrorist activity. I exemplify this point with the terrorist cases of Anders Behring Breivik, Elliot Rodger, and Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel whose attacks had diverging ideological underpinnings and different levels of organisation. Secondly, I present the rationalist objection to this argument that terrorism can be a rational choice to achieve material gains, glory, and significance, without the need for ideology. Third, in response, I argue that this objection fails for three reasons: (1) terrorism is a statistically unsuccessful means to an end (Abrahams, 2006); (2) it is difficult to discern a rationalist strategy from its ideological tenets; (3) on an individual level, it is unlikely that terrorism is a rational pursuit for material gains. Fourthly and finally, I raise the second counterargument that terrorists do not need an ideology because mental conditions (illnesses) can be the sole driver of radicalisation. I will argue that this objection fails because an attack with the sole intention of harm is not terrorism, but illicit violence. This leads me to conclude that terrorists need an ideology.

To begin with, terrorists need an ideology because ideology is necessary for the intention, execution, and expansion of violent extremist activity (Holbrook and Horgan, 2019). Ideology, as a collective prism to view and make sense of the world, provides a lens through which one defines a purpose or objective and deems a state, institution, or a person guilty or deserving of attack (Drake, 1998). For terrorists, ideology specifically (1) defines the overarching objective as well as corresponding targets, (2) provides the internal justification for the execution of attacks, and (3) for organisations at large, attracts resources and recruits. Terrorists, thus, need an ideology. Take for instance the example of Elliot Rodger, the then 22-year-old incel-motivated terrorist, who attacked a sorority house and killed four people (Witt, 2020: 675). The incel (self-identifying involuntary celibates) ideology is largely composed of three beliefs: (i) the societal hierarchy is determined on the basis of physical appearance; (ii) women are drawn only to men based on their physical attractiveness without regard for personality; (iii) women are responsible for their isolation and rejection (Hoffman et al., 2020; Gentry, 2022). Together, this worldview is designed to have far-reaching societal effects (intention), targets violence primarily at women (targets), allows individuals to justify the attacks (justification), and attracts resources and recruits (expansion) (Hoffman et al., 2020: 565). Rodger’s 133-page manifesto proved that his incel-ideology was his ultimate motivation for his lone-wolf terrorist attack (Allely and Faccini, 2017). Similarly, Anders Behring Breivik’s, the Norwegian mass murderer, 1,518-page manifesto clearly demonstrates that ideology was the explanatory factor of his terrorist attacks on July 22, 2011 (Hagtvet et al., 2011; Berntzen and Sandberg, 2014; Gullestad, 2017). The Nice terrorist attack, on the other hand, exemplifies how terrorist organisations at large need ideology to attract recruits. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the terrorist who murdered 86 people in Nice on Bastille Day, searched for online Islamist extremist content a few days before the event, which gave him the internal individual justification for the terrorist attack (Horgan, 2008; Holbrook and Horgan, 2019). The role of ideology in terrorism is, however, not rigid but fluid; for some terrorists, the ideological components might be extremely salient, as Rodger’s and Breivik’s manifestos show, for others, it might be more subtle, as Lahouaiej-Bouhlel short online search exemplifies. Nonetheless, as Kellen Konrad (1982: 10) states: ‘[a] terrorist without a cause is not a terrorist’.

One might strongly push back on this argument by arguing that terrorists do not need an ideology because collective rational or socio-organisation impetuses drive terrorism instead. This entails that terrorism can be a strategic, rationalist choice and tool of the last resort to successfully achieve material gains, glory, and significance without any ideological considerations taken into account. The key assumptions of this approach are: (1) preferences are stable over time; (2) terrorist groups are unitary actors (Neumann and Smith, 2007; Chenoweth and Moore, 2018). To exemplify this objection, take for instance Clarke’s (2004) view on the rationale behind the 9/11 attacks: he argues that Al Qaeda’s attacks were strategically meant to induce the U.S. into a war in the Middle East and unify the Islamic world. This explanation solely adopts a rationalist perspective and implies that terrorists do not need ideology on an organisational level. It, thus, understands terrorism as an effective coercive strategy (Abrahms, 2006: 42). Other rationalist theorists concluded that rationality also successfully applies in the case of Chechnya or suicide bombing (Sandler et al., 1983; Dugan et al., 2005; Hepworth, 2013). This organisational explanation invokes the question: do terrorists on an individual level need an ideology to execute the attacks? This view on terrorism also understands individual decisions to be the result of cost-benefit analyses that do not need to encompass any ideological components. For instance, these benefits may include the perceived possibility of glory and the fulfilment of the quest for significance (see Borowitz 2005 and McBridge 2011). McCauley and Moskalenko (2010: 89) argue that some might join a terrorist group in search of connection and comradeship. Additionally, Brahimi (2019) puts forward the view that terrorism could be a way out of problematic former life. For instance, according to Brahimi (2019: 298), the reasons for Choudhury, a key recruiter for the Al Qaeda network, to support the terrorist organisation were the misuse of his sister-in-law’s money to visit prostitutes in Singapore and his faked cancer diagnosis. In brief, one might push back on the view that terrorists need an ideology by arguing that for both individuals and organisations, material or social benefits could outweigh the costs of terrorism without any need for ideological considerations.

Yet, this counterargument is problematic in, at least, three ways. First, terrorism is an unsuccessful means to an end given that the strategic aims of terrorist groups are only achieved seven percent of the time (Abrahams, 2006: 43). Instead of focusing on single case studies (cf. Abrahams. 2004) or a selection of a few infamous attacks (see Lake, 2002), the study by Abrahams (2006) analyses the political plight of 28 terrorist organisations since 2001, which led to the conclusion of the seven percent success rate. The finding of a poor rate indicates that terrorists’ coercive strategy is rather ineffective and, therefore, an irrational strategy, as one can no longer argue that it is, on average, a rational strategy. Second, it is difficult to discern whether Al Qaeda’s strategy was a provocation strategy or an inadvertent consequence of an overarching ideological pursuit. Especially when the overall strategy included non-rational choices. This is the case for ISIS’s decision to symbolically seize the small village of Dabiq in 2014; the town is of no strategic importance but is described in a prophecy by the Prophet Mohammad and was, therefore, taken on ideological and non-rational grounds (Gambhir, 2014; Wignell et al., 2017: 7). Third and finally, on an individual level, if only rational (material) impetuses can drive terrorism, why do so few people become terrorists? And why not commit non-ideological crimes instead? This hints at other explanatory factors at play, ideological considerations as I argue, yet others argue that these can solely be mental illnesses as I will discuss in the next paragraph. Altogether, these three shortcomings allow me to refute the rationalist objection. Before we conclude that terrorists need an ideology, we must first consider a specific psychological approach that draws onto mental illness as a counterargument.

Finally, one can argue that terrorists do not need an ideology because psychological factors such as narcissistic rage, paranoia, thrill-seeking, or revenge can drive individuals to radicalisation (Horgan, 2019). There is evidence that mental illness is sometimes associated with terrorists (Gill et al., 2015). Through this lens, one can understand terrorism as the collective behaviour of individuals with the sole motive of inflicting injury and harm, physically or psychologically (Lawal, 2002: 23). If inflicting harm is the sole motive, then it should be possible to be a terrorist without the need for an ideology. We can, however, push back on this line of reasoning with a two-folded critique. First, there is no prevailing evidence that mental illnesses or mental conditions in general play a key role in predetermined terrorist participation or action (Horgan, 2019: 209). Crenshaw (1981) and Richardson (2007), therefore, doubt the value of explaining terrorists as psychologically disturbed and even note that terrorists are notable for their normalcy. Second, if one acts with the sole purpose to inflict harm, that is, without any need for ideological considerations, then it should not matter who they target nor can there be an overarching (political) objective. If this is the case, following the aforementioned definition and most prevailing understandingof terrorism, then it is not terrorism but illicit violent activity instead. This specific psychological approach, thus, fails to sufficiently push back on this essay’s main argument that terrorists need an ideology. But it does hint at a potential combination of explanatory factors of terrorism, for instance, psychological and ideological factors, as in the case of Anders Behring Breivik who suffered from narcissistic personality disorder amongst other conditions and firmly followed his ideology (see Faccini and Allely, 2016). Yet, without an ideological underpinning, it is not terrorism but illicit violence, and therefore by definition, terrorists need an ideology.

To conclude, this essay argued that terrorists need ideology because it is necessary for the intention, execution, and expansion of terrorist activity. Firstly, using the attacks of Rodger, Breivik, and Lahouaiej-Bouhlel as examples, I argued that individual terrorists need ideology to define an overarching objective and targets and to have an internal justification for attacks and, for the terrorist organisation at large, to attract resources and recruits. Secondly, I presented the main objection to this argument. This objection argues that terrorists do not needan ideology because collective rational or socio-organisation impetuses drive terrorism instead. I exemplified this objection with the 9/11 attack and the individual case of Choudhury. Thirdly, I refuted this objection for three reasons: (1) terrorism is a statistically unsuccessful means to an end; (2) it is difficult to discern a rationalist strategy from its ideological tenets; (3) on an individual level, if terrorism is a rational pursuit for material gains, then more people might have been terrorists. Finally, I raised a second objection which argues that terrorists do not need an ideology because mental conditions, such as narcissistic personality disorder or psychosis, can, in some cases, be the sole driver to radicalisation instead. In response, I argued that this fails because if there is no overarching objective or purpose, then it is not terrorism but illicit violence instead. Altogether, this leads me to conclude that terrorists need an ideology.


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Further Reading on E-International Relations

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  • Ideology and Economic Policy in European Social Democracy c.1890-2010
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