Terrorism: Recent Academic Research Findings and Theory

Recent attacks in San Bernardino, California, and Paris brought terrorism back to the forefront of U.S. politics. According to Google Trends, searches for “what is terrorism” spiked in 2015. The U.S. Department of State defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” Most academics are interested in terrorism focus on what motivates it and how authorities can attempt to police terrorists. Here are six scholarly articles on terrorism from sociology, psychology, and law.

The relationship between police and Muslim Americans

This article from the Law and Society Review turns to police counterterrorism efforts and the circumstances that shape the cooperation of Muslim Americans. To answer this question, the authors test competing hypotheses from theories of policing. One hypothesis states that people cooperate with the police because they think it is beneficial to them. The second hypothesis argues that people’s values shape their response so they cooperate when they view law enforcement as legitimate. The researchers tested their hypotheses using survey data from 300 Muslim Americans living in New York City. They found support for the legitimacy idea, revealing that how police form and implement antiterrorism strategy shapes their legitimacy among Muslim Americans, and people’s willingness to cooperate and report terrorist activity. Whereas police policy had a positive effect on these outcomes, the perception of discrimination from society against Muslims harmed cooperation.

Categorical terrorism

In his Social Forces article, Jeff Goodwin aims to develop a sociological theory of terrorism. He defines terrorism as “the strategic use of violence and threats of violence by an oppositional political group against civilians or non-combatants, and is usually intended to influence several audiences.” Goodwin explores “categorical terrorism,” which is attacks against people who belong to a specific group, such as an ethnicity or religion. Terrorists see these individuals as “complicitous civilians” who either benefits from the actions of the government that they oppose, support the government, or are capable of substantially influencing the government. The primary objective of categorical terrorism is to induce these people to either stop supporting or demand changes from, the government. Terrorists may employ this form of terrorism when there are blurred boundaries between either the state and its citizens or the combatants and non-combatants, or when they have access to complicitous civilians. Goodwin concludes his article by discussing how the events of 9/11 as orchestrated by Al-Qa’ida provide support for this theory. Al-Qa’ida argued that American citizens were responsible for the violence against Muslims carried about by the government because they elected their representatives. Thus, this group views the oppression they face as widely supported by civilians in the United States and orchestrates violence against them in response.

What motivates a suicide bomber?

In their Social Forces piece, Robert J. Brym and Bader Araj explore what motivates suicide bombings. Previous researchers thought suicide bombing was aimed at forcing out the military of a foreign state. But, using data on 138 suicide bombings that occurred in a five-year span in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, they found that most suicide bombings by Palestinians were a response to Israeli military actions. Aside from information about the attack itself, they include an analysis of the motives, organization rationale, and the specific events that preceded the suicide attack. They find that 82% of the preceding events they studied were reactive, meaning specific Israeli actions elicited a reaction Palestinians suicide attack as a response. The majority of the suicide bombings were motivated by revenge and retaliation, as opposed to a desire for reputation or religious affirmation. They also find that the rationale for attacks focused on avenging Israeli attacks on insurgents as a way to maintain morale. One implication of this research is that, contrary to the idea that military action on the part of Israel would reduce suicide bombing by Palestinian insurgents, it actually leads to more.

Reminders of death affect attitudes towards terrorism

According to terror management theory, a person’s worldview protects from an existential fear by providing a view of the world as orderly, predictable, meaningful, and permanent. Also, it allows people to think they are members of a group that is special and unique. When confronted with an out-group that challenges their beliefs, people may take up arms to defend their core worldviews. In “Mortality Salience, Martyrdom, and Military Might: The Great Satan versus the Axis of Evil”, researchers test terror management theory by conducting multiple psychology laboratory experiments with Iranian and U.S. college students. Specifically, they explore the effect of mortality salience (reminders of death) on support for extremist solutions to the conflict between the United States and Islamic extremist militant groups. In their first study, they examined how concerns about death would affect how Iranian college students evaluated a person who supported martyrdom attacks versus a person who opposed them. They hypothesized that a reminder of death before reading responses from a fellow student would lead them to favor the student who supported martyrdom attacks and express a willingness to join the cause themselves — and results supported that hypothesis. Their second study looked at how differing worldviews, specifically political orientations, in addition to mortality salience would affect U.S. students’ support of extreme force in the war on terror. Whereas liberal students did not change their views regardless of reminders of death, conservative students were more likely to support extreme force both when reminded of 9/11 and when reminded of death.

Terrorism plays a role in globalization

In his Sociological Theory article, Ronen Shamir challenges the idea that globalization simply facilitates people moving across national borders. Instead, he argues that globalization systematically enables borders based on people’s characteristics. This results in a “mobility gap” — some people are allowed to move freely, while others are trapped by borders, including physical borders such as barbed wire, deep trenches, or concrete fences (as are used, for example, to isolate Palestinians from Israelis). In addition to physical barriers, biosocial profiling, such as fingerprints, can be used to contain some individuals that are perceived as suspicious. In general, Shamir argues, profiling is a way of managing the perceived risk associated with certain people. These types of barriers give states the power to immobilize groups of people categorized as suspicious and create social distance between groups.

Terrorism by Muslim-Americans is Rare

Though some political rhetoric suggests Muslim Americans pose a threat as potential terrorists, research suggests that terrorism plots planned and executed by Muslim Americans are rare. According to this study, 172 Muslim-Americans were suspects and perpetrators of terroristic acts between September 11, 2001, through May 1, 2011. Over 70 percent of these suspects were arrested before carrying out an attack and approximately 90 percent were foiled before they obtained weapons. Other than being male, the suspects did not share any common characteristics related to becoming radicalized. The largest sources of information regarding these suspects came from government investigations and the Muslim-American community. The researchers focused on the Muslim-American community by conducting a two-year study that included 120 in-depth interviews of Muslim-Americans residing in four cities. They found that there were five ways that Muslim-Americans addressed radicalization. First, they denounced terrorism both publicly and privately. Second, they engaged in self-policing including monitoring sentiments expressed among community members. Third, they built communities that engaged Muslim youth but kept closed itself off from potential troublemakers. Fourth, Muslim-Americans asserted their civil rights through political representation in their local governments. Finally, Muslim Americans used identity politics to assert their double consciousness as both Muslims and Americans have the right to exercise their faith.


Originally written for Contexts.org