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What Motivates a Terrorist?

Terrorism existed for thousands of years before the word entered European languages after the French Revolution in the late 18th century. The violent and random tactics of terror have been used by groups on the political left and right, by religious fanatics of various faiths, by the rich and poor, by nationalists and revolutionaries.

Terrorist Mohammed Atta was motivated out of hatred for America to fly an airplane into a New York City skyscraper. Ulrike Meinhof waged a terror campaign against West Germany in the 1970s out of disenchantment with its society. Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin was driven by a vision of an independent Jewish homeland to bomb a hotel in Jerusalem.

A Justification for Violence

Whatever the reason -- rational or irrational, political, economic, religious or personal -- terror specialist Bruce Hoffman of the RAND Corporation think tank here in Washington, says that those who engage in terrorism believe that they have no alternative. "And that becomes the justification or the rationale for violence. Often attached to that or married to that is the catharsis of violence, in other words, the satisfaction they feel of the David against a Goliath, the weak striking out against the powerful," says Hoffman.

A common perception of a terrorist is that of a poor and ignorant individual who acts out of desperation. But the Red Brigades, which terrorized Italy in the 1970s and '80s are but one example of organizations created by educated members of the middle class.

Bard O'Neill, Director of Insurgency Studies at the National War College in Washington, says another such group is al-Qaida, which launched the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States. "Al-Qaida people come from middle class backgrounds," says O'Neill. "And when you begin to look at that, you find out that their motivation is very much psychological. People who are searching for a sense of identity, a sense of respect, searching to address humiliation -- these are the kinds of things that tend to motivate them rather than poverty."

O'Neill says al-Qaida leaders motivate their members through claims that the West has socially, economically and politically humiliated Islamic society. He adds that the inner circle of any terrorist organization tends to be close-minded. "They are the ideologues. They are committed; they are in it for the duration. But when you get beyond the inner core, to the outer circles of a terrorist organization, there you're dealing with people with all different kinds of motivations. And as you move further and further out, you may find people who are there, simply perhaps to make money, to seize opportunities," says O’Neill.

Religious Motives

Another powerful motivating force is religion. The RAND Corporation's Bruce Hoffman says Islamic terrorist organizations that recruit members who are willing to die redefine self-destruction as a social good. "It becomes positive in the sense that if it's a religious context, the bomber is rewarded with a glorious ascent to heaven. But there are also financial and material incentives for the bomber's family that transcend both religious and secular groups. The families themselves are often well taken care of and looked after," says Hoffman.

Scholars say that Islamic terrorists who volunteer to die adhere to the concept of "istishad", or martyrdom, which promises entry into paradise for those who go to their deaths in an attack against an enemy. However, terrorism by definition targets innocent civilians, which violates Islamic teaching. As a result, the prospective martyr is faced with a contradiction.

Radwan Masmoudi, President of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, says it is resolved by mentally denying the civilian status of people on buses or in restaurants. "They are saying that, 'No, these are not really civilians. They are somehow associated with this war and that is why we are targeting them.' They know that it is clearly forbidden in Islam to kill civilians, so they have to find an explanation or a way to say these targets are not really civilians, that they are somehow associated with the military," says Masmoudi.

In recent years, Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders have portrayed the West's presence in the Muslim world as an attack on Islam. Michael Scheuer, a former CIA officer who was involved in the hunt for bin Laden, says U.S. foreign policy often feeds that perception. "Whether it's our unqualified support for Israel, now our military presence in Afghanistan, in the Philippines and Iraq, our presence on the Arabian Peninsula, our physical presence is pushing that even further -- the idea that jihad needs to be waged in defense of Islam," says Scheuer.

Social Issues

Radwan Masmoudi of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy says there is widespread unemployment and corruption in Arab societies. He also points to the loss of Islam's position as a dominant culture centuries ago, adding that anger over such failures has driven some Arabs to terrorism. Masmoudi, however, warns that the anger should not be directed against innocents, but at ways of finding peaceful solutions to serious problems.

"As an Arab and a Muslim, I think -- we have to think -- 'Why are we in such a mess?' But we cannot let that anger control us. We have to control our anger. Anger is good because anger gives you energy, it gives you motivation, as long as you're still using your head to determine your reaction," says Masmoudi.

Experts recognize that terrorism often works on a tactical level by raising public awareness about particular goals or grievances. But they note that there are few examples of terrorists who gain and keep power without setting limits on violence and without an ability to peacefully engage in the art of politics.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.