Historical story

Guest column on the origin of terrorists

A guest column appears on Kennislink every week. The columnist is always a different researcher, who writes from his or her field about the science behind an event in society or from our daily lives. This week:historian Joost Augusteijn on the origin of terrorists.

The expulsion by Pakistan of two Dutchmen who tried to join al-Qaeda there earlier this year raises the question of why young (mostly) men are attracted to such organisations.

You would expect that the idea that Muslims are dominated by the West, or the desire to establish a Muslim state, is at the root of this. However, research into the motivation of members of terrorist organizations makes it clear that a deeply ideological or religious reason is usually not the cause.

For those setting up a violent organization , a well-considered vision of society and how it should be changed sometimes be decisive. For the majority of the members of such an organization, however, that is not important at all.

The objectives of nationalist terror organizations, such as the Basque ETA or the Irish IRA, were shared by a substantial part of the population, but only a very small part of them actually became members. This also applies to the anti-imperialist ideology of left-wing revolutionary movements of the 1970s, such as the West German RAF and the Italian Red Brigades, and also to the Islamist groups of recent decades.

How then do young people come to join; Are they maybe a certain kind of people? Experience shows that terrorists are mainly young men, although more and more women have become active in recent decades. Where the leaders are usually children of the elite, the ordinary members are often poorer and less educated. In general, therefore, average people, although it is clear that neither the poorest nor the very rich are much involved in terrorism. Apparently they have something else on their mind.

Politically active students and youth members of political parties often form the intellectual basis for the early activists. After that, members are especially drawn to the heroism of fighting. Although the quest for the heroic is something that drives young people to all kinds of activities, from sports to video games, it is also the main motivation for resorting to violence. But why does one box or game and the other join al-Qaeda?

Here is an example to follow. Not only from the past but especially from the immediate vicinity. If there are already people who use violence for a cause that several people support, it becomes easier for others to do the same. Peer pressure is an important factor here. Young activists can incite each other to increasingly extreme ideas and therefore also to more extreme actions. This is reinforced if a group isolates itself from its environment, or if it has bad experiences with the government.

In the right environment, young people, such as the pair just now extradited from Pakistan, are therefore very sensitive to the allure of terrorism. It is therefore important not to use too much repression or to isolate groups looking for action. Giving alternative outlets is recommended, although eventually getting a partner and children calms many of them too.

Previous guest columns for History &Archaeology:

  • A sealed door at 10 Downing Street (Jouke Turpijn)
  • Five Centuries of Migration (Susan Leclercq)
  • Plaster heroes in the Allard Pierson Museum (René van Beek)