terrorism RESEARCH

Goals and Motivations of Terrorists


Ideology and motivation will influence the objectives of terrorist operations, especially regarding the casualty rate. Groups with secular ideologies and non-religious goals will often attempt highly selective and discriminate acts of violence to achieve a specific political aim. This often requires them to keep casualties at the minimum amount necessary to attain the objective. This is both to avoid a backlash that might severely damage the organization, and also maintain the appearance of a rational group that has legitimate grievances. By limiting their attacks they reduce the risk of undermining external political and economic support. Groups that comprise a "wing" of an insurgency, or are affiliated with aboveground, sometimes legitimate, political organizations often operate under these constraints. The tensions caused by balancing these considerations are often a prime factor in the development of splinter groups and internal factions within these organizations.

In contrast, religiously oriented and millenarian groups typically attempt to inflict as many casualties as possible. Because of the apocalyptic frame of reference they use, loss of life is irrelevant, and more casualties are better. Losses among their co-religionists are of little account, because such casualties will reap the benefits of the afterlife. Likewise, non-believers, whether they are the intended target or collateral damage, deserve death, and killing them may be considered a moral duty. The Kenyan bombing against the U.S. Embassy in 1998 inflicted casualties on the local inhabitants in proportion to U.S. personnel of over twenty to one killed, and an even greater disparity in the proportion of wounded (over 5000 Kenyans were wounded by the blast; 95% of total casualties were non-American ). Fear of backlash rarely concerns these groups, as it is often one of their goals to provoke overreaction by their enemies, and hopefully widen the conflict.

The type of target selected will often reflect motivations and ideologies. For groups professing secular political or social motivations, their targets are highly symbolic of authority; government offices, banks, national airlines, and multinational corporations with direct relation to the established order. Likewise, they conduct attacks on representative individuals whom they associate with economic exploitation, social injustice, or political repression. While religious groups also use much of this symbolism, there is a trend to connect it to greater physical devastation. There also is a tendency to add religiously affiliated individuals, such as missionaries, and religious activities, such as worship services, to the targeting equation.

Another common form of symbolism utilized in terrorist targeting is striking on particular anniversaries or commemorative dates. Nationalist groups may strike to commemorate battles won or lost during a conventional struggle, whereas religious groups may strike to mark particularly appropriate observances. Many groups will attempt to commemorate anniversaries of successful operations, or the executions or deaths of notable individuals related to their particular conflict. Likewise, striking on days of particular significance to the enemy can also provide the required impact. Since there are more events than operations, assessment of the likelihood of an attack on a commemorative date is only useful when analyzed against the operational pattern of a particular group or specific members of a group's leadership cadre.

The Intent of Terrorist Groups

A terrorist group commits acts of violence to -

• Terrorism: A Modern Scourge