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perceptions to promote certain interests at the expense of others. When people and
events come to be regularly described in public as terrorists and terrorism, some
governmental or other entity is succeeding in a war of words in which the opponent
is promoting alternative designations such as “martyr” and “liberation struggle.”

More powerful conflict parties, especially governments, generally succeed in
labeling their more threatening (i.e., violent) opponents as terrorists, whereas at-
tempts by opponents to label officially sanctioned violence as “state terrorism”
have little chance of success unless supported by powerful third parties (e.g., the
United Nations). Superpowers such as the United States, of course, are highly
selective and influential in determining which parties and their activities in violent
struggles will be labeled. Lists of terrorist organizations and individuals, support-
ers, and sponsors are the results of policy decisions regarding the potential costs
and benefits of including or excluding specific parties on such lists. Pronounce-
ments by the U.S. State Department, for example, reflect assessments not only of
objective threat but also of the political, economic, and military implications of
naming particular entities as terrorist.

During the last decade of the cold war, the concept of “state-sponsored ter-
rorism” was given full credence. Bulgaria, East Germany, Libya, North Korea,
and Syria were named as Soviet-controlled sponsors of anti-American terrorism
(Livingston & Terrell 1986, pp. 1–10). However, adequate evidence was never pre-
sented to support the listing of these nations as sponsors, much less under Soviet
direction (Adams 1986). That the Soviet KGB often encouraged anti-American
violence is clear, but there were many terrorist groups and incidents having no
direct involvement in the U.S.-Soviet conflict. Most terrorists were in nongovern-
mental organizations that set their own ideological, ethnic, nationalist, or religious
agendas. Without presuming to know why the five nations (and not equally plau-
sible others such as Cuba or Iran) were listed, one may speculate that American
policymakers found it useful to label the Soviets as the font of terrorism and to
associate especially troublesome regional threats (to Israel, Western Europe, and
South Korea) with the putative Soviet terrorist network (Sterling 1981).

The United States has a long history of violence associated with political, labor,
racial, religious, and other social and cultural conflicts (Gurr 1989). Assassina-
tions, bombings, massacres, and other secretive deadly attacks have caused many
thousands of casualties. Yet, few incidents have been defined as terrorism or the
perpetrators as terrorists. Instead, authorities have typically ignored or downplayed
the political significance of such violence, opting to portray and treat the violence
as apolitical criminal acts by deranged or evil individuals, outlaws or gangsters,
or “imported” agitators such as the radical Molly Maguires of Pennsylvania’s
coal miners’ struggles. Although violent acts believed to be politically motivated
are assigned the highest investigative priority, those accused are rarely charged
with terrorism (Smith 1994, p. 7). In official public usage, terrorism is far more
likely to refer to incidents associated with agents and supporters of presumably
foreign-based terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda than with the violence of
home-grown militants acting in the name of such groups as the Animal Liberation

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ended their careers as loners whose terrorist attacks were inspired by ideological
zealotry and encouraged by sympathizers. But they were not part of any orga-
nized campaign. They exemplify the increasing shift, especially among violent
extremists within the United States, from organized to individual terrorism. Such
leaderless terrorism is most likely to appear in democratic societies where individ-
ualism is highly valued and where counterterrorist operations against organized
terrorism have been increasingly effective.

Because terrorism is increasingly organized in networks, and in some places
committed by lone individuals, conventional organizational analysis offers little
promise; models developed through network analyses are obviously needed. Most
such work has so far been operational, with little produced beyond descriptive
accounts focused on the identification of connections among persons and institu-
tions believed by governmental agencies to be committing or facilitating terrorism,
and on the frequency and distribution of terrorist incidents. Explaining as well as
tracking the financial and logistical support for terrorism appears to be the most
promising focus for social network researchers. Whatever approach is used, to
make a contribution sociologists must get past operational to analytical (more
clearly generalizable and explanatory) models of the nature and dynamics of the
organizing of terrorism.


High on the research agenda is understanding why and how individuals become
terrorists. Although some earlier commentators argued that political criminals were
either deranged or lacking proper “moral socialization,” it is now well established
that opposition to authority or a particular social order is more likely to stem from
a reasoned position than from pathology or deficient socialization. As indicated
above, reasoning in cosmological, religious terms is increasingly characteristic of
the rationales by which terrorists justify their acts to themselves and others.

People learn to accept terrorism as a political option when their experiences
lead them to see truth in messages that defending their way and kind cannot be
accomplished by nonviolent means. In democratic societies political radicals usu-
ally come from relatively advantaged sectors and go through a sequence beginning
with conventional political activism (Turk 1982, pp. 81–108). The more educated
and affluent their backgrounds, the more impatient they are likely to be with the
inevitable disappointments of political life—where one rarely gets all that is envi-
sioned. Socialized to be knowledgeable about the gaps between ideals and realities
and to see themselves as significant participants in political struggles, higher class
young people (especially from liberal or otherwise contrarian families and commu-
nities) are more likely than their less advantaged counterparts to become involved
in a process of radicalization moving toward violence. Although social banditry
and peasant uprisings may challenge social orders, organized terrorism is by far
most likely to originate in the alienation and analytics of higher status younger

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people. Whether the Weather Underground of Vietnam-era America or the Al
Qaeda network of today, initiating and committing terrorist acts is nearly always
the work of radicalized younger persons with the intellectual and financial re-
sources, and the ideological drive, to justify (at least to themselves) and enable
adopting the violence option.

However, although liberal family and educational backgrounds may encourage
an openness to violence as a political option, few even of the most militant radicals
become terrorists. Those who do appear to have undergone something of a con-
version experience in making the transition from a willingness to “trash” public
property and fight riot police, to a readiness to murder specific politically signifi-
cant persons (e.g., governmental or corporate leaders, police officers, or soldiers),
and then to the random targeting of populations including noncombatants as well
as combatants.

Exposure to ideologies justifying terrorism appears to be a crucial ingredient in
the mix of personal and vicarious learning experiences leading to a commitment
to terrorism. Before bombing the Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City
(killing 168 men, women, and children), Timothy McVeigh immersed himself in
the writings of William Pierce (author of Hunter and The Turner Diaries). Pierce
detailed his vision of how brave heroes resist the imminent threat to the white race
and America posed by Jews, blacks, and other minorities. McVeigh, encouraged
by his coterrorist Terry McNichols and probably others, was so impressed that he
visited Elohim City, a white supremacist bastion, and sold or gave away copies of
The Turner Diaries at gun shows (Hamm 1997). McVeigh’s military background,
including distinguished service in the Gulf War, undoubtedly played a role in
his self-definition as a soldier who had merely inflicted “collateral damage” in
performing his duty.

One may hypothesize that self-education to terrorism is less likely in soci-
eties where personal mobility and access to intellectual resources are more lim-
ited. Islamist fundamentalism, in particular, seems to depend on radicalization
through formal education consisting mostly of religious indoctrination. In madras-
sas throughout the world, potential recruits to organized terorism are drilled in the
most extreme interpretations of Sunni theology, emphasizing the duty to engage in
holy war (jihad) against all enemies of the true Islam. The most spectacular product
of the madrassas so far is the Taliban (“students of religion”) of Afghanistan, who
until overthrown by the United States and allied troops in 2001 provided a base
for al Qaeda, and who still threaten all who do not accept their archaic and rigid
version of an Islamic society (Kushner 2003, pp. 357–59).

Once underway, campaigns of terrorism and related political violence tend to
gain momentum. Inspired by the ideological messages, the charisma of leaders, the
potential for material or status gains, or whatever else attracts them, others are likely
to join. Particularly in nondemocratic societies, conflicts are likely to proceed along
fault lines reflecting class, ethnic, racial, or religious divisions. If such conflicts
persist, years of reciprocal violence tend to result in its institutionalization, so that
individuals caught up in the conflict may have no real comprehension of why they

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organized civilians who covertly inflict mass violence on other civilians” (Black
2002, Spring, p. 3). Although more akin to guerrilla warfare than to conventional
military operations, terrorism is distinctive in that it targets civilians—although
guerrillas may engage in terrorism and terrorists may engage in guerrilla war, de-
pending on the nature of the target. Terrorism differs from ordinary crime in that it
targets a population, applying a standard of collective liability for perceived viola-
tions of normative expectations. Efforts to control terrorism are made particularly
difficult because the social distance between adversaries is extreme, precluding the
shared normative understandings assumed in law, and because the quasi-warfare of
terrorism tends to attract quasi-warfare in return. Insofar as the demands of terror-
ists are impossibly beyond negotiation (e.g., that Americans radically change their
way of life), and the quasi-warfare of each side persists, successful control (short
of extermination) is improbable. Even though the casualties from terrorist violence
may be shocking for a while, Black’s prognosis is that the technological advances
lessening social distance among peoples and cultures will ultimately destroy the
polarities and collectivization of violence that generate and sustain terrorism. “Its
inevitable fate is sociological death” (Black 2002, Summer, p. 5).

However one approaches the sociological study of terrorism, the distinctive
objective is to develop an explanation of its causation, the dynamics of its escalation
and de-escalation in relation to other forms of political violence, and its impact
on the stability and change of social orders. Turk (2002d) has outlined a scheme
for analyzing the social dynamics involved in the progression from coercive, to
injurious, to destructive violence—the most extreme of which is terrorism. The
main hypothesis is that terrorism is the culmination of a conflict process that
predictably, having reached this extreme, ends in either the annihilation of one
party or mutual exhaustion. Assuming that they must somehow continue to live
in proximity and interdependence, survivors have to begin anew the search for a
viable relationship. Whether “cosmic wars” can stop short of the extermination
of one or both sides, and be ended by acceptance of the need to recognize one
another’s right to exist, has still to be determined.

The Annual Review of Sociology is online at


Adams J. 1986. The Financing of Terror. New
York: Simon & Schuster

Ben-Yehuda N. 1993. Political Assassinations
by Jews. Albany: State Univ. New York Press

Bergesen AJ, Lizardo OA. 2002. Terrorism and
world-system theory. In Transnational Ter-
rorism in the World System Perspective, ed.
R Stemplowski, pp. 9–22. Warsaw: The Pol-
ish Inst. Int. Aff.

Black D. 2002. Terrorism as social control.

Crime, law, and deviance newsletter. Am. So-
ciol. Assoc. Spring:3–5, Summer:3–5

Collins R. 1975. Conflict Sociology: Toward an
Explanatory Science. New York: Academic

Fals Borda O. 1969. Subversion and Social
Change in Colombia. New York: Columbia
Univ. Press

Gibbs JP. 1989a. Conceptualization of terror-
ism. Am. Sociol. Rev. 54 (June):329–40

Gibbs JP. 1989b. Control: Sociology’s Central

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