Turning to Political Violence: The Emergence of Terrorism

Turning to Political Violence: The Emergence of Terrorism

Turning to Political Violence: The Emergence of Terrorism

Turning to Political Violence: The Emergence of Terrorism


What motivates those who commit violence in the name of political beliefs? Terrorism today is not solely the preserve of Islam, nor is it a new phenomenon. It emerges from social processes and conditions common to societies throughout modern history, and the story of its origins spans centuries, encompassing numerous radical and revolutionary movements.

Marc Sageman is a forensic psychiatrist and government counterterrorism consultant whose bestselling books Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad provide a detailed, damning corrective to commonplace yet simplistic notions of Islamist terrorism. In a comprehensive new book, Turning to Political Violence, Sageman examines the history and theory of political violence in the West. He excavates primary sources surrounding key instances of modern political violence, looking for patterns across a range of case studies spanning the French Revolution, through late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century revolutionaries and anarchists in Russia and the United States, to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the start of World War I. In contrast to one-dimensional portraits of terrorist "monsters" offered by governments and media throughout history, these accounts offer complex and intricate portraits of individuals engaged in struggles with identity, injustice, and revenge who may be empowered by a sense of love and self-sacrifice.

Arguing against easy assumptions that attribute terrorism to extremist ideology, and counter to mainstream academic explanations such as rational choice theory, Sageman develops a theoretical model based on the concept of social identity. His analysis focuses on the complex dynamic between the state and disaffected citizens that leads some to disillusionment and moral outrage--and a few to mass murder. Sageman's account offers a paradigm-shifting perspective on terrorism that yields counterintuitive implications for the ways liberal democracies can and should confront political violence.


On April 15, 2013, at the end of the Boston Marathon, two bombs exploded in the crowd of spectators, killing 3 people and injuring more than 250 others. Within a few days, the perpetrators were identified as two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who were Chechen refugees. Tamerlan, the older one, was killed in the ensuing police dragnet, but Dzhokhar survived despite being wounded multiple times. By all accounts, he seemed to be a wellassimilated and sociable young man, attending college and smoking marijuana with his friends.

Shortly after the bombing, my usually silent phone started ringing off the hook. Journalists called to ask the same question: how could an apparently normal young man like Dzhokhar do this, seemingly out of the blue? I was just emerging from a long involvement with the U.S. intelligence community, during which I was banned from speaking with journalists. Although now free to talk to them, I was still at a loss to provide a short and pithy answer. Despite spending over a decade straddling government and academia working on terrorism issues, I still did not entirely understand what leads a person to turn to political violence. How does one start to make sense of this senseless violence? Do these individuals have something psychologically wrong with them, as many people believe? Are they victims of a mysterious process of brainwashing or indoctrination, as many others believe? More fundamentally, how does one conceptualize terrorism, terrorists, and the process by which a very few people become terrorists? I concluded that only with a radical change of perspective could scholars hope to answer these questions.

What leads people to turn to political violence? This haunting question has obsessed me ever since the tragedy of 9/11. This book originated as a short historical introduction to a book on the current wave of global neojihadi attacks against the West. However, this attempt to contextualize this current wave of terrorism proved far more complicated as I dug deeper into each historical case. Parallel to this revelation were developments in various academic . . .

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