By Hala Mounib


It’s no secret that societies and states are capable of influencing terrorist behaviour. This is due to a myriad of factors that often go neglected because researchers tend to focus on the individual level of analysis of terrorists. This research explores the state and the global levels of analysis and their impact on terrorist behaviour.

Society’s Influence

The factor of herd mentality or “groupthink” has always been pivotal in high-risk areas where politically and religiously violent incidents are a common occurrence. If certain expectations are prevalent in a society, a person’s thought process and decisions tend to be impacted either through sincere conviction or due to the desire to fit in. Tom Wainwright (2016) emphasizes that sometimes the survival of the individual is reliant on their ability to fit in, effectively explaining the phenomenon of concentrated drug cartels and their proliferation in certain countries.

The Christchurch shooting that took place in March occurred because of the herd mentality of 8chan, an online messaging board, and the presence of a cluster of alt-right trolls who seek familiarity and belonging on the website. In The Great Replacement, Brenton Tarrant’s (2019) manifesto, several justifications are provided for the terrorist attack. A few are described below.


In this case, the concentration of negative groupthink on 8chan resulted in the conception of alt-right lone wolf terrorism. The recent terrorist attack carried out in Norway on the 11th of August perpetrated by 21-year-old Philip Manshaus is also said to be ideologically similar to the Christchurch terrorist attack due to the surfacing of a 4chan post related to the incident (Lizzie Dearden, 2019). This goes to show the gravity of herd mentality and how it can lead to terrorists operating alone outside of fanatic groups.

However, one must look at the big picture to have a comprehensive understanding of the capabilities and operations of terrorists; the state plays an important role in the amount of power that terrorists possess.

The State and Global Levels of Analysis

American psychologist and humanist A. H. Maslow (1943) developed the motivation and self-actualization theory that allows us to understand how all human actions are motivated through a hierarchy of needs. The figure below demonstrates them with the most important for survival being at the top of the hierarchy.

Table 2

The higher the need is on the hierarchy, the more an individual is “motivated” to attain it (A. H. Maslow, 1943), and in extreme cases it can lead to violence to maintain one’s survival. If policies set by the state result in any of these needs going neglected, it becomes more likely for individuals to join criminal and terrorist groups out of the longing to fulfil these needs. People in a war-torn country are more likely to join groups of freedom fighters that are perceived as a terrorist threat by other nations in order to obtain needs that fall under Maslow’s hierarchy.

Another way a state can influence terrorist capabilities is through the creation of laws and policies which may impact the resources that they have. The tactics that are utilized by terrorists depend mainly on their immediate environment and their access to weaponry and arms. Many argue that the recent Dayton and El Paso shootings happened due to the ease of access to guns in the United States.

This isn’t the case for the United Kingdom, for instance, where gun control regulations are stricter and call for more thorough background checks and vetting. Conversely, knife and acid attacks are on the rise in the UK (Amy Walker, 2019; Richard Wheatstone and Jay Akbar, 2019) because there are fewer restrictions on these materials for terrorists compared to firearms.

Additionally, since the capabilities and tactics of terrorists depend on the arms and weaponry available, geopolitics play a crucial role in the availability of said resources.

The closer countries are, the easier the shipment and transfer of arms become. Alliances and treaties that aim at deregulating travel procedures may inadvertently lead to the ease of arms transfer cross-borders. This can lead to the concern of terrorist groups acquiring nuclear materials and technology because of their proximity to nuclear proliferating states. While the utilization of atomic and hydrogen bombs by terrorists is considered an “Armageddon scenario” by political-risk and defence consultant James H. Jackson (2015), he insists that the intent would be to cause as much death and suffering as possible rather than to weaken the military of the nation.

Jackson explains that these entities would mainly seek highly populated metropolitan areas to maximize the destruction of human life and morale. He relates that to the hijacking of the planes on 9/11 where Al-Qaeda sought to dismantle the trust of U.S. citizens in their government and safety rather than to weaken the military capabilities of the United States.

The acquisition of other weapons of mass destruction may also bring about hybrid forms of war like biological or chemical warfare, which if fought against terrorist groups may be gravely detrimental due to the lack of diplomacy when it comes to negotiating with these entities.


Several factors contribute to the amount of power that terrorists possess. It is through the synergy of all levels of analysis that a complete understanding can be achieved in regard to their capabilities, tactics, behaviour, and the facilitation of all these.


Featured Image Credit: Prazis Images

Hala Mounib is a Policy Research Fellow at the American Freedom Institute

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