Criminology Criminological Explanations for Terrorism
Daren G. Fisher, Laura Dugan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 September 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0209


Theoretically understanding the reasons behind the rise and persistence of terrorism and the ways that it can be stopped is one of the more salient political priorities in the early 21st century and has been a growing focus within the field of criminology since the late 20th century. Rigorous scholarship relies on theoretical explanations and their extensions as guides to scientifically assess terrorist behavior and to evaluate the many popularly held myths promoted by politicians and media. Such evaluations are now possible because systematically collected terrorism data and advanced analytic techniques are increasingly available to test these theories. Further, because criminologists and others have been studying law breaking and efforts to stop it for at least three centuries, the field offers a unique perspective that is often overlooked by other scientists who study terrorism. Criminologists are able to advance and refine their theories that are relevant to terrorist violence and to dispel others that fall short of being directly related. This article identifies scholarship that has applied existing criminological theories to terrorism. It begins by listing those studies that provide influential overviews of the different criminological explanations for terrorism, and then turns to the specific theories that have sought to explain the origins and motivations for terrorism. This article also presents the criminological works that have used theory to directly inform efforts to prevent or stop terrorism.

General Overviews

A growing body of literature bridges the gap between the many different criminological theories that explain why people commit crimes, and explanations for why the number of terrorist attacks vary across times and space. The scholarship presented in this section summarizes a collective body of contributions that demonstrate how the broader theoretical and empirical study of criminology can inform terrorism research. Lum, et al. 2006 is included in this section because after the authors conduct a systematic review of counterterrorism evaluations, they demonstrate a distinct need for evaluation research in this area. The authors also compare this body of research to evaluations of criminal justice programs, implying that much can be learned by applying a similar rigor to evaluating counterterrorism efforts. This lack of sound methodology is also expressed in Silke 2001, which persuasively delineates the methodological differences between terrorism research by criminologists and that conducted by scholars from other disciplines. It then reasserts essential research goals for terrorism study. Along these lines, Rosenfeld 2004 shows how criminological theory naturally fits into the study of terrorism, given the predatory nature of terrorism. To emphasize this even further, three other works, Gupta 2008, Noricks 2009, and Deflem 2004, provide general overviews of other criminological theories that have influenced the study of terrorism. Each also identifies opportunities and priorities for extending this research. LaFree and Dugan 2015 takes this a step further by presenting how criminology has, in the past decade, indeed responded to the need to apply its theoretical ideas and methodological advances to terrorism. And finally, Freilich, et al. 2015 examines a number of theoretical perspectives and hypotheses to examine the explanatory power of a number of central criminological theories.

  • Deflem, Mathieu. 2004. Introduction: Towards a criminological sociology of terrorism and counter-terrorism. In Terrorism and counter-terrorism: Criminological perspectives. Edited by Mathieu Deflem, 1–6. Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance 5. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    DOI: 10.1108/S1521-6136(2004)0000005002

    Offers an overview of the edited volume that brings together the writings of criminological sociologists to address terrorism and counterterrorism from a variety of theoretical and substantive viewpoints. It calls on sociologists to build on their theoretical and methodological insights to contribute to the broader knowledge of terrorism and counterterrorism.

  • Freilich, Joshua D., Amy Adamczyk, Steven M. Chermak, Katharine A. Boyd, and William S. Parkin. 2015. Investigating the applicability of macro-level criminology theory to terrorism: A county-level analysis. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 31.3: 383–411.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10940-014-9239-0

    Examines macrolevel hypotheses drawn from deprivation, backlash, and social-disorganization theories, using data from the Extremist Crime Database (ECDB) and the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Report (SHR) from between 1990 and 2012. Specifically, it examines whether county residence is associated with ideologically motivated homicides by right-wing extremists in the contiguous United States.

  • Gupta, Dipak K. 2008. Understanding terrorism and political violence: The life cycle of birth, growth, transformation, and demise. Cass Series on Political Violence. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203930274

    Presents different theoretical approaches to examining terrorism, drawing from theories commonly used in economics, psychology, biology, and criminology. It expands on traditional applications of rational choice to allow for altruism as a key motivator for terrorism, and explores how terrorist organizations adapt their strategies to take advantage of changing opportunities.

  • LaFree, Gary, and Laura Dugan. 2015. How has criminology contributed to the study of terrorism since 9/11? In Terrorism and counterterrorism today. Edited by Mathieu Deflem, 1–23. Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance 20. Bingley, UK: Emerald.

    DOI: 10.1108/S1521-613620150000020002

    Takes an inventory on the ways that the field of criminology has accepted scholarship on terrorism as part of the larger field. It also reviews how criminological theory and methodological advances by criminologists have been used to advance the study of terrorism. Available online through subscription or purchase.

  • Lum, Cynthia, Leslie W. Kennedy, and Alison Sherley. 2006. Are counter-terrorism strategies effective? The results of the Campbell systematic review on counter-terrorism evaluation research. Journal of Experimental Criminology 2.4: 489–516.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11292-006-9020-y

    Provides an overview of the Campbell Collaboration systematic review, which evaluated whether existing counterterrorism strategies have been successful. Notes that there was an almost complete absence of evaluation research on counterterrorism interventions. Stresses the need for researchers, policymakers, and government officials to support evaluation on counterterrorism.

  • Noricks, Darcy M. E. 2009. The root causes of terrorism. In Social science for counterterrorism: Putting the pieces together. Edited by Paul K. Davis and Kim Cragin, 11–68. RAND Corporation Monograph MG-849-OSD. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

    Explores the factors that produce an environment where terrorism is more likely to occur. By focusing on macrolevel structural and cultural factors, this chapter compares these theoretical approaches, and delineates their implications for designing and implementing counterterrorism policies and future research.

  • Rosenfeld, Richard. 2004. Terrorism and criminology. In Terrorism and counter-terrorism: Criminological perspectives. Edited by Mathieu Deflem, 19–32. Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance 5. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    DOI: 10.1108/S1521-6136(2004)0000005004

    Argues that Donald Black’s characterization of terrorism ignores the criminological contribution to terrorism. The chapter shows that predatory violence is a means to the goal of moralistic violence and that motivations can be found in the institutional contexts of modernity: free markets, democracy, and religious tolerance.

  • Silke, Andrew. 2001. The devil you know: Continuing problems with research on terrorism. Terrorism and Political Violence 13.4: 1–14.

    DOI: 10.1080/09546550109609697

    Provides an overview on terrorism research between 1995 and 2000 and argues that most of it fell short of providing exploratory and predictive value. It suggests, however, that criminologists and sociologists offer a greater empirical commitment to testing and understanding terrorism, and it provides suggestions for improving future terrorism scholarship.

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