This week’s topic in focus explores the psychological and pragmatic motivations behind why terrorist groups choose to attack civilians. It is empirically proven that there is no significant differences in IQ between terrorists and non-criminals. Terrorists can generally be assumed to be rational individuals who make choices considering their costs and benefits. Then, this begs the question of why terrorist organisations would choose to spend their limited resources and manpower on killing civilians if their goals were politically or religiously motivated. If the terrorist group’s aim is to overthrow the government, it would seem more rational to attack specific targets like the incumbent president or the leader of the ruling party.

Why this is important

It is important to know the reasons behind why terrorists act as governments can then take steps to solve the problem through the terrorists’ perspective. This is known as the Thomas Theoremwhere things that are perceived as real will become real in their consequences. Thus, things perceived by terrorists are critical regardless of whether the content of their beliefs are actually real.


People generally assume that terrorists attack civilians for the media coverage that they get from every attack. However, in countries where terrorist attacks are rampant such as India where there were 1,025 attacks in 2016, the large majority of the attacks go unheard of by the rest of the world. The effects of their attacks rarely extend beyond the actual act itself in such countries.

One theory by sociologist Goodwin as to why terrorist groups choose to attack civilians is because they view civilians as ‘complicitous civilians’. Terrorists see civilians as routinely benefitting from the actions of the government or state that the revolutionaries oppose. They either support the government or have a substantial capacity to influence or to direct the government. This is true particularly in democracies as citizens have the power to vote for the government they think would lead the country best. Logically, even though the government is voted into power, it does not mean that all civilians agree with every policy decision by them. However, from the terrorists’ perspective, if they think that the civilians are complicit and partially responsible for the ‘poor’ governance in their country, attacks on them would then be justified.


By understanding the meaning of civilians to terrorist organisations, we can gain a deeper understanding into the motivations of the group and their worldview. This helps anti-terrorism institutions and governments formulate better policy decisions such as whether negotiating would be a better alternative or whether stricter anti-terrorism laws should be enacted.

Questions for further personal evaluation:

  1. If there is a logical reason behind why terrorists attack civilians, does that warrant even stricter clampdowns or should a softer approach be taken?
  2. Are negotiations with terrorists groups the best option for governments when fighting terrorism?
  3. Are there other wider impacts caused by terrorism beyond the attack itself? If so, are governments underestimating their resources spent in response to the threat of terrorism?

Useful vocabulary:

  1. ‘Complicitous’: involved with others in an activity that is unlawful or morally wrong
  2. ‘Incumbent’: currently holding office

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. Brookings: This article examines whether killing the leaders of terrorist organisations is effective.

‘To reduce casualties, superb intelligence is necessary. Operators must know not only where the terrorists are, but also who is with them and who might be within the blast radius. This level of surveillance may often be lacking, and terrorists’ deliberate use of children and other civilians as shields make civilian deaths even more likely.’

‘When arrests are impossible, what results is a terrorist haven of the sort present along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border today. Free from the threat of apprehension, terrorists have a space in which to plot, organize, train, and relax — an extremely dangerous prospect. In such a haven, terrorist leaders can recruit hundreds or even thousands of potential fighters and, more importantly, organize them into a dangerous network. They can transform idealistic but incompetent volunteers into a lethal legion of fighters. They can also plan long-term global operations — terrorism “spectaculars” like the September 11 attacks, which remain one of al Qaeda’s goals.’ 

  1. The Straits Times: This article explains Singapore’s current and future counter-terrorism strategies.

‘A major upgrade of Singapore’s strategy to counter terrorism is in the works, at a time when the threat of an attack is at the highest level it has ever been. CCTV coverage will be expanded considerably across the island, stringent measures are being studied for buildings and major events, and dedicated police emergency response teams will be formed to react swiftly to attacks.’

‘Singapore, he added, could see four possible types of attacks. They could be planned just outside its borders like last November’s Paris attacks; or involve weapons smuggled across borders by locals or foreign militants. There could also be lone wolf attacks by radicalised persons, several of whom were detected in recent years; or foreign workers who get radicalised like the 27 Bangladeshis who were arrested and deported last December.’

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