It’s Foolish to Try to Simplify the Motives of Terrorists

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Media Outlet: Washington Post

David Sterman wrote for the Washington Post about the foolishness behind simplifying terrorists' motives:

In the wake of the shooting in Orlando, the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11, the discussion of how people become radicalized has often sought a master narrative, one that can explain every case and assign a single motivation. Pundits decry a supposed tendency to refer to factors other than radical Islamist ideology when trying to explain an attack as erasing the role of ideology.
Yet it is precisely the ability avoid either-or explanations that is essential to understanding the threat the United States faces from homegrown terrorists. As Enrique Marquez, who is accused of buying the weapons for 2015’s San Bernardino attack, said: “No one really knows me. I lead multiple lives.” Marquez’s self-analysis was flawed in many respects, but in one respect he is correct: A single motive for violent actions is seldom sufficient. Jihadist ideology, with its peculiar mix of religious, foreign policy and socio-political views, is important, but it should not overshadow the investigation and analysis of other explanations.
It is already clear that Omar Mateen, the Orlando attacker, was motivated by a combination of personal and ideological reasons. Reports have emerged that Mateen had frequented the gay nightclub he attacked as well as gay dating sites. These reports raise questions about whether his decision to conduct the attack may have been partially motivated by the pressures of repressing his sexuality. Regardless of whether Mateen’s sexuality had any influence on his actions, other factors also point to potential explanations beyond jihadist ideology — from his reported drinking to his history of domestic violence and of homophobic and racist comments.

Author:

David Sterman is a policy analyst in New America's International Security program. He holds a master's degree from Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies.