Exploring Terrorism and (E)motives
Research has been conducted on international terrorism and e(motives) that drive them. Read student insights on existential motivations.

Research reveals a number of possible existential motivations for engaging in terrorism. Are these research findings important for understanding international terrorism, or are they unreliable?

When aligning with the positivist school of criminology, which considers internal or external influences on individuals as the primary cause of criminal behavior, it would be short-sighted to ignore the existential factors that motivate international terrorists.

existential motivation for terrorism

Existential motivations

Cottee & Hayward explore three existential motivations for engaging in terrorism, namely the desire for excitement, the desire for ultimate meaning, and the desire for glory.

The authors also describe the goal of terrorism as two-fold: pursuing the political goals of small groups and exploring the site of individual self-drama and self-reinvention.

Researching existential motivation demands a qualitative approach to research, which is used to find meanings, feelings, and underlying opinions, therefore playing an essential role in understanding why individuals engage in international terrorism.

Cottee & Hayward did a convincing job to shed light on the motivations for engaging in international terrorism and how to manage the threat by exploring how terrorist agents feel and the emotional complexity of terrorism. However, other efforts are necessary for a more holistic understanding of the phenomenon.

Social network Theory

Bruinsma & Bernasco discuss the social network theory in line with other transnational crimes, describing social collaboration and organization in light of financial and legal risks. International terrorism suggests that the rewards are more “existential,” which introduces difficulty in applying the social network theory (which is focused on social organizations surrounding financial and legal risks).

Even so, international terrorist groups seem to consist of close-knit, cohesive, and ethically homogenous groups of people with shared spiritual or political beliefs, likening them to Bruinsma & Bernasco’s description of smuggling and large-scale heroin trading groups.

rational choice theory

Perry & Hasisi move away from the positivist school of criminology and discuss rational choice theory to review the religious, personal, and social incentives demonstrated by those who kill themselves in suicide attacks.

They argue that suicide bombers (in particular) are driven by the anticipation of costs and benefits, and they are committed to maximizing self-gratifying, beneficial behavior.

connecting the dots

Reviewing both theories closely, it’s possible to draw parallels between positivist and classical approaches and determine the overlaps in religious motivation and the desire to elevate the self. Both require a focus on mentality and empirical research, which ‘reads between the lines’ of quantitative research to understand social phenomena better.

Outside of the terrorist agent, modern developments also play a significant role in the increase in international terrorism, such as improved communication technologies, deregulated financial markets, and increased flow of people and products across borders.

All of these external factors should be considered in conjunction with internal and existential factors to gain a better understanding of the rise of international terrorism. As a unique transnational crime that includes a strong political agenda instead of a financial one, international terrorism demands a closer look at the existential motives, making Cottee & Hayward’s reading valuable.


  • Bruinsma, G. & Bernasco, W. (2004). Criminal Groups and Transnational Illegal Markets: Examination on the Basis of Social Network Theory, Crime, Law & Social Change 41: 79–94. 
  • Cottee, S. and Hayward, K. (2011). Terrorist (e)motives: The existential attractions of terrorism, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 34, 963–986. 
  • Perry, & Hasisi, B. (2015). Rational Choice Rewards and the Jihadist Suicide Bomber. Terrorism and Political Violence, 27(1), 53–80. https://doi.org/10.1080/09546553.2014.962991 
  • LibreTexts. (July 17, 2023). Globalization and Transnational Crime in Human Security in World Affairs - Problems and Opportunities 2e. Accessed on September 03, 2023  
  • UNODC. (2018). Module 1: Introduction to International Terrorism in Education for Justice University Module Series: Counter-Terrorism. Accessed on September 03, 2023