Secular versus Religious Terrorism


There are two broad categories of terrorism often used in the public sphere. Secular terrorism, which is political violence based on a non-religious and often solely political or ideological causes. Religious terrorism, which is religio-political violence mediated through religious culture, scripture, or organisations.

Compare a Green eco-terrorist who detonates a bomb targeting a coal plant, to an Islamic religious terrorist who detonates an explosive attached to himself believing that it will get him access to heaven and to be rewarded with virgins, decimating twelve innocent people – men, women, children – in the process. One is quite radically different to the other. However, both are known as terrorists and use violence to meet their ends.

The two categories are useful but sometimes overused. They allow us to differentiate the motives and likely means of different terror organisations. For example, suicide terrorism is much more prominent in Islamic terrorism (such as ISIS) than secular terrorism (such as the LTTE), theorized because of the relationship to martyrdom, reward, as well as strategic and tactical significance. Understanding these differences in understanding and practice allows us to tailour appropriate responses and counter-terrorism strategies that ‘fit’ the nature of the threat.

Differences between Secular and Religious Terrorism

What Sebastian Gorka calls the “transcendental terrorist,” cannot be negotiated with rationally. His (or her) motives are beyond the realm of our reality. They are divine, personal, based on belief, and irrational. Logic is of no use, as it does not comply with religious understanding. The terrorist is sheltered from worldly reasoning. Counter-narratives are less effective once the religious ideal has been grasped onto with heart and soul. The terrorist fights you until there is no more of you. He needs to be countered kinetically (through violent force) and ideologically (through undermining their message and devotion). They cannot be bought; you do not vote for it, it forces itself onto society, and it transforms its own religious community.

Whereas the secular terrorist is politically-orientated. The “left-wing” terrorist will aim for different end-states to that of the “right-wing” terrorist. The means may be similar, in that both commit extreme acts of violence. They can be negotiated with – most of the time. They can hold to a ceasefire, arms embargo, hostage swap, or other type of deal. Democracy in itself de-escalates much of this violence because pathways are given to varied political opinions. This leads to less impulse to act on political ambitions with force (or revolution), but in the booths and polls. They have a right to assembly where they commit to rallies, group meetings, events and seminars. They have the right to free speech which allows their message to be heard (and often rejected on either side).

Why the Differences Matter

Forces that lead violent behaviour are called drivers. It is vitally important that we understand what drives and motivates violent behaviour, and we learn to differentiate the various observations. If one is motivated by religious teaching, a rational framework – that is not divine – would likely be ineffective. The individual, in their centric worldview, does not comply with your level of understanding just for the sake of it. They have to be persuaded, they have to be coerced. Sometimes religious precedents can be used as bargaining tools to engage their thinking.

There are deeply religious groups such as ISIS who incite religious scripture into their acts of cruelty, violence, and terrorism. There are religious organisational who mix political aspects to their identity, such as the way the KKK mixes religion, race, and white supremacy. There are religious fronts such as the IRA and PIRA who use religious as an organisational factor, as well as in sectarian nature in regards to “Irish identity.” Religion can therefore become embroiled in identity politics of terrorist groups rather than a justification for terrorism or the organisational structure of the group rather than a justification, recruitment, or propaganda tool. It can blurry at times, but in the cases of groups like ISIS, the religious component is self-evident.

Now, even secular groups may be irrational. Dogmatists such as eco-terrorists may see their cause as far greater than any bargaining tool you could use to de-escalate the situation. “The environment is greater than a few lives lost” may be the reasoning. The same goes with a deeply national group who are blinded by nationalism or a sense of superiority. They may not be responsive to rational negotiation or compromise. Again, it can be blurry at times.

Not Convinced?

You do not have to be. Here is a talk by Greg Reichberg. He brings up some very sharp and poignant points on the category of religious terrorism. All types of terrorism have similarities and crossover, religious terrorism can spill over into something much more: too much focus on the religion and not enough on the individual’s interpretation or understanding of the said religion, or even worse – a state attempt to tailour the religious understanding to what the state requires. A religion may be just the cover to something that is inherent in all types of terrorism… it all gets rather confusing.

But are these categories worth it? Ultimately, yes. To some degree they are valuable as they give you a deeper understanding of the potential reasoning behind terroristic actions, and allow you to co-ordinate with both secular, left-leaning or right-leaning, or religious communities, to immunise someone from bringing violence into the equation. Religion in and of itself can be used politically and thus sometimes skews the difference between religious and political terror.


The differences between types of terrorism are important to tailour responses and strategies to the identified threat. Secular terrorism and religious terrorism are two of the main typologies. These buckets include anything from the KKK, to the IRA, to ISIS, to the LTTE. Each cluster has differing worldviews on life, their position in it, and their end-goals. It is important to acknowledge this in order to hone effective counter-terrorism strategies.


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