Terrorism and Radicalisation Theories: A List

There are a number of great thinkers out there. Thinkers who subject themselves to the mental torture and anguish of understanding what motivates or supports political violence against innocent people. At the end of the anguish, ideas are ideas; and they must be considered judging by the data supporting them and the observations of real-world terrorism in the present.

Allow me to give a quick overview of some of the theories I have came across. You will note that some of them contradict another (yet can still remain relevant to certain cases of terrorism as terrorism does not have a singular cause). You will also note that there are many, many theories.

List of theories on terrorism  (and radicalisation) include:

  • Absolute deprivation theory:
    • Poverty-education link.
    • Widely debunked.
  • Relative deprivation theory:
    • Accounts for all relative factors.
    • Includes an individual’s feelings, expectations and thoughts.
    • For example feeling spiritually deprived – or perceived stigmatisation in the community (even where no stigmatisation exists).
  • Social network theory:
    • Being involved in terrorism due to family and friendship ties.
  • Social movement theory:
    • Being involved in terrorist groups as a means for social change.
  • Symbolic interactionism:
  • Group dynamic theory:
    • Processes that occur between group members.
  • Social learning theory:
    • Learned terrorism by observing the group in action.
  • Social identity theory:
    • A person’s sense of who they are – influenced by exposure to other group’s and individuals.
  • Terror management theory:
    • Having the desire to live but realising that death is inevitable.
  • Uncertainty reduction theory:
    • Sometimes the act of terrorism is used to assess communication and reactions of enemy forces.
  • Identity theory:
    • Conflicting identities.
    • Identity crisis.
  • Narcissism theory:
    • Celebrity theory.
    • Glory or fame seeking.
  • Paranoia theory:
    • Paranoid schizophrenia. See the case of Khaled Sharrouf.
    • Mental illness related.
  • Absolutist/apocalyptic theory:
  • Antisocial theory:
    • Antisocial personality disorder.
    • Psychopathy/sociopathy.
    • Mental illness related.
  • Novelty-seeking theory:
    • Celebrity theory – glory or fame seeker – related.
    • Adventure seeking (adrenaline junkie).
  • Humiliation-revenge theory:
    • Pseudo-vigilantism in the form of terrorist actions.
  • Energizing the base theory:
  • Cleaving from the mainstream theory:
    • Extremists radicalise parts of mainstream and use them for their cause.
  • Conveyor belt theory  (NYPD theory):
    • Debunked linear model of radicalisation.
  • Moral career theory:


  • Radicalization: Relevant Psychological and Sociological Concepts. U.S. Army Asymmetric Warfare Group, September 2010.
  • The works of Suraj Lakhani.
  • The NYPD radicalisation report.

Note: This article will be periodically updated when new theories are published or new information is offered.


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