Sicarii Zealots

Anthropology: History of Terrorism, Root Causes, and Implications

Terrorism is one of many social issues that have always existed and continue to exist in modern society. Terrorism has the power to challenge fundamental human rights, endanger nations, and disrupt peace and security. Despite the extent of terrorism, many social scientists argue, that it is not correctly defined and criminalized enough to be effectively addressed and dealt with.

This article will explore the issue of terrorism by looking at the root causes to explain why it exists and what can be done to prevent it.

Defining terrorism

The term ‘terrorism’ has its origins in the Latin words ‘terrere’ (tremble) and ‘deterre’ (frighten). In other words, terrorism means harming people in a state of frightened trembling.

Image showing highlighted term 'terrorism' with its definition in a dictionary

However, terrorism has many different definitions, with organizations, such as the United Nations General Assembly, attempting to come to an agreement on the single accurate definition of the term. Despite the debates, there is still a lack of agreement on a definition. The general definition of terrorism, however, is considered to be the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims. Thus, terrorism is a strategy to achieve certain political objectives through the use of violence.

The lack of an agreed definition of the concept of terrorism does not mean that there cannot be progress made in combating the issue. However, an accurate definition is important to understand the concept and what causes it, so that interpretations of terrorism won’t lead to further confusion, such as whether someone is a terrorist or a freedom fighter.

The first use of the term

The term ‘terroriste’ (terrorist) was first used in 1974 by the French philosopher Francois-Noel Babeuf. In 1795, Edmund Burke used the term ‘terrorists’ in a description of the new French government called the ‘Directory’. The first definition of the word ‘terrorism’ was “a state of being terrified or a state of impressing terror”.

However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ gained renewed currency as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Northern Ireland conflict, the Basque conflict, and the operations of groups such as the Red Army Faction.

Early terrorism: the Sicarii Zealots

Sicarii Zealots

Most scholars today trace the origins of the modern tactic of terrorism to 1st century Palestine, where the Jewish Sicarii Zealots attacked Romans and Jews. The Zealots were a radical group that believed the Maccabean revolt was the “golden age” of Israel and struggled to start a revolution against the Romans. The name Sicarii comes from ‘sicae’ – a short sword/dagger that can be hidden under clothing. The Sicarii Zealots were not a religious sect, but they were rather nationalist and strongly opposed the Roman occupation of Judea and attempted to expel them and their sympathizers from the area.

The Sicarii, would not only assassinate prominent Romans, but they were also against prominent Jews, such as Herodians, Sadducees, temple priests, and the wealthy elite, who were seen to be collaborating with the Romans. The Sicarii would hide daggers under their cloaks, then blend in with crowds of people, assassinate their victims and vanish back into the frightened crowds. If they were captured, they would take hostages and agree to release them by exchanging them for their own men.

Queen Boudicca (Boudica) and her daughters

Pencil drawing of Boudicca holding a hare
Boudicca would release a hare before the battle to determine the course of her army – pencil drawing by Joanna Scott (

Around the same period as the reign of the Sicarii, Boudicca’s tribe occupied modern Norfolk and part of Suffolk in the East Anglia region of England, north of Colchester. Queen Boudicca of the Iceni was stripped and beaten by the Romans after her husband and the ruler of the Iceni people of East Anglia – Prasutagus, died. After the Romans raped Boudicca’s daughters, she decided to take revenge.  She organized her army and the members of other tribes joined them to rebel against the Romans. In 60 or 61 AD, Boudicca’s warriors defeated the Roman Ninth Legion and destroyed the capital of Roman Britain (then at Colchester). They destroyed London and Verulamium (St Albans), and thousands were killed.

Cassius Dio described Boudicca in a Roman scribe as: “(…) very tall, the glance of her eye most fierce; her voice harsh. A great mass of the reddest hair fell down to her hips. Her appearance was terrifying.”

Eventually, the Romans won the Battle of Watling Street against the Britons and Queen Boudicca poisoned herself. Boudicca is considered a terrorist because her army focused less on winning the land and independence, and instead their only goal was to take revenge and terrorize the Romans.

The Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE

Color image of Henryk Siemieradzki's painting titled "Nero's Torches", showing Nero starting the fire
Nero’s Torches by Henryk Siemieradzki (

The Burning of Rome in 64 CE was another, a possible attack that can be classified as terrorism. During the fire, which lasted six days, only four out of fourteen districts of Rome remained not destroyed. Rumors circulated that Christians or Nero himself were responsible for the fire. According to Tacitus, Nero blamed the Christians as those responsible for the fire. Others accused Nero after he wanted to rebuild the neighborhoods fast in a Greek-style and begin the construction of his new palace. The theory has never been proved or disproved. Whoever was responsible for the Great Fire of Rome, has added more fires to an already existing fire, and hence, launched the biggest terrorist attack the world has seen (including the modern age, such as 9/11 in the United States) and can be considered a terrorist.

The Hashashin (the Assassins)

Black and white image depicting engraving of Hassan-i-Sabah on a horse, holding a sword
Engraving of Hassan-i-Sabah (

For many centuries after the Great Fire of Rome, there have been no recorded significant terror attacks, and it was not until the 11th century that another terror attack occurred.

The terrorist organization that arose was called the Hashashin. The Hashashin had its origin in the Sia Muslim sect and were opposing the Fatimid Caliphate, and assassinating its members. The group was founded by Hassan-i Sabbah, and many of their activities resemble modern terrorist groups.

They had carried out multiple assassinations against the Fatimid Caliphate. They would hold their opponents in a constant state of paranoia and threaten them with public assassination. The assassinations would take place during the day, in very public places, such as mosques, to increase the political impact of their actions. Many of their tactics are used today by modern terrorist organizations.

Root causes of terrorism

Determining what drives people to terrorism is complex. There is a lack of research on terrorists, as they are not likely to volunteer to examine their activities. Moreover, someone that we consider a terrorist might be considered a freedom fighter by someone else. Therefore, terrorism is surrounded by many theories, speculations, and opinions, but there is still a lack of science and research behind it.

One way of differentiating different causes of terrorism is by organizing the causes into different ‘levels of causation’, such as:

  • Structural causes – which affect people’s lives in ways that they may or may not comprehend, at a macro level. For example, demographic imbalances, globalization, or relative deprivation.
  • Facilitator (or accelerator) causes – which make terrorism attractive. This includes news media, easy transportation, weapons technology, weak state security, and control of territory, thus circumstances that make it exceptionally easy to employ terrorist methods.
  • Motivational causes – ideologies and political leaders explaining how things are, and persuading individuals and groups (on a motivational level) to take action.
  • Triggering causes – events that call for revenge or action. This includes an outrageous act committed by the enemy, provocative events, and so on.

Psychological explanations of terrorism

The data that already exists suggests that terrorism is driven significantly by political and group dynamic factors and processes. Some psychologists claim that terrorist actions can be explained in terms of our subconscious fear of death and our desire for meaning and personal significance.

color x-ray image if a skull with

Psychologist John Horgan from the Pennsylvania State University has conducted interviews with 60 former terrorists. Horgan found that people who are more prone to radicalization and terrorism tend to:

  • Feel angry, alienated, or disenfranchised
  • Believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change
  • Identify with perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting
  • Feel the inner desire to take action rather than talk about the problem
  • Believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral
  • Have friends or family sympathetic to the cause
  • Believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie, and a heightened sense of identity.

Psychologist, Clark McCauley from Bryn Mawr College, suggests that terrorists are those who lack material or political power, so they fight against what they consider oppressive forces. McCauley believes that there is a dynamic interplay between the terrorist and his actions and the reactions of the government. Each move of one group influences the moves of the other. According to McCauley, researchers neglect what is being done in response to terrorism, and focus too much on terrorist actions. He concludes that this way, it is impossible to figure out what works better or worse.

Most scholars agree on three main points that are common in the available literature on terrorism. It is often highlighted that it is almost impossible to define terrorism; factors such as poverty and lack of economic opportunity (socio-political and economic factors) are not linked; and there is no particular, single definition or description of a ‘terrorist’ and his profile. Thus, poverty is not a root cause of terrorism, because terrorists are not likely to come from impoverished backgrounds and they do not necessarily act out of their own personal desperation. However, terrorists may act out of concern for their poor countrymen or other disadvantaged groups of the population. This would mean that poverty and terrorism are indirectly linked. They strongly identify with the fate of the poor, without being part of their class or ethnic group.

Where do terrorists come from?

There is a link between the number of terrorists in a country and the population. The larger the population, the more terrorists there are. There is no correlation between the GDP per capita of a country and terrorism. Similarly, the extent of civil liberties in a country has also been found to be statistically insignificant or of minor importance to the issue. It has also been found that the prevailing religion in a country and illiteracy rate does not seem to have any effect on participation in international terrorism. Therefore, it cannot be said that terrorists are more or less likely to come from certain countries.

The effects of terrorism

Terrorism affects the societies that it targets. The effects can be short or long-lasting. The impact of terrorism becomes cultural, as individuals change their habits and behaviors. They learn how to act in the event of a terrorist attack, and how to continue going about their daily lives while being aware that a terrorist attack might happen at any point. Terrorism affects certain groups of society more than others and marginalizes minority groups, making people believe that certain members of these groups are terrorists themselves.

Terrorism affects the economy of the targeted country or city. Terrorist attacks prevent countries from attracting international investments, and any new investments are focused on security. Meanwhile, tourist flows are decreasing, and companies are prompted to monitor their staff based on new (specifically religious) criteria.

Finally, terrorism impacts policymaking. It forces governments and organizations to research the issue and contribute to the debate and introduction of preventative programs (such as deradicalization programs).

Prevention of terrorism

Combating terrorism is another complex issue because we might have to deal with a constantly changing phenomenon. Despite many similarities, it is clear that prevention of violent crime or organized crime and prevention of terrorist crime are not the same in all respects and both should be approached separately. The policy around the world regarding countering terrorism attempts to provide a response to the threat of terrorism. For example, in the UK the policy focuses on four objectives: prevent, pursue, protect and prepare. The purpose is to stop people from becoming terrorists and supporting terrorism by countering terrorist ideology and challenging those who promote it.

Such policies have been criticized, however, for being anti-Muslim. The counter-terrorism policies tend to especially target Muslims, often with no suspicion or evidence of criminal activity. Although it deters and diverts people from extremists and acts of terrorism, it provokes controversy.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Terrorism is a phenomenon that has always existed and continues to exist because it is difficult to establish a single root cause of terrorism or even a set of common causes. However, Anthropologists have made, and still, continue to make a large contribution to the study of terrorism. It is significant because, by exposing the concept of terrorism and exploring the many complexities, we can understand better the root causes of terrorism, reduce fears and provide effective ways of preventing it, and building a safer world.


Antiquity Now., “Terrorism in the Ancient World: Part 2”. Available:

Bjorgo, T., (2005) “Root Causes of Terrorism: Myths, Reality, and Ways Forward”. Oxon: Routledge.

DeAngelis, T., (2009) “Understanding Terrorism”. Available:

Elhassan, K., (2017) “12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends”. Available:

Grieger, T., (2006) “Psychiatric and Societal Impacts of Terrorism”. Available:

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