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  • Turning to Political Violence: The Emergence of Terrorism by Marc Sageman
  • Zachary C. Shirkey
Turning to Political Violence: The Emergence of Terrorism. By Marc Sageman (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) 496 pp. $49.95

Sageman seeks to explain thse causes of political violence in general and terrorism in particular. He argues against the prevailing rational-choice, psychological, and ideological arguments, instead claiming that a social-identity perspective works best. This approach posits that individuals turn to terrorism as a result of their participation in communities of political protest—communities that are imagined in the same way that Anderson describes a nation as an imagined community.1 Individuals develop loyalty to the community and are willing to make sacrifices for it.

A combination of escalatory rhetoric, a frustration with the pace or ineffectiveness of peaceful actions, and government repression of political protest creates the turn to violence. Government repression leads members of the protest community to see their group as under attack and in need of defense. It also forces the potential terrorists underground, causing their cognitive horizons to narrow as they lose contact with more moderate members of the protest community who might question the morality and efficacy of a turn to violence. In other words, Sageman argues that people are not born terrorists and that grievances alone do not result in political violence. Rather, a combination of grievances and events leads individuals to acts of terrorism. Hence, the best that a state can do to prevent political violence is to avoid overreacting, abstain from escalatory rhetoric, and handle quarrels between various factions of society fairly—all difficult tasks. [End Page 546]

Although the social-identity perspective is highly amenable to small groups, it has broader applicability. Sageman shows that so-called "lone wolf" terrorists exhibit the same patterns of loyalty to an imagined political community as do terrorists organized into cells. Similarly, many of the individuals that came together to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 barely knew each other before the attack. Loyalty to, and a willingness to defend, a larger political-protest community is what drives the turn to violence, not small-group dynamics.

Sageman deftly illustrates his argument in a series of highly detailed case studies of various terrorist groups and individual acts of terrorism in the period between the French Revolution and World War I. The cases focus on France, Russia, and the United States as well as on the international anarchist movement, supplemented by an appendix that examines a wide range of groups from the nineteenth century to the present day. Given this combination of sound theorizing and strong supporting evidence, Sageman's book is a major contribution to our understanding of terrorism.

Zachary C. Shirkey
Hunter College, CUNY


1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 1983).



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pp. 546-547
Launched on MUSE
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