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In the abstract I can understand the goals of political violence within the context of a campaign (for example the Northern Ireland Troubles, The Armed Struggle against Apartheid and The Palistian Intifada (This is not a comment on the morality of these campaigns or the morality on the use of violence)). In such campaigns the motivation is to create a cost (both financial and political) for the government to continue carrying out the policy that the group carrying out the violence disagrees.

However one off political violence such as the Oklahoma city bombing and the recent violence in New Zealand don't seem to have the same through line between the violent act and the achieving the perpetrators political goal. Indeed they seem to be counter productive in the broader context.

So what are these actors trying to do? What do they think the consequences of their actions will be?

  • related question: Do terrorists have political agendas? – Philipp Mar 17 at 9:30
  • Indeed, I'd argue that many cases we call terrorism are not terrorism. Unfortunately there is often no easy description of what they are (hate-crime is only sometimes applicable), so terrorism has had definition creep. – Orangesandlemons Mar 17 at 13:27
  • I doubt that, in many cases, they can think of the longer term consequences of their actions. They often seem to act out of spite, hatred and frustration rather than toward a specific end (other than causing as much misery and suffering to the group they hate) – Dave Gremlin Mar 17 at 19:56
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    Oklahoma city bombing wasn't a one-off. It ties materially into the Idaho standoff at Ruby Ridge a few years earlier. And the two are connected to the NZ shootings and a long string of other alt-right shows of force through extreme right wing activist rings (radio, internet forums, social media, etc.). – Denis de Bernardy Mar 18 at 9:47
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    @Denis minor correction but the Oklahoma bombing was 2 years to the day of the Waco siege, not Ruby Ridge (although no-doubt McVeigh was angry about that too.) The excellent 'BBC Documentary 2017 - Oklahoma City - PBS American Experience' on YouTube nicely traces the three events plus the assasination of Alan Berg, if anyone here is interested. – JamesPD Mar 19 at 10:11
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These terrorists typically believe that their actions will cause other people to rally to their cause, eventually resulting in the downfall of whatever group or system they believe is the problem. This is partly why they often create manifestos.

The Oklahoma City bomber was motivated by anti-government ideology. He seemed to believe that his actions would eventually result in the judgment of government officials, such as those at the Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol, and Firearms:

ATF, all you tyrannical people will swing in the wind one day for your treasonous actions against the Constitution of the United States. Remember the Nuremberg War Trials.

He may also have been motivated by white supremacy, since he had copies of the racist The Turner Diaries and seems to have been inspired by it.

The Christchurch shooter was motivated by white supremacist ideology and anti-Muslim beliefs. His goal was to start a race war, for instance in the US:

This conflict over the 2nd amendment and the attempted removal of firearms rights will ultimately result in a civil war that will eventually balkanize the US along political, cultural and, most importantly, racial lines,

He believed that several implausible political events would be triggered by his actions, such as an uprising of white inhabitants in Turkey.

This reasoning is not so different from that of more organized groups. Two of your examples, South Africa and Northern Ireland, are of successful terrorist groups, in the sense that the goal advocated by the group employing terrorist strategies succeeded, at least in part. But in reality, many terrorist groups toil in relative obscurity for years in the hopes that they'll get enough people to join them. In that sense, their expectations of success are not necessarily much more well-founded. Even a major terrorist group like al-Qaeda doesn't necessarily have good odds of success: they've neither driven the US from the Middle East nor installed a global caliphate, as they originally planned.

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    The IRA's goal was a united Ireland, they didn't get it. I'm not sure what the UDF and the UVA's goal was – Dave Gremlin Mar 18 at 9:32
  • Timothy McVeigh was largely motivated by the FBI's handling of the Ruby Ridge Stand Off and the Waco Siege, especially the outcome of the later (resulting in 86 deaths, mostly children, through gun fire and burning). The Oklahoma City Bombing occurred on the anniversary of the Waco Siege, and the build was targeted because two other agencies involved with Waco (ATF and DEA). I would suggest that the book's plot of a white supremacist blowing up the FBI building sparking a violent anti-federal government spoke to McVeigh's dislike of the government rather than of any racial bigotry. – hszmv Mar 25 at 20:36
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Terrorism is amazingly ineffective at achieving its stated goals, especially compared to just about any other alternative.

The linked paper suggests that terrorism is about social identity, or more colloquially:

"Perhaps the real Jihad/Aryan Race/Revolution was the friends we made along the way."

If terrorism is more about belonging than achieving its purported aims, then that of course begs the question why terrorism? Subreddits are a thing.

The answer is that terrorism provides a goal that is ambitious and emotional enough to be a rallying point for a subculture and is sufficiently outside of the mainstream to be a credible boundary to define one (stuff that rational people would do on their own for impartially defensible reasons rarely make for good subcultures).

One could claim that maybe terrorists are just bad at their jobs, but that requires positing that all terrorists are morons who just don't know how ineffective their chosen strategies are at achieving their goals. I for one find the psychological argument more compelling.

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The small group of conspirators including Gavrilo Princep managed to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria set off a cascade of events that ultimately led to the First World War. While that wasn't what they were specifically trying to achieve, it does prove that individual actions can be historically decisive.

  • I'm not sure your argument holds. It seems to conflate backwards and forwards processes: one can, using a retrospective narrative, interpose on history a cause-and-effect chain of events, but the forward-process to create one is intractable. – Jared Smith Mar 19 at 16:10
  • The assassination of Dutch populist right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 prevented him from becoming a big political influence. Political murders seem to be effective at least sometimes, but isn't terrorism defined as targeting random people? – Ivana Mar 19 at 22:49
  • @Ivana but isn't terrorism defined as targeting random people? No, that would usually be referred as indiscriminate terrorism. And even in not-very-surgical terror acts, victims are seldom fully random (a bomb in a bar used by members of a demographic group). Certainly an attack against a single specific individual can be a terrorist attack, specially if it is part of a wider campaign targeting other related victims. – SJuan76 Mar 25 at 14:11

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