Understanding Terrorism: A Social Science View on Terrorism

Understanding Terrorism: A Social Science View on Terrorism

This course was last updated December 2012

Over the last 25 years, much of the research on terrorism has been accomplished without rigorous adherence to analytical frameworks. This series of three modules will trace the history of religious terrorism scholarship, introducing you to Social Identity Theory (SIT) and demonstrating how this particular scholarly approach within social psychology can provide nuance, depth, and rigor to your studies of religious terrorism. The first two modules will focus on explaining and exploring SIT itself, while the final modules take a closer look at the phenomenon we refer to as “religious terrorism.” By applying the analytical framework of SIT to different historical and contemporary religious terrorist groups, this course offers students of homeland security and terrorism studies a new understanding of group and individual dynamics within a covert environment.

After completing this series of modules, the student should be able to:

  • Define Social Identity Theory (SIT).
  • Discuss the effects of individual and group dynamics on an individual’s understanding of his or her identity.
  • Critically examine past and present approaches to terrorism studies.
  • Illustrate how Social Identity Theory can be helpful to analysts studying terrorism—particularly, religious terrorism.
  • Explain how organizations relying on religious authority to justify extremist actions use religion or theology as a strong in-group designation.
  • Understand the importance of properly recognizing terrorist motivation when giving an assessment or analysis of a terrorist group or attack.
  • Recognize the difference between religious and theologically motivated violence.
  • Give historical and contemporary examples of religious and theologically motivated terrorist groups.
  • Give contemporary groups or issues proper historical context.
  • Identify major religious traditions and sects that have provided motivation for terrorism in the modern age.
  • Identify some of the most influential authors on the subject.

Suggested readings


David Brannan

Course Developer: David Brannan Ph.D., worked on terrorism and insurgency at the RAND Corporation for five years before taking up his current position, teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Homeland Defense and Security, Monterey, CA. While at RAND, he was seconded by Department of Defense to be the Director of Security Policy in the Iraqi Ministry of Interior under the Coalition Provisional Authority. He is a former southern California SWAT officer. His earned his PhD at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, where he was a Research Associate in the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.