Characteristics of Terrorism Hotspots

By: Dr. James A. Piazza , Pennsylvania State University

What types of countries are more likely to experience terrorism? This seemingly simple question is crucial when conducting a net assessment of the environment in which terrorist activity occurs. Understanding which countries are terrorism-prone—what might be called "terrorism hotspots"—helps experts understand the conditions that are conducive to terrorist activity.1 In this article, I discuss five factors that appear frequently in empirical research as contributors to terrorist activity both within countries and across borders. These include the socioeconomic status of the country, such as its level of poverty; political qualities such as whether the country's governing regime is a democracy or a dictatorship; the government's respect for human rights and the degree to which it uses repression in response to dissent; the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities; and whether the country has experienced a foreign military intervention. Each of these five factors has figured prominently in the national discussion about terrorism and counterterrorism among US policymakers and scholars since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Empirical research on them reveals patterns that can inform the net assessment of violent non-state actors.

In this article, I discuss each of these five factors in turn by examining the evidence from the available empirical research. I then use some descriptive statistics to examine the factors' influence on terrorist attacks in countries in the post–9/11 era, and conclude by producing a composite profile of a terrorism hotspot. But first it is necessary to define some terms.

What Is Terrorism?

Terrorism is a politically freighted, emotionally provocative, and highly contested term that has eluded attempts by policymakers and scholars to develop a universally accepted definition for it.2 I prefer the operational definition used by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland: terrorism is "the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation." 3 In this article I consider two categories of terrorism: domestic terrorist attacks that occur within a single country, and transnational terrorist attacks perpetrated by the citizens of one country against another country. These categories allow me to compare the factors of the country in which an attack occurs with the factors of the country or countries the terrorists hail from. For example, if I were to evaluate the factors within the United States on 11 September 2001 that facilitated the attacks, such as intelligence or policing failures, I would also examine the political, social, and economic features of the countries that the 9/11 hijackers came from to better understand their motivations.

What Causes Terrorism? The Five Factors

What specific internal conditions might make a country more likely to experience terrorism on its soil? What domestic conditions might cause the citizens of a country to be more likely to commit terrorist attacks against another country? Empirical research on the causes of terrorism have burgeoned since the 9/11 attacks, and some tentative patterns have emerged.


In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, US President George W. Bush famously linked poverty with terrorism, remarking, "We fight against poverty, because hope is an answer to terror." 4 Bush was joined in this assessment by a wide assortment of politicians and public figures. The relationship between poverty and terrorism makes some intuitive sense. People living in conditions of economic deprivation can develop strong grievances that they have no hope of resolving and might resort to political violence as a way of calling attention to their situation. The immiseration accompanying poverty may attune people to radical beliefs and extremist movements that seem to offer change.

Furthermore, poverty, unemployment, and lack of access to education could reduce the opportunity costs associated with engaging in terrorism. People suffering from economic deprivation would seem to have less to lose by joining or supporting terrorist movements than those with a greater stake in their society and its economic opportunities. Researchers, however, have not generally found poor people to be more likely to engage in terrorism, or terrorism to occur in poor countries or terrorist acts to become more frequent during economic downturns or crises.5 Most indicators of economic development, such as gross domestic product per capita, are unreliable predictors of terrorist activity. Some studies even suggest that, although there is not strong evidence showing that poor countries incubate terrorism, wealthier countries are more likely to be targeted by terrorists.6 There is a logic to this proposition. In addition to being a tactic used to garner attention and to communicate to a larger audience, terrorism is a tool of weak actors that face strong adversaries. Thus, weak domestic or transnational non-state opponents of a wealthy country may opt to engage in terrorism rather than use conventional force. Wealthy countries contain more and better targets for terrorists, are more likely to have well-developed media, and are militarily stronger than poor countries. Finally, rich countries are symbols of the global status quo, which increases their desirability as targets to antisystem actors like terrorists. Therefore, poor and underdeveloped countries are not necessarily terrorism hotspots.

Lack of Democratic Rule

As the justification for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq transformed from a policy intended to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring and deploying weapons of mass destruction to democracy promotion, terrorism researchers turned their attention to the relationship between authoritarian rule and terrorism. Conventional wisdom suggested that the absence of democratic rights and freedoms, particularly in regions like the Middle East, promoted terrorism because in such polities citizens are denied nonviolent legal routes to redress their grievances. Moreover, democratic regimes are assumed to produce fewer social grievances in the first place, to be more politically stable, and to produce nonviolent norms of political behavior, all of which dampen terrorist activity.7 Democracies, however, also have many features that aid terrorist movements. In addition to fostering free media that can be used to amplify the propaganda value of terrorist attacks, many democracies afford their citizens freedoms of assembly, association, and movement; guarantee the legal rights of the accused; and put limits on police power. This produces real vulnerabilities for democracies and constrains their counterterrorism policies.8

The empirical evidence on democracy and terrorism has generally failed to vindicate the "democracy promotion as counterterrorism" hypothesis. Many studies have found that democracies do not experience fewer terrorist attacks or produce fewer terrorists.9 Nevertheless, there are some nuances in the literature. For example, some research indicates that specific features of democratic rule, such as broad political participation, reduce terrorism while others, such as restraints on executive action and limitations on policing and surveillance, increase its likelihood.10 Still other research finds that recently democratized regimes are at a higher risk for terrorist activity than more mature, established democracies.11 This latter finding has clear implications for US efforts to democratize countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, which I discuss in more detail in the conclusion to this article.

Human Rights

Though democracy is not a simple antidote for terrorism, a feature associated with liberal political rule—the preservation of human rights—seems to be closely associated with reduced levels of terrorist activity. Countries whose governments abuse the human rights of their citizens tend to experience significantly more terrorism in the years subsequent to a crackdown, and this is found to be particularly true when abuses are widespread.12 This is a cross-national empirical finding that conforms to much of the case literature on the subject. During crackdowns against dissent, protest, and political violence, official tolerance of the human rights abuses committed by security forces—including torture of suspected terrorists and their supporters and arrest and detention without trial—frequently produced terrorism backlashes. In countries like France during the Algerian War (1954–1962), Britain during the early years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland (1968 through the 1980s), Egypt in the early 1980s after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and Turkey during the Kurdish conflict in the 1990s, such abuses substantially worsened domestic terrorist activity. In each of these cases, human rights violations by governments radicalized detainees; alienated critical civilian populations; fueled the propaganda, fundraising, and recruitment efforts of terrorist movements; and weakened international counterterrorism cooperation.

Minority Status

Another persistent finding in the empirical literature is that countries where ethnic or religious minority groups occupy a lower status in society compared to other groups are more likely to both experience and produce terrorism. This is particularly the case when those disadvantaged groups experience economic discrimination or are excluded from political power.13 Exclusion and/or discrimination help to create and deepen ethnic or religious groups' grievances against the state, the majority population, and the status quo, while also fostering a sense of "otherness" within the minority community. At best, this weak social integration hinders government attempts to elicit the cooperation of civilian members of the minority group. Successful counterterrorism policy relies heavily on intelligence from members of the community within which terrorist groups operate. At worst, such alienation can solidify loyalty within the minority community to the terrorists themselves.

It is critical to note that mere ethnic or religious diversity within countries has not been found to be a contributing factor to an increased risk of terrorism or political violence. The necessary ingredients are exclusion and discrimination. Moreover, empirical studies of large numbers of countries over time show that a low political or economic status for minorities is particularly likely to lead to terrorism and insurgency when oil wealth is present in the region in which they dwell and when the minority group is either geographically concentrated or has kin in other countries.14

Foreign Military Interventions

Since 9/11, the United States, along with other countries, has launched several military interventions abroad to disrupt terror networks or to topple regimes accused of supporting terrorism.15 These include large-scale military incursions, with subsequent long occupations, in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as less-intrusive aerial and drone attacks against al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Pakistan and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.16 The result of such interventions, according to some empirical studies, has been to incite more terrorism and to worsen the tactics terrorist groups use.17 Specifically, foreign intervention typically produces a nationalist backlash within the country that experiences the intervention, a reaction that is easily exploited by terrorist movements and extremists to garner support and to operate with greater impunity. Moreover, because they tend to further tip the balance of conventional power away from domestic insurgents, foreign military interventions and occupations incentivize the adoption of suicide bombings and other forms of extreme violence, particularly when such attacks are being directed against the occupying forces and their allies in the local government.

The research on the use of drone attacks to fight terrorism, a tactic that has become more popular in the wake of costly direct post-9/11 military interventions, has had mixed findings. Some research suggests that, in general, the use of drone attacks has failed to degrade al Qaeda and other militant groups active in Pakistan, and has served to weaken the legitimacy of the US-backed government in Pakistan, as well as in Somalia and Yemen.18 Other preliminary work found some short-term benefits from drone attacks in Pakistan, at least in terms of reducing the severity of subsequent terrorist activity.19

Characteristics of Terrorism Hotspots

Given the body of empirical research on terrorism since 9/11, and what scholars have learned about the causes and patterns of terrorism, what does the composite picture of a terrorism hotspot look like? Does the presence of a high level or an increase in the level of these factors exacerbate a country's likelihood of experiencing or producing terrorism, and if so, by how much? To help make sense of these questions, I present some simple statistical information about the individual influence of the five factors discussed in this article.

To accomplish this, I compiled a database of measures (post-9/11, from late 2001 through 2012) for the five factors in 173 countries and observed the impact on both domestic and transnational terrorism produced by comparing their "low" (below median) to their "high" (above median) values.20 To measure poverty and economic development, I used the United Nations Human Development Index.21 For democratic rule, I used an indicator of the political participation rate in elections in countries, produced by the Finnish Social Science Data Archive.22 To assess the human rights picture, I drew on data from the CIRI Human Rights Data Project on the occurrence of human rights abuses, specifically killings and physical abuse, within each country in my dataset.23 The numbers on minority discrimination, which measures the exclusion of minority community members from executive branch political power, come from the Ethnic Power Relations dataset.24 Finally, I drew data for the fifth factor—the impact of a foreign military intervention on levels of terrorism—from the International Military Intervention data project, which tracks interventions between the years 1946 and 2005. I used two different sources of data to compile the numbers on terrorist attacks: a count of all attacks occurring within a country25 and a count of attacks attributed to the perpetrators' country or countries of national origin.26 The results of this process are presented in Table 1.

Table 1. How the Five Factors Affect Terrorist Attacks


Effect on Terrorist Attacks Within a Countrya

Effect on Terrorist Attacks by Nationals Against Other Countriesb

Human Rights Abusesc

+ 412.8%


Political Exclusion of Minoritiesc



Foreign Military Interventionc



Economic Development



Democratic Participation



Percentage impact on counts of terrorist attacks in sample of 173 countries from 2001–2012 obtained by comparing below median for sample ("low") to above median for sample ("high")

a Source: GTD
b Source: ITERATE
c Indicates that the factor is a statistically significant predictor of terrorist attacks in the full model.

What does a terrorism hotspot look like? First and foremost, its regime is a human rights abuser. Countries whose governments commit higher levels of human rights violations and use physical oppression against their citizens and residents experience, on average, five times the level of terrorism of countries with better human rights records, and they see their nationals commit attacks abroad at four and a half times the rate of their less abusive counterparts. No other factor is such a reliable predictor of terrorist activity. It is important to note that an examination of the effect of human rights abuses on future terrorism produces similar results: abuse in one year produces higher rates of terrorism in the following year(s). Second, such a regime is likely to treat its ethnic and religious minorities poorly. Countries that exclude minorities from representation in the government both experience domestic terrorist attacks and export terrorism at a rate that is three times that of less repressive regimes. Third, countries that are the target of foreign military intervention experience and send abroad approximately triple the number of terrorist attacks of countries that do not endure an intervention.

Neither of the other two factors, economic development and democratization, seem to have as strong or significant an effect on the terrorist activity in countries, yet both figure prominently in current US counterterrorism policy.27 Wealthier countries experience more terrorism at home, in line with some of the empirical evidence discussed previously. However, wealth only modestly decreases the rate of transnational terrorism that countries produce. Countries with higher levels of democratic participation than the global median, on the one hand, actually experience three times the rate of domestic terrorism of those countries that have below-median participation rates. On the other hand, increased political participation has essentially no effect on the rate at which a country produces transnational terror attacks.


The results of this study have some potential implications for US counterterrorism policy. Though the promotion of economic development and democratic reform are worthwhile goals in and of themselves, and should figure prominently in US foreign policy, we should not consider them to be good tools for reducing terrorism per se. Rather, a more efficacious counterterrorism policy might be the promotion of human rights, the enhancement of civil rights and political integration for minority groups, and a more selective application of the use of force abroad.

The case of Iraq after 2003 is illustrative. As an occupying force, the United States orchestrated democratic elections in both 2005 and 2010 and showered Iraq with $60 billion in reconstruction and development aid, in the hope that these actions would reduce terrorist activity. At the same time, the US government assigned a lower priority to the promotion of human rights and minority-group enfranchisement, and maintained its military occupation of Iraq until 2011. The democratically elected and US-supported government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki excluded the primary sectarian minority, Sunni Muslims, from national power and engaged in significant human rights abuses, which included torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings by Iraqi security forces. Moreover, the fledgling Iraqi government remained heavily dependent on US military forces to project internal power. As a result, terrorist activity increased in Iraq by 83.6 percent between the 2005 and 2010 elections, and has increased by a further 26.6 percent since 2010, rendering Iraq one of the most terrorism-ridden countries in the world today.28

About the Author(s):
Dr. James A. Piazza is an associate professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University.

This is a work of the US federal government and not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Foreign copyrights may apply.

  1. The analysis used in this study differs from the terrorism hotspot analysis found in Alex Braithwaite and Quan Li, "Transnational Terrorism Hot Spots: Identification and Impact Evaluation," Conflict Management and Peace Science 24, no. 4 (2007): 281–96. In the Braithwaite and Li study, the authors apply a technique to identify countries that experience high levels of terrorism by looking at the patterns of attacks occurring in "neighborhoods" of countries to which they belong. In this study, I examine specific factors within countries that make them likely to experience high levels of terrorism. 
  2. See Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 32–33. 
  3. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), Global Terrorism Database: Codebook; Inclusion Criteria and Variables (College Park, Md.: START, 2014):  
  4. George W. Bush, "Remarks at the International Conference on Financing for Development" (Monterrey, Mexico, 22 March 2002):  
  5. Claude Berrebi, "Evidence about the Link between Education, Poverty, and Terrorism among Palestinians," Peace Economics, Peace Science, and Public Policy 13, no. 1 (2007): 1–36; Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Male?ková, "Education, Poverty, and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?," Journal of Economic Perspectives 17, no. 4 (2003): 119–44; James A. Piazza, "Rooted in Poverty? Terrorism, Poor Economic Development, and Social Cleavages," Terrorism and Political Violence 18, no. 1 (2006): 159–77. Some recent research, however, finds a nonlinear and temporally dependent relationship between economic development and terrorism. See Walter Enders, Gary A. Hoover, and Todd Sandler, "The Changing Nonlinear Relationship between Income and Terrorism," Journal of Conflict Resolution (May 2014): 1–31:  
  6. See, for example, S. Brock Blomberg and Gregory D. Hess, "The Lexus and the Olive Branch: Globalization, Democratization, and Terrorism," in Terrorism, Economic Development, and Political Openness, ed. Philip Keefer and Norman Loayza (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008): 116–47; Jeffrey Ian Ross, "Structural Causes of Oppositional Political Terrorism: Towards a Causal Model," Journal of Peace Research 30, no. 3 (1993): 317–29.  
  7. Jennifer L. Windsor, "Promoting Democratization Can Combat Terrorism," Washington Quarterly 26, no. 3 (2003): 43–58. 
  8. Alex P. Schmid, "Terrorism and Democracy," Terrorism and Political Violence 4, no. 4 (1992): 14–25. 
  9. William Lee Eubank and Leonard Weinberg, "Does Democracy Encourage Terrorism?," Terrorism and Political Violence 6, no. 4 (1994): 417–35; James A. Piazza, "Do Democracy and Free Markets Protect Us from Terrorism?," International Politics 45, no. 1 (2008): 72–91. 
  10. Quan Li, "Does Democracy Promote or Reduce Transnational Terrorist Incidents?," Journal of Conflict Resolution 49, no. 2 (2005): 278–97; James A. Piazza, "Repression and Terrorism: A Cross-National Empirical Analysis of Types of Repression and Domestic Terrorism," Terrorism and Political Violence (23 February 2015): 1–17: 
  11. Joe Eyerman, "Terrorism and Democratic States: Soft Targets or Accessible Systems," International Interactions 24, no. 2 (1998): 151–70. 
  12. James I. Walsh and James A. Piazza, "Why Respecting Physical Integrity Rights Reduces Terrorism," Comparative Political Studies 43, no. 5 (2010): 551–77. 
  13. See James A. Piazza, "Poverty, Minority Economic Discrimination, and Domestic Terrorism," Journal of Peace Research 48, no. 3 (2011): 339–53; Seung-Whan Choi and James A. Piazza, "Ethnic Groups, Political Exclusion, and Domestic Terrorism," Defence and Peace Economics (2014 forthcoming): 1–27: 
  14. Victor Asal, Michael G. Findley, James A. Piazza, and James I. Walsh, "Political Exclusion, Oil, and Ethnic Armed Conflict," Journal of Conflict Resolution (2015 forthcoming); Bryan Arva and James A. Piazza, "Transnational Minority Communities and Terrorism," Defence and Peace Economics (December 2014).  
  15. International military intervention is defined as the movement of one state's armed forces into the territory of another. See Emizet F. Kisangani and Jeffery Pickering, "International Military Intervention Data, 1946–2005," Data Collection No. 21282 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2005): 
  16. "The Islamic State" is the name by which a violent non-state insurgent group in Syria and Iraq refers to itself. It is also referred to as ISIL or ISIS. 
  17. Robert A. Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2006); Seung-Whan Choi and James A. Piazza, "Foreign Military Interventions and Suicide Attacks," Journal of Conflict Resolution (26 March 2015): 
  18. Megan Smith and James I. Walsh, "Do Drone Strikes Degrade Al Qaeda? Evidence from Propaganda Output," Terrorism and Political Violence 25, no. 2 (2013): 311–27; Michael J. Boyle, "The Costs and Consequences of Drone Warfare," International Affairs 89, no. 1 (2013): 1–29. 
  19. Patrick B. Johnston and Anoop K. Sarbahi, The Impact of US Drone Strikes on Terrorism in Pakistan (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2012). A subsequent version of this paper was published on the website Empirical Studies of Conflict (21 April 2015): 
  20. This is achieved by comparing country-year observations of counts of terrorism where the factors are below-median ("low") with those where the factors are above-median ("high") and then calculating the percentage by which they differ.  
  21. The Human Development Index is available from the United Nations Development Programme, n.d.: . The Human Development Index is a three-digit index that combines countries' gross domestic product per capita, literacy, and life expectancy rates to produce a measure of overall economic development and human economic wellbeing.  
  22. Tatu Vanhanen, "Measures of Democracy, 1810–2012," University of Tampere, Helsinki, Finland, 2012:  
  23. David Cingranelli, David Richards, and K.C. Clay, "The CIRI Human Rights Dataset," Version 2014.04.14. You can download a pdf of the dataset at: . Note that the specific indicator used here is the Physical Integrity Rights dataset, which uses Amnesty International reports to measure how widespread torture, political imprisonment, extrajudicial killings, and disappearances are in the country. To simplify the interpretation of the results, I invert the Physical Integrity Rights index in the data so that the scores range from 8, indicating widespread violations of all four rights, to 0, indicating support for all four rights.  
  24. Andreas Wimmer, Lars-Erik Cederman, and Brian Min, "Ethnic Politics and Armed Conflict: A Configurational Analysis of a New Global Data Set," American Sociological Review 74, no. 2 (2009): 316–37. The specific indicator I use is the logged excluded minority population.  
  25. START, Global Terrorism Database. 
  26. Edward F. Mickolus, Todd Sandler, Jean M. Murdock, and Peter Flemming, "International Terrorism: Attributes of Terrorist Events (ITERATE), 1968–2013" (Ponte Vedra, Fla.: Vinyard Software, 2014). 
  27. It is important to note that these two factors are also not statistically significant as predictors of terrorism when included in models controlling for previous terrorist attacks, country population, and a dichotomous variable coded 1 for whether or not the country is in the Middle East. Results of these models are available from the author. 
  28. START, Global Terrorism Database. 
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