Bruce Schneier, security guru extraordinaire, has a cracking good article on what motivates terrorists in Wired: The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Terrorists, much of it drawn on a paper by Max Abrahms called What Terrorists Really Want.)
The main argument is that terrorists "turn to terrorism for social solidarity", i.e., that they join terror organizations less for political aims and more because they themselves are alienated and outcasts in search for belonging and, perhaps, as an outlet for violent or authoritarian tendencies. They are loners in search of meaning rather than radicals in search a way to express their political views:
Individual terrorists often have no prior involvement with a group’s political agenda, and often join multiple terrorist groups with incompatible platforms. Individuals who join terrorist groups are frequently not oppressed in any way, and often can’t describe the political goals of their organizations. People who join terrorist groups most often have friends or relatives who are members of the group, and the great majority of terrorist are socially isolated: unmarried young men or widowed women who weren’t working prior to joining. These things are true for members of terrorist groups as diverse as the IRA and al-Qaida.
I think this makes lots of sense. During the late 60s and early 70s there was a vogue in many European countries for politically active youngsters to join the far left – a movement that at the most extreme produced the Bader-Meinhof group in Germany. Here in tiny and peaceful Norway a number of people who later wondered how they got into it joined various versions of marxist-leninist groups with the stated aim of violently overthrowing the state. (A great novel by the author Dag Solstad, later turned into a film, explores these mechanisms, telling the story of a small-town high school teacher who joins the movement because he falls in love with one of the leaders). This caused a number of bookish intellectuals from well-off homes to try to act and talk like "the people" (often with hilarious results) and take menial jobs with a view to start strikes, unrest and eventually, the great revolution.
The movement petered out eventually, due to a lack of examples of marxist-leninist success stories, better career opportunities elsewhere, the demands of family life and, most importantly, the failure of the general populace to join the cause. Today, most of these people (especially the ideological leaders) are found in relatively good positions in society and will not thank you for bringing up this period. (In one ironical twist, one of them is a professor of journalism – an interesting position for someone who once wanted to force the press to serve the needs of the proletarian dictatorship.)
Now, imagine what would have happened if the Norwegian state had declared war on these groups and instituted all kinds of controls in the name of national safety? Suddenly they would have increased in importance, had some legitimate cases of persecution (heavy-handed security always produces incidents) and play off the fear and irritation induced by surveillance and controls.
Instead, the Norwegian government largely ignored them, aside from discreet monitoring for weapons violations and espionage. To the extent that anyone was arrested, the perpetrators were charged with clear violations of current law and given sentences similar to those of anyone else.
The movement did not achieve much: A few strikes, a half-hearted rebellion at a few universities, a radical newspaper that still scrapes by (and occasionally is rather good, especially after they toned down the ideology,) "progressive" clothing fashions, some small groups of old professors with weird research streams, reams and streams of newspaper commentary, and that’s about it.
Now, imagine if the current war against terrorism had been pursued as a large-scale police investigation rather than a war, with terrorists being pulled into regular courts, security controls set up for security rather than show, publicity focused on a general toning down of the whole thing, money spent on improving the situation for various downtrodden groups, and military solutions employed as the absolutely last resort, and then only under the auspices of the UN.
I think al-Qaida would be reduced to a group of fringe Islamist fundamentalists with uncertain political aims, lots of fratricidal infighting (when the populace ignores them, they turn on each other), uncertain career paths and increasingly untenable positions. Which is what they were, until the Western world handed them prominence to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.
Bruce would, I think, agree. Here is his conclusion:
We also need to pay more attention to the socially marginalized than to the politically downtrodden, like unassimilated communities in Western countries. We need to support vibrant, benign communities and organizations as alternative ways for potential terrorists to get the social cohesion they need. And finally, we need to minimize collateral damage in our counterterrorism operations, as well as clamping down on bigotry and hate crimes, which just creates more dislocation and social isolation, and the inevitable calls for revenge.