The police in Uganda are still searching for mass graves of the followers of a religious cult who were killed in March.
In 1998, a series of bombs exploded in the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In 1995, poisonous gas released in the Tokyo subway harmed several thousand passengers. These are just some of the acts of violence that have shocked the world in recent years.
Two American scholars offer their views on what causes individuals and groups to commit such terrorist acts.
Mark Juergensmeyer, director of global and international studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has written a book titled "Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious
Violence." In his opinion, all terrorism is motivated by fundamentalist religious ideologies.
He says terrorist attacks are committed by people who are confused by global changes and perceive the world as becoming too secular. Professor Juergensmeyer notes that there has been an increase of such attacks in the 1990-s.
"In a post cold-war era -- where there isn't the same sense of certainty about the way in which the world is organized -- and the rise of geopolitics and of a global economic system, that although in some way unites everybody, it also disrupts traditional societies and gives a sense of uncertainty to
people who feel that they are not a part of the new world or are not really certain what the new world is going to become. And in some way, they feel paranoid about the control of the new world," says Juergensmeyer.
He says the United States, having become the leader of the secular western world, is often the target of terrorist groups from more traditional societies. But, he adds, bomb attacks on abortion clinics and other public places in the United States indicate that many Americans also feel uncomfortable with the new world order and its powerful leaders. Juergensmeyer says it is because they fear losing their individual liberties and traditions.
The California professor says during the cold war the world was divided into the communist East and non-communist West, with the Third World balancing in between. He says when this division ended, a new one began. On one side are societies connected -- albeit superficially -- by technology, media and rapid communication.
And on the other side are traditional communities who feel threatened by this emerging global society in which they see no role for themselves.
Juergensmeyer also says religious nationalism has replaced communism as the new enemy of the secular West. In his opinion, most people who commit violent acts -- such as bombing government buildings, abortion clinics, or sports arenas -- see the world as being at war, a "cosmic war," as he calls it.
Those who engage in it employ religious images of the divine struggle against evil, and place them in the service of worldly political battles. And while they may not expect to win, they want to draw attention to their ideology.
"I define terrorism in my book as performance violence. That is, acts of violence that are performed in a public sphere in order to awaken or shock us, mobilize us in some way - quite different from the kind of terrorism that we used to associate with left-wing Marxist movements that were much more strategic -- politically. They had a goal. But bombing the World Trade Center (in New York), for example, or the Oklahoma City federal building, or putting nerve gas in the Tokyo (Japan) subways -- these are not acts with specific goals," says Juergensmeyer.
Here in Washington, Mitchell Hammer, professor of international relations at American
University, agrees that groups that commit violent acts do it mostly to gain public attention. But he distinguishes terrorist groups with a political agenda from religious cults.
Hammer says both may be fanatical about a cause or ideology, but members of political groups are usually free to leave the group. Religious cults always function in a strictly controlled environment.
"The people who are members of a cult have their behavior prescribed, where there are rewards and punishments that are given for even the smallest acts of either obedience or deviance. There is often a charismatic leader that controls how people live with one another," says Hammer.
He cites the recent case of mass murder in Uganda as a typical example of cult violence. "The religious leaders that formed that cult seduced people -- through deception -- into joining, clearly engaged in coercion that disoriented people and then a conversion process involved a kind of a snapping that takes place when one whole set of worldviews is replaced by another and then a very strong maintenance process," says Hammer. He contends that in order to curb the rise of terrorist attacks, countries must improve their monitoring of political and religious groups. He says this can be done through educating communities to recognize groups with violent agendas and to warn the authorities about them.
Hammer and Juergensmeyer agree that increasing security measures alone will not curb terrorism. Juergensmeyer thinks that the new digital and secular society also must be more understanding of the other side. He says groups with religious and traditional views should be respected and encouraged to speak in public forums. In his opinion, they will be less violent if they do not feel threatened.