Motivation of Arson

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Arson under the law remains one of the oldest forms of criminal offenses in the world. Originally, malevolently torching another’s house late in the night was the definition of arson. In the modern world, arson takes many more forms such as intentionally causing an explosion to vehicles, buildings, burning personal property, and causing fires to structures among others. The majority of arson crimes are felonious offenses prosecutable by fines and imprisonment. This paper attempts to investigate six motives behind arson: vandalism, camouflaging crime, extremist, revenge, excitement, and profit. 

Keywords: arson, motive, fire, crime

Motive can be described as an innermost desire or instinct which is triggers incentives that encourage one to take an action. In uncovering the perpetrators of arson, investigators become more interested in getting the motive indicators. These pointers are essential in analyzing the crime and should not only be used to conclude on the cause of the fire. The National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) points out six reasons as to why people intentionally set fire on other people’s property (International Association of Arson Investigators 2016). 

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This can be described as an ill-behaved or malicious setting of fire intended to cause a destruction of property. Vandalism will more often be targeted at learning institutions, deserted buildings, and structures even though trash and grass fires that spread to people’s property are regarded as part of vandalism. This motive can broadly fall in two classifications: deliberate malicious naughtiness and peer pressure. Juveniles ostensibly set fires at random with no apparent motive. In case numerous wrongdoers are involved, there tends to be one ringleader of the group. Vandals will use the materials found on site to set off the fire, seldom using inflammable gases or liquids (Weikman, 2016). 


International Association of Arson Investigators (2016) claim that through thrills and over enjoyment, fires may go out of hand and cause destruction of property. Fires caused by excitement range from bush fires to inhabited structures with arsonists doing this in familiar geographical locations. It is common that these arsonists will take photos of the fire and share them with online friends. The perpetrators here may be looking for recognition from the community as heroes. Sexual enjoyment and over indulgence to drugs may also spark off arsonist’s idea to set fire on a property. Dumpster fires and bonfires are the most probable targets for these excited arsonists.


This kind of a motive is usually a retaliation for alleged injustices, fight or some disagreement. This is the most dangerous motive since the consequences are dire and often result in fatalities. The retaliation can be targeted to an institution, group, company, society or an individual. The arsonists here will burn down structures, homes, vehicles, and possessions that belong to the targeted victim. The arsonists here may easily be suspected from the origin of the fire and the combustible materials used. For instance, a fire originating from the bedroom may suggest a love affair row or domestic violence. In such domestic violence cases, arsonists will use unorganized attack methods (Disbrow, 2010). 

Crime Concealment

 In this kind of motive, arson is usually the secondary crime. The arsonists try to cover up for the primary crime which is usually more severe such as homicide or burglary. Burning of documents that are evidence of a crime also fall under this motive. Arsonist set off fire to burn forensic evidence to the primary or original crime as well as hide the identity of the victim. For cases of vehicle theft, the criminals will often burn down the whole car to conceal finger prints or any other evidence that may incriminate them (Weikman, 2016).

Profit Motive

According to Kulbarsh (2007), arson out of profit incentives is one that is purposely done towards realizing financial or material gains directly or indirectly. This is a commercial kind of a crime. There is usually no passion in burning down property unlike in other motives. One perfect example of the sources of financial gains that can result from this arson is fraudulently collecting claims from insurance companies. Other reasons driven by profit motives include concealment of financial losses, eliminating competition, and liquidating inventory fraudulently among others. This kind of arson, unlike others, is highly orchestrated involving methodical approaches. The crimes scenes leave little or no physical evidence that would incriminate the perpetrators.

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Extremist Motivated Arson

Arsons of this type are either socially, politically, or religiously instigated. Riots, civil demonstrations, and terrorism are associated with these kinds of arsonists’ motives.  The offenders here perform the crime in huge groups or crowds all aiming to attack civilians allied to particular political or religious affiliations. During these riots and civil disturbances, fires will be set accompanied with wanton destruction and looting.  The perpetrators will occasionally leave a message at the site of the crime that airs their grievances. Terrorists will put clear their demands either at the crime scene or through media in writing after the arson. Arsonists with this motive will target government institutions, public places, worship centers, police precincts, and military barracks among others (International Association of Arson Investigators, 2016).


When finding out sources and causes of fires, investigators will, first of all, identify the motive behind it. This arson motive will easily lead to the successful evaluation of the possible suspects. Fire setters will most likely have one of these motives in mind: vandalism, excitement, extremism, crime concealment, profit, and revenge. Identification of the motive may not be a requirement in the prosecution process but will be of great help in the case.

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  1. Disbrow, R. (2010). Arson Investigation – The Six Motives for Fire setting. 
  2. International Association of Arson Investigators. (2016). Fire investigator: principles and practice to NFPA 921 & 1033. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
  3. Kulbarsh, P. (2007). Inside an Arsonist’s Mind. 
  4. Weikman, K. (2016). Understanding The Enemy: Profiles and Motivations of an Arsonist. 
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