Terrorism and Terrorism Studies (21-11-16)



Confusion has been created as a result of the mass media, politicians and others using the term terrorism as a synonym for political violence in  general (Wilkinson, 2009)




The Biases of studying/explaining 'terrorism'


Suspicion towards the very idea of terrorism studies as a right-wing plot!


During the 1970s and 1980s frequently accused the discipline of advancing a right-wing security agenda that exploited the value-laden assumptions around the idea of terrorism to condemn groups or causes which states sought to outlaw. This agenda, it was held, also justified wide extensions of state power through draconian anti-terror

legislation intended to curtail legitimate political dissent


It was argued that such right wing approaches to terrorism was aimed at non-state actors rather than states who engaged in 'state terrorism.



....casual understandings of terrorism that assume its inherent immorality and irrationality can lead to policy positions based on the simple eradication of what is seen to be the ‘terrorist threat’. For example, the current notion of the so-called global war on terrorism is, sometimes rightly, seen as an overly simplistic phrase and unduly influential on the construction of US foreign policy.





Pathologisation....Terrorists are bonkers!

...problem is that the assumption that terrorism is inherently immoral leads to the belief that it exists beyond the realms of rational activity. Since its inception as a field of inquiry in the 1960s, there is a strand within terrorist studies that has perceived terrorism as an aberrant form of violence devoid of any meaning, at best only comprehensible via the psychiatric analysis of psychopathology. In the age of so-called new terrorism, characterized by suicide attacks aimed at creating mass casualties, this view is more prevalent than ever.




This approach to defining/explaining suggests that we can identify and isolate a curable component and thus get rid of the problem...what this does not do is to 'understand' the phenomenon qua academic approaches.







Phenomenon of terrorism was identified as an object of political concern

in Europe in the later nineteenth century, with the rise in anarchist violence in

the 1880s,




And the panic that ensued set against the increasingly popular ideas of 'criminology' and the rise of psychology led to rather peculiar explanations of terrorism or rather terrorists whom it was assumed were outsiders from the start.




Lombroso: a causal connection between terrorism and vitamin deficiencies most commonly associated with the maize-eating peoples of Southern Europe, thus incidence of violence supposedly lessened in Northern Europe. Others linked terrorism to cranial measurements, alcoholism, air pressure and moon phases...




To get far away from terror as idiothetic acts of  deranged minds Smith and Neumann offer an idea of terrorism as a strategic practice and thereby graspable as rational not as madness.


They see terror in Clausewitzian terms:


War is, thereby, a rationally purposive effort, where the deed of violence itself

isan act of force to compel the enemy to do our will’. War is thus intimately bound

up in the idea of strategy as one possible set of means to attain designated

objectives. Clearly, then, if war is a political act it must follow that terrorism is

an active force within it as one set of methods designed to achieve certain ends.

In this respect, terrorism in its theoretical essence is no different from any other

tactic in war.





So....are there are independent objective verifiable criteria to enable us to distinguish terrorism from other forms of activity?







At last count there were over 100 academic definitions of 'terrorism'


October 2004 the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1566 which

defines terrorism and declares that...


"in no circumstances can terrorist acts be condoned or excused for political or ideological reasons: Criminal acts, including [those] against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an

international organisation to do or to abstain from doing any act, which constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism, are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial,

ethnic, religious or other similar nature."





statutory definition of terrorism in the UK legislation is contained in

the Terrorism Act (2000):


(1) In this Act terrorismmeans the use or threat of action where:

(a) the action falls within subsection (2),

(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate

the public or a section of the public, and

(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political,

religious or ideological cause.


(2) Action falls within this subsection if it:

(a) involves serious violence against a person,

(b) involves serious damage to property,

(c) endangers a persons life, other than that of the person committing the


(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of

the public, or

(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic


(3) The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the

use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is


(Terrorism Act 2000, Part 1, (1) (3))




The US Government has employed the definition contained in US Code Title 22

Section 2656f (d) since 1983 as follows:

The term terrorismmeans premeditated politically motivated violence perpetrated

against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine

agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

The term international terrorismmeans terrorism involving citizens or

the territory of more than one country.

The term terrorist groupmeans any group practicing, or that has significant

sub-groups that practice, international terrorism.

(US Code Title 22 Section 2656f (d))



But can such 'extensional' definitions be satisfactory? is the public and political need for a definition that is practical foisting onto discussion far too loose notions?


Smith and Neumann (2013) argue that it is


"Does terrorism exist, as many public statements like those of Dame Eliza imply, as an observable material fact in itself, or is it, as this book contends, a misunderstanding of the term that obscures ‘the reality’ of what terrorism means as a concept? The popular articulation of the notion of terrorism as if it were a clearly observable fact however leads to severe conceptual problems that frequently impair rather than assist the understanding of the nature of the phenomenon"




How's this one as a more 'intensional definition'


the deliberate creation of a sense of fear, usually by the use or threat of use of symbolic acts of physical violence, to influence the political behaviour of a given target group.


1 the violent quality of most terrorist acts, which distinguishes a programme

of terror from other forms of non-violent propagation, such as mass demonstrations, leafleting, etc. Indeed, although people will sometimes experience fear and anxiety without the threat of physical harm being present, it appears to be the case that the most common vehicle for the inducement of terror are forms of physical violence,


2 the nature of the violence itself. The violence is ‘extra-normal’, that is, for a certain level of organized political violence to be called terrorism it must go beyond the norms of violent political agitation accepted by a particular society,


3 the symbolic character of the violent act. The act of terror will imply a broader meaning than the immediate effects of the act itself, that is to say, the damage, deaths and injuries caused by the act are irrelevant to the political message that the actor who employs such methods will hope to communicate. For this reason, the terrorist act can only be understood by appreciating its symbolic nature.


T.P. Thornton, (1964)  ‘Terror as a Weapon of Political Agitation




Thornton, way in advance of IR theory, offers us a definition that chimes in with 'constructivist'  theory....Why?


But if we go back to the terrorism cast in strategical terms


Unlike much conventional warfare, the aim of a strategy of terrorism is not to

kill or destroy but...


to break the spirit and create a sensation of fear within a target group, which will cause it to initiate political change.


Terrorism, therefore, is a particular form of psychological warfare; a battle of wills played out in people’s minds. 


It can be regarded as coercive diplomacy where the terrorist group seeks to deprive the enemy of things which he holds dear, not necessarily in terms of material resources, but those more-elusive aspects of life such as a relatively peaceful, stable and law-abiding society.



We can of course see that Thornton offers us an account of the means and Smith and Neumann an account of the ends and thereby we can marry the two?




Are Terrorism and Guerrilla warfare the same sort of thing?


These are often lumped together, in some ways because of the Vietnam war and also going back to the 50s, the case of the last blast of the British Empire taking on both the Mau Mau in Kenya and the Malayan emergency


Note on the Mau Mau rebellion: The Mau Mau Uprising, also known as the Mau Mau Rebellion, or Kenya Emergency, was a military conflict that took place in British Kenya] between 1952 and 1960. It involved Kikuyu-dominated groups summarily called Mau Mau, the white settlers, and elements of the British Army, including local Kenya Regiment, mostly consisting of the British, auxiliaries, and anti-Mau Mau Kikuyu.

During the colonial period European settlers acquired a disproportionate share in land ownership. Kenya was no exception. The success of this settler economy would depend heavily on the availability of land, labour and capital, and the colonial government and settlers consolidated their control over Kenyan land, and 'encouraged' native Kenyans to become wage labourers.

The colony's government seized about 7,000,000 acres (28,000 km2; 11,000 sq mi) of land, in the area  known as the White Highlands due to the exclusively European-owned farmland there. "

The land expropriation became an increasingly bitter point of contention. The Kikuyu, were the ethnic group most affected by the colonial government's land expropriation and European settlement; by 1933, they had had over 109.5 square miles (284 km2) of their potentially highly valuable land alienated.

The colonial government and White farmers also wanted cheap labour which, for a period, the government acquired from native Kenyans through force. Confiscating the land itself helped to create a pool of wage labourers, but the colony introduced measures that forced more native Kenyans to submit to wage labour.

Not surprisingly this exploitation resulted in rebellion

The contemporary, colonial view saw Mau Mau as a savage, violent, and depraved tribal cult, an expression of unrestrained emotion rather than reason. Mau Mau was "perverted tribalism" that sought to take the Kikuyu people back to "the bad old days" before British rule.

The official British explanation of the revolt did not include the insights of agrarian and agricultural experts, of economists and historians. The British instead relied on the purported insights of the ethnopsychiatrist This ethnopsychiatric analysis guided British psychological warfare, which painted Mau Mau as "an irrational force of evil, dominated by bestial impulses and influenced by world communism.

 By the mid-1960s, the view of Mau Mau as simply irrational atavists was being challenged by memoirs of former members and leaders that portrayed Mau Mau as an essential, if radical, component of African nationalism in Kenya, and by academic studies that analysed the movement as a modern and nationalist response to the unfairness and oppression of colonial domination.


Note on the Malayan emergency 1948-1960: By the end of World War II left the British Malayan economy disrupted. Problems included unemployment, low wages, and high levels of food inflation, well above the healthy rate of 2–3%. The Malayan Communist Party began to use the failing economy as a tool of propaganda against the British. The British had not addressed the underlying economic problems that were now worse within Malaya than they had ever been. There was considerable labour unrest and a large number of strikes occurred between 1946 and 1948. One example of this was a 24-hour general strike organised by the MCP on 29 January 1946. During this time, the British administration was attempting to organise Malaya's economy, as revenue from Malaya's tin and rubber industries was important to Britain's own post-war recovery. Protesters were dealt with harshly, by measures including arrests and deportations. In turn, protesters became increasingly militant. In 1947, alone, the communists in Malaya organised a further 300 strikes.

On 16 June 1948, the first overt act of the war took place when three European plantation managers were killed at Sungai Siput, Perak. The British brought emergency measures into law, first in Perak in response to the Sungai Siput incident and then, in July, country-wide. Under the measures, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and other leftist parties were outlawed and the police were given the power to detain communists and those suspected of assisting them. The MCP, led by Chin Peng, retreated to rural areas and formed the MNLA, also known as the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA) or the Malayan People's Liberation Army (MPLA). The MNLA began a guerrilla campaign, targeting mainly the colonial resource extraction industries, which in Malaya were the tin mines and rubber plantations. The MNLA commonly employed guerrilla tactics, sabotaging installations, attacking rubber plantations and destroying transportation and infrastructure

And see below how an army manual describes the 'guerrillas' as 'terrorists'

Marine Corps School manual: The Guerrilla - and how to Fight Him):

After several assassinations, by 9 January 1955, full-scale tactical operations began; Originally, the plan was to bomb and shell the swamp day and night so that the terrorists would be driven out into ambushes; but the terrorists were well prepared to stay indefinitely.

Another month passed before it was learned that the terrorists were making a contact inside the swamp. In June, a chance meeting by a patrol accounted for one killed and one captured. A few days later, after four fruitless days of patrolling, one platoon en route to camp accounted for two more terrorists.

By the end of July, twenty-three terrorists remained in the swamp with no food or communications with the outside world...


But back to whether terrorism and guerrilla warfare are similar or different...Whereas terrorism and guerrilla warfare often share the same methods,


and while both are commonly seen as members of one strategic family loosely

referred to as ‘irregular warfare’, it is possible to discern a unique terrorist modus



Maoist and Leninist understandings, emphasize the involvement of the masses through political organization which in many respects is considered even more important than the military struggle itself.


Maoist theory postulates the slow accumulation of military assets to meet enemy forces on equal terms in set piece battles of a conventional nature in the final phase of the confrontation.


By contrast, those groups which employ terrorism as their strategy invariably seek to bypass both mass agitation and major military confrontation, believing that  symbolic acts of violence alone will be sufficient to achieve the desired ends


So overall, will the following do?

Simply, it is the use of violence to create fear for political ends. As a tactic it can be employed by state or non-state actors alike, and is not necessarily indiscriminate in that attacks will invariably be chosen specifically for their political and psychological impact rather than their capacity for physical destruction.




There are two other terms to consider when discussing Terrorism:


Low Intensity warfare


Political Violence



Are these usable terms capturing an essential feature of  'terrorism'?

US Chiefs of Staff defined low-intensity conflict as:


Political-military confrontation between contending states or groups below conventional war and above the routine, peaceful competition among states. It frequently involves protracted struggles of competing principles and ideologies. Low-intensity conflict ranges from subversion to the use of armed forces.



Zais (Military Review, 1986),


"Low intensity warfare could encompass almost any level of military campaigning: ‘Even the massive commitment of US forces in the Vietnamese war could be characterized as low intensity conflict.’12 The analytical weakness in the term low-intensity conflict is simply that the classification of ‘low intensity’ is highly

subjective and observer oriented. Many combatants caught up in most conflicts

are unlikely to characterize their experiences as low intensity."                 




The problem of using the phrase Political Violence to define/describe 'terrorism'



From the standpoint of strategic theory given that all war arises from political circumstances: as per Clausewitz "war is a continuation of politics by other means". ‘Policy’, ‘will permeate all military operations and in so far as their violent nature will admit, it will have a continuous influence upon them.’


In considering the forms of organized armed activity, therefore, all violence is political in that it will be carried out with some goal or rationale in mind.


As a result, the phrase ‘political violence’ is essentially redundant. It provides no clarity into the use of armed force of any kind, low intensity, terroristic or otherwise.




The Limits of terrorism defined/refined by aims and purposes/goals


International Terrorism


in terms of arenas of operations - where they pop up/fight etc



aims - global or confined by country

ETA (Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna or Basque Fatherland and Liberty) as opposed to Al-Queda


and equally - para-terroristic internationalism in terms of supporters and funding and arming e.g. Red Brigades in late 60s early 70s (Baader-Meinhof group)



limits as aims/goals: breadth of ambition



Regime change or merely single issue


Hamas, which aims to create an Islamic Republic of Palestine and ultimately to

dismantle the state of Israel; single-issue groups, such as animal rights extremists

linked to ALF (Animal Liberation Front), aim to change one aspect of government

policy and social behaviour rather than to remodel the political and socio-economic

order as a whole.




How far will you go/resolution of the fight.


Corrigible terrorism where there is a real possibility of finding a political/diplomatic pathway out of the conflict by addressing its underlying causes, thus very probably reducing if not ending the terrorist violence spawned by the conflict and


Incorrigible terrorism -  the movement/group has such absolutist and maximalist aims, and poses such a major threat to the lives and wellbeing of civilian communities, that the only recourse is to use all possible measures to suppress the group before it can wreak more mayhem.




Terrorism as spectacle of violence or death?


Jenkins: "terrorists in the 1970s and 1980s wanted a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead" (1975: 4).



Al Qaedas leader, Osama bin Laden, issued a Fatwaon 23 February

1998, which announced the setting up of a World Islamic Front for Jihad and

declared that it is the duty of all Muslims to kill US citizens civilian or military, and their allies everywhere.



The new terrorism of the Al Qaeda network and more traditional groups its global network of networks, including affiliates, cells and support.


These networks provide the movement with a presence and a capacity to act in at least 90 countries. It is the most widely dispersed non-state terrorist network ever seen and this is what gives the movement global reach.


Traditionalterrorist movements generally confine themselves to mounting attacks in one country or region, though in some cases they do develop sophisticated overseas support networks to obtain finance, weapons, recruits, safe havens and the opportunity to enlist wider support for their cause.





Two final question areas:


What are the problems of democratic law based regimes in responding to terrorism/


Is there an ethics to terrorism?