Terrorism Research Paper

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The study of terrorism is complicated by the fact that terrorism is a political rather than an analytical concept. The concept is closely related to major power conflicts, such as the cold war, nationalist conflicts, and—most recently— religious-political polarization; and its political use and academic definitions have changed accordingly. As a result, scholars of terrorism have not only looked at terrorism as a particular kind of political violence, such as assassinations, hijackings, or—most recently—suicide bombings, but have also been sensitive to the discursive use and impact of the term terrorism. What both lines of study have in common, however, is the notion that terror-ism—both as a practice and a discourse—is meant to terrify. Both the perpetrators of terrorist violence and those who have the power to name a particular kind of violence as terrorism do so to create fear. The study of terrorism has therefore not only focused on those branded as terrorists but also on those who do the naming, such as the media, policymakers, and academics, as well as on how the term terrorism is itself a highly contested label.

Precisely because terrorism is a political term, there is little consensus on how to define the phenomenon. According to an often-used definition, terrorism resembles guerrilla warfare to some extent while being distinctively different from it in others. Both are unconventional forms of warfare in which the state is attacked by groups of combatants lacking a fully armed military apparatus in order to bring about political change. However, whereas guerrilla fighters primarily target military objects, terrorists also attack “soft” civilian targets in order to paralyze society. According to this definition, the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh in 1995 is terrorist, whereas the suicide attack by Shi’a combatants on American and French U.N. troops in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, killing 241 marines, is an act of guerrilla warfare. Similarly, the Viet Cong fighting the U.S. army in Vietnam or the Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale fighting the French colonial army in the 1950s were guerrilla fighters, whereas the Irish IRA, the Basque ETA, or the West German Red Army Faction also attacked civilians and are therefore defined as terrorist.

Scholars who have focused on the perpetrators of “terrorist” violence have used various perspectives. Richard Rubenstein (1987), among others, analyzes terrorism as a political strategy with a particular genealogy rooted in the French Revolution’s regime de la terreur and nineteenth-century anarchism. Maximilien Robespierre and Louis Antoine Saint-Just as well as Sergej Nechaev and Michael Bakunin thus appear as the ideologues of terrorism. The thinking of the latter as to how to fight the all-powerful modern state, including the notion of the revolutionary vanguard, the provocation of the state, and the revolutionary moment, has subsequently influenced nationalist militants and left-wing revolutionaries of the twentieth century.

Another line of study has considered terrorism in relation to utopian belief systems and political eschatol-ogy. Rather than a strategy, terrorism is seen as a testimony, an act of faith, and the outcome of radical collective fantasies about ideological, ethnic, or religious purity. These studies focus on processes of radical “othering” and satanization, the political use of traditions of martyrdom and sacrifice, and the “mytho-logics” of political violence. Specific attention is given to the symbolism of the time and space of terrorism, such as the symbolism of particular days, buildings, or public spaces.

Partly in response to this, others have argued that while terrorism is usually informed by strong convictions, it should also be understood in terms of ulterior motives such as status, glamour, friendship, and money. Martha Crenshaw (1988) argues that terrorist groups can be analyzed as communities accommodating a variety of individual needs, such as the needs for recognition, excitement, and material benefits. The militant group is as much driven by the need to maintain itself as by its ideological objectives. These observations are used to argue that those militant groups whose existence is threatened by internal friction or outside aggression are usually the most violent. Others examine individual motives for joining a militant organization. Joseba Zulaika (1988) in a study on the ETA describes militant groups as the continuation of friendship in already existing peer groups. In a similar vein, recent terrorism has been explained as an attempt by religiously inspired militants to overcome existential anxieties caused by alienation, humiliation, and marginalization.

A growing body of work concerned with aspects of terrorism is the study of state terror. Michael Taussig (1984) has used the term cultures of terror to denote societies that are under constant threat of state violence and intimidation. This line of work focuses on the systematic use of torture and death squads, rumors, secret intelligence, and other forms of intimidation by state institutions, as well as on individual and collective coping strategies used by the victims of state terror. State terrorism can also include the deployment of terrorist actions by one state against another state, as shown, for example, by Libya’s involvement in the explosion of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. In terms of numbers of victims, state terror is a much more serious problem than the terrorism of revolutionary or religiously inspired militants.

The study of terrorism-related discourse focuses on the use of the terrorism concept in the media, by policy makers, and by “terrorists” themselves. Studies on the “symbiotic relationship” between terrorists, the media, and state propaganda portray terrorist violence as “spectacle,” as “theater” and “performative,” or as “ritual.” Without denying the reality of death and destruction, these studies focus on how the media frames terrorism in terms of Good and Evil, leaving little room for anything other than one-dimensional conceptions of terrorism and counterterrorism. The way terrorism was reported on during the cold war, for example, created a fear of totalitarianism and of incomprehensible technology. More recently, and especially since the attacks of September 11, 2001, terrorism discourse resonates with the fear of religious fanaticism. Most of these studies also trace the complex relations between the media and state policy. Governments often brand their enemies as “terrorist” in order to legitimize an excessive use of force and the violation of human rights. At the same time, the perpetrators of “terrorist” violence themselves evoke collective fears and fantasies associated with terrorism in an effort to become “larger than life.”

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the study of terrorism has changed significantly, not only in quantitative terms, but also substantively. Book titles like Terror in the Mind of God (Juergensmeyer 2000) and Terror in the Name of God (Stern 2003) indicate an increased interest in the relationship between terrorism and religion. Studies of religious militancy largely fall into one of three categories. A culturalist approach tries to explain recent Islamist militancy in terms of long-standing traditions of violence and intolerance in Islam. A more empirical approach examines religious extremism per se, comparing Islamist militants with, for instance, American antiabortionists and Zionist extremists. Rather than being rooted in age-old and supposedly unchanging traditions, recent religious militancy is said to draw inspiration from renewed and redefined notions of purity and holy war, fostered by anxieties and inequalities caused by globalization and political or social marginalization. A historical approach examines religious radicalism as political ideology and religious militant groups as political organizations. Such studies analyze the rise of Islamic radicalism, the history of Al-Qaeda, or the life of bin Laden against the backdrop of geopolitical developments in the Middle East and Asia since the 1980s. Gilles Kepel (2002), for instance, explains the “911” attacks by Al-Qaeda as a sign of disillusion and an attempt to reverse a process of decline after various failed attempts to retain political power for the Islamist ideology.

Post-“9-11” studies of terrorism not only center on religion, but also focus on the sites, the organization, and the methods of modern terrorism. Today’s terrorism is often transnational in scope, objective, and organization, and transcends the boundaries of the nation-state. Stephen Graham (2004) studies modern terrorism explicitly as an urban phenomenon, exploring the ways in which terrorism and counterterrorism are shaped by, and transform, the public life of global cities. As for the study of terrorist organizations, the emphasis has shifted from cell-structured and network organizations to the “rhi-zomatic” character of transnational terrorism. Some of the best-known terrorist phenomena like Al-Qaeda are franchises, allowing loosely connected “freelancers” to operate in their name, as much as they are organizations or networks. Finally, Walter Laqueur (1999), among others, in a book predating “9-11,” explores the ways in which terrorist methods may evolve from the traditional methods of assassinations and hijacking to new forms of chemical, biological, nuclear, and cyber terrorism.


  1. Crenshaw, Martha. 1988. Theories of Terrorism: Instrumental and Organizational Approaches. In Inside Terrorist Organizations, ed. David C. Rapoport, 13–31. London: Frank Cass.
  2. Feldman, Allen. 2002. Ground Zero Point One: On the Cinematics of History. Social Analysis 46 (1): 110–117.
  3. Graham, Stephen. 2004. Cities, War, and Terrorism: Towards an Urban Geopolitics. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  4. Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2000. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. Kepel, Gilles. 2002. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. London: Tauris.
  6. Laqueur, Walter. 1999. The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction. New York: Oxford University Press.
  7. Rubenstein, Richard E. 1987. Alchemists of Revolution: Terrorism in the Modern World. London: Tauris.
  8. Stern, Jessica. 2003. Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. New York: HarperCollins.
  9. Taussig, Michael. 1984. Culture of Terror, Space of Death: Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Torture. Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (3): 467–497.
  10. Zulaika, Joseba. 1988. Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament. Reno: University of Nevada Press.

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