About this Issue

In the years since 9/11, much new work has been done that analyzes the relationship between states, nonstate actors, the general public, and political violence. Why do people become terrorists? Does terrorism work? How should states respond? How can citizens keep their civil and political liberties?

For nearly a decade, social scientists have approached these questions in the shadow of two momentous developments: 9/11 itself and the massive, globe-spanning state response to it, which has encompassed war, added surveillance measures, restrictions on civil liberties, and new forms of detention, interrogation, and trial.

As these developments have unfolded, social scientists have been studying their effectiveness using a wide variety of methods. It’s fair to say that an entire discipline has been reshaped, and this month’s Cato Unbound seeks to uncover just what’s changed along the way. Lead essayist Paddy Hillyard of Queen’s University Belfast, even argues against using the term terrorism at all! Responding to him, we are proud to presentMax Abrahms of Stanford University, Risa Brooks of Northwestern University, and Paul Pillar of Georgetown University.


Lead Essay

What Is Terrorism?

In late autumn 1974, the Irish Republican Army began a bombing campaign in England. In October bombs exploded in two pubs in Guildford, killing 5 people and injuring 65 others. Some six weeks later two more bombs exploded in pubs in Birmingham. Twenty one people were killed and nearly two hundred were injured. Few would disagree that all the incidents were acts of terror. Following the Birmingham bombings, the British Government rushed through Parliament the Prevention of Terrorism Act, providing new powers to the police, port officials and the Secretary of State, and radically curtailing people’s civil liberties. Four people were subsequently convicted for the Guildford bombings and six people for the Birmingham bombings. All had been interrogated and abused over many days before they signed confessions. After spending 14 and 16 years respectively in prison for crimes they did not commit, with their lives ruined, the convictions against them were quashed and they were all released. These ten people had experienced terror at the hands of the police, followed by the terror of wrongful conviction and imprisonment. The boundary line between the prevention of terrorism and the terror of prevention had become blurred, illustrating only too well the difficulties of trying to answer the question: what is terrorism?

This essay first describes some of the problems of trying to define “terrorism,” taking the view that “terrorism” is used to describe “violence” that is “political” but is only selectively used to depict some such instances. Then it argues that the continued use of the term is creating the very phenomenon that we are attempting to prevent. In conclusion, it is posited that, while there is a very real threat of political violence, the current responses are disproportionate, leading to widespread erosion of civil liberties and human rights. Examples from the war in Northern Ireland will be used to illustrate the argument, as this is both my area of expertise and it provides a context from which policy and lawmakers can learn—however, this is by no means to suggest that all instances of political violence are the same.

The first problem with the term is the notion of terror and whether or not it should be central to the concept of terrorism. Its origins can be traced back to the eighteenth century when the new French state, following the uprisings of 1789, used organized and systematic terror to deal with its enemies. The specific aim was to cause extreme levels of fear among opponents. Many would argue that terror must be a key component to any definition of terrorism. Anyone who has been in a pub or city centre when a bomb, placed by the IRA, has exploded understands only too well the feeling of fear and panic. Similarly, anyone who has been informed by the police that they were on an Ulster loyalist hit list understands the feelings of constant and unremitting fear and expectation.

Few, therefore, would disagree that the purpose of many acts or attempted acts of political violence is indeed to cause terror. But there are many different circumstances in which people experience terror that are never defined as terrorism. For example, the daily personal violence experienced by women in abusive relationships is not defined as terrorism but by the quaint expression “domestic violence,” although in quantitative terms domestic violence does much more harm, measured by death and physical injuries, than terrorism. Moreover, as Richard English, an expert on the IRA and author of an excellent recent book, Terrorism: How to Respond, has asked: “is the deliberate creation and use of terror actually more central to what we usually consider terrorist violence than it is to other kinds of politically related, violent acts?” He points out that the “Shock and Awe” assault on Iraq in 2003 would have been far more terrifying that an ETA or IRA bombing. Moreover, he suggests that there is much more to terrorist forms of violence than just terror. Propaganda, political mobilization, and destruction of economic structures, for example, are all significant. The word terrorism fails to capture these broader dimensions of political violence and distorts an understanding of the different forms of the phenomena we are trying to understand.

The second problem with the term is its ambiguity. This can be seen in its highly selective usage during the conflict in Northern Ireland. The political violence perpetrated by the IRA was always labeled as terrorism by the British government. Yet identical types of violence by loyalists were seldom given the same label. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Secretary of State had the power to ban selected organizations. The IRA was banned but the main loyalist paramilitary organization, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), which was responsible for the murder of hundreds of Catholics, was not banned until 1992—twenty four years after the conflict started. The security services were also responsible, either directly or indirectly, for many acts of terror leading to the deaths of hundreds of people. Yet their behavior and activity was never labeled as terrorism. Similarly, IRA members, but not UDA members, who committed violent acts were always labeled terrorists. Time also adds to the confusion: people once labeled terrorists in Northern Ireland are now called politicians following the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

Research suggests that there are now over one hundred different definitions of terrorism. Most countries have their own definition and even within the same country, various sections of government define the phenomenon differently, as for example in the United States. Definitions also shift with time. In the United Kingdom, the Prevention of Terrorism, Act of 1974 defined terrorism as: “the use of violence for political ends, and includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public or any section of the public in fear.” It failed to define what was meant by violence or political ends and could easily embrace, for example, violent activity on a picket line of striking miners. In 2000 the 1974 definition was replaced by a much more complex one, covering five sub-sections in the legislation. Instead of elucidating the notion, the new lengthier definition is even less clear.

A third problem with the definition is that it generally excludes any reference to violence perpetuated by states. Although the word terrorism has its origins in the activities of the French state, the term has been increasing used to cover only the activities of non-state actors. As Alexander George pointed out in his book Western State Terrorism: “terrorism is so often presented as the anti-thesis to the liberal state thereby suggesting that liberal states are incapable of supporting or engaging in terrorism.” The empirical evidence, however, suggests otherwise. For example, the United States has long supported, sponsored, and perpetrated terrorist incidents around the world in support of its imperial interests, leading Noam Chomsky to describe it as “a leading terrorist state.” The trail of terror, including murder, torture, rape, kidnapping, and the overthrow of elected governments, in which the United States has been involved either directly or indirectly over the years, is well-documented and makes it a nonsense to restrict the notion of terrorism to simply non-state actors. More importantly, this history of state-inspired terror is crucial to any understanding of the political violence directed towards the United States.

Similarly, many of the activities of the police and security forces in Northern Ireland could easily be captured within the term terrorism: the use of five interrogation techniques, which many considered amounted to torture, on a selected number of people picked up during internment in 1971; the shooting dead of 14 unarmed civilians following an anti-internment march in Derry in 1972; the activities of a South Armagh gang, which included security forces personnel, who were involved in bombings and assassinations in the mid to late 1970s; or the assaults by the police on suspects during prolonged interrogation.

Much of this government-instigated terror, however, was overshadowed by the violence that emerged in the new security strategy introduced in the early 1980s. Without any public or parliamentary debate, and on the basis of a document prepared by a senior official in the secret services (MI5), the Thatcher government changed the focus of policing in Northern Ireland from the prevention and detection of crime to the gathering of intelligence. The recruitment and use of informers became the sine qua non of policing. At the same time, the Army, through what was euphemistically called the Force Research Unit, expanded its use of agents. By the late 1980s there was widespread collusion between the security forces and assassins in both the IRA and UDA, leading to the deaths of many innocent people, Protestant and Catholic, creating terror in both communities. This then was a terror in which the state took a part, both against and alongside those labeled “terrorists.” The rule of law was secretly and systematically subverted in the belief that the means justified the ends.

A fourth problem with the term terrorism is that it is so emotionally charged and pejorative that it is difficult to have a rational debate about the risk and harm stemming from political violence. The issue is further compounded by the fact that many people working in the police and security services, as well as politicians, have a vested interest in distorting and talking up the risk. This is shown in John Mueller’s excellent book Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them. As he points out, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since 1960, including 9/11, is about the same as the number killed in the same period by severe allergic reactions to peanuts, by lightning, or by road accidents caused by deer. In addition, since then it is estimated that probably more Americans have lost their lives on the roads than were killed with the collapse of the twin towers — their deaths caused by a decision to drive rather than to fly. None of this empirical detail, however, has prevented the United States from going to war in two countries and spending billions of dollars on the “war against terror.”

A final characteristic of the notion of terrorism is its discursive aspect. It functions ideologically to reinforce and reify the existing structures of power in society, as Richard Jackson has pointed out. It disguises the role of states and particular political elites globally. There is a shared set of assumptions about the definition, the nature, causes and responses to what is labeled as terrorism. This “knowledge” legitimizes the “war on terror” and its associated policies of regime change, military expansion in new regions, torture, and extraordinary rendition. Moreover, it provides the justification for the expansion of national security, the introduction of extraordinary legal powers, and the development of a panoptic surveillance system, of which Jeremy Bentham would have been proud. It also produces a quiescent and obedient population.

Further, the discursive nature of the term terrorism actually creates the very phenomenon that it ostensibly seeks to end—political violence against liberal states. The terrorism discourse, as Joseba Zulaika and William Douglass point out in their brilliant book, Terror and Taboo (written five years before 9/11), provides powerful cultural frames and narratives with which to understand the phenomenon. By defining many different and disparate politically violent groups together under one label, a relationship is established where none may have existed in the past. The label itself enhances the status of every minor group and encourages the further use of political violence. The enemy, “al-Qaeda,” has been constituted as “the other,” making it easy to capture under its umbrella a whole range of acts of political violence which have very different motivations and contextual features, but all supposedly coordinated by a man in a cave who gave up using a cell phone years ago. The term “Axis of Evil” has extended the umbrella to include the PLO, Fidel Castro, the Sandinistas and more recently Iran and Yemen. A further discursive turn occurred with the use of the adjective Muslim or Islamic in front of the term, creating dozens of suspect nations, thousands of suspect communities, and millions of suspect individuals.

There is nothing in new appending an ethnic or racial description to terrorism. During the troubles in Northern Ireland journalists and some academics used the term “Irish terrorism.” The detention process for many started with a form stamped with the words “Irish Suspect”—a term sufficiently ambiguous as to which is the noun in the phrase—that a police officer could either consider the individual in racist terms or the whole of the Irish race. At UK airports and ports Irish people were separated out from other passengers for checking with signs that stated “Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland passengers this way,” further increasing the general public’s suspicion of Irish people. Security experts are now arguing that the same procedures should be introduced at all airports for Muslims.

All the evidence from the thirty-year war in Northern Ireland shows that discriminatory practices, the “dramatization of evil,” and the demonization of the “other,” created widespread anger and resentment among those affected. Irish people and people of Irish descent began to see themselves as “different,” and their sense of being Irish was strengthened in the wake of the rising levels of suspicion. The impact on some was more dramatic. As a consequence of being defined, abused, humiliated, and segregated out for special treatment, many young men and women joined the IRA and became the very object of the discursive constructions.

This brings us to issue of responding to political violence. Now that there is widespread acceptance of the term terrorism, notwithstanding its vagueness, ambiguity, and dangerous discursive characteristics, it has become all too easy for the authorities to introduce more and more counter-terrorism measures, which curtail fundamental democratic rights of freedom of movement, speech, and protest. Significantly, there appear to be no limits to the expansion of these countermeasures. After each atrocity or, more typically, after each security breach, the measures are ramped up.

For example, following allegations that a group of British men had planned to build bombs using liquid explosives disguised as beverages, a ban, as millions know, was introduced on liquids of more than 100ml in hand luggage. This led to one of the biggest seizures of property in the history of modern society with thousands kilograms of drink, cosmetics, perfumes, shaving gels, and mousse being taken from travelers on a daily basis. Similarly, following the arrest in December of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is accused of attempting to blow up a plane as it came into land at Detroit airport, full-body scanners are to be introduced at airports.

But this development is already being questioned. Some security experts are predicting that soon the suicide bomber will have the bomb sewn inside his or her body with miniature wires under the skin which can be detonated by needles. The logical response to this potential threat will be for all passengers to be strip-searched to check for recent surgery and anything that might be concealed in body orifices. But the experience of Northern Ireland is instructive again. There, strip-searching and forced visual examinations of bodily orifices in the jails was commonplace, but the searches failed to detect many items, and miniature radios, lighters, and tobacco were all smuggled in.

Zygmunt Bauman, one of the most perceptive and original thinkers of our time, argues that we now live in a new political economy—a political economy of uncertainty that has developed as a result of globalization and the freeing up of financial, capital, and trade powers, against a backdrop of growing polarization of wealth, income, and life chances within and between countries. While billions of poor people live a life of certainty in poverty, their vast presence creates uncertainty among those in work, making redundant the traditional and costly disciplinary apparatus.

The political economy of uncertainty boils down essentially to the prohibition of politically established and guaranteed rules and regulations, and the disarming of the defensive institutions and associations which used to stand in the way of capital and finance becoming truly sans frontières. The overall outcome of both measures is the state of permanent and ubiquitous uncertainty which is to replace the rule of coercive law and legitimating formulae as the grounds for obedience (or, rather warranty for the lack of resistance) to the new, this time suprastate and global powers.

The mobilization of the concepts of “terrorism” and “counter-terrorism” further reinforces the levels of uncertainty and produces more compliance and ever greater erosion of civil liberties and human rights. Insecure individuals are in no position to act collectively and oppose “counter-terrorism” measures. On the contrary most people are in support of them precisely because they believe erroneously that it enhances their “security” and paradoxically helps reduce their growing levels of uncertainty. In the meantime, liberal democratic states with all their checks and balances against the abuse of power are being steadily transformed in exactly the ways that those who perpetrate political violence wish to achieve.

The main conclusion of this essay is that while the threat from political violence is real, we should stop using the word terrorism and instead use the concept of “political violence” to cover acts of violence within clearly defined political contexts—whether by states or others. In addition, we should rely solely on the substance and processes of the ordinary criminal law to deal with those who are involved in perpetuating acts of violence. Extraordinary measures only serve to create an extraordinary sense of injustice and increase anxiety. Finally, contrary to what Alan Dershowitz argues, we should begin to address the specific underlying causes which give rise to the various different types of political violence. This must include dealing with structural inequalities which exist in the world between rich and poor, and finding solutions to the many ethno-religious conflicts without the resort to unilateral military force. If any lesson is to be learnt from the Northern Ireland peace process, it is that for a resolution to occur, it is essential to convince the protagonists that there are other more effective means of achieving justice than through the use of violence.

Response Essays

Lumpers versus Splitters: A Pivotal Battle in the Field of Terrorism Studies

In his Cold War classic, Strategies of Containment, John Gaddis observes that human behaviors can be analyzed either by splitting them into small conceptual units or by lumping them together into larger ones.[1] Whereas splitters seek analytic leverage by highlighting fundamental behavioral differences, lumpers seek leverage by underscoring their essential commonalities. Within the field of terrorism studies, these divergent approaches yield markedly dissimilar counterterrorism implications.

Terrorist splitters carefully distinguish terrorism from other types of substate violence, especially guerrilla warfare and civil war. They define terrorism narrowly, as the select use of violence against civilians to strike fear in the broader public for putative political ends. Terrorist lumpers, by contrast, employ an expansive definition of terrorism, brooking no distinction between this tactic and either guerrilla warfare or civil war. Particularly outside of North America, lumpers even count as terrorism acts of violence from government officials or militaries.

In the lead essay of Cato Unbound, IRA expert Paddy Hillyard makes two main recommendations. The first is pedagogical — for us to retire the word “terrorism” for the more general term “political violence,” which lumps together a wide range of violent behaviors perpetrated by substate groups (e.g., the IRA), paramilitary agents of the state (e.g., Loyalists), and governments themselves (e.g., Her Majesty’s). The second is policy prescriptive — for us to combat terrorism by demonstrating its political ineffectiveness relative to alternative forms of protest. The first recommendation conflicts with the second, however, illustrating the perils of terrorist lumping.

Numerous scholars have hinted at conceptual problems resulting from what I call terrorist lumping. For example, Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman warn: “Without isolating terrorism from other forms of political violence, there can be no uniform data collection and no responsible theory building.”[2] Similarly, RAND cautions: “Because context matters so greatly, data analysis needs to distinguish better among classes of political violence,” for example, between “terrorism versus rebellion, ethnic conflict, social movements, and civil war.”[3] Indeed, recent works detail some of the conceptual pitfalls of lumping terrorism with these other kinds of violence, which are admittedly sometimes interrelated.[4]

Nowhere are such pitfalls clearer than in the ongoing debate over terrorism’s political effectiveness. Lumpers such as Robert Pape invariably believe that terrorism is a winning tactic for coercing major government concessions. As evidence, they point to substate campaigns directed against military personnel that have indeed pressured concessions. Salient examples include the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon in 1984, and the French withdrawal from Algeria in 1962. Significantly, terrorist splitters do not regard these substate campaigns as evidence of terrorism’s political effectiveness. Rather, they contend that disaggregating substate campaigns directed against civilian targets versus military ones is critical for appreciating terrorism’s abysmal political record. In my 2006 article in International Security entitled “Why Terrorism Does Not Work,” I demonstrate that the international groups of greatest concern to the United States have achieved their policy demands only in campaigns directed against military targets, not civilian ones.[5] Building off of this research, fellow splitter Audrey Cronin develops in her new book several case studies illustrating how attacking civilians only hardens governments from making concessions.[6] As Hillyard suggests with respect to the IRA, the terrorism led to government crackdowns, not compliance.

The good news is that because a strict definition of terrorism reveals that it does not pay politically, governments are armed with a powerful, ready-made message to deter aggrieved groups from targeting their populations. This message can and should be disseminated widely by the international community. In fact, there is strong empirical evidence that militant leaders embrace terrorism because they overestimate its political effectiveness by conflating this tactic with more effective types of substate violence, just as academic lumpers do. As the strategic rationale behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for example, Osama Bin Laden regularly invokes prior substate campaigns that succeeded against military — not civilian — targets, namely the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the U.S. withdrawals from Somalia and Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, during the second Intifada, Hamas leaders routinely invoked the Israeli retreat from Lebanon in May 2000 as their main strategic rationale for blowing up Egged buses in Jerusalem — apparently unaware that the former triumphed by targeting the Israel Defense Forces rather than the local population, which only shifts electorates to the right and thereby rewards governments for digging in their political heels. Through splitting, we can help to deter terrorism by disabusing its leading practitioners of the common misperception that it pays politically.

The bad news is that if terrorism does not induce concrete political gains, then its practitioners presumably derive other utility from their actions, rendering counterterrorism fixes more difficult than simply addressing structural inequalities. Terrorism’s poor political track record suggests that adopting this tactic is an equifinal phenomenon in which there are apolitical motives for using it, such as the selective benefits of participating in a thrilling, tight-knit social unit. The so-called Underwear Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, says that he elected to affiliate with al-Qaida not to achieve its political platform, but because “I do not have a friend, I have no one to speak to, no one to consult, no one to support me, and I feel depressed and lonely.”[7] This attempted mass casualty terrorist attack on the United States was apparently less a case of political violence than social violence. Indeed, recent research suggests that social motives may have greater explanatory power than political ones in accounting for the behavioral tendencies of terrorist leaders and foot soldiers alike.[8] This finding implies that far from a counterterrorism panacea, any political solutions must be complemented with social ones to reduce the varied incentives of participating in terrorist groups.

As terrorism scholars increasingly rely on large-n analyses, establishing a universally agreed upon unit of analysis will become ever more important. Conflating conceptually unlike units may occasionally have normative appeal, but risks yielding ambiguous, misleading results that obscure rather than inform counterterrorism strategy. For this reason, splitting — not lumping — is the future of terrorism studies.


[1] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), preface.

[2] Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman, Political Terrorism: A New Guide to Actors, Authors, Concepts, Data Bases, Theories, and Literature (New York: Transaction, 2005), 3.

[3] Paul K. Davis and Kim Cragin, eds., Social Science for Counterterrorism: Putting the Pieces Together (Santa Monica, Calif: RAND, 2009), xxii.

[4] See, for example, Erica Chenoweth, Nicholas Miller, and Elizabeth McClellan, Hillel Frisch, Paul Staniland, and Max Abrahms, “Correspondence: What Makes Terrorists Tick,” International Security 33:4 (Spring 2009), 180-202; and Audrey Cronin, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[5] Max Abrahms, “Why Terrorism Does Not Work,” International Security 31:2 (Fall 2006), 42-78.

[6] Audrey Cronin, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[7] The Daily Mail, “How a Middle-Class Nigerian Boy Was Seduced by Al Qaeda into Trying to Blow Up a Transatlantic Jet,” 2 January 2010.

[8] Max Abrahms, “What Terrorists Really Want: Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy,” International Security, 32:4 (Spring 2008), 78-105.

Democracy and Prosperity Aren’t Cure-Alls

In his essay, Prof. Hillyard makes many fine points about the problems inherent in the concept of terrorism. I anticipate his arguments in favor of substituting the term political violence for terrorism will spur much useful debate.

More problematic are Hillyard’s recommendations about the steps that follow once we address definitional and conceptual issues. Sensibly, in his conclusion he proposes we focus on the “underlying causes” of political violence. However, the directions in which he points us to investigate those causes are potentially ill-conceived.

Hillyard makes two claims. First, he suggests that addressing the causes of political violence requires dealing “with structural inequities, which exist in the world between rich and poor.” Second, he claims that if we are to end a militant group’s use of violence, “it is essential to convince the protagonists that there are other more effective means of achieving justice than through the use of violence.” Both of these statements echo conventional wisdoms about the sources and solutions to terrorist violence.

Let us begin with the first claim about structural inequities. This comment resonates with the widespread belief that the origins of violence reside in socio-economic factors: poverty and inequality are the root causes of terrorist activity. Violence originates in the deep discontent innate to impoverished and unequal societies around the globe. The remedy to terrorism is development assistance that can spur the growth of meaningful jobs and other opportunities for the unemployed and provide education in societies where it is lacking.

These arguments are emotionally and intuitively appealing: of course, we might surmise, it is only where people are desperate that they would support or undertake horrific forms of violence. Familiar associations of domestic crime, violence, and poverty serve to reinforce the reflexive appeal of such ideas.

Whether such claims are correct when applied to the political expression of violence associated with terrorism — especially in their more simplistic formulations — is disputable. Those chipping away at the argument offer a variety of contrary evidence. First, they observe that many of the actual participants in terrorist attacks are not uneducated, or lacking in opportunities themselves. A case in point are the September 11th hijackers, who were educated and of middle-class origins. If the actual perpetrators of the attacks are not poor, how precisely does poverty influence the motivations of those willing to commit such egregious acts of violence? Second, analysts observe that many countries are poor, suffer severe degrees of inequality, yet reveal little evidence of terrorist activity, or a predisposition in favor of it. Finally, we might look to studies by Judith Harik of support for Hezbollah among Lebanese Shia and Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova’s analysis of Palestinian society. Both illustrate not only that militant operatives may not be especially lacking in opportunities, but that their supporters also do not generally come from the poorest strata of society.

Let us now turn to the essay’s second conclusion: we must convince the protagonists in a violent conflict that their aims may be achieved through peaceful means. It is hard to see how anyone would disagree with the merits of convincing militants to abandon violence. The clincher is in knowing how to accomplish that goal.

Hillyard himself offers little guidance about how to convert militants to peaceful methods. In all fairness, this is not the central focus of his essay. Still, we might usefully take up his invitation and consider the issue.

There are at least two ways we might conceive of what must be done.

First, dissuading militant leaders from using violence could entail socializing them to the conventions of peaceful political action. Engaging them in political processes would reveal those methods to be inherently superior to promoting murder and mayhem in pursuit of one’s goals. As Cindy Jebb and her colleagues’ recent study, The Fight for Legitimacy, suggests, norms of tolerance and reciprocity may be fostered as a militant group’s leaders acclimate to the conventions of peaceful political competition.

One problem with this approach is that it is unclear that exposure to political processes actually promotes reconciliation to peaceful methods. A recent study headed by Dalia Dassa Kaye of the RAND Corporation on the effects of political liberalization on militancy in several countries in the Middle East offered only qualified support for such a proposition. We can also look to the evidence provided by the substantial number of terrorist groups that couple their militant activities with political parties or political wings. The endurance of this hybrid model suggests that exposure to political processes alone is insufficient to promote norms of peaceful political competition and spur the abandonment of violence.

A second means by which we might sway the protagonists is to persuade the communities with which they identify of the inefficacy of violence: convince militants by convincing their societies that violence is immoral, fruitless, or both. The problem then reverts to how to influence these societies’ tolerance for violence.

Here we might consider the arguments of those who advocate promoting or strengthening democratic processes as a way of building resilience in local societies and inuring them to the appeal of violence. The idea that we can affect terrorist violence by changing underlying social conditions is a central theme in the debate about democracy promotion — an argument made by actors from a variety of political persuasions, although perhaps most stridently by President George W. Bush. Take, for example, Bush’s 2006 National Security Strategy. The administration argued there that terrorism is furthered in states where people suffer from “political alienation” and “see no legitimate way to promote change in their own country.” Expanding democracy for local populations should lessen societal support for violence and lead to a reduction in terrorist violence. Societies will be convinced to oppose violence and their militants will be forced to abandon their weapons.

Of course, a great deal could be said about the concept of democracy promotion and its adherents. For the moment two observations about the tenability of its implicit theory of society and militant activity will suffice. First, the argument implies that a local society’s tolerance for violence depends on the presence of democratic institutions or degree of political access available to the population at large within the state. Yet, as we saw with the arguments about root causes above, societal tolerance for violence is likely to be more multifaceted and complicated than the promoters of democracy or liberalization envision. It could depend on historical or cultural factors, economic causes, external causes, or simply the tactical mistakes of militants. Indeed there is evidence that shifts in societal opinion can occur completely independently of changes in political institutions. Take, for example, the polls undertaken by The Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2002 and 2007 which showed that support for suicide bombing fell significantly in countries like Jordan and Lebanon independent of any significant political liberalization. Raising even more questions are the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, which saw upsurges in terrorist attacks despite the introduction of mass elections (or perhaps in some ways because of it). At the least, we lack evidence that expanding democracy or political access indeed “drains the swamp” of societal support for terrorism.

Second, the argument implies that militant groups are in fact influenced by local public opinion and societal tolerance for violence: when society withdraws its support, militants have incentives to pursue nonviolent methods, and invest less in terrorist campaigns, either because the legitimacy of those means is in question or they lose access to vital resources from their communities. Recent research by Robert Pape of the University of Chicago offers some compelling evidence that social tolerance for suicide bombing is a vital factor in militants’ willingness to employ that especially lethal form of killing.

Beyond that, however, we know extremely little about when and why militants respond to their communities’ support for violence. Indeed some of the more prominent approaches to terrorist motivation — those that locate militant motivations in social psychology or ideology (especially ideologies based in religion) suggest militants may be mostly indifferent to what occurs in the societies around them: they are driven by small group dynamics or the doctrinal interpretations of their leaders. In short, while we might all agree that militants must be persuaded to pursue their goals through other means, how we go about doing so is an open question.

The Semantics of Terrorism

A time-honored tactic of political debate is to salt one’s argument with words or phrases that have positive or negative connotations, based not on how they apply to the subject at hand but instead on other associations the terms happen to have. It is a convenient shortcut, a substitute for careful argumentation, and an exploitation of emotion rather than reason on the part of the audience. As a tool of advocacy the tactic is irresistible. But it is a disservice to anyone seeking objective understanding of an issue. The tactic distorts and confuses the terms of debate, and it generally masks the issues and principles that are really at stake.

Loaded terms can have either positive or negative connotations, making them applicable to what one opposes or to what one supports. The terms can be concocted phrases, specially constructed for the debate, such as the positively connoting “right to life” or “fair trade.” Or they can be words already loaded with emotional baggage. As Paddy Hillyard correctly notes, “terrorism” is one of the strongest of the negatively charged words in public discourse. Its pejorative power is evidenced by how strenuously people (and governments) try to pin the label of terrorism on what they do not like and want to have widely condemned, and try to keep the label from being pinned on what they do like and for which they seek support.

Struggles over the applicability of this particular label were especially fervent in debates in the United Nations General Assembly thirty or forty years ago, when those sympathetic to “national liberation movements” and especially Palestinian resistance to Israel strove to keep those movements’ activities from being termed terrorism. Today there is greater willingness to call a terrorist spade a spade, even among those who hasten to add that a particular instance of terrorism is understandable, or that the cause on whose behalf the terrorism ostensibly was used is just. But terrorism is still universally seen as a term of opprobrium, as indicated by how very few, if any, current terrorists or terrorist groups are willing to have the label pinned on themselves.

The tendentious semantics that surround the word terrorism have infected much debate about counterterrorism, and have involved other words in that debate. Probably the leading example is the perennial question of “Is it crime, or is it war?” None of the enormous verbiage devoted to that question has shed any light on, or advanced public understanding of, the nature of terrorism or how to deal with it. Of course terrorism is criminal; it involves actions such as killing or assaulting innocent people, which are covered by ordinary criminal statutes whether or not there are any laws specifically defining terrorist crimes. And if the use of military force is one of the tools available for countering terrorism — and it is — then one can choose to call it war as well. The application of either or both of these labels, or any other label, does absolutely nothing to resolve the issues of ethics and practical effectiveness, and not only of legality, raised by such difficult questions as how to handle detained terrorist suspects and whether to conduct targeted killings of terrorists still at large. Labels cannot substitute for analysis and principled discussion.

Invocation of the “crime” and “war” labels is just another example of the use of loaded terms as a form of advocacy. It is code for expressing a preference for certain options on matters such as disposition of detainees or assassinations, without going to the trouble of constructing a careful and thorough argument. Most often the “war” label has been code for a preference for greater use of the military tool. This use of the label conflates the questions of the nature of terrorism, the seriousness of terrorism, and the best means for countering terrorism. It embodies a pseudo-syllogism: if terrorism is a serious problem then this must be war, and if it’s war then we must primarily use military force to wage it. Because it is politically incorrect to deny that terrorism is a serious problem, the pseudo-syllogism sways opinion even when unaccompanied by any real analysis of the pros and cons of a particular use of military force. A similar and all-too-common invocation of the war-vs.-crime notion is to use it to score political points by depicting as wimpy any opponent who can be associated with the crime half of the dichotomy.

Similar confusion has flowed from the unfortunate term “war on terror” (whose exponents evidently have been oblivious to Professor Hillyard’s distinction between terrorism and terror), and not only because of the disproportionate semantically driven emphasis on the use of military force. Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy; as Zbigniew Brzezinski has pointed out, “war on terror” makes as much sense as “war on blitzkrieg.” Even if that is understood, the war terminology misleadingly suggests a single enemy, with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda usually playing that role — misleadingly, because even just among Sunni Islamist practitioners of terrorism, bin Laden’s group is only one part of the picture. The “war on terror” terminology also suggests a campaign with an identifiable beginning and an identifiable end. That leads to overlooking the background and lessons of counterterrorism prior to September 2001, and it leads to unrealistic expectations about where this “war” will wind up.

Professor Hillyard offers several insightful observations pertinent to all this, including his comments about how the term terrorism gets manipulated and inconsistently applied. His examples from Northern Ireland can be matched by ones from the United States, in which terrorism from the left and from the right has been variably and inconsistently identified as such, depending on whose ideology happens to be politically dominant at the moment. I also agree with his observations about terrorism being but one form of political violence, about the instilling of widespread terror being but one possible motivation of terrorists, about some politicians having a vested interest in hyping terrorist threats, and about the tendency in discourse about terrorism to mush multiple and varied threats together as if they were a single phenomenon.

But Hillyard does two puzzling things. One is to complain that the concept of terrorism is not generally applied to the actions of states. He refers specifically to an official British definition but appears to be registering a more general grievance. Then what are we to make of all the talk about state sponsorship of terrorism? The United States, for one, has laws on this subject, with associated sanctions placed on state sponsors and requirements for the Department of State to issue public reports. Granted, this is another aspect of terrorism that exhibits inconsistent application. But terrorism committed or sponsored by states — and explicitly labeled as terrorism — is a big part of discourse about terrorism generally. My Georgetown colleague Daniel Byman recently wrote the definitive book on the subject. If anything, state sponsorship gets a larger share of discussion about terrorism in general (thanks partly to the George W. Bush administration’s Iraq-related hyping of the subject) than it deserves, given the decline in such sponsorship over the past two decades.

The other puzzling thing, related to the first one, is that even though Hillyard says the term terrorism has become so hopelessly tendentious in its application that it ought to be discarded altogether, he then gets in his own licks by pinning that same term on what are clearly his own bêtes noires: foreign and security policies of the British and U.S. governments. At least in the U.S. case, his use of the term is another example of condemnation through labeling rather than analysis. Although I certainly have had my own differences with past U.S. foreign and security policies, I honestly do not know to what Hillyard refers when he says, “the United States has long supported, sponsored, and perpetrated terrorist incidents around the world.” Quoting a phrase from the likes of Noam Chomsky hardly suffices to identify what he is talking about.

As for whether or not it would be advisable to discard the word “terrorism,” corrupted or polemical use of a term does not necessarily mean that the term itself, or the concept it represents, is useless. Clearly there is some set of phenomena that most people — including the most objectively oriented scholars as well as politicians and the public — find useful to group together under a label such as “terrorism.” The extensive debate among scholars about how to define terrorism suggests that there is something worth debating about.

The legitimate — uncorrupted, unpoliticized — role of a definition is to identify as precisely as possible what that something is. My own preferred definition is a modification of the official U.S. definition used to compile data on terrorist incidents, which is: “Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” One of my modifications is to specify that the “group” can be a single individual (such as Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood psychiatrist-turned-gunman). My other modification is that the threat, not just the actual carrying out, of violence that otherwise meets the definition can be terrorism.

Such a definition provides much on which Hillyard and I can agree. Terrorism can be the work either of states or of nonstate actors. Although terrorism is distinguished from ordinary crime by being politically motivated, the contents of the politics — left or right, imperialist or separatist, religious or secular — is not specified. Although terrorism often is used to strike terror in a wider audience, sometimes it has other purposes.

The definition excludes some things that presumably Hillyard and others would like to condemn. That’s fine, because it is not necessary to force something under the rubric of a particular pejorative term to condemn it. That goes for other forms of political violence besides terrorism, including the open (i.e., non-clandestine) use by states of military force.

Take, for example, one of the biggest past uses of such force by Britain and the United States: the strategic bombing of Germany during World War II. Or to be more specific, consider the firebombing of Dresden 65 years ago this month, which killed an estimated 24,000-40,000 civilians. Reasonable men and women can disagree over whether that aerial assault was justified. The debate would address complex issues of morality in warfare, the laws of war, and whether or not the bombardment hastened the demise of the Nazi regime. The issues are ethical, legal, and strategic. Turning the debate into a semantic question of whether a particular term applies would do nothing to enhance understanding of those issues. You can condemn the action if you want, without ever applying, and thus muddying, the term terrorism.

The Conversation

Not a Cure-all, But a Contribution

The comments by Risa Brooks regarding the economic and political roots of terrorism exhibit a characteristic frequently found in the debunking of such roots: an absolutist straw man. We are warned not to place stock in economic development as far as counterterrorism is concerned because the evidence shows that development assistance is not “the remedy” to terrorism. We are similarly counseled not to look to political liberalization for help because “exposure to political processes alone is insufficient” to turn people into peaceful political animals and because expanding democracy does not “drain the swamp” of support for terrorism. I know no one who has argued in favor of such absolute propositions regarding economic or political roots. Anyone who did would deserve to be derided (or ignored) just as much as anyone who pointed to any other single factor as the key to combating terrorism, be it seizing terrorist money, assassinating terrorist leaders, or pacifying a particular piece of territory.

In short, just because something doesn’t explain all of the variance doesn’t mean it cannot explain some of it. Brooks is right when she says that societal tolerance for violence is “multifaceted and complicated.” We should be interested in anything that, even if it cannot drain the swamp, can lower the water level somewhat. And counterexamples, such as terrorists who are rich or who enjoy political freedoms, are just that: counterexamples, which in turn can be countered by still other examples.

The debunking of the economic roots of terrorism is further plagued by oversimplification that treats poverty as the only variable worth testing. To the extent that poverty-vs.-wealth is a significant variable, the relationship probably is curvilinear, with the desperately poor being more concerned about the basics of food, clothing, and shelter than about ginning up a terrorist operation. Most likely the economic conditions that most matter go beyond poverty-vs.-wealth and have at least as much to do with mobility and opportunity. Most of this may be hard for a researcher to operationalize in a quantitative study, but that doesn’t mean it is irrelevant to terrorism.

As for political conditions, Alan Krueger—whom Brooks cites—has done some of the most useful quantitative work. He, unlike many others, has carefully disentangled the country of a terrorist’s origin from the country where a terrorist operation occurs. One of his most interesting results is a significant negative correlation between the extent of political and civil liberties and a country’s propensity to breed terrorists.

Something else Brooks mentions—terrorist groups that have political wings—is also significant, but not because of any absolutist straw man about mere exposure to political processes turning terrorists into puppy dogs. Rather, such organizations are an embodiment of the principle—as perceived by the groups themselves—that terrorism and peaceful political competition can be alternative means toward the same end. To the extent that one means is available and works, the other one is less attractive. PIRA/Sinn Fein provides an example of the peaceful political means eventually being available and working sufficiently well that the terrorist means was forsaken. Hamas provides an opposite example—not because the underlying principle about alternative means is not valid, but instead because Israel and the United States refused to let the peaceful political means work (i.e., when it resulted in a Hamas victory).

So I generally agree with Paddy Hillyard’s observations about political and economic roots.

Response to My Critics

I would like to thank Max Abrahms, Risa Brooks, and Paul Pillar for their insightful and critical responses to my piece. All three take issue with different parts of my argument. Max Abrahms raises an interesting methodological point about research approaches into political violence and argues that there are two main camps: lumpers and splitters. Risa Brooks focuses on my conclusion and challenges me over the issue of the relationship between structural inequalities and political violence and how it is possible to persuade militants that there are more effective means of achieving justice other than through violence. Paul Pillar concentrates on the core of my argument and deals with the semantics of terrorism. Overall, I find it interesting that no one took issue with my argument that we are spending billions of dollars to counter political violence and in the process are eroding fundamental human rights and freedoms and abusing the rule of law. We have therefore achieved the very thing that those who carry out political violence wish to achieve, namely the undermining of liberal democratic values.

Let me first comment on Abrahms’ piece. It may come as a surprise but I agree with some of his argument about lumpers and splitters. There are indeed conceptual problems for lumpers. Context does matter and therefore if we are to advance our understanding of political violence we do need to distinguish clearly between the many different types of political violence. One of the many problems with the current use of the word terrorism, and why I argue that we should ditch the term, is precisely because it lumps together many different forms of political violence while mostly ignoring the political violence perpetuated by state actors. It can never be a rigorous, unambiguous term. Hence, as I argued in my conclusion, we should use the concept of political violence “to cover acts of violence within clearly defined political contexts.” For example, we should not lump together the political violence which characterized Northern Ireland for over thirty years with the political violence of the Tamil Tigers. While there may be some similarities, the historical, demographic, economic, and social contexts are very different.

Where I do take issue with Abrahms is over his argument about the political effectiveness or otherwise of “terrorism.” He argues that by adopting a splitter perspective and disaggregating campaigns directed against civilian targets from those directed against military targets, “terrorism’s abysmal political record” is laid bare. He goes on to argue that this is good news because it shows that “ ‘terrorism’ does not pay politically.” It would be great if the evidence was as clear cut, but it is not. Part of the problem stems from his commitment to clear-cut binary divides: the lumpers and splitters, military targets versus civilian targets, “terrorism pays” versus “terrorism doesn’t pay.” In the real world, these divisions are often blurred. In the many different contexts that give rise to political violence, it is not possible to distinguish, either spatially or temporally, between political violence directed at military targets and political violence directed at civilian targets. For example, is a pub where off-duty soldiers drink a civilian or a military target? Again, is the financial center in London a civilian or a military target? It all depends on how the conflict is perceived. From a Republican perspective, the British have no right to be in Ireland. The IRA and its supporters perceived themselves to be soldiers involved in a war to remove British rule from Ireland. Attacks on pubs frequented by the military, attacks on commercial and financial centers in London or Manchester, and even attacks on builders carrying our work for the security forces, were all considered to be against “legitimate” targets. The type of targets, whether civilian or military, varied over time depending on a range of factors, but the most important was how the attacks were perceived within the communities from which the IRA drew their support.

Similarly, it is not possible for Abrahms to assert categorically that “terrorism” doesn’t pay politically. Certainly, as he points out, I noted that IRA political violence did lead to government crackdowns. But it is wrong to conclude the corollary that political violence does not pay. The Easter Rising in 1916 led to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. The political violence in the North, admittedly after thirty years, led to the Belfast Agreement and real political representation for Catholics in Northern Ireland for the first time since the setting up of the Northern Ireland State. The attack on the Twin Towers created a political response involving two wars and spending billions of dollars on homeland security. Following the arrest of the underwear bomber, yet more money is being spent on airport security. At the same time, Yemen has now been added to the list of rogue nations, and the watch list grows longer by the day. All of this is what those involved in these acts of political violence want. The delays at airports become longer, and it creates widespread anger among even moderate Muslims when they are pulled out for inspection and interrogation. Among their multiple identities, their identity as a Muslim becomes stronger. To argue therefore that political violence does not pay ignores the sociological evidence from everyday encounters and the changing beliefs, attitudes, and identities of Muslims.

Risa Brooks, in her closely argued piece, takes issue with the two recommendations which I make in the last five lines of my conclusion. I suggested that we must begin to address the underlying causes which give rise to various different types of political violence. Then I went on to say “This must include dealing with structural inequalities and finding solutions to the many ethno-religious conflicts without resort to unilateral military force.” Somewhat unfairly, I feel, Brooks focuses on structural inequalities and makes no reference to what I consider to be closely related — the need to deal with ethno-religious dimensions. In reality, it is often impossible to disentangle the structural inequalities and the ethno-religious elements.

But let us focus just on the structural inequalities. Here Brooks puts forward three points to challenge the connections between inequalities and political violence: many of the participants in political violence are not uneducated; many supporters do not generally come from the poorest strata of society, and many poor countries have little evidence of political violence. These are all fair points, but I do not consider that they counter my suggestion of a connection. The problem is that the connection is complex and it is not simply a question of whether or not the perpetrators or their supporters are drawn from the poorest reaches of society. The key issue is how inequalities affect both the poor and the rich alike.

There is now much scientific evidence which suggests that inequality does matter. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their recent book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, review the evidence and conclude that inequality causes unhappier, unhealthier, and shorter lives and diminishes trust. It also increases the rate of many social problems including violence and murder, road accidents, imprisonment, addiction, and obesity. It is just not the poor who are affected by inequality. It is everyone. Given this overwhelming evidence, we should not too harshly argue that political violence does not also have it origins in structural inequalities.

Let me illustrate this point a little in relation to the place I know best — Northern Ireland. The conflict here arose out of the 1960s civil rights campaign which had its basis in discrimination against Catholics in terms of access to public housing and the distribution of public resources. It remains a very unequal society in terms of income and wealth. Income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, stands at 34%. A measure based on a number of different elements — possessions, social participation, economizing, and subjective views — suggests that Northern Ireland is a 25/25/50 society, with 25% of the population living in hardship, 25% in some comfort and 50% well-off. In such a context, it comes as no surprise to find that the majority of the violent deaths took place in the poorer areas of Northern Ireland. While the ethno-national issue provided the historical context, it was principally a working class war in which the middle classes played a silent, and sometimes not so silent, role. The peace process is very fragile. While there has been considerable economic growth since 1998, it has not benefited all sections of society equally. Thousands have left school without any qualification and have little hope of finding a job. Their plight is now even worse since the recession. It is in these blighted and disadvantaged communities that the threat of renewed violence lies. If we dismiss the complex connections between inequality and political violence, we will fail to see the potential dangers.

Risa Brooks also takes me to task for my final comment where I suggest that it is important to try and convert militants to peaceful methods. As she rightly notes, this point was not the central focus of my essay. It was also said specifically in the context of Northern Ireland. Indeed, I made it clear that if any lesson is to be learned from Northern Ireland, it is that to achieve peace it is important to persuade those involved in violence that there are other ways of achieving justice. She helpfully broadens the debate and explores ways in which this might be achieved.

I agree with much of Paul Pillar’s essay on the semantics of terrorism. He produces a clear and precise definition of “terrorism” which overcomes many of the limitations of existing definitions. I would, however, still prefer to jettison the use of the word because of its populist connotations and the power of its discursive aspects.

Pillar takes me to task on my comments on violence perpetrated by states. The point I was attempting to make is that the concept of terrorism is not generally applied to actions of liberal democratic states rather than states in general. I am aware of the broader literature within terrorism studies on state sponsorship terrorism. I was attempting to specify that the activities, in particular, of the United States and the United Kingdom in sponsoring political violence, which on most definitions ought to be captured under the concept of terrorism, are not so identified. Pillar notes that “The United States, for one, has laws on the subject, with associated sanctions placed on state sponsors and requirements of the Department of State to issue public reports.” But the presence of laws and associated sanctions does not necessarily prevent the sponsoring of political violence. The United Kingdom also has laws, sanctions, and oversight committees but this did not prevent a number of police and army agents in Northern Ireland, for example, committing numerous murders. Nor did they prevent one agent in the UFF from importing a large cache of arms from South Africa in 1986.

Pillar accuses me of getting “my own licks by pinning that same term on what are clearly his own bêtes noires: foreign and security policies of the British and U.S. government.” He goes to argue that quoting a phrase from “the likes of Noam Chomsky hardly suffices to identify what he is talking about.” After such a careful analysis of the difficulties over the use of the term, I find it odd that the language changes when issues about liberal democratic states’ collusion in violence and terror are raised. Democratic states have a special responsibility to uphold the rule of law and international human rights covenants. State-sponsored terror is, therefore, qualitatively different from terror perpetrated by sub-state actors. The pressures to deviate, however, are great particularly in the context of each atrocity or when foreign policy objectives are not being achieved. At the same time, the demands of “national security” make it very difficult to provide adequate oversight. For all these reasons I have legitimate concerns over both UK and U.S. foreign and security policies.

Pillar claims that he honestly does not know to what I refer when I state “The United states has long supported, sponsored and perpetuated terrorist incidents about the world.” Here I was referring to U.S. activities in various theatres such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, Guatemala, or the Middle East. The evidence suggests that a number of incidents of terror were supported, sponsored or actually perpetuated by the United States. For example, the International Court of Justice in Nicaragua v United States found that the United States had violated international law. I was therefore trying to make the point that it was nonsense not to include these types of incidents within the concept of terrorism.

Does Terrorism Really Pay Politically?

If the conventional wisdom is correct that terrorism pays politically, then blowing up civilians is perfectly rational political behavior, and deterring aggrieved groups therefore rests on issuing moral appeals to depraved leaders such as Osama bin Laden. Fortunately, terrorism is a suboptimal political tactic, arming governments with a ready-made message to deter the aggrieved from attacking our populations. Paddy Hillyard raises two methodological objections with this empirical finding of mine, but both are misplaced.

His first objection pertains to my coding of whether terrorism is politically effective behavior. In my large-n regression analyses, the dependent variable I typically employ is the extent to which terrorism advances the political platforms of the perpetrators relative to alternative tactics available to them. Only if terrorism were not generally understood as a tactic used mainly for coercing policy concessions would progress on them be an inappropriate measure of success. In fact, Hillyard’s recommendation for the international community to provide terrorists with nonviolent outlets for realizing their policy demands likewise assumes that progress in realizing them is how terrorists evaluate their own political advancement. Yet rather than showing how terrorists achieve their political platforms by coercing government compliance, Hillyard focuses on how this tactic tends to lead to government overreaction. In practice, these two government responses—compliance and overreaction—are actually polar opposites. According to his logic, terrorism invariably becomes a win-win political proposition; regardless of its effect on governments, the tactic always pays.

To be fair, this common conceptual error is rooted in our genes. In the 1970s, the social psychologist Edward Jones developed a concept called Correspondent Inference to explain the cognitive process by which an observer infers the intentions of an actor. In the lab, Jones discovered that people typically infer the intentions of others directly from the immediate consequences of their actions. To illustrate the correspondence that observers draw between the effect and objective of an actor, he offered this simple example: if a boy notices his mother close the door and the room becomes less noisy, he will naturally conclude that she shut the door to silence the racket from outside. Due to this common heuristic of inferring intentions directly from visible outcomes, terrorists are often credited with purposefully achieving the exact opposite of their stated political preferences—namely, by mobilizing target countries into becoming more hawkish militarily toward the very people the terrorists claim to be defending. We saw my theory in action after 9/11, when the terrorist “masterminds” were exalted for the “sophistication” of their attacks that led the United States to increase its troop presence in the Persian Gulf by a factor of fifteen. In the minds of many observers, bin Laden’s goal had apparently shifted overnight from trying to drive the United States out of the Gulf to trying to provoke the long-term Western occupation of it.

Observers have drawn the same kind of faulty correspondence from the consequences of terrorism inside of the American homeland. When Americans became hesitant to fly after the four planes were hijacked on 9/11, President George W. Bush concluded that the terrorists evidently “want us to stop flying.” To Bush, the post-9/11 economic contraction likewise revealed that “The terrorists want our economy to stop.” Similarly, with American civil liberties restricted in the wake of the attacks, he proclaimed that al-Qaeda apparently “hates freedom” and “seeks to destroy our freedom.”[1] Because al-Qaeda and its affiliates are essentially mute on these topics, it is difficult to imagine anymore ascribing them to the terrorists had Americans not been hesitant to fly and worried about their economic and political future in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Certainly, the post-9/11 response has been extremely costly to the United States, but war is not a zero-sum game in which our losses necessarily spell al-Qaeda gains. Taking my shoes off at O’Hare does not curb U.S. Middle East policy.

Hillyard’s second objection pertains to my coding of the independent variable. As a terrorist splitter, I define terrorism narrowly as a substate attack against a civilian target for a putative political goal. As a terrorist lumper, by contrast, Hillyard brooks no distinction between this tactic and a guerrilla attack against a military target. Hillyard rejects on practical grounds our ability to distinguish terrorist attacks against civilians versus guerrilla attacks against military personnel, offering the admittedly ambiguous case of a pub occupied by off-duty soldiers. Like international law, however, the leading terrorism datasets which I use for the coding, such as the Global Terrorism Database, are almost always able to distinguish between civilian and military targets. The more interesting question, it seems to me, is not whether a perceptible difference exists between the many disparate forms of behavior that are regularly lumped together under the clumpy rubric of terrorism or political violence, but whether splitting up these behaviors into conceptually like units can yield clearer insights for formulating government countermeasures.

[1] Quoted in Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (New York: NY, Free Press, 2004), 17.

Terrorism Involves Methods, Not Objectives

I am still at a loss, even after reading Paddy Hillyard’s thoughtful reply to all the response essays, just what actions by the United States constitute the supporting, sponsoring, and perpetration of terrorist incidents. I’m not saying there have never been any, but Hillyard does not identify specific actions, only locales. Nor does he offer a definition that would allow us to affix the label of terrorism to any actions that were identified. The closest he comes to offering a defining characteristic is to note the determination by the International Court of Justice that the United States had violated international law in actions taken against Nicaragua (around the time the United States was supporting the Contras and opposing the first Sandinista government). But including anything that is a violation of international law would embrace far more than I expect any of us in this discussion would want to call terrorism. Even confining our purview to political violence, that still probably would be true. For example, the use of dum-dum (i.e., expanding) bullets is a violation of international law. Does that mean that a conventional military operation in which an army used such bullets would be committing an act of terrorism, but that an army using standard ammunition in an otherwise identical military operation would not?

Setting that part of the definitional business aside, I am moved by some of what Max Abrahms has written to take Hillyard’s side on another issue. Terrorism can have any, or several, of widely differing types of objectives. Those objectives range from narrow instrumental ones such as coercing a specific concession from a government to vaguer, visceral ones such as exacting revenge or carrying out what the terrorist believes to be divine will. As the actions of even just modern terrorist groups demonstrate, there are many more possibilities as well—including showing the flag, inducing civilian fear, complicating an adversary’s military planning, establishing credible deterrence, sending other messages, etc. It is not all a matter of seeking compliance by a government, nor is it all a matter of provoking overreaction by a government. Sometimes the objective is neither of those. So it is a mistake to score success or failure of terrorist acts solely in terms of one of those objectives.

On the subject of civilian versus military targets, readers will note from my previous essay that I consider the targeting of noncombatants to be a key part of terrorism. But Hillyard is right that, as a practical matter, it often is difficult to determine whether any one incident meets this part of the definition. Those who compile government statistics on terrorism sometimes have to wrestle with the difficult cases. Uncertain targeting is one possible reason for the difficulty; was an inaccurate Hizballah-fired missile aimed at an Israeli military base or at a nearby kibbutz? Who qualifies as a noncombatant also can be open to controversy. (What about military personnel while they are in their barracks?)

Given all these definitional hassles, is it worth trying to rescue the term terrorism? One of the themes in my essay was that in discussing this subject we are too often mired in semantics at the expense of substance. Are we talking about such a semantically troublesome concept just so that people like the four of us can write articles on the subject?

I don’t think so. There are three other reasons to preserve the term and the concept. One is that there already is a huge discourse on the subject that— however much we may wince at how often it is loosely used or blatantly politicized—is a fact of intellectual and policy life. We need to work with it, to make the discourse at least a little less flawed.

A second reason is that the type of political violence that corresponds to the sort of definition of terrorism I offered earlier—and despite the aforementioned wide diversity of terrorist objectives—lends itself to being countered by certain types of services and agencies, which are the ones in our governments that we have come to recognize as having a counterterrorist mission. In this important respect terrorism differs from some other forms of threatened or actual political violence, which are better countered by other means—such as by nuclear weapons, or at the other extreme, by a lone cop on the beat.

The third reason harks back to Paddy Hillyard’s invocation of international law, which in turn is linked to some important matters of morality. Although terrorism cannot be equated to every kind of violence prohibited by international law, it does correspond pretty closely to violations of some of the more important principles of the laws of war (i.e., the jus in bello, or conduct of warfare, part of such law). One of those principles concerns not targeting civilians. Another involves humane treatment of prisoners (a principle terrorists violate every time they kill, or hold for ransom, a hostage). Yet another is the requirement that combatants be openly identified as such, which means being overt and uniformed, not clandestine. There is a legal, and an underlying moral, distinction between those who are licensed under the laws of war to do certain lethal things because they themselves have donned the uniform and subjected themselves to being the target of similarly lethal acts, and those who have not.

Will the Real Straw Man Please Stand Up?

Thanks very much to my colleagues, Dr. Hillyard and Dr. Pillar, for their responses to my discussion of the underlying causes of terrorist violence. I welcome the opportunity to continue the conversation.

Let me begin with Pillar’s rejoinder. He claims that in my effort to raise questions about the effects of socioeconomic factors and democracy on militant activity, I only address straw man arguments. I find this complaint more than a little ironic. Indeed, arguments that advance socioeconomic factors and the lack of democracy as causes of terrorism are those that commonly evince the simplistic, superficial logic indicative of straw man arguments. It is precisely because we observe the reflexive resort to notions that economic aid and democratization will eliminate the social bases of terrorism, that it is essential we take the arguments head-on. I found it striking that Pillar reports that he “know[s] no one who has argued in favor of such absolute propositions regarding economic or political roots.” It was precisely such a blind adherence to absolutist propositions that helped inspire the 2003 Iraq War.

Having said this, I understand Pillar’s complaint that my remarks lack nuance. He is right: I intended to be blunt. In part, it is challenging to do justice to complex arguments in a necessarily brief essay. However, I also sought to be attention-getting. Those captivated by simplistic formulations (recall, I offer that qualification) about the causes of terrorist violence need to be challenged, lest they accept those formulas unquestioningly. My goal was to be provocative, not comprehensive, to illustrate the wealth of contrary arguments as a hedge against any axiomatic conclusions about the effects of wealth and democracy on terrorism. Of course the ultimate objective of scholarly research is (and should be) more ambitious, namely to understand precisely how and how much these factors may or may not contribute to the incarnations of political violence about which we are concerned in this debate.

But now let me turn to some of the more substantive points raised. Hillyard’s point about inequality versus absolute poverty is a fair one and the professor provides a welcome elaboration of his own thinking in this regard. But I would take it a step further and suggest that inequality alone is insufficient as an explanatory factor. How people understand the circumstances that have brought about inequality or relative deprivation seems crucial. One thing I am often struck by is the degree to which militants and their societal supporters attribute that inequality to an alien oppressor, foreign occupier, or illegitimate government. If we want to understand the nature of the grievances that inspire support for violence, we must think carefully about the lethal mix of psychological and material circumstances from which those grievances arise.

Yet understanding the grievances that might predispose societies to tolerate violence is not enough. Forty years of research in social movement theory belies such an argument.

As the research tradition of Resource Mobilization Theory (RMT) illustrates, it takes more than the existence of a grievance to mobilize a social movement. Other factors, such as the presence of pre-existing social networks, political and financial resources, and organizational strategies are essential to understanding how non-violent — and many violent movements — emerge and evolve. Of course, there is likely a relationship between mobilization and the grievances that inspire it. But to focus only on the latter, as those wont to emphasize root causes arguments are inclined to do, is fundamentally wrongheaded.

Finally, I would like to shift gears and turn to the central themes of Hillyard’s essay. Especially significant — and as he rightly observes, a theme no one has yet to take issue with — is the extent to which the efficacy of terrorism is within our own power to control: how we react to violent attacks determines their success. Those interested in this thesis might consult John Mueller’s book Overblown. I think Hillyard’s highlighting of the discursive aspects of terrorism is critical and consistent. We create more terrorists when we call them that.

Yet I must admit to being on the fence about whether to abandon the term terrorism altogether. Terrorism is a particular strategy (or set of strategies) of armed conflict. To understand it, we need to isolate its key elements. Arguably, it is more akin to economic sanctions and strategic bombing than conventional warfare, at least in sharing a strategic logic in which harming a civilian population is supposed to coerce a government to change course. To group terrorism within the umbrella of political violence could obscure its nature and detract from our capacity to study this form of armed conflict. But perhaps that is an argument for clearly articulating the method. Whether we call it is terrorism may be tangential.