Define and discuss terrorism. Who chooses to participate in a terrorist campaign, and why? Evaluate such mitigating factors as politics, nationalism, and religion.
‘Failed states’ are defined as states that can no “longer perform basic functions such as education, security, or governance, usually due to fractious violence or extreme poverty” (Failed states, 2012, Global Policy). This has potentially disastrous consequences not simply for the residents of the state itself but for all nation-states. “Within this power vacuum, people fall victim to competing factions and crime” such as terrorism (Failed states, 2012, Global Policy). The beliefs of terrorists can be linked in some instances to the mentality spawned by a failed state — that personal accomplishments are meaningless and the only hope can be found in the hereafter.
I would define terrorism as violent actions outside of the context of the conventional rules of war that specifically target civilians or defenseless persons as a way of instilling fear in the hearts of a populace. The purpose of terrorism is literally to create terror and horror not to achieve a strategic objective. Amongst the common characteristics of terrorists, these include a feeling of anger, alienation, and disenfranchisement; a belief that “their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change;” and a belief in the legitimacy of violence in defending a just cause (DeAngelis 2009). Although it is often assumed that politically and economically disempowered persons are primarily attracted to terrorism that is not always the case: terrorists have been drawn in many instances from highly educated classes or people with ‘legitimate’ and stable jobs as was the case with the leadership of Al-Qaida. Political scientists have called terrorism “the warfare of the weak — the means by which groups that lack material or political power fight what they see as oppressive forces” but that hardly explains all terrorist motivations (DeAngelis 2009).
Another explanation for terrorism is a fear of cultural (and perhaps subliminally personal) annihilation combined with a strong sense of group as opposed to personal identity. “Surveys of thousands of people in 15 Arab and other countries found that Muslims who have a more collectivistic mentality are more likely to support terrorist attacks against Americans than those with more individualistic leanings… Being part of a collectivist cause has always been a hallmark of people willing to undergo personal sacrifices” (DeAngelis 2009). While this collective impetus can have positive aspects, it can also be profoundly negative when channeled towards violent ends.
DeAngelis, T. (2009). Understanding terrorism. APA, 50 (10): 60. Retrieved from:
Failed states. (2012). Global Policy. Retrieved from:
Has terrorism changed over time, or has it remained largely the same? How do terror campaigns end?
Terrorism is a crime that has existed since time immemorial, long before the creation of airplanes, much less the Internet. Early famous examples of terrorism include the Catholic Guy Fawkes plot to blow up the Parliament of the Protestant King of England and the assassination of the Archduke that precipitated World War I. Thus, bombings and assassinations have long been common tools of terrorists. However, many analysts believe that the way in which terrorism is used has fundamentally shifted and changed over time since the period of post-World War II decolonialism. “Primarily in use immediately after the war as a subordinate element of anti-colonial insurgencies, it terrorism expanded beyond that role. In the service of various ideologies and aspirations, terrorism sometimes supplanted other forms of conflict completely. It also became a far-reaching weapon capable of effects no less global than the intercontinental bomber or missile. It has also proven to be a significant tool of diplomacy and international power for states inclined to use it” (Evolution of terrorism, 2014, Terrorism Research). Terrorism was once used for highly specific purposes (such as to expel the French from Algiers or as a mechanism of outrage by Arab terrorists, angered at what they saw as the betrayal of them by the British via the creation of the state of Israel) but now is more often used to enforce a kind of amorphous perceived group interest and a vague expression of religiosity amongst non-state actors. However, many states like Iran still channel that outrage and use terrorism to advance their purposes by harboring and supporting sympathetic terrorists.
Perhaps the most dramatic change has been the interjection of the modern media’s coverage into the weapons used by terrorists: terrorists can use television and the internet to dramatize their actions as a threat to the world, not only observers. Regarding 9/11: “the symbolism of capturing the events as they took place on the cell phones of passersby also highlights a shift in our comprehension of terrorism. The perpetrators in today’s attack aimed to digitally capture their actions, thus providing a real-time ‘educational’ tool to those interested in pursuing the cause” (DeMarco 2013).
Evolution of terrorism. (2014). Terrorism Research. Retrieved from:
DeMarco, J. (2013). How terrorism has evolved. CNN. Retrieved from:
MICHAEL RINELLA M1D1
I think that is rooted in the death of the bipolar world: as awful as some of the aspects of the Cold War may have been, the bipolar balance of powers did provide some stability. Also, the superpowers had greater self-interest in propping up marginally effective states.
WILLIAM BARRETT M1D1
The multiple definitions of terrorism underline the fact that terrorism can very much be in the eye of the beholder: one person’s terrorist is another person’s ‘freedom fighter.’ The definitions of who constitutes civilians can also be subjective, given some terrorists see all manifestations of the enemy as potential combatants, including civilians. However, you make an excellent point that it isn’t always relevant to arrive at a perfect textbook definition of terrorism. Definitions should be used to serve of the specific needs of the military or criminal justice organization striving to prevent it.
I still think that to some degree the reasons people choose to engage in terrorism can be difficult to predict: although many people are fervent nationalists or subscribe to a fundamentalist belief system, not all become terrorists. It can be a combination of personal circumstances, chance, and personality that can be challenging to define as a formula.
JOSHUA SAVOIE M1D2 Response to original post
Yes, that is what is so troubling about any mass media coverage about terrorism. On one hand, we need to see it and be aware of the risks we are facing as a nation. On the other hand, by covering it we are giving terrorists the publicity they crave and are in some ways validating their agenda of fear. I don’t see any way out of this dilemma.
WILLIAM BARRETT M1D2 Reply to original post
I think that is one of the most frightening elements of terrorism: unlike an actual war, it is so easy to engage in terrorist efforts with relatively primitive methods (as was seen in the destruction caused by the Boston Marathon bombings). Governments are still grappling with how to deal with the challenge of preventing crimes that can generate mass causalities — the means for which can literally begin in someone’s basement.
JOSHUA SAVOIE M1D2
The fact that terrorism has changed so much over time is why it has proven to be so difficult to prevent: agencies always seem to be fighting the previous war rather than have their eyes upon upcoming threats. This was noteworthy regarding the attacks of 9/11 given that many criminal justice and military personnel were still locked in a mentality that focused on national actors as the primary threats to the U.S., not non-state actors such as Al-Qaida.
It is an interesting question if terrorist attacks have on the whole become more violent and frequent in recent years. Of course, because of 9/11 it is hard to think they have not. But many military actions in the past might today be classified as terrorism even though they were not in the past. Regardless, I think terrorist groups are less committed to specific actions than in the past (such as the liberation of a particular territory by an oppressor) and more with vague, ideological struggles against ‘the West.’ This means that a particular terrorist threat is likely to never completely disband since its goal can never really be achieved: it may simply take new form in another incarnation.
STEVEN COURTEMANCHE M1D1
Understanding the actual beliefs of people in regions that are conducive to terrorism can be useful in counterterrorism strategies that aim to dissuade local people from using violence as their default option of resisting. This is why it is so important to have intelligence personnel who understand the region we are operating in: to an outsider, the reasons some people become terrorists and why others do not can seem incomprehensible if the native worldview and religion is totally different from our own. I don’t necessarily think that people who join radical groups are simply ‘doing what they are told’ but rather their motives can be difficult to discern…