Sobering Thoughts about the Study of Terrorism

Sobering Thoughts about the Study of Terrorism

By Prof. Barak Mendelsohn, Chair of the Political Science Department 

I have studied terrorism for most of my academic career. Being in graduate school, at Cornell University, in 2001 I was among the first wave of post-9/11 scholars of terrorism. I wrote my dissertation about the international community’s response to terrorist groups as a function of the nature of the threat (systemic or limited). Over the years, and as my academic profile rose, studying terrorism has become an integral part of my identity. I have published books and articles on the subject, taught courses on terrorism and about al-Qaeda and the jihadi movement, became a proud member of the editorial board of the prominent journal Terrorism and Political Violence, appeared on TV and wrote op-ed pieces as a terrorism expert. On several occasions I was even invited to offer advice to the intelligence community.

But in recent years I’ve been experiencing an identity crisis. While scholars have been debating whether terrorism studies have stagnated, I started a process of personal reckoning with the counterproductive effects of the rise of terrorism to states’ top policy agenda. I was disheartened to recognize that as I and scholars like me were grappling with the challenge of understanding terrorism, states and policymakers have been abusing the threat of terrorism to advance unrelated interests. Authoritarian states used the excuse of terrorism to paint legitimate opposition as a threat and carry out exceptional measures to suppress them. China even used the terrorism bogyman to open concentration camps for its Muslim Uighur population while the international community largely stood by idly.  Over time it also became clear that terrorism of the 9/11 scale is the exception, not the rule, and with it the understanding that the threat of terrorism is being overblown, yet drawing immense resources disproportionate to the problem’s scope. Moreover, the investment in countering terrorism involves opportunity costs; these resources could have improved the lives of numerous people if directed toward issues that ultimately have greater importance for the health of a nation, such as our education and health systems.

Finally, I wondered whether the medicine offered to the problem of terrorism is not worse than the problem it seeks to solve. As states enhanced their surveillance apparatuses and curtailed civil rights I began fearing that we are sacrificing too much of the quality of our democracies for extremely limited returns and giving state leaders too much power they could abuse while our ability to hold them accountable increasingly reduced.

But my identity crisis was mostly the result of the evolution of my ideas about the study of terrorism and my discomfort with the shortcomings of the field. The field of terrorism studies was always exposed to criticism. The inability to reach a consensus about what constitutes terrorism has long been a thorn in the field side; after all, how serious is a field of study that cannot agree even on its most fundamental concept. And yet, I viewed this problem as a given when I entered the field and saw that notwithstanding this shortcoming scholars still managed to offer highly insightful and informative work.

Critical theorists highlighted important other problems, from the exclusion of state terrorism, to the problem-solving approach and scholars’ ties to the state, which are at times too close to comfort and distort scholars’ incentives regarding what questions should be studied. While I was sympathetic to these theorists’ efforts to highlight the hidden working of power relations, their exaggerated view of what constitutes state terrorism, their apparent obliviousness to terrorism committed by nonstate actors, and their failure to produce an appealing research agenda, left me largely unimpressed and did not shake my confidence in the utility of terrorism studies.  

But as I said, none of these problems account for my identity crisis. My discomfort with the study of terrorism evolved gradually. Perhaps the fact that my work was always on the margins of terrorism studies helped me feel a little more of an outsider that other scholars. More likely, it was the content of my work and the questions they produced that helped in the evolution of my ideas. I believe that my efforts to understand terrorism through the lens of international relations theory, through exploration of the systemic features of terrorism and the dialectic nature of the relationship between states and those actors employing terrorism, contributed to my doubts about the field and fueled my nascent identity crisis.

Ideas that I had been contemplating haphazardly crystalized as I witnessed the rise of the Islamic State organization (known more as ISIS). Two main understandings started taking hold in my thinking: first, many jihadi groups simply failed to fit our prior conceptions of terrorist groups. These were not the Baader-Meinhof gang (and its like) of my parents’ generation. Many of those labeled as “terrorist groups” these days are simply much more sizable. And for many, killing is not merely a way to coerce their foes to adopt more desirable policies, but also a source of satisfaction.

More consequential, terrorism is only one tool in the repertoire of many jihadi groups. The Islamic State organization carried out terrorist attacks at the same time that they were fighting as an insurgency and even engaged in conventional warfare. The Islamic State, Hamas, Hezbollah and other armed groups also engaged in state building, occupied with governance not just as a way to extract resources from the population in their areas of activity and control.   

And if groups engage in both terrorism and non-terrorist violence how do we justify labeling actors as terrorist? The term ‘terrorist group’ implies terrorism as an identity, not just as a tactic. But according to this logic all actors using other means can be seen as ‘non-terrorist groups’, so which is it? And if terrorism is an identity how many acts of terrorism suffice to turn into a group’s identity marker: one, ten, or a thousand? one percent of a group’s violent action (or its threat), five percent, or perhaps a majority of its actions? Moreover, if terrorism is an action not an identity marker – as I believe is indeed the case – what is the value of lists and datasets using the designation of actors as terrorists (for one notorious case, see here)?       

The Islamic State, but also actors such al-Shabab (al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia), also demonstrated that terrorism is often a part of the broader life cycle of armed nonstate actors. Actors rely on terrorism in their weaker points or as they prepare the ground for transitioning to reliance on guerrilla attacks or to capturing and governing of territory. In such cases, examining an actor as a terrorist organization offers us an extremely narrow perspective, and distorts our understanding of the actor. In effect, it leads scholars to see the tree and miss the forest. It also makes some of our policy recommendations irrelevant as we fail to see the real picture.

Thus, at the peak of ISIS success – and even though it had not given up on the use of terrorism – it became increasingly clear that the label terrorist group is out of touch with the reality of the self-declared caliphate. A few scholars even stated that rather than a terrorist group ISIS should be viewed as a state, albeit not a normal one. The ISIS example also indicated that by retaining the terrorism label we are missing the fact that such armed actors are increasingly capable of moving from attempts to influence the policies of their targets to actually challenging some state actors’ existence.

None of this suggests that scholars studying terrorism are failing to produce remarkable and important works. In many ways the field has been flourishing, making important contributions on diverse questions such as radicalization, the role of women in terrorism, foreign fighting, inter and intra-organizational dynamics, and right wing terrorism, to name only a few. Scholars wrote biographies of central figures in the terrorism milieu (particularly jihadis), as well as in-depth accounts of “terrorist groups,” the conflict arenas in which they operate, and the links between terrorist actors and their social environment. Trained in diverse research methods scholars have enriched the literature, generating new research questions and opening new modes of research.

Neither have I found my ability to publish my own research hampered, nor did I have to sacrifice my integrity in order to get it published. Though at times I wrote articles using the vocabulary of terrorism, submitting in a way to the dominant frame in the field, more often I – and other scholars – found ways to design and frame my studies in a way compatible with my evolving views of terrorism: I wrote about inter-organization conflicts, focused on particular case studies, and often turned to the term armed nonstate actors. I was also able to find publishers for my books (here, here, and here). Perhaps an identity crisis such as the one I’m experiencing is natural after working in this field for nearly twenty years. More likely, it is the sense that the splendid work currently produced no longer adequately compensates for the increased evidence that the broader framework of terrorism studies is failing.

So what do we need to do? I do not pretend to have all of the answers; after all, I have not solved my identity crisis yet… But I am convinced that some rethinking of the rationale of the field and the assumptions guiding much of our work is needed. While studying terrorism as a tactic used by armed nonstate actors is important, and would be less affected by the rethinking I propose, we must acknowledge that terrorism is a tactic states too may use. Such an addition would reinforce our understanding of how terrorism works while improving our knowledge of how terrorism fits within the general security strategy of states and regimes.

We should also explore terrorism as part of actors’ response to environmental conditions. Multiple such variables can be considered, among them the group’s relative strength, prevailing norms of appropriate behavior, actors’ objectives, and the relationship (existing or aspired to) between armed groups and the communities they seek to intimidate or gain their trust. In addition, we must start to understand actors using terrorism in the context of armed groups’ broader toolkit, considering when such actors rely on one tactic instead of another, or of a particular combination of measures.

And for God’s sake, let’s stop talking about “terrorist organizations” as an identity term, and save ourselves the distortions it inevitably produces. This is a controversial statement, bound to be rejected by scholars who believe in the usefulness – even necessity – of the term and therefore seek only its improvement. I stand behind it nevertheless, though I concede that such identity terms are not completely devoid of merits; as states and international organizations use them, they could be useful for understanding the political nature of labeling and designating actors as terrorists, and as a result assist us in understanding states response to terrorism.      

To conclude my rant, essentially I am calling for the re-imagining of terrorism studies and for its integration within the framework of security studies (broadly conceived). Maybe that would end my crisis mode…

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