How do terrorists “construct” themselves?

November 1, 2015
How do terrorists “construct” themselves?
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

If we accept as a core definition of terrorism “violent political expression,” where death and destruction are used as means to a political end, then it is important to carefully consider the content of such expression.  This article briefly reviews how violent political groups have accepted or rejected the label “terrorist,” The article then analyzes how three contemporary terrorist organizations present themselves to the world by examining some of their public statements.  Why should we care about what violent people think of themselves and how they want others to view them?  Terrorist groups have particular—though sometimes not well-defined—political objectives.  It is impossible to counter the violent expressions made in pursuit of such political objectives if we fail to fully understand what these expressions are and how terrorist groups justify their existence.

Terrorists in History

French revolutionaries in the eighteenth century self-applied the label “terror” and “terrorism” to describe the means they employed to realizing their political objectives.  Maximilien Robespierre famously wrote, “terror is only justice: prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue.”  Fast forward almost a century to the trial of Vera Zasulich for assaulting a Russian police commander in 1878.  During that trial, Zasulich testified that she was “a terrorist, not a killer.”  Her testimony exemplified the fact that nineteenth century anarchists in Russia and Eastern Europe embraced the term. They did not shun it.[1]  Bolsheviks also embraced terror as a tool of their revolutionary state.  Leon Trotsky explained that,

“The revolution works in the same way: it kills individuals, and intimidates thousands.  In this sense, the Red Terror is not distinguishable from the armed insurrection of which it is the direct continuation.”[2]

Because the anarchists who embraced the label “terrorist” were widely blamed for igniting the Great War, those nationalist groups that followed the Treaty of Versailles tended to reject the label “terrorist” in favor of other, more acceptable, terms.  In Rapoport’s wave theory, this era was represented (in part) by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) in Algeria, and the Zionist group, Irgun.  In fact, the last known group in this wave to embrace the label “terrorist” was Irgun’s chief Zionist rival, Lehi.[3]  These national liberation movements lent their revolutionary zeal to later organizations, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Red Army Faction, and the Japanese Red Army, all of whom also rejected the “terrorist” label.  PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s famously suggested in an address to the United Nations General Assembly that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”[4] which has come to represent the way the term “terrorism” can be politicized.

Contemporary Constructions

Not surprisingly, contemporary terrorist organizations prefer to not be labeled “terrorists.” Rather, they seek to claim higher motives and authority for their actions.  The next three sections analyze a few of the public statements made by Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and Daesh (ISIS/ISIL).

Boko Haram

Seeking to redefine his organization, and reject indictment, Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Nigerian terror group Boko Haram, responded this way to offers of amnesty for his fighters: “Surprisingly, the Nigerian government is talking about granting us amnesty.  What wrong have we done?  On the contrary, it is we that should grant you [a] pardon.”[5]  According to Shekau, the deaths of over 3,500 Nigerians is justifiable, indeed required, to accomplish his organization’s divine commission.  Shekau apologizes further,

“This path we are taking is God’s path.  Fellow Muslims, understand us!  Our objective is not to kill or humiliate or steal…I have no objective than to help the religion of God, that is all I can explain.  But if u [sic] want further explanation, we have tapes you can listen to and know our objectives…We follow the teachings of the Quran.  This is what God has told me to explain.”[6]

Shekau addresses fellow Muslims, advancing his credentials and exhorting acceptance of the piety of Boko Haram.  This is important for an organization that claims to effect divine justice on Earth.

On 26 April, 2012, Boko Haram bombed the offices of two Nigerian newspapers, killing seven and wounding twenty-six.  Taking credit for the attack, Sheku explained why the organization bombed the newspapers:

“We wish to explain about the attack we carried out on Thisday Newspapers…because the paper was used in dishonouring our prophet, Mohammad (SAW) during a beauty pageant in Kaduna in November 2002.  This lady that committed this crime, the judgment on her is to be killed at any opportunity; and the media house is also supposed to be driven out of existence whenever there is a chance to do so.”[7]

One of the individuals tried for the bombing considered his participation a blessing, though he claimed he was not affiliated with Boko Haram:

“There is the tradition of the prophet, which says that whoever insults the prophet of Allah shall be killed. For some years back, I have been praying to God to give me this opportunity to perpetrate this action and today, God has given me the chance.”

Boko Haram leaders claim that their objective is to not kill, except when it is necessary to advance the cause of Islam, or in defense of their prophet.  For that end, anything is permitted.  They carry out summary judgments, as they interpret crime and punishment, and claim that they are delivering justice.


Similarly al-Shabaab, operating in Somalia and Kenya, justify their actions as retribution for attacks against themselves specifically and “Muslims” generally.  On 3 April 2015, al-Shabaab militants stormed Garissa State University in Kenya and killed 150 students.  The terrorists separated Muslims from Christians, allowed some of the Muslims to go, and murdered the Christians.  In a statement published the weekend after the massacre, al-Shabaab attempted to explain themselves:

“Throughout East Africa, the Muslims were stripped of all their dignity and subjected to the most inhuman treatment for failing to succumb to the subjugation of the disbelievers. Following such widespread persecution against Islam and the Muslims, it became incumbent upon Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujahideen to retaliate on behalf of their Muslim brothers.”

The al-Shabaab statement referenced a historic massacre of “tens of thousands” of Muslims in and around the region of Garissa.  This could refer to the activity of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century; however, fighting at that time was sporadic, isolated, and ended with Muslim Ottoman armies winning control of the area and also dominating the nearby Indian Ocean.[8]  Regardless of the accuracy of their history, claiming the status of an aggrieved party justifies vengeance, even when telegraphed hundreds of years into the future.  Having to justify killing so many unarmed students, they offered the following:

“The latest attack occurred at Garissa University College on Thursday. At around 3am the Mujahideen stormed the university compound and swiftly proceeded to the halls of residence where they had gathered all the occupants. And since the attack targeted only non-Muslims, all Muslims were allowed to safely evacuate the premises before executing the disbelievers. The Muslim blood is inviolable whereas the blood of a Kafir [disbeliever] has no protection except by Eeman [belief] or Aman [covenant of security].”

Al-Shabaab claims authority from god to act as an instrument of vengeance, the murder of innocent students is justified because they did not kill Muslims.  In fact, of course, none of the students were offered a covenant of security.[9]

In addition to effecting divine retribution, al-Shabaab considers themselves liberators of usurped lands and enslaved peoples.

 “Do not dream of security in your lands [Kenya] until security becomes a reality in the Muslim lands, including the North Eastern Province and the Coast and until all your forces withdraw from all Muslim lands. We will, by the permission of Allah, stop at nothing…until all Muslim lands are liberated from Kenyan occupation.”

Again, in service of this divinely endorsed objective, any amount of violence is permitted, “until then, Kenyan cities will run red with blood. And like we said, this will be a long, gruesome war of which you, the Kenyan public, are its first casualties.”  Al-Shabaab claims for itself the role of avenger and liberator, fighting until they achieve peace according to their own justice.


Assuming even greater authority, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appointed himself Caliph and rebranded his terror group as the new “Islamic State,” or Caliphate, to whom all Muslims must swear allegiance.  Al-Baghdadi exhorted the faithful to follow his command and join the fight he was leading:

“No one should believe that the war that we are waging is the war of the Islamic State.  It is the war of all Muslims, but the Islamic State is spearheading it.  It is the war of Muslims against infidels…O Muslims, go to war everywhere.  It is the duty of every Muslim.”

His writ is not simply transnational, but supra-national, erasing existing political boundaries,

“The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas.  Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day.”

Al-Baghdadi is also clear about his political objectives:

“The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots…that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy and uncover its deviant nature.”

The so-called Islamic State therefore demands the allegiance of all true Muslims (read as those who accept Daesh’s interpretation alone), the destruction of all those who oppose them (Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, etc.), the eradication of existing political frontiers, and the end to democratic self-governance.  Considering the historical reluctance of terror groups to self-apply the term “terrorism,” it is interesting that in this case al-Baghdadi has apparently embraced the term.  Daesh considers itself the final authority of Allah’s will on Earth, and the singular legitimate political entity. Violence is the means to establish this “truth” as revealed to them.


In these three organizations, we can see three different self-constructed identities: the deliverer of justice and revenge, the liberator of the oppressed, and the single legitimate political authority on Earth.  These identities aren’t exclusive, but can be claimed in combination, depending on the situation.  Each organization claims a place in a long historical tradition, justifying their roles by associating with past heroes, deliverers and leaders.  It is not mere coincidence that the leaders of Daesh and Boko Haram have taken as their nom du guerre “Abu Bakr,” the name of the first of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” to succeed Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community.  With the possible exception of Daesh, none of these groups view themselves as “terrorists.”[10]  This shouldn’t be surprising as it hasn’t been since the late nineteenth century that radical activists accepted (sometimes reluctantly) that “terror” was a necessary tool of revolution.

The politicization of the term has unfortunately led some to a crude—and thoroughly unhelpful—definition of terrorism as, “political violence to which we object.”  Violent groups will strongly reject the label, claiming the authority of more legitimate titles, even when most outside observers agree that the group in question is in fact engaged in terrorism.  Clearly just because a group makes some legitimizing claim of authority does not make it so.  Recall the strength of one of the many religious rulings made against Daesh and similar organizations.

“It is unlawful for anyone to join it parallel to every terrorist organization that sheds people’s blood, labels Muslims as disbelievers, violates people’s honor and usurps their properties…Moreover, Islam calls for mercy, love, and rejection of terrorism and extremism, which represent envy, rancour, and hatred.  Those who joined this terrorist group have disobeyed the injunctions of Allah and His Apostle, deviated from the righteous path, and fell in manifest error, for Allah says (what means): “if any one disobeys God and His Apostle, he is indeed on a clearly wrong Path.” (Al-Ahzaab/36).”[11]

Defeating these violent, oppressive groups and eradicating their dark, disturbing vision for the world entails the effective application of force, but it also requires delivering effective counter-messages to strip them of the legitimacy they pretend to have.  Just as executing an effective military offensive requires understanding and exploiting your enemy’s weaknesses, delivering an attractive alternative political vision requires understanding and exploiting the falseness of your opponent’s message.

This contribution is part of the “Constructions of Terrorism” Project being undertaken by TRENDS Research and Advisory, and the Orfale Center for Global and International Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA. 

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[1]. Rapoport, David C.  2004.  “The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism,” in Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy, Audrey Kurth Cronin and James M. Ludes, Eds. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

[2]. Quoted in Schmid, Alex P. & Albert J. Jongman.  1988.  Political Terrorism: A New Guide to Actors, Authors, Concepts, Data Bases, Theories and Literature, Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing Company.

[3]. Rapoport, 2004, p. 53-54.  Lehi was also known by the British as the “Stern Gang.”

[4]. The full text of the often paraphrased sentence is: “The difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist lies in the reason for which each fights. For whoever stands by a just cause and fights for the freedom and liberation of his land from the invaders, the settlers and the colonialists cannot possibly be called terrorist, otherwise the American people in their struggle for liberation from the British colonialists would have been terrorists; the European resistance against the Nazis would be terrorism, the struggle of the Asian, African and Latin American peoples would also be terrorism, and many of you who are in this Assembly hall were considered terrorists.”  Yasser Arafat, Twenty-ninth session of the United Nations General Assembly, 13 November 1974

[5]. Agbiboa, Daniel E.  “Peace at Daggers Drawn?  Boko Haram and the State of Emergency in Nigeria,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 37:41-67.

[6]. Quoted in Eveslage, Benjamin S.  2013.  “Clarifying Boko Haram’s Transnational Intentions, Using Content Analysis of Public Statements in 2012,” Perspectives on Terrorism, 7(5):47-76, p. 69.

[7]. Eveslage, 2013, p. 71.

[8]. Hiskett, Mervyn.  1994.  The Course of Islam in Africa.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.  Ch. 6.

[9]. Some accounts reported that some non-Muslim students were given the opportunity to convert to Islam; no account included a report of offers of a “covenant of security.”

[10]. Although the Daesh variance could be a translation artifact, in any event, identifying themselves as a terrorist is secondary to other identities

[11]. The General Iftaa’ Division of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, “What is the ruling of Sharia on those who join the Islamic State, ISIS/ISIL?”  found at, accessed 17 May 2015