The Constructions of Terrorism Conference: Three Trends

December 22, 2015
The Constructions of Terrorism Conference: Three Trends
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

TRENDS Research & Advisory, in cooperation with the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies recently held a conference on the “Constructions of Terrorism” at the University of California, Santa Barbara campus.  From this conference three trends emerge:

1) Defining and describing terrorism means putting terrorist violence into the political context in which it occurs—this will sometimes require introspective analyses.

2) Defining terrorism is important, but perhaps mostly in aid of deciding what to do about it.

3) Constructing terrorism must necessarily involve constructing terrorists themselves; acts of violence are carried out by individuals, therefore individual pathways to violence need to be considered.

The conference also benefitted from significant discussions on research methodology and new avenues for quantitative analyses.  Although there were differences of opinion about the relative importance of variables and approaches, considerable overlap emerged.  The degree to which this complex question was shared and discussed from multiple disciplines and perspectives was encouraging and intellectually stimulating.

One trend of the conference was that constructing terrorism is, in part, an introspective process, requiring an examination not just of terrorists and what they do, but also what is done to them before and after they decide to act.  Acts of terror and terrorists themselves are embedded in a global political system.  The best understanding of terrorism, therefore, situates an act of violence within its unique political environment in which there are multiple actors; to focus on the actions of terrorists alone is to perceive only part of the phenomenon.  This was vividly described by conference speaker Mark Jurgensmeyer, when he explained that focusing on the perpetrators of violence alone is like trying to understand the moves of a boxer in a ring fighting an invisible opponent. One boxer’s moves are comprehensible only with reference to the other boxer’s actions.  The suicidal act of flying airplanes into buildings, for example, can make sense only when one understands that the perpetrators and planners of that act believed themselves to be engaged in an apocalyptic cosmic battle of good vs. evil.

In fact, terrorist violence may be conducted with the objective of eliciting a specific reaction.  Clark McCauley explained that “jujitsu politics” is designed to use the overwhelming power of targeted states against themselves.  According to his research, acts of terror elicit an anger emotional response that is stronger than fear and intimidation.  As McCauley argued in the draft paper he presented,

“Anger is associated with aggression and outgroup derogation; fear is associated with defensive strategies of surveillance and curtailed civil rights.  Anger is the emotion sought by terrorists seeking to elicit overreaction to their attacks—using the enemy’s strength against him in a strategy of jujitsu politics.  The power of this strategy, and the importance of anger reactions in making the strategy successful, are hidden in definitions of terrorism that focus only on fear and coercion.”

The reaction itself is part of the larger strategy employed by terrorists.  It is therefore impossible to disentangle the act of terrorist violence from the type of response it elicits; there are always at least two participants in an act of terrorism.

Taking this concept perhaps furthest, Lisa Stampizky suggested that there would be no definition of terrorism without counter-terrorism.  Rather than suffering from a dearth of definitions for terrorism, there is actually a plethora, making selection of a definition the real problem.  Stampizky suggests that the best definition of terrorism is how it is defined in practice, thus counter-terrorism “defines” terrorism.  Finally, Richard Falk reminded conference participants of the logically dangerous approach of using the term terrorism to signify a particular actor (usually with whom one disagrees) rather than the nature of the violence itself.  Focusing on actors invites selective use of the term; thinking about the act itself means to situate it in its political context.

A second trend developed during the conference was that defining terrorism is perhaps most important in determining what to do about it.  Constructing terrorism means also constructing the institutional responses to terrorist violence.   David Schanzer approached the topic from a legal perspective.  Terrorism is a tactic, which can be used by anybody.  Political expression can take many forms, even the use of violence to advance a political objective entails choices.  What sets terrorism apart from other forms of violence is its intentional violation of the laws of war.  He concludes,

“Understanding terrorism as a tactic—akin to tactics like conventional warfare or murder for hire—and ridding us of particularly useless concepts like a “war on terror” or even “counter-terrorism” will help bring clarity to the current sprawl of post-9/11 security policy.”

Sometimes definitions of terrorism can be too inclusive, or constructed in such a way as to exaggerate its potential for damage.  John Mueller has long held that the threat of terrorism has been exaggerated, and shared with conference participants that phenomena like civil war and insurgency are being re-defined as “terrorism.”  As a result, people over-estimate their own risk of falling victim to terrorist violence, which in part fuels over-reaction by government agencies.  Mueller concluded in the draft paper he presented,

“Although even knuckle-heads can occasionally do damage, there is something quite spooky about expanding the definition of terrorism so that it threatens to embrace all violent behavior that is directed at an ideological or policy goal, about imagining terrorists to be everywhere, about extrapolating wildly to conclude that many are omni-competent masterminds, and about acting like their press agent by flaunting and exaggerating their often-pathetic schemes to do damage. The result has been a misoverestimation of terrorism’s importance and impact.”

Central to Mueller’s argument is a tendency to “over-hype” the threat of terrorism.  This is in part a artifact of how the media construct terrorism.  In a paper presented by Benjamin Smith, Andrea Figueroa Caballero, and Michael Stohl, a quantitative examination of over 110,000 print newspaper articles found that “al-Qaeda” was the most symbolically meaningful name used to describe terrorism over the past eighteen years.  In fact, in sixty percent of the articles, there was no reason for al-Qaeda to be mentioned, except as a way to help define some other terror group.  The implication is that applying an “al-Qaeda” frame so broadly could erroneously paint a veneer of solidarity over terrorist groups and actions that in fact belong to their own unique political milieus.

Properly constructing a terror threat is essential to creating effective counter-measures.  In the paper I wrote with Michael Stohl, we argued that as distinct constructions, or facets, of the contemporary threat presented by Daesh are conflated, then the response to that threat is muddled and ineffective.  Properly demarcating the various distinguishable facets of a terrorist threat is a necessary, but not sufficient, step towards effectively countering that threat.

If “terrorism” is tricky to define, and different definitions lead to different responses, then “radicalization” has become perhaps even thornier.  Anthony Richards argued that in the United Kingdom, the concepts of “terrorism, radicalization, and extremism” are being merged in unhelpful, and perhaps counter-productive, ways.  In the paper prepared for the conference, he explains that in the UK,

“there is an increased wider concern with the way citizens think ideologically—that if they believe in certain non-violent dogmas that are said to be ‘conducive’ to terrorism then they are viewed as part of the ‘terrorist problem’, even if they deplore the violent methods of Al Qaeda and Isis.”

Richard Burchill continued this line of analysis, arguing that although a proliferation of law concerning terrorism may allow governments to intervene earlier to disrupt terrorist planning, these legal constructions are often at odds with themselves.  This risks ever broadening the scope of what is considered “terrorism” or “extremism” which can lead to an inconsistent application of law.

Finally, terrorism, like any social phenomena, is expressed through the actions of individuals.  Any construction of terrorism should also account for how individual terrorists are constructed or how individuals come to accept or even carry out terrorist violence.  Mia Bloom described “cultures of martyrdom” in which children are prepared for suicide missions.

“By fetishizing the afterlife and emphasizing the benefits of martyrdom, it has become easier for terrorist organizations to convince young people to volunteer for suicide operations. The ‘culture of martyrdom’ requires religious sanction and the promise of religious justification/reward.”

She found that strategies for preparing young people for suicide missions were similar to approaches employed by pedophiles.  For example, both tend to prey on a similarly situated children, and both use trust and incrementalism to lead to an action that is otherwise socially taboo.

Finally, in a culture of martyrdom, targeted assassination of terrorist leaders is made less effective by building the infrastructure of a multi-generational struggle.  Lasse Lindkilde presented two alternative constructions of the “lone wolf” terrorist.  Rather than being isolated and entirely independent, Lindkilde and his co-investigator Stefan Malthaner explained that these individuals were usually at least tangentially part of a wider movement.  In one construction, which they call the “peripheral-drifter-pathway,” the individual is, “partially embedded in semi-radical friendship-groups and weakly connected to wider radical milieus.”  While never becoming a part of a radical group, the peripheral-drifter, “drifted in the margins, weakly considering but then again dropping plans to join jihad abroad.”  A second pathway, the “failed joiner,” tries to connect to radical groups, is successful at making contact, but is rejected or expelled; forced to function outside the group, this individual decides to act alone.  Steven Corman argued that although terrorism may not be strategically rational, it is organizationally rational from a narrative perspective.  Familiar and widely accepted socio-cultural master narratives connect present-day events with the personal narratives of group members, which allows individuals to perceive “victory” even when terrorist groups rarely achieve their practical political objectives.  In this way, story-telling and recognizing one’s own place in a larger narrative can make otherwise irrational acts of self-sacrifice acceptable.

Apart from these three trends, valuable research was presented that highlights how terrorism research is conducted.  Fitting neatly with the first trend, that the best understanding of terrorism is to also consider responses to it, this line of inquiry is sure to benefit from the “Government Actions in Terror Environments” (GATE) dataset, which was introduced to the conference by Laura Dugan.  In her conference paper, she suggests that government actions beyond that which is explicitly described as counter-terrorism can affect the behavior of terrorist groups.  She concluded by arguing that counterterrorism analysis should,

“reconsider conceptualizing counterterrorism to include more nuanced behavior by governments that could elicit a reaction from terrorist organizations or their constituencies.  By expanding how we construct counterterrorism, we are better able to develop insight into what works and what does not work in different contexts.”

Dugan’s analysis continues as the GATE database expands through its painstaking process.

Victor Asal, suggested that although a great deal of intellectual effort has been given to defining terrorism by who is targeted in a particular act of violence, “this has not led to an investigation of whether or not different operationalizations of the target would have different causal explanations.”  The implication is that if different operationalizations of terrorism (at least with respect to who is targeted by terrorist violence) do not produce quantitatively discernable causal relationships, then efforts in aid of better understanding terrorism should probably be directed to other tasks.

In the study of international relations, three common levels of analyses are the international systemic, the domestic institutional, and the individual.  Applying these analytical lenses to the same political phenomenon can lead to different theoretical explanations; often each has significant strengths and weaknesses.  As with most analytical tools, each level of analysis is likely better at explaining some things better than others.  As with the general study of international relations, which is best served by employing a variety of explanatory models, the Constructions of Terrorism project will continue benefit from a multi-disciplinary effort approaching from different levels of analyses.  Whether approached as a social phenomenon, or a tactic of asymmetric warfare, or a violation of international law, or as an individual responding to a particular environment, terrorism is sufficiently complex to warrant an equally sophisticated and nuanced approach to its study.

Information about the conference may be found here