Global Politics

by Andrew Heywood

Chapter 12 Notes: Terrorism

  • What is terrorism?
  • What are the key perspectives on terrorism?
  • Has the nature of terrorism changed in recent years?
  • Has terrorism 'gone global'?
  • How significant is modern terrorism?
  • How can, and should, the threat of terrorism be countered?

Until the 1990s, terrorism was widely considered to be a security concern of the second order, often being ignored by standard text books on international politics. However, the events of 11 September 2001 changed this dramatically, encouraging a major reappraisal of the nature and significance of terrorism. For some, what was variously dubbed 'new' terrorism, 'global' terrorism or 'catastrophic' terrorism had become the principal security threat in the early twenty-first century, reflecting the fact that, in conditions of globalization, non-state actors (in this case terrorist groups) had gained important advantages over states. Beyond this, the inauguration of the 'war on terror' suggested that resurgent terrorism had opened up new fault lines that would define global politics for the foreseeable future. However, terrorism is both a highly contested phenomenon and a deeply controversial concept. Critical theorists, for example, argue that much commonly accepted knowledge about terrorism amounts to stereotypes and misconceptions, with the significance of terrorism often being grossly overstated, usually for ideological reasons. How should terrorism be defined? Why and how have scholars disagreed over the nature of terrorism? Does modern terrorism have a truly global reach and a genuinely catastrophic potential? Disagreements over the nature and significance of terrorism are nevertheless matched by debates about how terrorism should be countered. Not only are there divisions about the effectiveness of different counter-terrorism strategies, but there has also been intense debate about the price that may have to be paid for protecting society from terrorism in terms of the erosion of basic rights and freedoms. Should terrorism be countered through strengthening state security, through military repression or through political deals, and what are the implications of such strategies?

  • Terrorism, broadly, refers to attempts to further political ends by using violence to create a climate of fear, apprehension and uncertainty. Terrorism is nevertheless a deeply controversial term, not least because it is highly pejorative and tends to be used as a political tool. Mainstream, radical and critical perspectives offer quite different views on the nature of terrorism and the value of the concept.
  • Proponents of the idea of 'new' terrorism suggest that since the 1990s a more radical and devastating form of terrorism has emerged whose political character, motivations, strategies and organization differs from 'traditional' terrorism, particularly in the growing importance of religious motivation. But serious doubts have been cast on the value of this distinction.
  • It is widely assumed that September 11 marked the emergence of a profoundly more significant form of terrorism, which can strike anywhere, any time. However, although many accept that there are important links between modern terrorism and the processes of globalization, many have questioned whether terrorism has genuinely gone global.
  • The impact of terrorism has increased supposedly because of the advent of new terrorist tactics and because of easier access to, and a greater willingness to use, WMD. However, critical theorists argue that the threat of terrorism has been greatly overstated, usually through discourses linked to the 'war on terror' and often to promote the 'politics of fear'.
  • Key counter-terrorism strategies include the strengthening of state security, the use of military repression and political deals. State security and military approaches have often been counter-productive and have provoked deep controversy about the proper balance between freedom and security.
  • Effective solutions to terrorism have usually involved encouraging terrorists to abandon violence by drawing them into a process of negotiation and diplomacy. Although such an approach has sometimes worked in the case of nationalist terrorism, it has been seen as an example of appeasement and as inappropriate to dealing with Islamist terrorism.