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The Strengths And Weaknesses Of Terrorism Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 4728 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Bacevich’s comments regarding the ability of the United States of America to understand the conflicts it finds itself, to identify current and future threats and to prepare for the future is a symbol of the difficulty facing many states as they try and identify how to prepare their future national security policies and strategies. The challenges faced by states are reflected in the difficulties faced by academic researchers who also spend considerable time, effort and money on trying to solve the same problem.

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In the last ten years, a particular term has been used to describe the latest threat to global security, the “Global War on Terror”. The events of September 11th have brought about a greater interest in the subject of terrorism, a field of study which has grown by 85% since 1968 (SCHMID AND JONGMAN, 1988). That percentage will have increased greatly in the twenty-two years since Schmid and Jongman’s study. It is surprising to consider that a greater study of terrorism was not carried out in the 1920’s, considering that the Great War was started by the actions of a small and relatively unknown anarchic terrorist group. Similar to Insurgency, the field grows in strength as it becomes more widely used by actors in resistance to Western States on a large scale as the development of Western conventional warfare hegemony has grown.

This essay seeks to identify where the field of terrorism studies has developed its greatest strengths and its greatest weaknesses in recent literature (defined as post 2004) and to discover whether or not the field, as it has grown ever more popular since the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001 (FRIEDRICHS, 2006), has moved on and developed. It will first discuss the question of the definition of Terrorism. It will then debate whether the habit of ‘transient researchers has added or detracted from the field. Taking these two areas into consideration, it will consider the methodologies of Orthodox and Critical Terrorism studies and will show the development of new theories has been constrained by a use of secondary sources and the habit of ‘lazy researching’ (SILKE, 2004).Finally, overall it will attempt to balance the strengths and weaknesses in the field to identify the challenges facing terrorism studies.

It is important at this stage to try and define two key terms, Research and Terrorism. Research in itself is broken into three key areas; the exploratory, the descriptive and the explanatory (ROBSON, 1993). The effort of any field or discipline of study is to bring newly discovered information created from primary resources and statistics, describe it to other researchers and interested parties and then use that information to explain why events happen and then use that information to form models and theories to predict what effect may happen in the future (SILKE, 2004a).

The second term to be defined is terrorism. The greatest challenge facing Terrorism research is certainly the definitional one. Schmid and questioned over one-hundred scholars to define ‘terrorism’ (SCHMID AND JONGMAN, 1988). They responded with over 109 separate definitions .There is still no universal definition for terror, despite many worldwide organisations attempt to create one and despite forty years of wrangling over the subject, there has been little development. For the purposes of this essay, the use of the United Nations Security Council Shepherd Resolution 1566 definition, which refers to it as: “criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act” (S-RES-1566, 2004).

However, it must be remembered that this is not an official UN definition and is not used universally by UN member states. The challenges of attempting to research a subject in which no universal definition has been agreed upon will be discussed in detail below.


Before we can begin to understand Terrorism we must first of all decide what it is. Despite the actions by organisations generally described as ‘terrorist’ for well over one-hundred years, the study of terrorism still suffers from the lack of a specific and legal definition of terrorism. As C. A. J. Coady wrote “The definitional question is essentially irresolvable by appeal to ordinary language alone since terrorism as a concept is not ‘ordinary” (COADY, 2001). For some, such as the hegemonic power of the day (in the modern context, we should read United States) and for those fighting their own wars against separatists or insurgents using non-conventional tactics this lack of a legal definition could be used as an advantage (FRIEDRICHS, 2006). The post-2001 ‘War on Terror’ during the Bush era was served by the lack of a universal definition as it allowed some nations to describe their own personal fights as part of this global war on terror. The United States, United Kingdom and even Russia were particularly guilty of this as they implied affiliations with Arab nationals and Islamic organisations with that of terror groups and even state terror, despite there being no evidence of collaboration between the main perpetrator Al Qaeda and the West’s long term adversary Iraq. Even in Russia with the Beslan school siege, it was found that the terrorist actors had only two Arab members out of thirty-one hostage takers (DE WAAL, 2004). For the UK it was useful to secure the peace laid out in the Good Friday agreement with Irish terrorism, which had been held up by naïve Irish-Americans believing they were supporting a cause against an Imperial power. Terrorism then in its contemporary stance, is an “essentially contested concept employed to meet the needs of those applying the term” (WEINBERG AND EUBANK, 2008).

For those countries opposed to the ‘War on Terror’, which for them was simply an excuse for an invasion of Iraq, a universal and legal definition of terror would give them a legal basis for preventing state intervention into countries opposing the United States and their followers economic and military hegemony (FRIEDRICHS, 2006).

It is also important to note how definitions over time have changed in order to suit the time in the states dealing with terror, as any definition would not be useful without a contemporary analysis of the threat of the day. This would certainly be a demonstration of why pre-1968 terrorism was not of much of a concern as it has been post-1968: Why worry about a definition of terrorism when your concerns are of conventional threats from neighbouring states?

The first attempts at defining terror came through the League of Nations after numerous assassination attempts were made in the mid 1930’s, with King Alexander I of Yugoslavia assassinated by Croatian separatists while on a state visit to France (WALTERS, 1969). As the murder was found to be political, the escaped separatists hiding in Italy could not be extradited under a treaty made in 1870, which excluded political acts. It is important to note at this time, which would be a theme to follow other attempts at definition, that the final resolution by the League of Nations showed terrorism to be of a political angle: “(3) to punish terrorist outrages which ‘have an international character” (SAUL, 2005). The treaty was signed by a small number of signatories, ratified by only India and never brought into law. With the advent of the Second World War and the end of the League of Nations, the resolution was quickly forgotten. It did however, set a number of important precedents:

1. That a universal definition of Terrorism needs to be reached through multilateral consensus through a forum of a worldwide organisation (in modern terms, the United Nations or possibly on a limited scale, the European Union).

2. That Terrorism was a political act.

3. That states should ‘refrain from any act designed to encourage terrorist activities directed against another State and to prevent acts in which such activities take shape’ (1937, LEAGUE CONVENTION).. In effect, this banned state sponsored terrorism.

4. Finally, that acts of terrorism are ‘acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons, or a group of persons or the general public’ (1937, LEAGUE CONVENTION). This eliminates the possibility of a State using terror against its own population but does allow Terrorism to be committed by a state against another state.

Terrorism researches would be sharp to note that political understanding is the key aspect to understanding terror. It is also quite important to note such a resolution, should it have been enforced by signatories had it been ratified on a wider scale, would most likely have prevented state intervention on humanitarian grounds as states were not classed as being able to be terrorists. The use of the armed forces in foreign and civil wars was not included in the resolution to prevent their use being defined as an act of terror (SAUL, 2005).

The agenda has, after a number of starts and stops since the 1937 resolution, returned to the United Nations. Since almost all international action into other states in this last 10 years has some way been connected or has been implied to be connected to terrorist actions, it is of little surprise (PETERSON, 2004). The growth of international conventions which have yet to bring about a universal legal basis gives a great deal of guidance and a strong start in the search for a definition, but has failed to create the sought after legal framework. It is also important to note that with a change in administration within the United States which has changed US foreign policy from unilateral action to that of multilateral approaches has also brought about a need for the hegemonic powers to define who the ‘universal enemy is’ as predicted by Jorg Friedrich (FRIEDRICHS, 2006) and that a floating and independent definition of who the enemy is no longer serves the purposes of the ‘coalition of the willing’, a group that were unable to even decide who the common enemy was. A definition that explains who the universal enemy to all states is (i.e. al Qaeda) will greatly enhance states ability to combat it (FRIEDRICHS, 2006), allow Terrorism researchers to focus their efforts on moving past the exploratory stage of research and allow all to generate theories on explaining and preventing further terror events.

As Silke states, “What is terrorism? What makes a terrorist act? What makes a group a terrorist group? These are such basic questions; and yet satisfactory answers continue to elude the field” (SILKE, 2004a). Until we are able to answer these questions, terrorism research will be confined to the exploratory and descriptive stages of research.


It is of no surprise that Schmid and Jongman identify 1968 as the year in which interest in terrorism grew in the academic and lay community and it is of little surprise that the level of interest has grown massively with continuous references to the ‘events of 9/11’ (GORDON, 2004). Many academics from other disciplines will have identified terrorism as an interesting field of study to begin to analyse from their own perspective and their own particular specialism. Andrew Silke identifies these individuals as “transient authors” (SILKE, 2004a) and notes that over 80% of terrorism research articles were from one-timers (SILKE, 2004b), who applied their subject expertise to the new fashionable fad of terrorism studies. Avishag Gordon also discusses the issue of transient authors in great detail, stating that “Terrorism as a research field lacks constancy and the commitment of researchers to the field” (GORDON, 2007), a sentiment shared by Silke who states that they are simply after a “one-off” publication and have “no real interest in the field” (SILKE, 2004a). Silke also writes about Ariel Merari who is particularly scathing towards contributors who are unfamiliar with terrorism research. It is said that “usually a contribution of this kind is well-grounded in the empirical and theoretical findings of the writer’s particular area of expertise, but lacking in knowledge in terrorism…” (MERARI, 1991).

It is perhaps understandable to see where these seasoned terrorism researchers are coming from; Silke’s study in 2004 following on from Schmid and Jongman’s study in 1988, shows that over 75% of works from 1990-1999 comes from authors whose backgrounds are political sciences, government departments, consultancy, sociology and psychology respectively (SILKE, 2004b). However, it is perhaps a little short sighted to simply write off one-time contributors to the field as people who simply felt that had something to contribute to “the juicy” subject of terrorism (MERARI, 1991). Instead, we can quickly identify areas in which these outside disciplines have considerably strengthened the field of terrorism studies.

First of all, let us consider the motivations and backgrounds of those who study terrorism as their main subject of interest. Many are Military personnel, police officers, Government Officials and spies; all who, in some regards, deal with terrorism as some aspect of their job. Their interest in this subject comes from their desire to improve their capacity to work within their vocation, but what are they likely to bring to the debate? Most may bring a good deal of experience to the subject but experience is not something terrorism researchers are lacking; it is an understanding of the psychology, sociology and economics that motivate an individual to resort to terrorism. Military units are well known for their failures in dealing with civilian populations; the United States military’s inability to quell insurgency in Vietnam and their heavy handedness in Iraq after the 2003 which generated a near civil-war are two easy examples to find. And this is not simply a US military problem. Russian actions in Chechnya, Israeli actions in Palestine and British actions in Aden are three other examples of how militaries failed to understand the causes, and thus create resolutions too, the problems they faced. As a result, any research which brings a “fresh and unexpected look” and “well grounded in the empirical and theoretical” (MERARI, 1991) would bring knowledge and primary source information into the field which would otherwise not exist. They also bring with them greater knowledge of empirical analysis

Secondly, statistics do not always speak the whole truth. Though there are admittedly a large number of one-off contributors to the field since 2000, many authors have actually combined their knowledge of psychology, sociology and economics with that of terrorism to move their research on from the exploratory stage of research and into the explanatory. For example Walter Enders and Todd Sandler have co-written numerous articles and works on the subjects of terrorism and its effects on economics, tourism and transnational policies for dealing with terrorism. Enders and Sandler are also not alone in bringing knowledge from other disciplines into the field. Gordon discusses the research of another academic, who look into transient researchers in other fields to see how many conduct continuous research. Hawkins in 1978, who analysed the literature of Gas Compounds, discovered that only 4.7% of researchers continued to study in the field for more than ten years, compared with 66.4% who contributed only for one year (GORDON, 2007). Despite the protestations of Silke, Merari and even Gordon himself, Gordon appears to have shown that terrorism studies is not alone in the number of transient academics who contribute. Since 2001, it has also been financially easier for researchers to get funding from state sources, as the needs of governments to counter the rise of Terrorism is able to generate a new host of researchers who will stick with the subject (WEINBERG AND EUBANK, 2008)

Thirdly, as Meadows describes in 1998, who sees “intellectual mobility as an inevitable trend that marks the rise of new topics in the sciences” (GORDON, 2007) which can bring new subjects and new areas unbeknown otherwise to the fore. Leydesdorff & Wagner go further to say that continuant authors are the core of the field of research. They attract transient authors to contribute to the field, bringing new information (LEYDESDORFF & WAGNER, 2005).

It should then be considered a strength to terrorism studies in which transient authors decide to contribute to the field of study by bringing in expertise in the disciplines of economics, psychology and sociology, knowledge which would either be left out from studies or would slow down the progress of terrorism research as academics spend more term learning the details of other disciplines. It can be seen that many of these authors do become continuant authors, as the likes of Enders and Sandler have shown.


Perhaps one of the greatest failing of Terrorism is studies is explaining why individuals and groups feel the need to resort to Terror through a theoretical basis. Gaetano Ilardi suggests that the focus of terrorism studies has been lost as researchers become focused on areas of less concern, which importantly has prevented “the development of a sound theoretical understanding of the dynamics of terrorism” (ILARDI, 2004). The basis for this assumption, which Richard Jackson (JACKSON, 2007) concurs with, is that Terrorism studies has been distracted by a so-called ‘New Terrorism’ (JACKSON, 2007) since September 11th, which has gripped the attention of the world at large through a them-and-us perception of good and evil. Ilardi points out Bush used the word evil eleven times on his 11th October 2001 speech (ILARDI, 2004) to point the new war on terror as simply a battle against good and evil. It is of no surprise then, that 90% of Terrorism scholarly articles have been written since September 11th (SHEPHERED, 2007)

This debate on good against evil in the war on terror has long been criticised as preventing further development at the political level. As challenges in Iraq grew in 2005/06, the Iraq study group noted that ‘Many Americans are dissatisfied, not just with the situation in Iraq but with the state of our political debate regarding Iraq… Our country deserves a debate that prizes substance over rhetoric.’ (IRAQ STUDY GROUP, 2006). As many reports on Terror and Terrorists is written from an ‘us’ perspective from Governmental and Security departments of Western nations, the general assumption that Western democratic way of living is the ‘right’ way (HUNTINGDON, 1997) has resulted in policy makers and Terror researchers believing that Western democracy can solve Terror problems in other countries, which Huntingdon described as ‘the West and the rest’ (HUNTINGDON, 1997). Ilardi points out that the USA and its Western allies believe in their core values of law, democracy, freedom and peace (ILARDI, 2004) and also shows how the Bush era rhetoric rarely discusses the war on terror and democracy as separate issues. The inability to separate foreign policy and the exportation of Western democracy from the fundamentals of Terrorism research has prevented the field from maturing beyond a comic book perception of Good Vs. Evil. This rhetoric prevents researchers from developing an understanding of, for example, bin Laden as a declaration of evil absolves the need for Western states to understand their decisions, reasons and policies (ILARDI, 2004). “It encourages fear, bias and obscures the root of the problem…and denies the perpetrator even the slightest degree of legitimacy, so their grievances are at best incidental” (ILARDI, 2004).

This moralistic perspective, as described by Dr Richard Jackson, is “deeply antithetical to scientific inquiry, which calls for a more dispassionate and less moralistic analysis of the evidence” (JACKSON, 2007). Such an approach would not only assist with the finding of a definition, but also finally quell the most over-stated phrase in Terrorism studies that “one’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”, a statement which hugely over-simplifies the difficulties faced by students of Terrorism. In order to move the Terrorism debate forward, Jackson suggests a move away from ‘Orthodox Terrorism Studies’ (which is branded by (1) its poor methods and theories, (2) its state centricity, (3) its problem solving orientation, and (4) its institutional and intellectual links to state security projects) and towards ‘Critical Terrorism Studies’ (JACKSON, 2007), which, as the name suggest, a far more skeptical approach to current assumed Terrorism knowledge (Jackson, 2007). Jackson’s argument can be seen to support the inclusion of experts in other fields delivering fresh perspectives, compared to that of Silke, Merari and Gordon who are far more snobbish when it comes to transients.

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In response to Jackson’s criticisms, Horgan and Boyle (2008) indicate that most scholars are well aware of the difficulties faced with Terrorism research, writing “An implicit presumption from this is that terrorism scholars have laboured for all of these years without being aware that their area of study has an implicit bias, as well as definitional and methodological problems” (HORGAN AND BOYLE, 2008). However, Horgan and Boyle’s argument does not deal with the problem at hand; if the issues in Terrorism studies are based around a moralistic bias, a lack of definitions and failures in methodology it is not excusable to simple mention that researchers are aware of these difficulties without attempting to overcome them. This habit of making excuses for Terrorism research failures appears to be quite common, with Weinberg and Eubank writing “Andrew Silke, Marc Sageman, Alex Schmid and a long list of other investigators have called our attention to significant and long-term flaws in how terrorism has been studied since the phenomenon itself reappeared in the 1960s” (WEINBERG AND EUBANK, 2008). The critics of Critical Terrorism Studies put forward by Jackson appear to be far more concerned with protecting the Orthodox ‘methods’ of research (which will be discussed in detail next in this essay), despite recognising its flaws, instead of working to overcome them. If they are widely recognized by a wide number of researchers and authors, why are they still so prominent?

The last aspect of the Good Vs. Evil debate is the question of State Terror. Ever since the League of Nations convention ruled out the State as being capable of committing Terror, it has been a limited area of study. Jackson highlights this, saying “Of particular concern is that, with only a few notable exceptions, terrorism studies has failed to engage with the issues and practices of state terrorism” (JACKSON, 2007). Andrew Silke in his 2004 study shows that only 12 out of 490 journals addressed the question of State Terror (SILKE, 2004b). As the growth in Terrorism studies has been funded by a need from Governmental organisations and security services focused on the state’s needs against opposing organisations, this is not a surprise. Working that Terrorism and its definition is useful for the state itself, it is only post-September 11th that the US and its Western allies have at all been interested in State Terror, as it would allow them to cry out against nations which, according to them, Terrorise their own population (Iran is an excellent example here). Weinberg and Eubank argue against Jackson, saying “The critical terrorism studies claims about the ideological bias and state-centric nature of conventional terrorism studies seems complex and requires a more extended reaction” (WEINBERG AND EUBANK, 2008). However, once again the supporters of Orthodox Terrorism Studies appear to have missed the point; researchers should not be relying solely on Governments sponsoring research in their fight against the Evil in the world as the ‘Good Guys’. They should instead be taking an objective and empirical approach to analysing the causes and solutions to Terrorism, avoid a state-centric angle which would prevent the Good Vs. Evil debate and finally rid us of the freedom fighters and terrorists statement.

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