This post discusses the conceptual, methodological, and moral issues in studying terrorism.

Despite being a popular area of study, the study of terrorism itself has encountered many conceptual, methodological, and even moral issues. For starters, there are as many as 100 definitions of terrorism which differ from scholar to scholar or even institution to institution. It’s one of those problems that everybody knows what it is, but can’t agree on the exact details. The same goes for the terrorism “spin-offs”, such as radicalisation, violent extremism, non-violent extremism, etc. Aside from conceptual problems, the field also faces a number of methodological problems. There are many frameworks abound, but we still can’t pinpoint a near-exact formula of what leads to terrorism and what doesn’t. The same goes for the “spin-offs”. Furthermore, there is also a moral problem regarding the entire field. By studying terrorism and trying to explain it, are we not also morally implicated in condoning the acts?

Conceptual issues

An expert on terrorism will tell you their own definition of terrorism. Another expert will tell you theirs. And yet another expert will tell you another definition. It has been said that there are over 100 definitions of terrorism. Even the UN has admitted that there is no universal definition of terrorism. One particular definition that is widely used comes from Bruce Hoffman in Inside Terrorism:

Terrorism is thus violence – or equally important, the threat of violence- used and directed in pursuit of, or in service of, a political aim.

Hoffman’s definition is a rather fundamental one. It puts terrorism in a larger frame of being violence for achieving political means, which separates it from being violence for the sake of violence. However, it still remains quite general and vague.

Another definition that builds upon Hoffman’s is Forst’s definition of terrorism in Terrorism, Crime, and Public Policy:

Terrorism is the premeditated and unlawful use of violence against a non combatant population or target having symbolic significance, with an aim of either inducing political change through intimidation and destabilization or destroying a population identified as an enemy.

Notice the term “non-combatant population”. It implies that terrorism is only terrorism when it is conducted towards a population that are not combatants (i.e. civilians) and it isn’t considered an act of terror when violence is conducted towards a legal representative of a state. But may not necessarily be the case. In Indonesia, three police officers were stabbed by an alleged ISIS supporter. Is that terrorism or is it not?

What’s the problem with having so many definitions? It comes down to the diagnosis of the problem and the issuance of a cure. If a doctor provides a bad diagnosis, the prescribed medicine may not be as effective as intended. If terrorism isn’t properly identified, it may lead to “cures” that may result in future complications. The US used to employ kinetic force on terrorist organisations, but they later found out that those measures would not be really effective and instead, further exacerbated the “disease”.

There are at least 5 conceptual problems with terrorism that a definition needs to address:

  1. Problem of motives: At this point, terrorism may not always be motivated by politics, but rather religious or even idiosyncratic motives. This has can be seen in Rapoport’s “four waves of terrorism” [PDF] model.
  2. Problem of targets: Who are the prime targets of terrorists, civilians or state apparatus? In the 1983 Beirut bombing, the target were arguably combatants. But in the 9/11 bombing and 2002 Bali bombing, the targets were civilians.
  3. Problem of ‘dirty hands’: Branching from the above problem, do non-combatants morally deserve protection from terrorist attacks? Terrorist propaganda would put civilians as equally responsible for “indirect involvement” since their taxes fund the war machine that perpetuates the violence.
  4. Problem of perpetrators: Is terrorism only conducted by sub-national or clandestine groups, or can it also be perpetrated by governments?
  5. Problem of intention: What is the intent of terrorists? Do they want a lot of people dead and a lot watching? Is it not about the violence, but sending a message? Or is violence simply a form of punishment?

However, at this point, it would be futile to seek a universal definition of terrorism. It would be more practical to satisfice with a working definition that makes sense, is defensible, and is perhaps appropriate with the context of whatever it is intended for.

Moral challenges

The prominent moral challenge that comes with studying terrorism is the possibility of being unconsciously absolving terrorists of guilt.

In trying to understand why terrorism happens, more often than not we would need to get up close and personal with terrorists and their immediate environment. Take, for example, a study on Patani insurgents conducted by Askew and Helbardt [paywall]. In gathering information, a number of Patani insurgents were interviewed. The interviews revealed the backgrounds of the insurgents, which were tied to their motivations in joining the Patani Liberation Front. Reading their interviews, one would eventually stop and think along this line: “These people aren’t inherently evil; they’re just a victim of circumstances.”

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Inherently evil or a victim of circumstances?

When we reach such a conclusion, we could be on the verge of absolving them of blame. It wasn’t their fault; they were victims of an unjust world. However, is that really the conclusion that we want to draw from studies on terrorism? And more importantly, this kind of distinction has an impact on the type of policy that will be crafted to counter terrorism. If we view terrorists as being inherently evil, no doubt our policies will be geared towards their destruction. On the other hand, if we see them as victims of circumstances, our policies may be geared towards changing those circumstances. Which one is better? We’ll need to try that out.

Another paradox is encountered when we write about terrorism. Terrorists want publicity, they need publicity. Paradoxically, by writing about them, we give them the publicity they need. In that sense, are we not accomplices in a way?

Methodological challenges

How should we conduct research on terrorism? Obviously, academics need access to juicy primary data. Sageman [paywall] believes that terrorism research has stagnated due to a lack of cooperation between intelligence officers and academics. The intelligence community has the necessary capacity and access to primary information, yet they may lack the capabilities to analyse that information and make it into something meaningful. The academics have all the analytical tools at their disposal, yet they may not have the information needed to test them out.

Obtaining primary data for terrorism research is difficult, dangerous, and sometimes even illegal. At the same time, academics that have access to privileged information may be accused of being a “mouthpiece” for the related authorities, or biased.

Other methodological issues are brought up in a critique by Hamilton-Hart [paywall].

Her first critique is that studies of terrorism (in Southeast Asia specifically) tend to emphasise on the existence of links between Southeast Asian terrorist groups. Focus on these links, however, have resulted in a series of studies that just explore them, without putting those links into context. For example, Abu Sayyaf is often cited as being linked to Al-Qaeda, but the nature of these links tend not to be explored even deeper. So an organisation is linked to Al-Qaeda, but what then? What is the nature of these links? Also, how are these links relevant in drawing the whole picture of terrorism in Southeast Asia and how important are they for the functioning of the particular group?

Second, she also critiques the sources of data used in terrorism research. Sources used in terrorism research are often public or classified information. Public information may be manipulated or skewed, while classified information may not be available. The use of classified information also presents a problem in trying to replicate studies in order to test an existing model.

The bells ring…

So far, we’ve discussed the conceptual, moral, and methodological issues of terrorism studies:

  • Conceptually, we know what terrorism looks like, but still can’t agree on how to explain it in words. This poses a challenge on policy-making. If we can’t diagnose the problem correctly, we could be prescribing the wrong medicine.
  • We find ourselves morally troubled when studying terrorism since it may lead to us unconsciously absolving them of blame.
  • Methodologically, the study of terrorism requires significant primary data. However, obtaining that primary data can be dangerous or even illegal.