From the Web: Report – Constructions of Terrorism Conference

For the original article, please visit

Report: Constructions of Terrorism Conference

Pamela Ligouri Bunker

On 3-4 December 2015, a conference on The Constructions of Terrorism was held in Santa Barbara, CA.  This event—part of a longer term project on global terrorism—was sponsored and organized jointly by TRENDS Research and Advisory, the UAE and the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).   The conference focus was described as follows:

The conference will debate and discuss how terrorism and acts of terrorism are understood and explained.  There will be inter-disciplinary contributions investigating how states and societies construct understandings and categories of terrorism and extremism.  By investigating how understandings of terrorism are constructed it is hoped we can contribute to the development of more effective strategies for countering the extremist ideas that lead to the acts labeled as terrorism.

Eighteen international speakers addressed a broad range of topical areas related to the conference focus and engaged in interactive Q&A and discussion with audience members.  Speaker backgrounds encompassed the fields of communications, criminology, law, journalism, political science, psychology, public policy, and sociology.

In his conference welcome, Dean Melvin Oliver recognized the ‘amazing, diverse set of accomplished scholars’ who had come together to address this topic and emphasized the mutually beneficial nature of the UCSB-TRENDS partnership with their common interest in the role of social policy and a strong commitment to inter-disciplinary study.  Dr. Ahmed Al-Hamli, President and Founder of TRENDS, spoke to the fact that conferences such as this one help to develop the needed frameworks for addressing terrorism through providing understanding of both the local context and global environment and suggesting appropriate and coordinated responses.

Specific participant affiliations and presentations (with a very brief synopsis here and hyperlinked PDF paper access where applicable) in order of presentation included:

• Lisa Stampitzky, Lecturer, University of Sheffield, “Can ‘Terrorism” Be Defined?”

While there is a surfeit of definitions of terrorism on offer, it is perhaps more pertinent to ask how it is defined in practice.  This can be accomplished through reverse engineering of counterterrorism actions.  There is no ‘terrorism’ without ‘counterterrorism’ even though the acts themselves still exist.   By deconstructing these definitions, we find that terrorism is often defined as violence ‘out of place,’ with the state the key arbiter of what ‘out of place’ means.

• John Mueller, Professor of Political Science, Ohio State University, “Misoverestimating Terrorism”

Terrorism is an inflated phenomenon.  After 9/11, everything became “terrorism”—even what was previously seen as “civil war.”  Terrorism implies the fear or threat of violence.  The quantitative point at which terrorism transitions to insurgency or even full-fledged war has become a somewhat gray area and these are often conflated.  The death and destruction of 9/11 was an aberration rather than harbinger.  The exaggeration of the capacity of terrorism creates a dangerous overreaction in counterterrorism, which often then backfires.

• David H. Schanzer, Associate Professor of the Practice at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy, “Defining Terrorism as Tactic”

Definitions of terrorism specifying type of actor, their motivation, and the type of target break down upon closer examination.  Rather than a phenomenon, terrorism is better defined as a tactic that can be used by anyone—whether they are violent political organizations, proto-states, or states themselves—for a variety of purposes and against a range of targets.   In all cases, the tactic violates national or international law.  The tactic is justly prohibited and we can use tools to fight it, however, ultimately it is a symptom of larger political grievances that must be addressed.

• Mark Juergensmeyer, Professor of Sociology and Global Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, “Terror as Performance Violence”

Years of interviews with violent religious activists suggest that there is usually a deep sense of cosmic war taking place.  Epistemic worldview analysis indicates there is repeatedly a frame of reference in which these violent actors believe they are on the side of good in a war of good and evil. Terror is then an act of performance art expressing symbolic empowerment in that battle. The events of 9/11 were meant to bring the West into that same frame of reference.  The resulting ‘War on Terror’ played into the terrorist’s hands with regard to perpetuating perceptions of a clash of civilizations in which the West sought to eliminate Islam.

•  Clark McCauley, Research Professor of Psychology, Bryn Mawr College, “Constructing terrorism as coercion blinds us to ‘jujitsu politics’ and the power of emotions”

The definition of terrorism as the intent to create fear and coerce citizens blinds us to other terrorist motivations and is misleading in that, as shown in thousands of texts sent after 9/11, anger not fear is more often the resulting emotion of such attacks.  In this way, terrorists use “jujitsu politics,” leveraging the enemy’s greater strength against him.  When anger is the emotion, there is more likely to be support for war, revenge, and retribution.  These, in turn, often lead to the very overreactions that increase support for the terrorist’s cause and give them the attention and status they seek.

• Steve Corman,  Professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication and Director of the Center for Strategic Communication at Arizona State University, “The Narrative Construction of Violent Islamism”

Terrorism is not strategically rational from an instrumental point of view but it is organizationally rational from a narrative point of view.  Thus, while terrorism is rarely if ever effective in achieving a group’s political goals, the vertical linkage of a master narrative (e.g. cosmic warriors providing deliverance from evil and decline) with present day events and the personal narratives of group members allows the development of strong ties between those members.  In this way, religious, insurgent, and large groups tend to persist without actually “winning.”

• Benjamin Smith, Andrea Figueroa-Caballero, and Michael Stohl, University of California, Santa Barbara, Department of Communication, “Media Constructions of Terrorism:  Framing how the public interprets and responds to terrorism”

Over 110,000 newspaper articles from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal were examined in an investigation of the role of the media in the transmission and construction of our understanding of terrorism.  The results show a Zipfian distribution—whereby the most frequent word occurs approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third and so on—in which al Qaeda was clearly the most symbolically meaningful organization over the last 18 years.  In 60% of the cases, there was no reason for the group to be mentioned except to help define another group.  These results invite the question of how we would interpret these latter groups if the primary framing of al Qaeda had not been invoked.

• Anthony Richards, Reader, University of East London, School of Business and Law, “Constructing the Terrorist Threat:  the merging of the discourses of terrorism, radicalization and extremism in the UK and its consequences”

If ‘terrorism’ has been used very carelessly in the post-9/11 world, radicalization is even harder to define than terrorism.  In the UK, the CONTEST counterterrorism strategy’s 2011 revision of its PREVENT strand has become controversial in its emphasis on preventing radicalization.  Broad issues become securitized.  It puts focus on ideological thought, including nonviolent but extremist ideas that are conducive to terrorism.  However, this blurs extremism of thought with extremism of method and runs the risk of ever-extending the range of potential suspect groups, severely limiting whom the government will engage with and thus restricting its tools for tackling terrorism.

• Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International law, Princeton University, “Ambiguities in the Terrorist Discourse and the Political Imagination of Violence”

There is something very distinctive about the American political consciousness and the response pattern that is generated due to the US capacity to act anywhere in the world.  Mega-terrorists (such as those behind 9/11) challenge the whole political system and, in response, change the US discourse to a war instead of crime metaphor.  However, the traditional template of war does not fit in the most crucial respects.  The current strategy imposes constraints on political imagination in response to terrorism and fails to address grievances.  We need to accept the grievance but not the method used, opening the option for a negotiated political solution (e.g. eliminating ISIS while making room for a Sunni State).

• Richard Burchill, Director of Research and Engagement, TRENDS Research and Advisory, “Legal Constructions of Terrorism”

Over time, we have bigger international and domestic regimes against terrorism—more law.  These laws always seem to give more powers to intervene earlier and earlier.  But more law does not necessarily mean more enforcement or more success at preventing terrorism.  Legal constructions of terrorism are often at odds, motive has become paramount, and, particularly in domestic law, even thinking certain things might label you a ‘terrorist.’  The latter could dangerously expand to apply to any protest that threatens state interests.  It also adds to the rhetoric that our systems are repressive.  Instead of more law, we need more effective constructions of terrorism within the law, providing clarity and consistency.

• Victor Asal, Associate Professor, State University of New York, Albany, “Are thec ( ausal) stories of different operationalizations of terrorism different?”

There are potential analytical ramifications to different operationalizations of terrorism.  Using data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), empirical investigation was undertaken to determine whether operationalization of non-state terrorism by target type—civilians; civilians and government; and civilians, government and security personnel—across factors like regime type, state repression, and state wealth differentially affect the likelihood of terrorist incidents in terms of both absolute number and severity. The main difference found was between correlates of terrorism severity across target types with regard to the effects of GDP, with more civilian and government-related fatalities in extremely poor and extremely rich countries.

• Lasse Lindkilde, Associate Professor of Political Science, Aarhus University, “Analyzing Pathways of Lone-Actor Radicalization:  A Relational Approach”

In the media, the ‘lone wolf’ actor is often constructed as an isolated loner who strikes out of nowhere.  A study of 30 ‘lone wolf’ cases in the US, Europe, Canada, and Australia from 1990-2015—as part of the PRIME (preventing, interdicting, and mitigating extremism) program—opened up the black box of self-radicalization in order to illuminate potential recurrent pathways on the road to these terrorist acts.  It found that the ‘loners’ actually had a history of complex and discontinuous connectivity, partial embeddedness in groups, and both weak and strong ties, allowing the identification of mechanisms through which they passed before experiencing their ‘trigger’ point for violent action.

• Mia Bloom, Professor of Communication, Georgia State University, “Preventing the Next Generation?  (De-) Constructing Cultures of Martyrdom”

Violent extremist organizations are increasingly recruiting children to provide the groups with comparative advantages—particularly introducing the element of surprise and subsequent PTSD in the military personnel forced to kill them.  Additional benefits are the ability to make the conflict multi-generational, reducing the effectiveness of targeted assassination.  In these societies, cultural norms and roles of parents and teachers are shifted and are replaced with a culture of self-sacrifice through the celebration of martyrdom in daily life.  Selected children—in contrast to child soldiers used merely as cannon fodder—are more actively educated to the fact they are martyring themselves for a cause in similar fashion to the way pedophiles groom their victims.

• Laura Dugan, Professor, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Maryland, “Introducing Government Actions in Terror Environments (GATE) Dataset”

The Government Actions in Terror Environment (GATE) dataset is designed to fill the knowledge gap in terms of the range of actions governments take relative to terrorist attacks, from large obvious interventions to the many more subtle ones.  It ranks the dimensions of government actions along a 7-point scale from conciliatory to repressive.  Within these government actions, targets can be seen as either discriminate or indiscriminate in nature.  It is hoped that by overlaying GATE with other data already available from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) on terrorist attacks, a clearer picture of the impact of the wide range of government responses on actual terrorism within these countries will become clear, recognizing different constituencies may respond differently to conciliation and repression.

• Scott Englund and Michael Stohl, Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, “The World vs. Daesh: Constructing a Contemporary Terrorist Threat”

The US media has constructed Daesh (the Islamic State, IS/ISIL/ISIS) in three distinguishable ways:  as an insurgency, as a branded inspiration for transnational terrorism, and as a hidden threat among refugees or Western passport holders returning from Iraq and Syria.  But these messy and multiple constructions lead to an incoherent response.  Even if they all contain some truth, each construction requires a distinct and appropriate response of its own.  As a result, the misapplication of US counterterrorism responses can become more counter-productive than helpful.

The last day of the conference concluded with an enlightening talk by Alan Cullison, Public Policy scholar at the Wilson Center and Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.   He shared his experiences writing about terrorism including working in Afghanistan beginning in late 2001, during the course of which he came into possession of computers containing al Qaeda correspondence, as well as later meetings with imprisoned unsuccessful suicide bombers as well as the family of Boston bombers, Tamerlane and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  His observations suggested extremely rational actions on the part of those terrorist actors and he further commented that his experiences on the ground reflected much of what had been said during the previous two days.

Overall, the take-aways from this conference were many but Mark Jurgensmeyer made a comment early on that got a lot of traction throughout the conference.  He noted that to focus on the actions of those we deem ‘terrorist’ alone without viewing them in the gestalt of the overall environment, including counterterrorist actions, is like attempting to understand the actions of only one boxer in the ring.  Their movements don’t make any sense and they appear to be flailing wildly.  Once we recognize that there are other actors in that ring, things become a whole lot clearer.   The esteemed participants in this conference presented important insights into that overall picture.

For additional information on this and related events in the future, access the main conference website which contains presenter biographies.   The UCSB Current also has an article on this event.  Further information on TRENDS and the Orfalea Center is also available at their individual sites.

Page Editor

Ben Smith
Ben Smith
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email
Print Friendly and PDF