Making Sense of Terrorism – Part 1

Making Sense of Terrorism – Part 1

Terrorism holds a special place in the Pantheon of Fears that Americans and many others have taken to prostrating themselves before with increasing degrees of devotion over the past generation. The proselytizers of insecurity have found a public that is ripe for conversion through the creation of ubiquitous flows of written, visual, and audio communications that poke and prod at the innate sense of vulnerability with which all human beings struggle.

It is by no means the only anxiety-driven idol that we have collectively submitted to. Nor is it necessarily the most damaging to our safety, well being, and viability as a cohesive society. But it is perhaps the keystone of the overarching frame that we have adopted and internalized for viewing the national and global strategic environment which we inhabit.

It is no wonder that terrorism in particular has come to play such a prominent function in perpetuating our sense of existential insecurity. It is, by its very nature, deeply unsettling. One has only to look at the featured image at the top of this piece to understand that. When I see a picture of this real event in which members of a nihilistic, fanatically religious, well armed, and growing organization are preparing to behead 21 men for their religious faith, I cannot help but be deeply troubled.

“Oh my God!,” I think. “How can this happen? My God! Those poor men. What is going through their minds? What would be going through mine? That could be me if I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time! This has to stop!”

I do not judge myself poorly for that reaction. As a human being, I cannot help but feel a connection, a revulsion, and fear from seeing this happen to another human being. This is especially true if the victims and I share a salient identity marker. Our natural reaction is a powerful combination of empathic horror for the actual victims and self-interested fear for our own safety. Our resulting inclination is to exaggerate the actual risk of something like this happening to us, which causes us to make decisions that are not always reasonable or beneficial, but which invariably present themselves to us as ‘common sense’.

That is the essence of terrorism though. Terrorism is an attractive strategy because of the broad impact that atrocious acts against seemingly random and innocent victims have. It has a long, tragic, and fascinating history as a tool by many types of groups, including state and non-state actors. The strategic value of terrorism is in the public reaction, and not in the act itself. And this value is magnified when combined with a communications environment that brings instant, explicit, and pervasive reinforcement of the spectacular. In turn, groups like Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Daish (ISIS) have found the perpetration of increasingly spectacular acts of violence to be a force multiplier. And the cycle of threat magnification continues.

As a scholar of international relations and strategic security studies, I have long marveled at how distorted common perceptions of many of the issues that I study are. I am the first to acknowledge that terrorism and most issues related to international affairs are complicated and there are no easy or correct answers. Indeed, it is digging into these complexities and thinking through different ideas about how best to manage them that I love about my field of study. That is where some of the most fascinating and important discussions are.

Nevertheless, I have become increasingly troubled in recent years as I have listened to “terrorism experts” and “international security experts” in the media as well as within U.S. and other governments, militaries, and broader security communities regurgitate impressionistic assessments of strategic issues (like terrorism); which are filtered through the strongest of lenses, tailor made to adhere to and reinforce said country’s national mythology. This is utterly dishonest, cynical, and dangerous, and it is not limited to a particular political party.

While the task of overcoming this pervasive misinformation is daunting, one of the ways that I am going to do my part is by exploring terrorism and other critical pieces of the strategic environment in serial format on this site. I will of course, offer commentary and suggested courses of action for strategy and policy development with respect to these issues. But I will also explore the data that is available to us, how it is that one goes about making sense of that data, and how this can then be transferred to more effective strategic decision making and actions.

To begin, I provide two very basic visualizations of the data provided by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), housed at the University of Maryland and managed by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS). The database contains information on over 150,000 terrorist attacks during the period of 1970-2015. Figure 1.1 illustrates the annual frequency of events around the world over that time period.

At first glance, there is a recent rise in the use of terrorism as a strategy by non-state actors (a definitional requirement for the GTD). Perhaps the first surprise that one might notice though, is that the real spike does not occur in conjunction with the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001. Rather, the years of 2006, 2008, and 2012 stand out as potentially significant points to consider. This general span of years also stands out when we look at the annual terrorism-caused fatalities around the globe.

So what can we tell from these graphs? It certainly appears that terrorism is on the rise in both its frequency and its lethality. It does not conform to a common perception of when that rise actually commenced though, and this is most certainly cause for a deeper look at the data, a consideration of how this timing issue fits into logical considerations of cause and effect, and whether this intelligence assists us in developing and executing our counter-terrorism strategy moving forward.

In the next piece of this series, I will consider a fundamental question that any researcher or analyst must ask. How is it that we are defining and employing our key concepts? In this case, that concept is terrorism, which is fraught with complications.



**The feature image was accessed on May 17, 2017 from

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