Social scientist Neil Smelser says we become snarled, entrapped in our own thinking to the point that we can’t reach any useful conclusions. It may be a cliché that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, but clichés often exist for a reason. “Terrorism has never been defined properly by either scholars or political officials,” Smelser observed in his 2007 book, The Faces of Terrorism.
“There are scores of definitions of terrorism,” agrees Anthony Marsella, who specializes in international and cross-cultural psychology. The common denominators include the use of violence and fear to bring about some sort of goal within a political context. “Terrorists do not usually meet or face armies in the field in open armed contact; the methods used are mostly surreptitious and the targets are civilian,” writes Marsella. “The intention is not only destruction, but also instilling fear and terror in a population.”
Such a description does not preclude its use by states, whether against their colonised populations or their own populations, nor by substates—including religious extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Beyond the fundamental problem of defining terrorism, we are equally challenged to come to useful research conclusions to help explain it. This is true despite the explosion of books on the topic in recent decades, as well as of research data in a number of fields relating to terrorism.
“Indeed,” writes researcher and professor John Horgan, “in spite of this mass of data, or even perhaps because of it, it is ironic then that even now a true science of terrorist behavior continues to elude us. It still surprises us that just because there is more information on terrorism than ever before, it does not necessarily follow that we understand it any better.”
Part of the problem is that very little of the data that exists is verifiable. In terms of research, the topic of terrorism is an interdisciplinary tangle involving multiple sciences, including economics, politics, psychology, social influences, culture and history. Even where there may be consensus across these divides, verification is still difficult to achieve.
Due in part to our limited understanding of the complex forces behind terrorism, we also find ourselves snarled in debates about how best to approach the problem.
Despite the claims of some that they know precisely how to fight and defeat terrorism using warfare strategies, there is little historical evidence to suggest that simply upgrading missile defences, protecting borders, or increasing security would do more than just redirect the flow of terrorism down alternative streambeds. The fact is that terrorism has been used as a tactic since the dawn of time; that is, as long as any other warfare strategy. And like any other actor in warfare—states and governors, tyrants and dictators—terrorists and their activities have never been eradicated. They have merely adapted to surmount new limitations by devising new strategies and harnessing new technologies to achieve their goals.