Chapter 3 Discussion Question Pointers

End of Chapter Question Pointers

Chapter 3 – Critical Terrorism Studies

Harmonie Toros

  1. Is terrorism a distinct category of violence?
  2. There has been a long-standing debate on the definition of terrorism, and whether it constitutes a distinct form of political violence. Most definitions however agree that terrorism is a form of political violence that aims at affecting a larger audience than its immediate target. It aims to instil enough fear for others to change their behaviour.

    Despite this general agreement, there continues to be a debate on how the term is used by states and other actors to delegitimize non-state actors by labelling them as “terrorists.” It is also an academic debate on whether terrorism can only be carried out by non-state actors or also state actors can be described as “terrorist.”

    Overall, the term “terrorist” is not neutral and there are important political and legal implications when the term is used. Some scholars, particularly from post-structuralist positions, argue that terrorism is such a politicized term that it no longer can be used analytically to denote a form of political violence and should be abandoned entirely.

  3. Why is there a debate on whether states can engage in terrorist violence?
  4. Some scholars argue that terrorism is a “weapon of the weak” – a strategy used by non-state actors because they cannot fight directly against the overwhelming power of the state. As such, authors such as Bruce Hoffman believe that only non-state actors can be labelled as “terrorist.” This does not mean that states do not engage in illegal and illegitimate violence, but this is better labelled as “repression” or “terror” than terrorism.

    Authors such as Richard Jackson argue that this position denotes a political bias that defends states, even when states are responsible for the worst and greatest amount of violence against civilians. Critical terrorism studies argues that the term terrorism should be either avoided entirely or applied to all actors who engage in political violence that is aimed at a larger audience that its immediate target.

  5. How does research on the Rendition programme change understandings of the Global War on Terror?
  6. Much research on terrorism has focused on non-state violence, that is violence against the state. Overall little research focused on state terrorism and the violence it has meted out on civilians across the world.

    The US Rendition programme was part of the response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda. It was an elaborate system of transferring people the United States suspected of links to al Qaeda across the world, through “blacksites” where they were interrogated and tortured by security officials of a variety of nationalities. Numerous countries were involved in assisting the US in this programme, including some states seen as enemies of the US such as Syria.

    Critical terrorism scholars Ruth Blakeley and Sam Raphael have worked together with investigative journalists and human rights lawyers to uncover the extent of the Rendition programme ( The programme that involved numerous states, from the United Kingdom (allowing planes to be refuelled on their territory), to Poland, Romania, and Lithuania (hosting US secret-run prisons), to Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Morocco (detaining and interrogating suspects), to Canada, Sweden, and Italy (facilitating the capture of suspects).

    Studying the Rendition programme offers an alternative understanding of US relations with “enemy states” as well as demonstrating that the US response began with intelligence operations rather than the military intervention in Afghanistan. The Rendition programme also sheds new light on public-private partnerships in security and intelligence and it how international law and norms can be violated when powerful states deem it necessary.

  7. Why do some critical terrorism studies scholars argue that counter-terrorism policies and practices have spread into the everyday lives of citizens?
  8. The US Rendition programme that illegally detained and tortured suspects in “blacksites” around the world was an exceptional system of violence directed by the United States against people suspected of affiliation with al Qaeda. Some scholars, such as Charlotte Heath-Kelly, argue that counter-terrorism also has a much more ordinary face.

    Focusing particularly on the PREVENT strategy in the United Kingdom aimed as preventing radicalization and engagement into violent extremism, this approach looks at how counter-terrorism has entered the education, health, and social services system regulating what is appropriate behaviour and what is considered suspicious or “violent extremist” behaviour.

    It has also turned ordinary citizens into counter-terrorism agents, forcing teachers, doctors, and social workers to monitor fellow civilians and report on them if they notice something considered suspicious. This argument notes that these professions are not trained security professionals and are therefore unlikely to know how to assess risk and threat.

    Critical terrorism studies therefore argue that counter-terrorism and counter-terrorist violence has to be examined both in its exceptional manifestations and in its everyday manifestations where it affects a large section of the population.

  9. Why are critical terrorism scholars divided over whether they can engage with state actors to seek reform of counter-terrorism policies and practices?
  10. Critical terrorism scholars have argued that it is states that have been the most responsible for violence against civilians through state terrorism or disproportionate counter-terrorism measures. Richard Jackson argues that violence is so entrenched in the practices of states that they are beyond reform and critical scholars should not work with states but rather focus their work and support with opposition actors.

    Harmonie Toros on the other hand has argued that critical scholarship believes in engaging with violent actors regardless of who they work or fight for with the aim of reducing their violence. If states are the most violent, they are in the most need of engagement, she argues.

    There are nonetheless dangers in working with state actors as critical scholarship can be used by states as window-dressing rather than in a genuine attempt to engage with different approaches to terrorism and counter-terrorism.

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