Terrorism has many facets and many names. ISIS, Al Qaeda or Boko Haram; and, if you are not a child of the 1990s, names such as IRA, ETA and Red Army Faction will most likely tell you something as well. Irrespective of whether terrorism is considered part of a broader conflict (a view you are more likely to find among observers of social movements) or as a self-contained phenomenon (more likely to find among scholars of terrorism studies), it is easy to get very confused in light of the great variety of answers about what terrorism actually is. From terrorism as abhorrent, indiscriminate violence by non-state actors to terrorism as oppressive acts of states, definitions abound. And in light of decades of searching for a global definition of terrorism and countless academic treatments of the matter, a certain fatigue with the issue can be observed today.
But we shouldn’t give in to this fatigue. Neither scholars nor practitioners can choose to ignore the definitional deadlock because the existence of very divergent views on what constitutes terrorism can ‘be expected to have profound impact on international efforts to combat terrorism’. Different definitions of terrorism lend themselves to justify different national measures on a case-by-case basis; and the absence of a global definition is the elephant in the room when talking about global anti-terrorism measures.
One of the central problems of the current literature on terrorism resides in the underlying idea that it is possible to agree on an objectively determinable, single meaning of terrorism. While some concede that terrorism is an essentially contested concept, many other current approaches take the concept of terrorism for granted. Terrorism is presupposed to be a particular form of political violence, usually by non-state actors. However, some scholars have outlined that terrorism can be better thought of as a tactic that is employed by various actors, irrespective of whether these are states or sub-state actors. This idea is not new, it goes back to the years before the 2nd World War. Yet, it did not gain a real foothold in terrorism studies. Thinking of terrorism as a tactic does not aim to circumscribe a specific content to terrorism, i.e. define it as a particular form of political violence used by a particular group of actors. Instead, it means considering terrorism as a practice employed in the context of a broader conflict to foster specific political ends. The particular content and manifestation of such a practice – i.e. what it is and what it is about – is contingent and depends on the context at hand. So considering terrorism a tactic should not be misunderstood as re-essentializing terrorism.
The advantages of this perspective are manifold. For researchers, it allows for fully acknowledging and scientifically exploring the contingent, socially constructed character of terrorism: Terrorism not as an end in itself, but as a tactic employed in the context of a broader conflict. A tactic that is meant to escalate conflicts most often when moments of stagnation or frustration are reached.
Second, it would allow for disentangling violence from the causes of conflict. After all, no grievance, no ideology and no religion is “terroristic” per se. Avoiding the short-circuiting of specific causes and the resort to terrorist violence by trying to establish generalizable causal links would offer the theoretical benefit of conceiving causes and violence as historically situated phenomena. We would analyse more coherently when, why and by whom the tactic terrorism is employed in specific conflicts. This would pave the way for a deeper understanding of why some conflicts turn violent but others not – and this is, according to Jack A. Goldstone, the question we face in studying contentious politics today.
Third, terrorism as a tactic would thwart attempts to instrumentalize the notion of terrorism and to use the language of demonization. In particular, the latter opens up questionable room for political manoeuvre: after all, semi democratic and authoritarian governments are using the Global War on Terror for their own purposes.
Lastly, conceiving of terrorism as a tactic would open up alternatives for how to deal with terrorism in a non-violent way, potentially leading to the cessation of violence. With terrorism’s current exceptional status as the enemy of the civilized world, the struggle is cast in universal terms, it is ‘us vs. them’, ‘good vs. evil’. This ‘either/or’ logic limits the options of those wishing to fight terrorism considerably, as alternative ideas on how to counter terrorism have to comply with this misguided, absolute pattern of either inclusion or exclusion. After all, as many instances in history have shown, one does not make deals with the enemy.
Thinking of terrorism as a tactic would no longer accord terrorism the same exclusive, paramount position on the international agenda and would no longer have states appear weak and lenient when resorting to diplomacy and eventually negotiations rather than military violence to end terrorism. What looms large here are the possibilities of an ethical counter-terrorism policy that goes beyond an enemy-centred thinking and refers to adversaries instead. An enemy, you destroy. An adversary, you fight. This makes a huge difference. A shift in thinking away for enemies and towards adversaries would allow for counter-terrorism policies that do not look for extremes and, thereby, bring terrorism back to proportions.
These advantages might seem farfetched in times of ISIS or Boko Haram. But in light of the current use of the notion of terrorism it seems timely to ask for an alternative understanding of terrorism guiding political practice as much as research.