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date: 28 February 2024

Terrorism and Intergroup Communicationfree

Terrorism and Intergroup Communicationfree

  • Allison E. Betus, Allison E. BetusGlobal Studies Institute, Georgia State University
  • Michael K. JablonskiMichael K. JablonskiGlobal Studies Institute, Georgia State University
  •  and Anthony F. LemieuxAnthony F. LemieuxGlobal Studies Institute, Georgia State University


Terrorism employs violence or the threat of violence to diffuse and amplify messages to an audience beyond the immediate target or victim of an attack. Violent acts initiate media coverage, as well as word-of-mouth transmission, functioning as a gateway that draws attention to the terror group and its messages in a manner that increases the salience of the communication; then media provides additional information contextualizing the original act. Media coverage may make the group initiating the communication look more dangerous or powerful than is warranted.

Terrorist communication strategy involves a noteworthy violent act, or threat thereof, that secondarily communicates with multiple audience groups. One audience may be supporters of the terror group who construct identity from the violent act as well as from grievances that the group seeks to advertise. Another may be outgroups sympathetic with the substance of communicated messages. Still another may be foreign countries, which may provide a sense of legitimacy to the actions of the group.

A violent group successfully portrayed as victimized will solidify ingroup cohesion and outgroup hostility while justifying the use of violence as a moral consequence of circumstances. Terrorists often dehumanize the outgroup by stereotyping them in ways they argue will justify violence. People sympathetic with the dehumanization of the outgroup may provide support without actually joining in the perpetration of terror. Some may be radicalized by communication produced by terrorists, such as on social media, to become actors themselves. Counter-terror tactics may disrupt intergroup communication, thus interfering with recruitment or operational capabilities of those supporting or engaging in terrorism.


  • International/Global Communication
  • Intergroup Communication

Terrorism as an Evolving Concept

Terrorism is fundamentally communicative and psychological. Terrorist incidents and attacks function as communication devices on several levels, ranging from the immediate physical target to multiple remote audiences reacting to an incident (Hoffman, 2006). A bombing at a train station, for example, broadcasts different messages to divergent groups: the immediate target may panic at sudden violence; audiences physically separated from the scene may alter behavior in response to the existential threat of violence; supporters of the group effecting the raid may interpret it as a demonstration of the power and the efficacy of their organization. Thus, an act of terror may convey multiple messages to many groups (Bolt, 2012).

Linguistically, terrorism functions as a floating signifier conveying different information to disparate users of the word (Schmid, 2011). The vast array of actors, audiences, actions, motivations, and messages potentially embedded in terror activities complicates the adoption of a generally accepted definition of terrorism. Since the concept of terrorism is socially constructed, the meaning fluctuates as society experiences and reacts to it (Spencer, 2012).

The modern construct of terrorism represents six phases: violence to maintain governments, violence to overthrow governments, violence to seeking social change, violence as social engineering, violence to achieve political legitimacy, and violence to focus attention on domestic issues. Each phase results from historical contexts in which a group seeks to popularize its message (e.g., White, 2013).

The French Revolution (1789–1799) marked the beginning of modern terrorism. The Jacobins, members of a ruthless political club in Paris, employed systematic violence to restore order after the initial uprising. The word, as applied to Jacobins, connoted the use of force as a tool of governance. The first English use of the word “terror” by Edmund Burke, in a letter discussing the French Revolution, denounced excessive violence by a government for the maintenance of order (Burke, 1887).

By 1848 the concept of terrorism had wandered from the use of violence to reinforce a regime to the more modern concept of violence to undermine a government. Karl Marx argued that “revolutionary terrorism” could be applied to hasten the demise of the bourgeoisie. Trotsky (1911) argued that Marxist revolutionary terrorism advocated violence by workers specifically targeting mechanisms of economic domination, such as destroying machinery rather than injuring persons because violence harming individuals would create a backlash.

Not all revolutionaries avoided injuring persons. People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya), founded in 1878, proposed violence targeting specific individuals in Czarist Russia. Violence by this group was directed against individuals thought to be emblematic of the oppressive regime, such as the royal family or senior officials (Hoffman, 2006). Similarly, anarchists in the United States sought to assassinate powerful individuals, such President William McKinley, who was murdered by Leon Czolgosz in 1901.

At the beginning of the 20th century, business and government officials began to label labor unions, anarchists, and nationalists as terrorists in order to delegitimize them (Chaliand & Blin, 2016). Irish nationalists conducted an urban dynamite campaign beginning in 1887. Nationalist organizations, such as in Ireland, Armenia, and Bosnia, migrated from perpetrating isolated violent events to sustained campaigns disrupting infrastructure, such as repeated bombings of railways. Over time, terrorism became regarded less as a revolutionary activity intent on overthrowing a government than trying to modify oppressive policies. Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler epitomize the use of violence by totalitarian regimes attempting to construct a social scheme favoring a privileged group. Both Hitler and Mussolini acquired power through street gangs bullying political opposition then consolidated power once in control of the government by initiating persecution programs. Mussolini employed the metaphor of hygiene to describe policies that eliminated certain groups from politics and society (Hoffman, 2006). By contrast, the Communist Party in Russia held firm control of the government when Stalin became its leader. Stalinist purges were designed to eliminate groups that could undermine absolute control of the country (Chaliand & Blin, 2016).

After the Second World War, the rise of anticolonial nationalism changed perceptions of terrorism. Asia, Africa, and the Middle East experienced the development of rebellions seeking international support for their demands of self-determination. Labeling themselves as “freedom fighters” and framing violent activities as “wars of liberation” nationalist groups understood that they were waging a propaganda campaign that merged word and deed (Chaliand & Blin, 2016).

The communicative salience of violence brought about a further expansion of the idea of terrorism to include the use of violence by groups not associated with the state seeking to publicity for a cause. The second half of the 20th century witnessed widespread terror activities generated by a large number of groups. The Angry Brigade in Great Britain, Red Youth in the Netherlands, ETA in Spain, Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio in Italy, Provisional IRA in Ireland, and Red Army Faction in Germany, and Weather Underground in United States, among many others, utilized violence to promote the interest of a group at odds with one or more contrasting groups. Northern Ireland, for example, became a battleground fueled by Catholic-Protestant and Irish-British group distinctions (Hoffman, 2006). Modern terror organizations, such as domestic groups seeking change on a wide variety of issues that range from overthrowing incumbent political regimes to protection of the environment, have learned to combine violence with sophisticated manipulation of media.

Terrorism as a Communicative Act

Terrorism represents an act of communication in which violence, or the threat thereof, acts as a gateway to focus attention on issues advocated by one group that have been ignored, or at least underappreciated, by others (Jetter, 2014; Campos & Gassebner, 2013). Intentional violence used to generate publicity can place issues on the public agenda that might otherwise go unnoticed. Terror organizations avail themselves of multiple communication channels ranging from rumor, to newspapers, to globally networked information and communication technologies to make their messages available (Dienel, Sharan & Rapp, 2010).

Disseminating information is futile unless audiences receive the message. Violent political acts direct potential audiences to the terror group message (Bolt, 2012). Media, especially media that reaches groups a terror organization seeks to influence, functions as an unwitting ally of the terrorist by providing free publicity. News coverage of terror incidents has been demonstrated to increase fears of people exposed to the coverage that they will be harmed by terrorists (Forest, Nellis, & Savage, 2012). The message often is directed to a group other than ones physically assaulted in a terror act. In a communications sense, the target group sustaining physical damage functions less as a victim of an attack than as the diffusion apparatus for the message. “The message matters, not the victim” (Schmid & de Graaf, 1982, p. 14). Terror organizations, consequently, often time attacks to assure maximal media attention (Rohner & Frey, 2007).

The communicative nature of terrorism developed with the idea of “propaganda of the deed,” or the performance of a violent political act such as assassination designed to send a message to oppositional groups (Bolt, 2012). Although propaganda of the deed can be effected without violence, the term came to be widely used to characterize violence campaigns conducted by left-wing groups around the beginning of the 20th century. Violent deeds themselves sent a message, but psychological and propagandistic consequences were amplified by resulting media attention (Rafique, Anjum, & Raheem, 2016).

In the context of terrorism, violent political acts must be evaluated beyond the immediate effects on victims by extending to a consideration of effects to groups identified as audiences for messages. The terrorist can send multiple messages to diverse groups with a single violent act, or a coordinated campaign, that seizes popular imagination and generates lingering media coverage (Schmid & deGraaf, 1982).

Identity, Grievance, and Motivation

Group identity is fundamental to the formation, recruitment, and functioning of terrorist organizations, as it dictates how communicative messages are framed by the group and received by the audience (Weisel & Zultan, 2016). Media produced by terrorist organizations defines and reinforces group identity in a number of ways, including identifying the group’s enemies and demonstrating the necessity and desirability of conflict (Bolt, 2012). Strategic narratives are employed extensively by terrorist organizations and follow a basic structure: something that the group enjoyed is lost or has been ruined, establishment of who is responsible and how, what must be done to recover said loss, and what will happen if certain action is taken or not taken (Miskimmon, Roselle, & O’Loughlin, 2013). Clear definitions of these features within group narratives and repetition of these narratives is critical for effective persuasive communication (Douglas & Wildavsky, 1982).

Because group boundaries and the consequences of intergroup interactions are especially overt and plainly stated in media aimed at children, messaging aimed at them makes a logical starting point. Stories and themes aimed at indoctrinating children depict characters being rewarded for acting in line with the group’s values and members of the outgroup being both unambiguously morally repellant and harmful to the ingroup. Recruitment media aimed at children often takes the form of cartoons or comics designed to ease them into the more graphic and complex nature of media aimed at older audiences.

The Palestinian Hamas-affiliated children’s program Tomorrow’s Pioneers represents an extreme example of messaging to children. The target audience of this show seems to have been children under the age of 10; the co-host was an anthropomorphic mouse named “Farfour.” In one episode, Farfour refused to hand over to an Israeli the rights to land he had inherited from his grandfather. In response, the Israeli man beat Farfour to death on screen. Another host of the show, a young girl, plainly stated that Farfour was killed protecting land that was rightfully his. Farfour was replaced by a bumblebee character, Nahoul, who eventually died of illness due to Israel making it impossible for him to leave Gaza for medical care in Egypt (Middle East Media Research Institute, 2007). The next replacement character, a rabbit named Assoud, was killed during an Israeli attack but not before announcing to a group of children, “And I, Assoud, will finish off the Jews and eat them, Allah willing” (Middle East Media Research Institute, 2008).

Throughout this example, repetition and clear definitions of the in- and outgroups are central to the show’s narrative. They provide archetypes and heroes to emulate, as well as enemies that make them necessary. Narratives aimed at adults often follow a similar pattern. As with most marketing, images of both ingroup and outgroup members are designed to display people in idealized and noncontradictory ways. Still other propaganda focuses on reinforcing group identification by humiliating members who are noncompliant with group ideals. Groups that employ women and children use them to shame men into action, while concurrently communicating to women and children that they can and should become active (Bloom & Horgan, 2015). The message is that real men do not rely on women and children to do the fighting, and women and children can be valuable members of the organization.

Outgroup support for certain policies will also be displayed as proof that these policies must be rejected by ingroup members, lest they slide into a similar state of moral decay. Religious terrorism is often contextualizes this as being part of a cosmic war (Juergensmeyer, 2000). For example, the so-called Islamic State (as well as many other terrorist groups) argues that acceptance of homosexuality by an outgroup, and the failure to punish it vigorously, constitutes proof of moral and spiritual corruption. Ergo, group membership requires condemnation of homosexuality, as well as rejecting groups that allow it. In sum, terrorist communications celebrate and define group identity while defining which actions must be taken or avoided in order to preserve the integrity of group membership.

Steps Toward the Justification of Violence

Given the violent nature of terrorism, and the general aversion that people have to intentionally harming others, justifying negative behaviors constitutes an extensive component of messages intended to motivate recruitment or retention. The image of a powerful and just group fighting on behalf of the viewer is obviously compelling to people who identify with the group, but this alone is likely not enough to justify personally engaging in violent acts on behalf of the group. Evidence suggests that a sense of victimization is a powerful motivator for justifying violence and extremist ideology, even if that victimization has not been experienced personally (e.g., Lemieux & Asal, 2010; Simi & Futrell, 2010).

A perception of group-based victimization or relative deprivation can trigger outgroup hostility and ingroup cohesion (McCauley & Moskalenko, 2008; Moskalenko & McCauley, 2011). Actions that induce cognitive dissonance (psychological stress incurred by actions contradicting a person’s values or beliefs) regarding group habituation in broader religious, ethnic, or political identity (such as ISIS’s use of immolation as an execution method, despite the practice being sacrilegious) are justified as being necessary, either due to actions of the outgroup against the ingroup or in furtherance of ingroup goals.

Justification allows members not particularly enamored with violence to rationalize their involvement. Stereotyping, often discussed in the context of negative outgroup attitudes, also generates positive ingroup images that categorize the world by creating meaning for an individual (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). It also allows an individual to ameliorate effects of negative stereotypes about a group they identify with through proactive and identity-reinforcing behaviors (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). A person experiencing a strong Christian identity, for example, engages in behaviors associated with their identity as a “real” Christian.

Identity reinforcing behaviors, such as religious or political practices, are generally benign. However, organizations that use terrorism may significantly differ by requiring members to undertake activities that are criminal at best and murderous at worst. For example, media for children by Palestinian extremists (Tomorrow’s Pioneers being only one example) often presents the message that suicide terrorism against Israel is both rewarding and a duty. Reliance on stereotyped information about both the self and the “other” uncomplicates these actions, rendering them more justifiable and less distressing (Castano & Giner-Sorolla, 2006).

Two core concepts in play here include the fundamental attribution error and dehumanization. Dehumanization establishes outgroup members as lacking uniquely human traits (e.g., civility, maturity, logic, etc.) or lacking essential component of human nature (e.g., compassion, warmth, altruism, etc.), rendering them as subhuman (Haslam, 2006). Dehumanization places outgroup members as outside of the considerations and rights that “real” humans deserve, thereby eliminating concern about harm that outgroup members may suffer.

The fundamental attribution error is a form of cognitive bias which results in attributing negative actions effected by the self or an ingroup member to external or situational factors (e.g., we beat someone into unconsciousness because we were provoked and directly threatened), whereas internal or dispositional factors explain those of an outgroup member (e.g., they beat someone into unconsciousness because they are sadistic and bloodthirsty) (Ross, 1977). Outgroup members may be characterized as evil because this is thought of as an essential and immutable aspect of their being. The rhetoric of terrorist organizations frequently employs dehumanizing language and imagery (Kruglanski, Jasko, Chernikova, Dugas & Webber, 2017). Terrorist organizations often portray their targets as infrahuman (apes, pigs, dogs, insects, demons, monsters, etc.) and employ sweeping negative generalizations against enemy groups. Motivating group members to support or even commit acts of violence against outgroups perceived as reasonable humans willing to discuss issues would be difficult. Thus, dehumanization plays a tangible role in altering intergroup relationships to permit, if not require, violence. Undermining any perception that outgroup members may be sentient (and therefore human) corresponds to heightened desire to punish an outgroup while diminishing interest in peaceful negotiation (Leidner, Castano, Zaiser, & Giner-Sorolla, 2010).

High levels of ingroup glorification also relate to increased levels of outgroup dehumanization and deprecation of outgroup suffering (Leidner, Castano, & Ginges, 2013). For example, Dabiq and Rumiyah, propaganda magazines produced by ISIL, print articles that praise suicide attackers while denigrating their victims. The importance of ingroup glorification has been empirically documented as well. For instance, when participants were faced with a scenario where either an ingroup or outgroup member had tortured outgroup members to death, glorification, dehumanization, and minimization were linked to decreased support for an ingroup criminal receiving justice for their crime compared to an outgroup criminal (Leidner, Castano & Ginges, 2013).

Labels and stereotypes of terrorists often extend to those who have nothing to do with terrorism or a terrorist organization, but share demographic characteristics such as race, ethnicity, or religion (Evans, 2011). The potential deleterious consequences of this are many, including an exacerbation and expansion of conflict and hostilities. For instance, if someone feels stereotyped or dehumanized, it can change how they present themselves and interpret the behavior of outgroup members, creating a positive feedback loop and possibly changing behaviors (e.g., Kteily, Hodson, & Bruneau, 2016). When an individual feels personally stereotyped by a group and feels prejudice toward that group, negative aspects of the stereotype may be embraced (“If you’re going to treat me like a criminal, I may as well act like a criminal”). In this case, adopted behaviors may even include support for violent extremism and normalizing antisocial behavior where negative behavior may be reframed as positive (Kamans, Gordijn, Oldenhuis, & Otten, 2009). Positive reframing may be especially apparent in the context of suicide terrorism. Here, an outgroup stereotypes the terrorist organization as populated by fanatics while the ingroup portrays such actors as heroes. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, for example, extensively practiced suicide terrorism (Stack-O’Connor, 2007). Much of their propaganda dramatized and celebrated the sacrifices of members while asserting that peaceful coexistence with the Sinhala was impossible (Van de Voorde, 2005).

A sense of victimization and insignificance has also been linked to an increase in willingness to engage in violence and increased acceptance of radical ideology. For example, among American and European Muslims, perceptions of being the victim of anti-Muslim discrimination was linked to an increase in support for suicide terrorism (Victoroff, Adelman, & Matthews, 2012). Among Americans who had committed ideologically driven crimes, loss of economic and social significance (such as social rejection or failure to find a job) were found to have significant and positive relationships with use of violence (Jasko, LaFree, & Kruglanski, 2016). Deradicalization efforts have also found that finding ways to restore a sense of personal significance to former terrorists may decrease radical attitudes and willingness to commit acts of violence (Webber et al., 2017).

The interaction between exposure, attitude, victimization, and action is murky, however. A person may be radicalized but not engage in terrorism, while a person who engages in terrorism is not necessarily radicalized (McCauley & Moskalenko, 2014). A person may embrace a terrorist organization’s ideology and despise its enemies without joining the organization or engaging in acts of terrorism (McCauley & Moskalenko, 2008). Consumption of and exposure to propaganda alone is no guarantee that a person will become a member or supporter of a terrorist group. Research on motivation to join and participate in terror groups has found this to be the case. While grievances and the desire for revenge seems an obvious motivator for engaging in terrorism, mundane, circumstantial, or even tragic reasons may be salient to varying degrees in individual cases. Violent extremist groups may be the only local option for employment, infrastructure, and food, for example (Becker, 2004). There is a considerable range in the amount of agency evident in people’s involvement in terrorism. Aggressive recruitment campaigns, especially those aimed at children and the desperate, may be dangerous to resist, such as the Tamil Tigers attempting to directly recruit children walking to and from school (Becker, 2004). Social pressure is also often a factor, as people tend to recruit from within their friends and family, where lack of participation can be punished (McCauley & Moskalenko, 2008). Others attempt to join or affiliate with terrorist groups in order to have an exciting life enriched with purpose and a strong sense of group belonging (Doosje et al., 2016). When an individual identifies strongly with a group, attacks against that group can provoke violent action (McCauley & Moskalenko, 2014). Rather than successfully terrorizing a population into submission, terrorism often provokes support for violent conflict against terror organizations. Asymmetric conflicts—engagements between actors possessing unequal resources such that one actor must rely upon unusual tactics—may result in governments action that oppresses or kills large groups of people, suspected of supporting terrorists. Terror organizations exploit retributive violence by initiating aggressive action designed to provoke a disproportionate response that is leveraged by the terror group to foment anger against government and appeal to a sense of justice in the population (DeAngelis, 2009).

In this context, an organization is a social collective that coordinates activities and structure to realize organizational and individual goals with reference to other organizations. The existence of the organization establishes a foundation for dissemination of information, persuasion, and motivation. Both terrorism and counterterrorism depend upon the establishment of organizations that can ensure effective communication to diffuse rules and regulations, educate, and direct the use of new technologies (Miller, 2012). Since the purpose of a terror act is to communicate, a terror organization embodies the observation that “communication is perceived as central to the social construction of the organization’s reality” (Marynissen, Ladkin, Denyer & Pilbeam, 2014). Terror groups fall squarely within the “communications constitutes organizations” view of organizational communication not only because internal conversations using various means are essential to the operation of the group but because the explicit purpose of the organization is to broadcast a message.

Radicalization of Ideas and Actions: Depictions and Justifications

The assumption that people who become radicalized to violence are especially cruel, mentally disturbed, or mindlessly bloodthirsty is not rooted in a solid body of evidence (e.g., McCauley & Moskalenko, 2017). If this were indeed the case, effective and enduring groups simply would not exist. How would someone even lead a large group of such people effectively, much less train, feed, shelter, and organize them? A group that projects itself as barbaric and cruel to all audiences may threaten its own ability to generate sufficient support to maintain its existence over a longer term. This point of contention arose between the central leadership of Al Qaeda and the emergent Al Qaeda in Iraq under the leadership of Zarqawi, who built the notoriety of his burgeoning organization until his death in 2006 (Warrick, 2015; McCants, 2015; Stern & Berger, 2015; Kilcullen, 2016).

While the most memorable examples of terrorist media portray executions (such as beheading or immolation videos produced by ISIL between 2014 and 2016) and destruction, they do not necessarily constitute the majority of the propaganda. This is especially true in the case of ISIL, where most of the content the group produced through late 2016 had been geared toward establishing the legitimacy and efficacy of the group in establishing a Caliphate. As noted earlier, terrorist groups want to convey a number of messages to several audiences. What they want to convey to an enemy will differ from what they want to convey to their members and potential supporters. Appeals to audiences outside of the organization often emphasize recruiting young people, although appeals to children may indicate that a group is having difficulty attracting adults (Bloom & Horgan, 2015). Potential recruits are promised rewards that follow adoption of rules and customs of the group (e.g., salvation, material rewards, a better future, independence from an occupying force, the overthrow of an oppressive government, etc.) and warned of punishment if they do not accept (e.g. damnation, death, destruction, humiliation, etc.).

ISIL, for example, often implores Muslims to pledge allegiance to them, promising prosperity and eternal paradise after death; then they warn that any Muslim not pledged to ISIL is not a “real” Muslim and is therefore an appropriate target for violence (and executed if captured). Media produced by terrorist organizations, in addition to promoting their worldview, often explains how the viewer can get involved in the cause. Involvement need not be through violent action. Opportunities and instructions on how to provide funding and material support, proselytize on the group’s behalf, or work in a noncombat capacity as an essential component of building a functional state.

Accommodating nonviolent participation creates a perception of legitimacy and may even make the organization appear to be especially humanitarian in the eyes of a potential recruit. Messages of empowerment provide further appeal to new members. By engaging in action on behalf of the group, the audience member is made to feel that they make a tangible difference. The possibility of contributing to change forms an attractive possibility to a person who sees a problem and wants to be part of the solution. It is not uncommon for media from terrorist organizations, from the Irish Republican Army to the National Alliance to Al-Qaeda, to emphasize camaraderie, belonging, and unity. It is important to recognize that ingroup love drives behavior as well as (and sometimes instead of) outgroup hatred.

Groups that use terrorism often position it as part of a broader mission and sense of purpose. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam wanted a state for the Tamil people, not just their own members. Other groups (such as the FARC in Colombia) claim to be a champion for the poor and oppressed. White supremacists often claim that they want to make the world a safe place for their culture and their children. While these groups give violent resistance a privileged and legitimate status, violent action itself is often treated as being difficult but necessary. Paradoxically, the call to kill or hurt others may then be framed as an act of altruism. For example, anti-abortion extremist Paul Hill murdered Dr. John Britton and James Barrett in 1994 for working at a clinic that provided abortions. According to Hill, he did not do it for a love of killing; he did it to “protect the unborn” (Hill, 2003). Rhetoric from the Army of God, an anti-abortion terrorist organization that Hill was connected to, promotes this narrative, stating, “He was a well-known advocate of the duty to defend both born and unborn children with whatever force is necessary”(Hill, n.d.). He did not “commit murder.” He used “whatever force is necessary.” To a person sympathetic to pro-life terrorism, the fact that he was “forced” to commit murder and subsequently sentenced to life in prison makes him a hero and a tragic victim of a broken society that does not value the sanctity of life. The fact that taking this action, which was completely legitimate in the eyes of anti-abortion extremists, ruined Hill’s life further humanizes and legitimizes violent and destructive action—it proves that the other side is unjust. The perpetrators are not violent psychopaths according to the narrative; they simply love their ingroup so much that they are willing to undertake dangerous action on their behalf.

In terms of how people reach a point where actions such as Hill’s seem reasonable, there seem to be few clear-cut answers. While there is no shortage of speculation on how and why radicalization occurs, the process itself is difficult to research empirically. Processes and mechanisms of radicalization have been detailed extensively by McCauley and Moskalenko (2017), though the number of people who have been radicalized and recruited into terrorist groups is very low. Thus, establishing causal factors and predicting radicalization to action has proven nearly impossible (Klausen, Campion, Needle, Nguyen, & Libretti, 2016). Conditions that have been detailed as necessary for radicalization may exist without it actually occurring. Radicalization may also occur without an obvious explanation. This is especially the case in so-called self-radicalization, which is when a person becomes radicalized without having any direct contact with a terrorist organization (Pantucci, 2011).

Exposure to terrorist messages is part of the process but may not be enough to cause radicalization, as evidenced by the fact that the authors of this chapter have not defected to ISIL. What factors make a person more receptive to terrorist propaganda and motivate them to join or found an organization? Producers of terror propaganda know that the Internet provides a set of important communication channels in modern radicalization, and they use it extensively. Tweets, videos, music, forums, books, speeches, magazines, and every other kind form of media can be made available to anyone willing to look. The radicalization process may proceed without a recruit ever even meeting a member of a terrorist organization.

Individuals who radicalize will often, of their own volition, seek information on extreme positions and authority figures. While finding an authority that identifies with a terrorist organization may have been a matter of proximity and social groups with a physical presence before the Internet, now it simply requires Internet access and a willingness to look. For example, the Army of God Manual, a book detailing and promoting the group’s beliefs, is available online for free, as are forums for racial separatists, anti-government militants, and other groups with a violent fringe. More recently, the effective use of social media platforms (i.e., Twitter, Telegram) have become a mainstay of the strategic communication strategies of ISIL and may prove to be game changing in the broader space of intergroup communications and terrorism.

Even more dangerous materials and groups are available if a person is willing to take risks and is sufficiently tech savvy. For example, a person who understands how to access and navigate the dark web—websites that are encrypted and require special permissions and software to access—will be able to potentially locate and interact with people who are active terrorists (Weimann, 2016). Obviously, not everything on the dark web is related to terrorism or sympathetic to it, but extremist ideas and content can maintain a relatively stable presence there (Weimann, 2016). The potential for interaction among peers interested in radical causes can create an online environment in which group membership becomes more attractive as they discuss the issues and become familiar with actual group members. Developing ties with members of these organizations and having meaningful dialogue with them can make joining the group feel like a realistic option and provide additional incentive to involvement due to the existence of a group of people who are willing to answer questions and mitigate fears about joining.

Implications of Terrorism for Intergroup Communication

What happens when terror label is used? The term “terrorist” itself has both negative and pejorative connotations. Negative stigma attendant to the term inculcates perceptions that an outgroup will not negotiate or listen, shutting down communication and reinforcing the intergroup barriers.

Since no commonly agreed definition of terrorism has emerged, the term functions as a floating signifier in which each user may apply a different meaning. This is problematic for a number of reasons, but here we will consider one potentially underappreciated example. Since people have individualized assessments of what a terrorist “should” be, then applying the label may have unanticipated consequences. Where an individual feels personally stereotyped as a terrorist and is prejudiced against the group doing so, use of the term may heighten intergroup tensions and even perpetuate perceptions of terrorism as normal and justifiable (Kamans et al., 2009).

As with most intergroup conflict situations, communication framing is important. Examining the rhetoric and propaganda of a given group with an analytical eye should make identifying their overt frames trivial, but in-depth analysis of their communication materials and how they differ for different audiences should be undertaken before moderating messages are developed. Shifting how an issue is framed is critical to making others more receptive to different perspectives (Giles, Reid, & Harwood, 2010).

For example, a man in the IRA may fear for the safety of his family too much to leave the group, but if messages frameshift from self-preservation to protection (such as by highlighting risks to family members due to his continued involvement) they may be more persuasive.

Both common sense perspectives and experts agree that counter-messages must undercut recruitment, while reducing member retention. Messages designed to discourage potential recruits from joining terrorist organizations need to impress upon the audience that compelling alternatives exist while motivating and educating them to choose wisely. Some recruits join terrorist organizations out of revenge or desperation. They may need to be provided with strategies to sublimate anger into something helpful or opportunities to earn enough money to survive. It is important that these messages come from people that potential members respect and find credible. Just as being exposed to peers and authorities involved with terrorist organizations can lend them credibility, peers and authorities that are opposed to these groups are in a position to clear up misconceptions about extremist activity and the dangers involved.

As with many communication campaigns, it would be unwise to treat terrorists as a monolithic group, and audience segmentation is necessary. Additionally, and tragically, some members of terrorist organizations are too young to understand their situation, especially if their own families are the ones who brought them into the group (increasingly common in the case of ISIL) (Bloom & Horgan, 2015). If attempting to persuade a person to leave a group, the same message cannot be used for a seven-year-old brought up in an environment that supported and reinforced a white supremacist worldview, a teenager who voluntarily joined the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to avenge the death of parents, and a young adult foreign fighter who joined ISIL to defend their faith against perceived Western threats.

Given that this article about terrorism is in an encyclopedia about intergroup communication, it seems logical to assume that information on negotiation and communication between groups or individual members of groups in conflict deserves some attention. The importance of understanding the complexities of their propaganda, message, and methods cannot be overstated. For example, if an appeal to get people to leave an organization is based on the harm that violent extremism causes children, that appeal will likely fall flat if the organization has a history of using child soldiers in combat. Messages that emphasize the humanity, and thus commonality, of all of us will probably not appeal to a group that sees their opponent as subhuman. It is extremely important to be aware of and understand how a member of a terrorist group perceives your perceptions of them as well as how they perceive you. A strong awareness of such relevant meta-stereotypes, meta-dehumanization, and sacred values (i.e., values that an individual will never compromise) should inform how communicative efforts are framed. Offering material incentives in exchange for the loss of something of sacred or high symbolic value to a group member can backfire, making compromise untenable (Ginges & Atran, 2013). Care should be taken to avoid breakdowns of communication and negotiation, as evidence suggests that negative intergroup interactions increase prejudice more than positive intergroup interactions decrease it (Barlow et al., 2012). The best advice is to continue to understand the nature and dynamics of intergroup relations and communication and to apply that understanding in a way that does not inadvertently compound or exacerbate the problem of terrorism.


Terrorism is a contested abstraction. The term, as a floating signifier, does not express a commonly understood idea. Two broad paths of scholarship on modern terrorism evolved following the Second World War. The primary focus of study following that war examined terrorism as a function of state activity, primarily characterizing terrorism as a military activity of strategic importance. In the early 1960s another path arguing that terrorism furthered political activities of small, nonstate actors relying on psychological effects of terror activities. The 9/11 attacks, understood both as a strategic and a psychological event, forced a merger of the two approaches in which social sciences have since dominated.

Terror activity during the Second World War was conceptualized as state-centric, either dominated by state actors intent on repression (such as in Germany and Italy, among many others) or by covert groups employing terror in furtherance of strategic aims. Thomas Perry Thornton employed military concepts to formulate five strategic goals motivating terrorists (Thornton, 1964). Similarly, Roland Gaucher treated terrorism as a tactic implemented by a central command but carried out by small groups. (Gaucher, 1968). By contrast, other scholars such as H. Edward Price and Paul Williamson concentrated on broad psychological implications of terror events with little attention to military effects. Differences emerged within this line inquiry. Price, for example, examined terrorism directed against the state while Williamson was more interested in state-perpetrated violence (Price, 1977; Williamson, 2008).

The focus on the military and the state in terrorism studies faded during the 1960s as transnational terrorism by nonstate actors developed. Terror studies approached the “new terrorism” with reference to states, such as the characterization by Robert Moss of terror acts as repressive, defensive, or offensive (Moss, 1972). Even a decade a later, the transnational terror phenomenon was discussed as symptoms of Cold War domination by superpowers (Sterling, 1981). The research focus slowly shifted to looking at terror groups as networks with varying degrees of contact across national borders. Such networks developed as a result of political disruption related to decolonization, as terror was seen to be less a state-sponsored tactic than one employed by insurgents (Rich, 2013). Terrorism came to be understood as a tactic employed by the politically powerless, although the powerful could employ it to reinforce repression (Young, 2013).

The tragic events of 9/11 and 7/7 changed everything. Domestic vulnerability to international terrorism, combined with wars in the Middle East, forced the military to consider implications of global terror networks. Military scholars gravitated to the social studies approach to terror studies in order explain recruitment, tactics, persuasion, and disengagement that became important factors in asymmetric conflict (Horgan & Braddock, 2011).

The main goal of a terror attack is to arouse fear in a target population. Terrorists instill fear by performing high-profile attacks that attract media coverage. The persistence of media coverage increases the popular belief that attacks are imminent, dangerous, and not preventable. A group employing terror tactics does so in the hope that widespread fear leads to political change in an attempt to appease the attacker.

The initial target of a terror operation may be symbolic, but it is rarely strategically important. An attack on a railroad station, for example, may result in injuries to a number of victims while simultaneously instilling psychological consequences on a greater number. Media coverage both spreads fear geographically and sustains the insult with constant reminders of the attack and the possibility of future attacks. Media, therefore, becomes an unwitting accomplice to the terrorist by amplifying and sustaining the message.

Terrorism functions as a communicative act. It draws attention to a message and relies upon media coverage to diffuse, expand, and protract the salience of the message. Narratives employed by a terror organization have two broad functions. First, they strengthen cohesiveness within the group by constructing narratives of loss, ruin, and the inevitability of redressing grievances if communal action is sustained. Second, they attempt to create a moral imperative for change by framing opponents as oppressors or colonialists or some other characterization. Narratives tend to be idealized, establishing role models while plainly communicating consequences to be suffered by the noncompliant.

Terror messages segregate societies into outgroups, identified as morally decadent, and ingroups, composed of adherents to practices that celebrate group identification. The ingroup-outgroup dyad allows terror organizations to morally justify the use of violence. Violence may be employed, the terror argument asserts, because its users are engaged in a just struggle to fight oppression. Characterizing terror group members as victims of an unjust society increases organizational cohesion. While the terror group portrays its members as humane, it seeks to dehumanize opponents. A different set of morals applies to interactions with adversaries that are not human.

The terror group employs violence to draw attention to its message. It relies on media coverage to amplify the impact on opponents. Similarly, anti-terror forces employ violence and manage the media. Communication between groups is not designed to inculcate trust and cooperation but emphasizes differences and serves to fragment actors. Terrorism represents an extreme example of intergroup communication manipulation.

Primary Sources

The U.S. State Department provides an important resource for beginning research in terror in its “Country Reports on Terrorism.” The reports, mandated by Congress, detail groups and countries considered to be involved in terrorism. Reports start in 2004, although information back to 2000 can be found in the similar “Patterns of Global Terrorism.” See

The Global Terrorism Research Project at Haverford College makes a wide range of primary information available at Material ranges from indices of Al Qaeda and ISIS communications to links allowing the acquisition of primary materials maintained by several countries. The ITERATE database (license required) consists of Excel files quantifying characteristics and operating environments for multiple transnational terror groups going back as far as 1968. The Global Terrorism Database maintained by START catalogues more than 150,000 incidents starting in 1970. The resource features data visualization maps showing the evolution of international and domestic terrorism. See

The Middle East & Islamic Studies Collection Blog at Cornell University archives documents seized during the 2012 raid on the Osama bin Laden compound. See

The documents, provided by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, are in both Arabic and English.

Further Reading

  • Abuza, Z. (2003). Militant Islam in Southeast Asia: Crucibles of terror. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
  • Arendt, H. (1951). The origins of totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
  • Aust, S. (2009). Baader-Meinhof: The inside story of the R.A.F. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Conquest, R. (1968). The great terror. New York: Macmillan.
  • Cook, M. (2014). Ancient religions, modern politics: The Islamic case in comparative perspective. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Dallin, A., & Breslauer, G. (1970). Political terror in Communist systems. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Hamid, S. (2014). Temptations of power: Islamists and illiberal democracy in a new Middle East. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Harris, W. (2015). The Levant: A fractured mosaic. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener.
  • Horgan, J. (2014). The psychology of terrorism (2d ed.). New York: Routledge.
  • Levitas, D. (2002). The terrorist next door: The militia movement and the radical right. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
  • Liddick, D. R. (2006). Eco-terrorism: Radical environmental and animal liberation movements. New York: Praeger.
  • Sivan, E. (1985). Radical Islam: Medieval theology and modern politics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Walter, E. V. (1969). Terror and resistance: A study of political violence, with case studies of some primitive African communities. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Weiss, M., & Hassan, H. (2015). ISIS: Inside the army of terror. New York: Regan Arts.