As a discipline, criminology tends to treat terrorism as an objective phenomenon, to be mapped, explained, and managed. Scholars informed by more critical strains of the discipline, however, argue that orthodox criminology is reductive and uncritical. Relying on normative definitions of terrorism, orthodox analyses reproduce assumptions of powerful institutions, thus collaborating and furthering a system of social control marked by increased authoritarianism. Cultural, critical, and constitutive criminologies call for a more politically engaged criminology, which recognizes that power is inherent to knowledge production. How terrorism is socially constructed and framed is of primary significance, since terrorism is not a given, ontological fact, but rather a power inhered designation. The framing of terrorism through multiple, intersecting, discursive systems impacts radically how we make sense of the world. Cultural discourses (including media representations) intersect with and reinforce other institutional narratives, giving rise to a dominant script, which provides us with a framework for understanding terror. Examining the cultural and social discourses that constitute this script is not an end point; rather, it is a way into cultural power. It is a means to critically assess cultural myths and ideological frames that are crucial in shaping our perceptions of safety and security, victims and perpetrators, and more. Cultural meanings work their way into our consciousness, engendering a framework for interpreting events and identities, compelling us to understand the world in particular ways, obliging us to consent to real world policies. Much of the analysis in this vein examines the representation of terrorism and counter-terrorism through Edward Said’s lens of Orientalism. This approach highlights the ways in which terrorism has come to be conflated with Muslim identity, while it also highlights the binary structuring of this “Muslim as terrorist” script, which creates dualistic categories of us versus other, rational versus irrational, modernity versus anti-modernity, and so on. These binaries create essentialized visions of Islam and Muslims as chaotic, violent, and disorderly, who pose an apocalyptic threat to the West. Imagined as Islam’s binary opposite, the West is framed as being perilously at risk from an entire category of people who are discursively transformed into essentialized suspect communities. These framings come to be institutionalized in the form of anti-terror policies and practices. As an example, the War on Terrorism slogan and the accompanying Orientalist imagery of the Muslim terrorist, was integral to lending legitimacy to international military action, the detentions in Guantanamo Bay, the use of torture, and more, post-9/11. Prevailing framings—dehumanizing and devoid of real context—were the scaffolding on which such policies and practices could be built. Indeed, undergirding the ever-increasing nexus of authoritarian, repressive counter-terrorism measures, is a cultural repertoire of Orientalist meanings that provide the cultural conditions necessary for us to consent to increasing social control. The material and often-brutal consequences of these policies are felt most keenly by those who are caught in the expansive, amorphous category of “Other.” This suffering is largely out of the frame, and instead, we are invited to think of the state response as a logical and necessary step to ensure our safety. Understanding how abstract discourse comes to be embedded in institutional practice is crucial if criminologists are to take seriously the question of (in)justice. This necessitates resisting the troubling dominant discourses that frame terrorism, and it means that we must reflexively be aware of our own role in perpetuating “knowledge” and a cultural climate within which real people suffer.
Allison E. Betus, Michael K. Jablonski, and Anthony F. Lemieux
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.
Emil Aslan Souleimanov
Reflecting on the recent rise of Salafi groups and their impact on civil war, the academic literature on Salafi radicalization, mobilization, and recruitment has burgeoned in the recent decade and a half. Yet little consensus exists as to the relative power of three major causes: grievances, ideology, and radical milieu and support structures as causes of violent radicalization. Even less is known about how jihadist foreign fighters affect civil wars in terms of conflict intensity and resolution. In both fields, key debates are identified in the recent scholarship, explain the major shortcomings and gaps, and suggest avenues of future research. For instance, it is important—and hardly avoidable—that epistemological and ontological obstacles lay in the way of establishing the causes of (violent) radicalization, because the processes relating to the change of human perception and behavior are extremely difficult to trace. Another point is the frequent—deliberate or unintended—distortion of the testimonies of former combatants, not least Salafi-jihadists, which makes the task of establishing the causes of (violent) radicalization and recruitment harder. Identifying avenues of further research, there is a lack of quality first-hand data in the current research on Salafi-inspired radicalization, mobilization, and recruitment. More methodological plurality—particularly in-depth ethnographic studies and quantitative work—is needed, as well as more research on virtual social networks and non-verbal contents.
Political violence includes an array of conducts and events that defy unilateral examination. It may be authorized or unauthorized violence, and while the latter is almost always associated with crime, the former is normally deemed an expression of the legitimate monopoly in the use of force characterizing modern societies. There are institutional and anti-institutional forms of political violence, namely violence of the authority and violent expressions of defiance against authority. Both have been the object of analysis by sociologists and criminologists, with some contending that theories of “common” violence should be applied to the analysis of political violence. It is assumed, for example, that both types of violence possess a goal-directed character: achieving results, extracting something of value from others, or exercising justice by punishing wrongdoers. Other analysts, however, link political violence with social conflict derived from collective grievance around inequality and injustice, thus locating this type of violence within the tradition of social movement analysis and the dynamics of collective action. Conflict theory provides a prime framework for this type of analysis, which focuses on contentious issues, organizational matters, and the shaping of identities that lead aggrieved groups to turn to violence. Sociological and criminological theories also offer a rich analytical patrimony that helps focusing on political crime committed by states and their representatives occupying powerful social positions. Many contributions, in this respect, cover atrocities perpetrated by institutional actors and the different forms of conscious, unconscious, personal, cultural, or official denial accompanying such atrocities. The term political crime, therefore, ends up relating to state crime, political and administrative corruption, and a variety of crimes of the elite normally included under the umbrella definition “the crimes of the powerful.” Conversely, when the focus moves onto political violence perpetrated by anti-institutional or non-state actors, the term “terrorism” is usually referred to, a term that is not likely to meet universal acceptance or unquestioned adoption due to the difficulties social scientists find in defining it. In sum, political violence and crime present scholars and practitioners with the same ambiguity that connotes definitions of social behavior and the processes of its criminalization. Such ambiguity becomes clear if, as proposed in the following pages, political violence and crime are examined through multidisciplinary lenses, particularly those offered by social theory, philosophy, and political science, along with criminology.
Since the attacks of 9/11, research on radicalization has burgeoned. Most theories of radicalization postulate multiple pathways to radicalization, grievance as a major radicalizing force, emotion rather than ideology precipitating radicalization, and small-group dynamics contributing to radicalization. Empirical data have consistently supported the distinction between activism and radicalism and between radical opinion and radical action. Research into the special category of the radical actor, or lone attackers, uncovered two possible profiles: disconnected-disordered and caring-compelled, each motivated by a kind of disordered emotional state. Internet and social media have amplified and broadened radicalization of both opinion and action. Extrapolating from these findings to the recent increase in right-wing radicalization, a new definition of radicalization is proposed, suggesting a shift in researchers’ and policymakers’ focus from identifying instances of radicalization to identifying its causes. In this conceptual view, radicalization is a result of perceived widespread injustice, where shared narratives highlight grievances (radicalization of opinion) and motivate a few to act against perceived perpetrators (radicalization of action). Implications for research and policy are discussed.
Countering violent extremism (CVE) has become a core component of counterterrorism strategies. As a concept and field of research, the CVE label lacks clarity, but it refers to policy and programs designed to prevent violent extremism and radicalization. The major components of CVE include community engagement, interventions for vulnerable youth, efforts to counter online extremism, and attempts to deradicalize terrorist offenders through psychological and religious counseling. Evidence about the effectiveness of these programs remains limited, but empirical research in the field is growing. CVE is commonly understood through a public-health framework that focuses on program targets: communities, at-risk individuals, and convicted offenders. A more thorough comparative approach would also consider governance, definitions of key concepts, aims, actors, targets, activities, and context.
Oscar Gakuo Mwangi
The Somalia-based Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujaheddin, commonly known as al-Shabaab, is a violent nonstate armed actor that has been designated a terrorist group. Its origins are a function of domestic and international factors that include the resurgence of political Islam in Somalia, the Afghan War of 1979 to 1989, state collapse and the prominent rise of the Union of Islamic Courts in the country. Consequently al-Shabaab adopted Islamism, in particular Salafi jihadism, as a political ideology to achieve its objective of creating an Islamic caliphate in the Horn of Africa. Since its formation in 2006, al-Shabaab’s organizational structure, its strategies and tactics of radicalization, recruitment, financing, and military warfare have been based on Islamist doctrines. Al-Shabaab’s effective use of Salafi jihadism to pursue its objectives has made it the greatest threat to peace and stability in Somalia. By establishing links with international groups that advocate a similar ideology, such as al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab has successfully managed to transform itself from a domestic to a transnational actor, thereby also constituting a threat to international security.