Theories and concepts in terrorism studies

Friday June 21, 12.45 - 14.15

Session 5, Auditorium 6, Eilert Sundt building

Chair: Brynjar Lia

Paper presenters

  • Barriers to terrorism: a first look at why most extremists never become terrorists - Bart Schuurman
  • Cooperating and Othering: The League of Nations and the Definition of Terrorism - Corentin Sire
  • Ontology, Methodology, and the Future of Terrorism Studies - Michael  Jensen and Jacob Aasland Ravndal,      
  • Theory building in Terrorism Studies. Challenges of interdisciplinary inquiry - Asta       Maskaliūnaitė


Barriers to terrorism: a first look at why most extremists never become terrorists

Bart Schuurman, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) & Leiden University

This presentation is predicated on the idea that the question of how and why involvement in terrorism occurs has been approached from the wrong direction. By studying people already in terrorist groups, existing research has been unable to assess how they differ from the majority of radicalized individuals who, despite having similarly extremist worldviews, and despite being exposed to similar socio-political circumstances, never cross the threshold to terrorist violence. To advance our understanding of this form of political violence, we need to reorient our research to ask why most people who radicalize never actually become terrorists. What distinguishes them from those who do cross this threshold, and how can understanding these differences help policy makers and practitioners more effectively prevent and respond to terrorism? This presentation underlines the importance of studying non-involvement in terrorism and provides a first look a new research project being developed at ICCT and Leiden University’s Institute of Security and Global Affairs.

Cooperating and Othering: The League of Nations and the Definition of Terrorism

Corentin Sire, Universities of Montreal and Caen-Normandie

This presentation aims at seeing how, in the interwar period, counterterrorism cooperation and the definition of terrorism became tools (for states such as France and its Eastern European allies) for producing a hegemonic discourse aiming at delegitimising revisionism and justifying the order established at Versailles.

Following the 1934 assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia, a project of convention against terrorism was initiated and debated, up until the 1937 International Conference on the Repression of Terrorism. The convention was initially a success, signed by 24 states; it would however never enter into force, having in the end no impact on counterterrorism cooperation. This paradox, never questioned as such, is enlightening for understanding the underlying role of the convention.

Analysing the geopolitical context, the legal content of the convention and the discourses during the 1934-1937 debates, this research concluded that in fact, the aim was not to effectively combat terrorism. Rather, by producing a consensual but malleable definition of the concept, the convention aimed at constructing an otherness, labelled “terrorism”, that could be associated with revisionism – hence being a tool for delegitimising political projects challenging the peace established at Versailles.

Ontology, Methodology, and the Future of Terrorism Studies

Michael Jensen, START and Jacob Aasland Ravndal, C-REX, University of Oslo

The field of terrorism studies has advanced considerably in recent years, both in terms of the theories that have been developed to explain the causes and consequences of political violence and the empirical evidence that has been used to support causal inferences. However, as the field has evolved, a widening gap has emerged between the ontologies that terrorism scholars embrace and the methodologies that they use to support causal claims. In particular, terrorism researchers have increasingly promoted an ontology of causal complexity; that is, that the nature of causal relationships in the social world are non-linear, multi-causal, interactive, and temporally bound. At the same time, the methods that terrorism scholars have used to support their causal claims are ones that are based on assumptions of causal regularity, where variables are treated as mutually independent and causal effects are assumed to be linear, symmetrical, and additive. The purpose of this paper is to explore the mismatch in ontology and methodology in terrorism studies, gauge the magnitude of the problem, and offer potential solutions. Specifically, we show how the increasing availability of terrorism related data makes it possible to align methodology and ontology in the study of terrorism through the use of methods that are designed to identify causal relationships in complex phenomena.

Theory building in Terrorism Studies. Challenges of interdisciplinary inquiry

Asta Maskaliūnaitė, Baltic Defence College

Now that there is an increasingly widespread recognition that we do have enough data for analysis of terrorism, the other question – what theories can we use to assess terrorism? – becomes of utmost importance. Theories provide the necessary frameworks for assessment of data, allowing to differentiate the important from the white noise. Unfortunately, terrorism studies cannot pride itself with having developed too many theories or schools of thought. Indeed, the studies have been characterised by descriptiveness and shallowness as discussed by the scholars themselves (see Stampnitzky 2016, assessments of the field by Silke 2004, 2009, etc. and recent evaluations by Schuurmann 2018). A look at the courses taught and the books published also confirms tendency – few courses concentrate on theories of terrorism and the first book with a title Theories of terrorism only appeared in 2018. While there are many reasons for this state of affairs, the aim of this paper is to assess the role that interdisciplinarity. It will be suggested that while it was long lauded as an ideal to strive for in social sciences, interdisciplinarity poses great challenges for the development of theories as they tend to be compartmentalized in the neat boxes of the existing disciplines.

Published Apr. 23, 2019 1:21 PM - Last modified June 12, 2019 10:50 AM