The Pitfalls of Contemporary Terrorism Studies’ Discourse

by Arie Perliger

One of the most favorable habits of scholars of terrorism is self-reflection on their field. Numerous op-eds and articles are published every year, striving to reflect on the development and challenges in terrorism studies and assess which future topics will be the most promising and policy-relevant. Such summaries, however, usually expose some of the unfortunate pitfalls of the study of terrorism and the way it is being conveyed to the public and policymakers. The following is a non-exhaustive list of some of the myths and misconceptions which seem to find a permanent place in the public writings of many contemporary security and terrorism experts.

Nostradamus Syndrome: Predicting the Future of Terrorism

One of the most common types of analysis that dominates the contemporary discourse on terrorism is what can be described as “Nostradamus Syndrome.” These are predictions about the future of terrorism, Jihad, ISIS, or any other terrorism flavor of the day. Social scientists are fully aware that even when we have high-resolution data about a social phenomenon, predictions are highly challenging. Hence, it is unsurprising that many of the “future of” analyses seem to be an eclectic collection of catchall clichés and unsubstantiated claims. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to understand the allure of such texts. Authors can hypothesize with zero demand for accountability or need to rely on actual data. Whereas they will refer to such op-eds when the predictions seem to have some truth, they will rarely take responsibility when (in most cases) their predictions have limited relation to reality.

Terrorism Never Declines

We have a hard time finding any discussion about a potential decline in terrorism, groups’ capabilities, or the overall threat. Highly regarded scholars such as Audrey Cronin, Leonard Weinberg, and David Rapoport repeatedly illustrated that most terrorist groups eventually decline after failing to achieve their objectives. But in the land of terrorism-related op-eds, the threat never declines, has challenges, or is just becoming less acute for the US and Western democracies. Al-Qaeda has failed to produce any meaningful terrorist attack against Western targets for more than a decade — it doesn’t matter. ISIS’s primary sources reflect the overwhelming troubles of the group following the loss of its territorial and military infrastructure in Iraq. Who cares? Terrorist groups never decline — so the “experts” keep saying; they just morph into a more dangerous form.

Simplistic Perception of Threat

Even when there is an attempt to provide some data to support the allegedly growing threat of terrorism, it reflects the fundamental misunderstanding of terrorism’s sources of power and influence. Terrorism’s effectiveness is not just about the group’s size or even, in many cases, how many operations it was able to produce. Terrorism, at its essence, is a form of symbolic violence used to communicate a political message. The conflict is not just over who controls which pieces of land, who has more followers, and even how many you killed, but about outreach, gaining legitimacy, and enhancing your narrative of the conflict. So, it is less important if Al-Qaeda has 20,000 or 40,000 members. After all, on 9/11, they really needed just a couple of dozen of perpetrators to execute an attack that enhanced the influence, prestige, and popularity of their brand of Jihad.

They Need Us to Encourage Them

One of the most flawed arguments that seem to be favored by many analysts is to portray terrorist groups as mostly reactionary actors to Western governments. Jihadi groups, similarly to other ideological militant movements, are engaged in violent practices for multiple ideological and operational reasons; they do not need constant “encouragement” from the Western governments to be driven to act. Nonetheless, whether it is the withdrawal from Afghanistan, decisions to negotiate with militant groups, or any policy which is not based on hard kinetic measures, it will always be portrayed as a major encouragement to terrorism. Policymakers are damned when they do and damned if they don’t.

Who Needs Data or Primary Sources?

Naturally, there are always gaps between academic research on political violence and terrorism and how such issues are discussed and articulated in policy and public domains. It seems, however, that the gap grew exponentially in the last decade to the point that both seem to be progressing in completely contradicting directions. The disregard for data-driven analysis or rigorous examination of primary sources and the expansion of the security analytical industry with its demand for quick and short click-bites are some of the main drivers of this dynamic.

How Can Such Flaws be Explained? The Rise of the New “Generalist”

Some of the founding scholars of terrorism studies were generalists who engaged in the study of terrorism for several decades and thus had the opportunity to study various ideological and regional manifestations of this phenomenon. The new “generalists,” however, seem to embrace such designation to avoid the rigor, time, and resources that are fundamental for the scholarly investigation of the cultural, geographical, and ideological context of terrorism. In order to bridge the unavoidable gap in knowledge and their lack of actual evidence-based analysis, they are left with limited alternatives but to engage in the above-mentioned problematic practices and common misconceptions.

To conclude, the growing gap between the study of political violence and terrorism and the policy and public discourse facilitates misinformation and a simplistic view of the complexity of the challenges we are facing in the current security landscape. Moreover, it promotes policies that lack clear metrics for success and are exploited more easily by narrow political interests and the industry of security analysts.


Dr. Arie Perliger is a Professor and the director of the graduate program in security studies at the School of Criminology and Justice Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowell.  In the past 20 years, Dr. Perliger was engaged in an extensive study of issues related to terrorism and political violence, security policy and politics (including the nexus of security and climate change), politics and extremism of the Far Right in Israel, Europe, and the US, Middle Eastern Politics, and the applicability of Social Network Analysis to the study of political violence. 

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