Why is it difficult to defeat terrorism?

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Terrorism, Organized Crime & Security

By Olga Aristeidou, International Relations Expert

Terrorism is one of the most extensively discussed security issues over the past decades. The question whether it can ever be defeated does not have a clear answer. However, it is more likely that terrorism cannot be defeated – at least in the near future. In order to counter a threat, defeat an enemy and/or solve a problem, it is important to understand and know exactly what that threat, enemy or problem is. It is essential firstly to identify the nature and causes of, and contributory factors to, the problem and then try to tackle it. Analysts and policy-makers, however, do not agree among them on the causes of terrorism. Terrorism, nevertheless, can only be defeated when the conditions that inspire it will have been detected and accordingly altered.
First of all, it should be emphasized that terrorism does not have an agreed upon definition; this contributes to the generic misconceptions and difficulties to understand the phenomenon. Most people have a general idea of what terrorism means but lack a more specific and explanatory definition of the word. A commonly used definition, albeit not universally accepted, is the following: “Terrorism is the deliberate use, or threat of use, of violence against civilians in the pursuit of political goals by non-state actors, which in the modern world frequently involves the use of bombs and other weapons in targeting public places, airplanes or other forms of transportation.” But why is it so difficult to define terrorism? The most convincing reason is because the term has been constantly changing over the last two hundred years. There are also cases where in the same country different agencies have adopted different definitions. A striking example is the United States of America, where the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Department of Defense define terrorism in a different way, reflecting their own priorities and interests.
Secondly, the causes and motivations of terrorists, as well as the nature and the structure of most terrorist organizations are not well known. Concerning the former, there are numerous reasons why someone chooses to adopt a violent behavior and becomes a terrorist. The attribution of terrorism to psychological problems and the label of terrorists as irrationals, which used to be mainstream explanations, are now considered erred and misguided. The reasons could be political and ideological (nationalism, Marxism, radical ideologies, colonial contexts), socio-economic (poverty, grievances) and personal motivations (family, revenge, unable to integrate, seeking prestige). To be sure, the list is not exhaustive and there is great debate as to validity of many of these reasons. Recruitment into terrorist organization and ensuing operations are secretive, thus rendering access to members and information extraction very hard.
Moreover, it is worth emphasizing that most terrorists do not see themselves as such. This is a label that other people have ascribed to them. Most of them consider themselves political fighters and their cause just. In addition, it should not be forgotten that several former terrorists became later government officials (for example Nelson Mandela in South Africa and archbishop Makarios in Cyprus), several organizations are not regarded as terrorist ones by many countries (like Hamas) and other organizations, like Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), have became legal representatives of their people and hold diplomatic relations with most states.
Thirdly, it is essential at this point to identify several research problems. The ultimate purpose of any research is to generate new knowledge, and, in the case of explanatory research, to explain what has happened and provide the ability to predict what will happen. This is why research is so important in attempting to prevent and ultimately defeat terrorism. However, terrorism is a phenomenon which cannot be easily researched for. The problems with the definition and the understanding of several organizations’ structure have been already emphasized. One of the main reasons why terrorism is a hard object of research is the difficulty to access— especially in a systematic way— the actors involved in the phenomenon; as a result, open source documents are the main source of research. Consequently, concerns are raised over the methods of data-gathering and their reliability. Another reason is that there is confusion about researchers’ role; several analysts in the field seem to feel ‘firefighters’ of terrorism, rather than neutral and objective researchers. This becomes even more apparent, when researchers are funded by governments; their research tends to be limited and driven by rather short-term calculations (radicalization constitutes a striking example of these political calculations).
After having identified the main deficiencies in terrorism studies (i.e. the lack of definition, the lack of concrete knowledge of the causes of the phenomenon and research-related problems), it is now essential to examine several contributory factors to the difficulty to defeat terrorism.
The role of the media is crucial, with several analysts arguing that media provide the ‘oxygen of publicity’ that terrorists need, while other analysts find that media can harm the terrorists. The symbiotic relation between both traditional and new media and terrorism is undoubted difficult to change. Free speech is a fundamental right and authorities cannot, and should not, try to influence or control what information the media provide. What can be done is use the media to warn and give instructions to people, inform them about the level of violence and cruelty used by terrorists and provide a forum in which everybody can engage in a generic discussion concerning terrorism and its implications.
What is more, it is important to outline that several terrorist organizations have considerable public support, which contributes to their power. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) are the most striking examples, and the list is not exhaustive. As far as Al-Qaeda is concerned, there is no doubt that bin Laden’s message appealed to millions of Muslims, not because it was radical but because it was persuasive and expressed the feelings of his listeners. “There are very few people in the Middle East who do not relate to Osama bin Laden’s message.” Diminishing public support has great importance in defeating terrorism, but in some cases it is almost impossible if terrorists have persuaded part of the public opinion that their actions could be beneficial for them. Combating the very roots of the problem, the reasons why terrorism remains attractive, can be very helpful, and the diminishment of western powers’ intervention could be a move in the right direction.
Understanding the social, economic and cultural factors which contribute to the development of terrorism is one of the most significant aspects in the pursuit of terrorism’s defeat. It is also linked to the lack of knowledge concerning the causes of terrorism, as analyzed above. Attempting to ameliorate poor governance, social, political and economic conditions in several states is a significant dimension of terrorism prevention. According to UN’s Policy Working Group (UNPWG) approach:
‘’If such efforts assist societies to resolve conflict peacefully within the rule of law, grievances that might have been expressed through terrorist acts are more likely to be addressed through political, legal and social means.’’
It is often argued that people in societies, where inequalities, political instability, poverty or unemployment are at high levels and which have experienced civil wars and/or other conflicts, are more prone to engage in terrorist activities. Moreover, in several of these countries the citizens blame the Western countries (and mostly the United States) as partly or wholly responsible for their grievances. Al-Qaeda is the most indicative example. Osama bin Laden described repeatedly the role of the US government in Middle East as “unjust, criminal and tyrannical”. Moreover, counter-terrorism measures naturally aggravate anti-western sentiments because of the collateral damaged provoked. Especially the War on Terror has been conceived by many people as a vengeful tactic, which responded to violence with more violence and to terror with more terror.
In the late 1980s, Hanan Alon argued that albeit difficult, it is possible to dissuade and deter terrorism coming from state actors, but almost impossible to achieve the same when it comes to terrorism from non-state actors. This assessment continues to be relevant. In a more recent study, Robert Trager and Dessislava Zagorcheva also argued that terrorism deterrence is feasible. Deterrence of terrorism aims to persuade terrorists that the costs of their imminent actions will exceed the benefits. The goal is to “persuade actual or potential terrorists to adopt non-terrorist options”; in other words, to convince them to “choose political accommodation rather than violence and repression”. This, however, is difficult to be successfully applied, given that the use of threats and/or punishments may well be in favor of terrorists, because of the media coverage, the possible collateral damage and the ‘heroic martyrdom’. However, terrorists are not considered as ‘irrational’ and “even the most highly motivated terrorist groups can be deterred” under certain circumstances and with organized action. In order to apply a successful strategy of coercion, it is also crucial to understand in depth the individuals and/or organizations involved. Thus, in theory persuasion could and should be one of the tools utilized to prevent terrorism, but in practice, it is among the most difficult techniques.
Finally, persuasion is linked to the ‘taboo’ subject of negotiation with terrorists. Can we negotiate with terrorists? Margaret Thatcher insisted that authorities should not negotiate with terrorists. Nonetheless, her government had contacts with IRA, usually via third parties, which contributed to ceasefire. There is a distinction between talking and negotiating. It is crucial to know what terrorists want and why; there may be either good reason to deny them their aspirations or scope for compromise.
To sum up, the field of terrorism studies still faces numerous hurdles, difficulties and problems which have a negative impact on the pursuit of defeating terrorism. Nevertheless, great progress has been made in identifying several aspects of the phenomenon, like its causes and contributory factors. A reconsideration of several counter-terrorism strategies is also considered as indispensable. A combination of research and new measures can help the prevention of terrorism, even if the complexity of the phenomenon makes it very difficult to defeat it entirely.


-Alon, Hanan: “Can Terrorism Be Deterred? Some Thoughts and Doubts” in Contemporary Trends in World Terrorism, edited by Anat Kurz ,(London: Mansell Publishing Limited, 1987), p. 125-128
-Hellmich, Christina, Al-Qaeda: From Global Network to Local Franchise, (London: Zed Books, 2011), p.11
-Hellmich, Christina: “How Islamic is al-Qaeda? The politics of Pan-Islam and the challenge of modernization”, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 7 (2), (2014), p.242-244
-Hoffman, Bruce: Inside Terrorism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), p.1-31
-Lawrence, Bruce: Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, (Brooklyn,
NY: Verso, 2005), p. 46-47
-Ramsbotham, Oliver, Tom Woodhouse and Hugh Miall: Contemporary Conflict Resolution, The Prevention, Management and Transformation of Deadly Conflicts, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), p.257-261
-Rapoport, David: “Terrorism” in Mary Hawkesworth and Maurice Kogan,
(eds.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Government and Politics (London: Routledge, 1992),
-Silke, Andrew:”The Devil You Know: Continuing Problems with Research on Terrorism” in Research on Terrorism, p.57-59
-Trager, Robert and Dessislava P. Zagorcheva: “Deterring Terrorism: It Can be done”, International Security, 30 (3), (2005-2006), p. 120