POL2103: Terrorism

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Sate Теrrоrism

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Sate Теrrоrism


Terrorism is a multifaceted phenomenon that is rather difficult to define. However, various writers have come up with different definitions for the term “terrorism”. When first used in political discourse, the word terrorism was adopted to describe the Jacobin regime during the French Revolution (Primoratz, 2003). Riegler (‎2010) defines terrorism as any act of violence, either psychological or physical, by an individual or a group that is aimed at gaining political power, enacting a political change, or drawing attention to a particular cause. This definition leaves the application open, suggesting that any group, including the government, can be engaged in terrorism. However, some authors do not acknowledge that states can, and indeed, do engage in terrorism. For example, Hoffman (2006) posits that an act of violence can only amount to terrorism when it involves non-state actors. This argument, therefore, suggests that states cannot be terrorists. An alternative, and a more prevalent argument among modern writers, is the stance that there are instances of state terrorism, but how countries engage in these actions must be distinguished from those of other actors (Jackson, Jarvis, Gunning, & Breen Smyth, 2011).

In his categorization of terrorism, McKeown (2011) gives five types of terrorism: Religious Terrorism, Right Wing Terrorism, Left Wing Terrorism, Pathological Terrorism, Issue Oriented Terrorism, Separatist Terrorism, Narco-Terrorism, and State Terrorism. In modern politics, “terrorism”, is usually applied within a very narrow context to refer to non-state actors that engage in acts of terror. However, history and even modern times have seen actions taken by governments to intimidate and create fear among the civilian population, normally to achieve a political goal. While the topic of state terrorism is highly controversial in the academic and political fields, there is growing evidence that certain acts of violence either committed by or on behalf of the state can legitimately be categorised as terrorism.

State Terrorism

State terrorism is defined in various academic works as an act of terror committed by a legitimate government against perceived adversaries. The enemies, in this case, can be its own population or external governments (Martin, 2012). Crenshaw (2011: 4) states that what matters is the intention and the method of application of terror rather than the identity of the actor. She, therefore, argues that states have various means of exercising influence; so when they resort to violence, it does not make them any different from non-state actors. Therefore, when a state uses tactics such as bombing its own population (such as has been witnessed in Libya) or having death squads as was the case during the “Dirty War” of Argentina, then such actions are justified to be termed as terrorism. When directed against domestic population, the aim normally is to maintain control of dissented masses. State terrorism, as opposed to state-sponsored terrorism, is conducted by the regime holding power in a particular country. This definition suggests that state terrorism is the original form of terrorism as argued by (Primoratz, 2003). For example, in 1793 during the French Revolution, thousands of French citizens were executed in a style often cited by modern writers as the earliest examples of state terrorism. However, rulers throughout history have plausibly been using terror to control their subjects. In fact, almost all dictatorial regimes have been known to use terror to tighten their control of their subjects. In modern times, examples of state terrorism can be seen in Iraq against the Kurds during the rule of Saddam Hussein or the suppression of dissenting voices in various the Middle East and African states (Eve, 2013).

Types of State Terrorism

Various authors have attempted to find a single typology for state terrorism, but this has remained elusive. In some of the earliest works on this topic, Stohl (1984) attempts to distinguish between different types of state terrorism. His categorisation includes when a state overtly engages in coercive diplomacy; covert participation in bombing campaigns, assassinations, and coups; and surrogate activities, whereby aid is offered to a subordinate state or insurgent groups to conduct of terrorism. In a follow-up to his earlier arguments, Stohl and Lopez (1988) went further to elaborate on his earlier argument by introducing a different view; citing state terrorism as a foreign policy stratagem that differentiates between clandestine state terrorism, coercive terrorist diplomacy, surrogate terrorism, state compliance to terrorism, and state-sponsored terrorism. Recently, Cox (2007) provided a related typology, differentiating the various state actions that comprise terrorism: state association with terror, state funding of terror, and state terror.

Why States Engage in Terrorism

State terrorism, as opposed to other forms of terrorism, has an explicit economic and political aims. Blakeley (2009) argues that state terrorism can be used as a tool for satisfying the economic interests of the elite, including preserving access to external markets or resources, or suppressing social reforms movements. Citing Guatemala as a prominent example, Blakeley notes that the CIA backing of the 1954 coup to oust President Arbenz was a result of suppressive economic policies. President Arbenz had initiated an agricultural reform programme to nationalise 234,000 acres of land from the United Fruit Company, a US-based firm. The coup has disastrous consequences for the country. In the end, the cost included the death of more than 200 union leaders in addition to thousands of civilian lives. The labour movement reduced to 27,000 from 100,000, and the coup initiated a wave of right-wing violence. This illustration points that the use of state terrorism, particularly by the northern states, is usually underlined by a particular material gain. Such instances involve the use of terror by the elite to suppress political movements that threaten their interests or to ensure plentiful supply or resources and labour (Blakeley, 2009).

Apart from the potential economic utility, the use of terror by states is also associated with strategic and political interests (Stohl, 2006). Therefore, state terrorism can be employed to weaken the ruling regime of an adversary state. During the rule of Saddam Hussein, for example, Iraq supported the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, an anti-Iranian group that carried out several bombings and assassination of key political personalities of the 1979 revolution. More still, states may employ terror to quell political opposition internally. During the cold war, for example, many Latin American countries, including Guatemala and Argentina, used various intimidation tactics, including death squads, to silence opposition. However, powerful states have also supported or engaged in terrorism abroad by supporting allies with strategic significance, such as the US support for President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines during his dictatorial rule from 1972 to 1981 despite economic stagnation, widespread government corruption, and a widening economic gap between the rich and poor. In other instances, states engage in terrorism to advance certain ideological frameworks. McKeown (2011) notes that the push for capitalistic imperialism among potentially communist states has been a major contributor of state terrorism, particularly in Latin America. He argues that Colombia, for example, faced several instances of state terrorism due to the west support for the liberation from communism.

Case Studies of State Terrorism

America and the Vietnam War

When an individual or a group deliberately inflicts harm, injury, death and destruction on a civilian population with the intention to cause revulsion, horror, or despair so that the target population can act in a way desired by the oppressor, then it amounts to terrorism (Blakeley, 2009). On a deeper analysis of the Vietnam War, it is evident that the U.S. resorted to terrorism during counter-insurgency operations in the Vietnam War. An example is Operation Phoenix, which was intended to torture and force the Vietnamese into negotiation. Lewellen (1988) writes that the objective of the U.S. was not to achieve battlefield victory against the North Vietnamese Army, but to rather inflict so much harm and kill so many civilians and destroy their society that they would force their leaders to surrender. This ideological framework was that of terrorism and the government officials who planned and conducted it were terrorists, and since these individuals represented the American policy on behalf of the government, American can, therefore, be termed a terrorist state based on these accounts.

This approach was informed by the understanding that the National Liberation Front had the support of the majority of Vietnamese villagers, and therefore, the only way to defeat it was to terrorise the civilians to the point that their resistance to western forces would break. Starting in 1968 to 1971, Operation Phoenix, a CIA covert process, resulted in the murder of between 20,000 and 40,000 civilians, mainly through bombing (Lewellen, 1988). During the war, the U.S. dropped over 8 million tonnes (more than thrice the total amount dropped in world war II) of bombs on North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This resulted in the deaths of more than 2 million Vietnamese civilians and hundreds of thousands in Cambodia and Laos. Their targets included villages, schools, hospitals, and churches, leaving the affected with nowhere to run to. The bombings were followed by strafing the civilians. The attacks widely used Napalm, a jellied gasoline. The jelly makes the flame stick to the victim’s body as the gasoline burns. However, the jelly could be scrapped off quickly, avoiding serious burns. Consequently, the U.S. began to add polystyrene to avoid scrapping off. However, a challenge still existed since the victim could jump into the water and kill the flame. Therefore, the U.S. advanced their weapon further by mixing the chemical with white phosphorus, which burns the flesh entirely even under water (Lewellen (1988). The U.S. of white phosphorus bombs was also documented in 2003 against civilians in Iraq (Blakeley, 2009).

The Battle of Algiers

During the 1950s and 1960s when most African countries were fighting for independence, guerrilla warfare was a common tactic used by the liberationists since they lacked conventional weaponry that matched the calibre of the colonialists. This pressurised the conventional forces who were not used to asymmetric warfare. Therefore, military forces decided to carry the war to the enemy using similar methods. The counterinsurgency methods improvised by the military included the use of commandos, as terror became the most powerful weapon (Riegler (‎2010). Torture also became common; especially to extract information from captured enemy forces. Torture, notes Blakeley (2009), is an important tool for terrorists. In 1957, during the Battle of Algiers, the military forces responded to the liberationists with indiscriminate violence. The French army arrested close to 40% of the male population subjected them to gruesome torture (Riegler, 2010). At the end of the war, more than three million people were documented as missing; most of them were shot by execution squads around Algiers while others were thrown into the seas from helicopters (Riegler, ‎2010). The methods used by the French forces amounted to terrorism as they were indiscriminate and meant to deliberately cause harm and terror on the civilian population.


State terrorism is quite difficult to discern in modern politics, unlike the earlier times such as during the French Revolution, or the Soviet Dirty War because the discussion is either philosophy or social sciences tend to dwell on anti-state and non-state terrorism (Primoratz, 2003). However, this does not mean that state terrorism is not prevalent. In the extracts given above, it is evident that various states have, in the recent past and some still do, engage in actions that amount to terrorism. In the contemporary media, the word terrorism is somewhat used exclusively to tag non-state actors of terror. Therefore, even when states drop bombs and carry out drone strikes, it is hardly seen as an act of terror, but rather as a counterterrorism measure. This is misleading since most of the responses to terrorism employ the very methods used by non-state terrorists. The war in Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and recently Syria and Turkey have killed thousands of civilians combined, while millions of others have been displaced. Most of the destruction and deaths are attributed to counterterrorism forces. Therefore, it is true that states can indeed be terrorists, and they often engage in such action.


Blakeley, R. (2009). State Terrorism and Neoliberalism: The North in the South. Abingdon: Routledge.

Cox, M. (2007). Still the American Empire? Political Studies Review, 5(1), 1-10.

Eve, M. P. (2013). Review of James Gourley, Terrorism and Temporality in the Works of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo . London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Jackson, R., Jarvis, L., Gunning, J., & Breen Smyth, M. (2011). Terrorism: A Critical Introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Lewellen, T. (1988). The U.S. and State Terrorism in the Third World. In M. Stohl, & G. Lopez, Terrible Beyond Endurance? The Foreign Policy of State Terrorism (pp. 119-163). New York, NY: Greenwood Press.

Martin, G. (2012). Understanding Terrorism: Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues (4 ed.). California: SAGE Publications.

McKeown, A. (2011). The Structural Production of State Terrorism: Capitalism, Imperialism and International Class Dynamics,. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 4 (1), 75-93.

Primoratz, I. (2003). State Terrorism and Counterterrorism. Melbourne: Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics .

Riegler, T. (2010). The State as a Terrorist? Arguing for a Category of “State Terrorism”. 1-17.

Stohl, M. (1984). International Dimensions of State Terrorism. In M. Stohl, & L. G, The State as Terrorist: The Dynamics of Governmental Violence and Repression (pp. 43-58). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Stohl, M. (2006). The State as Terrorist: Insights and Implications. Democracy and Security, 2(1), 1-25.

Stohl, M., & Lopez, G. (1988). Terrible Beyond Endurance? The Foreign Policy of State Terrorism. New York, NY: Greenwood Press.