What is terrorism?
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, terrorism and counter-terrorism came to dominate foreign policy as well as influencing important aspects of domestic politics, impacting particularly on human rights and civil liberties. Yet there is not even an agreed understanding of what terrorism is. Whilst the word enjoys a widespread ‘common sense’ usage, attempts by states, and terrorism experts themselves, to reach an agreed definition have repeatedly failed. There are hundreds of definitions in use and no overall consensus.
Part of the reason that agreement on one definition has been elusive is that terrorism is a highly politicised term used to de-legitimise certain groups and certain causes. The subjective nature of the word is captured by the idiom that ‘one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter’. Such ambiguities have led some scholars to reject it all together.
Who are the experts?
Although such conceptual ambiguities implicit in the word ‘terrorism’ have never been resolved, this has not prevented an exponential growth in terrorism expertise. A host of new experts emerged after September 11. They joined a core of well-established terrorism experts, several of whom were members of an informal group of scholars who established the field of ‘terrorism studies’ in the 1970s.
There is now a plethora of figures offering expert advice on terrorism – academics, former police and military personnel, private security consultants and journalists – and they tend to corroborate the views of politicians and state officials. Although they are most visible in the media, terrorism experts also work within universities or research institutes, writing books and scholarly articles; or in think-tanks and policy institutes advising on counter-terrorism; or private consultancies advising on risk and corporate security. Some also appear as experts in the criminal justice system, advising juries on behalf of the defence or prosecution.
Charlatan or authentic expert
Before taking advice on terrorism and counter-terrorism, there are important questions that need to be asked.
- Who are these experts and what exactly is the nature of the expertise they offer?
- How can we judge who is a genuine expert and who is not?
- Do terrorism experts merely analyse and comment on terrorism and counter-terrorism, or does their work actively shape how terrorism is understood and how states and other actors respond?
- Should terrorism experts be understood as independent analysts offering neutral expertise, or are they propagating particular understandings of political violence and shaping public policy in the service of certain interests?
Whether we can, in general, meaningfully speak of ‘genuine’ expertise, or how and to what extent expert knowledge shapes and is shaped by wider social forces, are complex questions. In the case of terrorism, such questions are more complicated still. Unlike many other types of experts – in medicine, law, accountancy, for example – there is no accredited body that can designate a terrorism expert. There is thus no simple way to judge who is an authentic expert and who is not, and there are cases where apparent experts have been found to have exaggerated their credentials or turned out to be charlatans.