The Idea of Terror: A Critical Approach to Consequences of the “Terrorist” Classifier

My dissertation research seeks to unpack the intuition that “we know terrorism when we see it” and probe how the concept of “terrorism” preserves power structures that privilege whites in Western democracies. While differential treatment of Islamist and far-right extremists by governments is well-documented, we lack an understanding of how counter-terrorism and counter-extremism discourse and law in Western societies interact to produce a system that naturalizes such differential treatment in the first place, thereby making the “we know terrorism when we see it” logic possible and widely intelligible. I ask: whose interests are served by labeling divorced from law, and how do groups atop power hierarchies maintain their positions by strategically employing the “terrorist” classifier, both in discourse and in national security policy?

Using a grounded theory approach, I conduct interviews with current and former national security bureaucrats and policymakers in Germany and the United States to gain insight into how the people making counterterrorism and counter-extremism policy securitize various ideologies as “threats” and think about their roles in combating those threats. I find that even individuals who view far-right extremism as a dire threat to national security nevertheless express a sense of hopelessness at the ability of existing institutions to address that threat—and, moreover, that these individuals are unable to imagine profound structural changes to their respective countries’ security architectures. I draw on critical race theory to understand this duality as a display of hegemonic power, in which the construction and persistence of whiteness demands that it not be probed too deeply, even when its detrimental effects on national security are obvious.

The rest of the project traces the implications of my theory for militant organizations and international norms surrounding the use of force. Using a variety of computational text-as-data methods, as well as close reading of primary sources in multiple languages, I show how military action abroad legitimizes government interests while militant organizations co-opt them for their own propaganda. In doing so, I connect seemingly ad-hoc applications of the “terrorist” classifier and near-instinctual intuitions of what “terrorism” means to paint a more comprehensive picture of how the “terrorism” label acts as a site of power production and reproduction for state actors—and how this particular process of preserving status quo hierarchies can in fact be counterproductive for reducing political violence.

Other research

The Idea of Terror: Institutional Reproduction in Government Responses to Political Violence

International Studies Quarterly 64 (3): 499–509 (2020) (PDF)
Despite the recent global uptick in white supremacist terrorism, governments continue to face accusations of not taking the threat seriously, either discursively or in terms of policy responses. Why do acts of white supremacist violence consistently fail to constitute turning points for policy change? Rather than considering acts of political violence as critical junctures for change, I argue that such acts instead reveal how persistent institutions of power actually are. I develop a theory of hegemonic components of national identity that links institutionalized white supremacy to the differential treatment of non-white perpetrators, even when they are deemed terrorists, through a process of institutional reproduction. Drawing on interviews with German national security elites, I show that even when white supremacist violence is treated as terrorism, both legally and discursively, it does not engender policy responses and attitudinal changes on par with those following other terrorist threats.

Racism By Designation: Making Sense of Why Western States Rarely Designate White Supremacists as Terrorists (under review; with Zoltán Búzás)

Why do states designate some actors engaged in political violence as terrorists but not others? Why have Western states designated so few white supremacist actors as terrorists compared to other actors engaged in political violence? Formal terrorist designation mechanisms have practical implications for national security and foreign policy as well as normative implications for what actors are illegitimate in the eyes of the state, yet they have received little attention in political science. We draw on the norms literature and critical work on racism and terrorism to argue that designation patterns reflect and reinforce broader practices of racializing the “terrorist” category. While Arabs/Muslims are stereotypically seen as terrorists, whites benefit from the presumption of not being terrorists. The result is a racial double standard at the core of the norm against terrorism, such that white supremacists are disproportionately less likely to be designated as terrorists than other groups. Using detailed case studies of designation in the United States and United Kingdom, we illustrate the value of this argument. Additionally, we suggest that although recent designations of white supremacist groups have the potential to transform our normative understandings of terrorism and reduce its discriminatory application to designations, these moves function more as window-dressing. Our argument illustrates the deep entrenchment of racism in Western states’ counterterrorism practices and calls for further study of racialized norms surrounding “terrorism” in mainstream international relations.

The Effects of State-Level Discourse on Terrorist Recruitment

Existing work on terrorist recruitment marginalizes the role of strategic choice on the part of non-state militant organizations, particularly how state discourse and policies affect how such organizations decide to recruit. I address this gap in the literature by developing a theory that explains variation in recruitment appeals used by the same organization cross-nationally. Centrally, I argue that state discourses surrounding who is and is not a terrorist influence what recruitment strategies work best in which contexts. In states where certain groups are Othered and alienated through such discourses, terrorists will recruit based on appeals to ingroup solidarity and belonging. In states where such alienation is less extensive or absent, terrorists will find recruitment based on identity more difficult and instead target career fighters or individuals with specialized skills. I demonstrate the plausibility of my theory through a comparison of Islamic State propaganda in France and Germany. (working paper)

Terror is What (the United) States Make(s) of It: A Social-Constructivist Perspective on the Concept of Terrorism (with Amélie Godefroidt)

What counts as “terrorist” violence? While scholars largely agree that terrorism entails the actual or threatened use of violence aimed at generating a psychological impact in order to pursue a political motive, uneven application of the term means that what precisely constitutes “violence,” a “psychological impact,” or a “political motive” is not yet clear. Building on hegemonic theory, we first argue that these commonly agreed-upon definitional criteria are still valuable but should be used differently. Particularly post-9/11, terrorism has come to mean violence perceived as challenging the established power structures in a given society, which is terrifying as it threatens the ontological security of a state and its (majority) citizens. Second, we demonstrate the prominence of the United States’ discourses and policies on understandings of what counts as “terrorism” today, and call for further study of the differential and intersubjective understandings of “terrorism” in different cultures and contexts.

Emotions in International Relations: Mechanisms, Measurement, and a New Synthesis (with Jonathan Renshon)

Despite a proliferation of work in recent years, research on emotions in IR continues to face daunting theoretical and empirical challenges. The dualistic physiological and social nature of emotions makes measurement difficult, and the subsequent development of emotions research along two largely independent tracks (behavioralist and constructivist) has limited comprehensive theory-building. We review six recent works on emotions in IR—broadly representative of a range of substantive topics and approaches to key epistemological debates in the research program—to present the first conceptually and methodologically comprehensive state of the field in the area in two decades and propose a way forward. Inservice of that, we suggest and describe a “mechanismic” approach, arguing that emotions are most productively thought of as mechanisms that flesh out and add microfoundations to IR theories, rather than as independent variables. We also provide concrete suggestions for measurement strategies for both behavioralist and constructivist scholars. Second, we clarify and highlight areas of agreement and disagreement between behavioralists and constructivists, showing that these approaches are more reconcilable than is often assumed and delineating specific areas of agreement. In so doing, we demonstrate the utility of bridging different camps in emotions research for crafting a vibrant, productive research program.

Public scholarship

What Does a ‘Terrorist’ Designation Mean?” Lawfare, July 19, 2020. 

The U.S. labeled a white supremacist group as ‘terrorists’ for the first time. It’s less significant than you think.” The Monkey Cage, April 30, 2020.

Identity, Law, and How Political Elites Define Terrorism.” Political Violence at a Glance, October 18, 2019.

Why do Facebook and Twitter’s anti-extremist guidelines allow right-wingers more freedom than Islamists?” The Monkey Cage, August 1, 2019.


Facebook Can’t Decide What Terrorism Looks Like.” OneZero, November 27, 2019.

Terrorism expert: Cudahy woman’s arrest highlights growing ISIS presence on social media.” WTMJ-TV Milwaukee, June 14, 2018.