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

My dissertation research seeks to problematize ideas, speech, and institutions surrounding the concept of terrorism. I ask: how is widespread variation in the ways that “terrorism” is understood across states possible? What does it mean to “know terrorism when we see it”? Whose interests are served by labeling divorced from law, and how do groups maintain power by strategically deploying the “terrorist” classifier?

Rather than taking persistent academic and practitioner disagreement about the definition of terrorism as a problem, I approach this contention as a site of inquiry. Although the intuition behind the “terrorist” classifier may seem fragile once probed, I argue that in fact that there is a systematic logic to how state actors use the term beyond simply applying it to non-state actors whom they do not like. “Terrorism” today has come to mean contention that challenges established power relations between groups in society—contention constructed as so inherently threatening to the status quo that it must be obliterated rather than appeased or defeated. In the face of changing international norms surrounding the use of force domestically and internationally, “terrorism” serves as a justification for those in power to protect that power through whatever means they deem necessary with minimal, if any, censure. Other forms of contention that do not present a similar threat, however similar tactically, will receive alternative designations and, consequently, alternative treatment.

I develop this theory further through interviews with bureaucrats and former policymakers in Germany and the U.S. and at the United Nations, focusing particularly on contemporary white nationalist and leftist movements. I then test its implications for cross-national variation in counterterrorism policy and militant recruitment strategies using computational text analysis and critical discourse analysis. 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. 

Other Research

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)

Bargaining as a Process of Legitimation: A Theoretical Framework for State-Terrorist Negotiations

Why do states and terrorists negotiate? The literature focuses on the ability of terrorists to coerce the state into granting concessions via “the power to hurt” and “mutually hurting stalemates” but fails to consider the possibility that states may willingly negotiate—and, moreover, that terrorists might gain non-material benefits from negotiation. I argue that negotiations confer legitimacy on terrorists’ claims: in so doing, states offer terrorists something they want—recognition as a bargaining partner—while simultaneously jump-starting a process with the potential to bring violence to an end. Via a paired comparison between news coverage of the FARC in Colombia and the Shining Path in Peru, I demonstrate that negotiations do serve as a legitimating mechanism for terrorists in the eyes of states, thereby enriching our understanding of how both states and non-state belligerents view the utility of the bargaining table in armed conflict. (working paper)

Emotions in International Relations (with Jonathan Renshon)

IR theorists have long referenced the importance of fear, hatred, and passion in international politics, and the recent explosion of behavioral and psychological research in IR has demonstrated the broader importance of emotions in conflict, bargaining, and everyday foreign policy decision-making. Still, the dual physiological and social nature of emotions can lead to muddled theorizing, and their unobservable nature makes measurement difficult. We develop a two-pronged approach to addressing these challenges in studying emotions in IR. Conceptually, we argue that emotions should be considered as mechanisms in causal chains, serving to flesh out existing theories of seemingly irrational behavior rather than having independent and generalizable effects on outcomes. Methodologically, we emphasize the strengths of emotions as a concept—namely, their status as universal human experiences—and consider these strengths with respect to mid-level questions with clearly delineated scope conditions that take social context into account. We demonstrate the utility of our approach via analyses of four recent works on emotions in IR.