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IA-Forum Interview: Richard Jackson

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International Affairs Forum: In recent scholarship, you have made a powerful argument concerning the need for a critical approach to the study of terrorism. Could you briefly outline why you think this approach is needed and why it is important?

Dr. Richard Jackson: There have been a number of recent reviews of the field. Scholars have had a look at everything that has been written on the subject and have tried to evaluate what it is that we know about terrorism; how it has been researched; and some of the problems in researching such a complicated topic. If we look at these reviews, some have raised a number of key criticisms on the state of the field. For example, they have all come to the conclusion that the field is very state-centric - that it takes a perspective that coincides with policy makers much more than it does with an objective approach. So it adopts state-centric priorities and perspectives of the problem. There has also been a perennial criticism that a lot of terrorism research uses secondary sources and materials rather than collecting first-hand information, particularly in terms of face-to-face research with so-called 'terrorists'. There seems to be a taboo on talking to people that one considers to be 'terrorist' in order to find out: what they hope to achieve, why they choose certain tactics, what their aims are; and so on.

There have also been problems related to the dangerous relationships that have grown up between some terrorism scholars and government agencies. There are a number of terrorism scholars who, as well as studying terrorism, also advise the government on counter-terrorism policy. Some people have suggested that this creates a relationship where the research that they do and the funding for research that they receive, could mean that they are pushed in a particular direction with the kind of findings that they are going to produce. There are also ethical-normative criticisms about counter-terrorism research that advocates controversial policies such as enhanced interrogation or rendition, or even targeted assassinations.

What we have had is a number of senior terrorism scholars who have openly said, for example, that Israel's policy of targeted assassinations is a legitimate and effective one. And some people would say that this is an ethically problematic thing to say. The fact is, that like the word ‘paedophile’, the word ‘terrorist’ has very powerful connotations and consequences for individuals who get labelled as such. And then there are problems with a whole series of myths about terrorism: the threat that it poses, its causes, the response to it, and so on, that a lot of orthodox terrorism research has peddled. So for all these reasons we think, this is myself and a number of scholars, that what we need is a new approach, what we have called, Critical Terrorism Studies (CTS).


IA-Forum: How does this approach differ from current terrorism research?

Dr. Jackson: Our argument is that CTS has a different ontology, a different epistemology and a different set of praxis, in terms of the way it approaches the nature of the research, to orthodox terrorism studies. By this I mean, first of all, that critical terrorism scholars start from the assumption that terrorism doesn't exist as an objective fact. Political violence does, but the label of ‘terrorism’ is a social construction. So this is a different ontological position. It says that terrorism is a social fact that is constructed through different processes of labelling, definition, counting, and so on; legal definitions and a range of other social and academic practices. Therefore, when we come to study terrorism, we always have to start by asking: how has this category been constructed in a particular social context? Why is it that a particular group or a particular government or a particular individual has come be labelled as 'terrorist'? Or indeed certain acts, how they have come to be labelled as 'terrorism'?

So there is a different kind of ontological assumption here, which means that 'once a terrorist is not always a terrorist.' Nelson Mandela is a perfect example of someone who started out being labelled as a terrorist, the State Department said that he was one of the most dangerous and notorious terrorists at the time; but later on he became a Noble Peace Prize winner, a statesman and a symbol of progress, peace and democracy to millions of people around the world. So the idea here is that terrorism is not a fixed objective fact in the world just waiting to be discovered by scholars, but it is something that is constructed through the way in which scholars study the subject.

This means as well that it has epistemological consequences for the way in which we study terrorism. The CTS approach would say that we have to be aware of the way in which our knowledge and research actually constructs the subject of terrorism. It constructs different subject positions amongst people and society; those called terrorists, those who are suspected of it, those who are the state, those who are the counter-terrorists, and so on. This also means that we have to take terrorist subjectivity seriously. People who are called ‘terrorists’, when we are collecting knowledge about them, we can't just use secondary sources, for example, we have to take more seriously the need to actually engage with them and see their perspective as well.

I mentioned a third thing, which was praxis. CTS starts from the notion that all knowledge should be for something. We have to take an openly normative position. And what we have to do is say: how is our knowledge and research going to be used and how can we work, as terrorism scholars, not just to understand the subject itself, but also to make the world a better place? A place perhaps where the use of terrorist tactics are not used, and where counter-terrorism doesn't actually make things worse and doesn't actually increase the levels of human suffering and violence? So, there is a number of commitments that I think that CTS has; commitments to self reflection, reflection on the knowledge producing process, reflection on subjectivity, in terms of both the terrorist and the researcher, which mark it out as quite different from the orthodox terrorism studies field.


IA- Forum: What do you hope can be achieved with this new approach (CTS)?

Dr. Jackson: There are three main goals, things which we think are achievable. The first is to try and create new kinds of debate. Our aim here is not to create a new field, but to actually get a dialogue going and to try and engage in a conversation with the people who already study terrorism; to get them to think through some of the assumptions, approaches and ideas that they have and some of the ways in which they go about their research, as a way of reinvigorating the field. Opening up new areas of research, asking new kinds of questions, bringing new perspectives to bear. So in a sense, we are trying to galvanise the field through starting a debate.

Secondly, I think we are actually trying to improve the quality of terrorism research. We are trying to, for example, convince existing terrorism scholars of the need to engage in more primary research - particularly as it relates to engaging with people who are considered to be ‘terrorists’. Instead of a lot of articles and books being published without ever having spoken to a so-called 'terrorist', and which rely mainly on newspapers, government sources, sources from secret security organisations, and so on. So that the research is actually based on field work, talking to people who have been designated as terrorists, or groups who are associated with people who are considered terrorists, and the like. As well as bringing in more context, more sensitivity and more reflexivity. By reflexivity I mean, reflection on the consequences of the research that you do, how your research impacts counter-terrorism policy, on groups in society that are affected by your research, in the current context, Muslims, for example, and the way in which knowledge about terrorism is actually connected to power and the exercise of power through counter-terrorism.

And thirdly, I would hope that, CTS could lead to better policy advice and make a contribution to counter-terrorism policy. So, for example, by doing more rigorous research which involves talking to suspected terrorists and terrorist groups, we might better understand what it is they are trying to achieve and what their grievances are and if these grievances can be addressed. This could then lead to more sensitive policies which could deal with those grievances rather than just labelling them all as terrorists and locking them all up, assassinating their leaders, and so on.


IA-Forum: Is it fair to say then, that the research and intentions of traditional terrorism studies scholars post 9/11 have been unethical (scholastically speaking) i.e. Was their research 'constructed' for a specific self-interested and/or state purpose, rather than for the purposes of understanding?

Dr. Jackson: I want to make this really clear: we are not positing a bad faith argument. We are not talking about the motives of individual scholars. The fact is that we can never really know what the motives of individual scholars are and I would, in fact, suggest that a lot of scholars have very noble motives. Many scholars, particularly, post 9/11 are like those who volunteered for the US military; they really wanted to help their country, they wanted to make sure that terrorism attacks such as 9/11 would not happen again. So they had good motives. The point we are making is not about the motives of individual scholars but that structurally, as an overall field, some of the practices and some of their approaches of terrorism scholars have led to bad results. They have led to research that has adopted a state centric approach, that does not involve talking to terrorists because there is a fear that if you talk to them you might understand them better or that you may develop sympathies with them; over reliance on government sources of information, a failure to reflect on the consequence of the research that is done, and so on. All these things are structural problems within the field; they are not necessarily a case of bad faith or 'evil motives'. What we are positing is a much broader evaluation of the field.


IA-Forum: By extension, is traditional research on terrorists and terrorism useless?

Dr. Jackson: Well, I would never say that but like almost any field of academic research there is really good research but also mediocre and bad research. There is some really excellent traditional research. It is excellent because it is rigorous, based on primary sources and documents and is self reflective. It reflects on the consequences of its findings and the kind of impacts that research would have. And there is some really excellent work of real integrity by such scholars as Martha Crenshaw, Michael Stohl, John Horgan, Andrew Silk, Robert Pape and others. They have all done really sterling work. Having said that though, our point would be that these are the exceptions rather than the rule. So on the whole, a great majority of terrorism scholarship is characterised by some of the weaknesses I have previously mentioned. There is some excellent traditional research, but the field as a whole presents a number of challenges that we hope that CTS will overcome.


IA-Forum: As you have mentioned in your research, traditional terrorism studies has been criticised for not coming to a conclusion on a definition of 'terrorism'. Scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Michael Stohl argue that there is a definition of 'terrorism' i.e. the threat or use of force, intimidation and fear for the fulfilment of political objectives etc., that states, principally the US, simply ignore due to the questions it would raise concerning foreign policy and state behaviour. Do you concur with this view or does 'terrorism' really defy definition? Further, is a definition of 'terrorism' even necessary for CTS or indeed any type of understanding?

Dr. Jackson: This is a very complex question. What I would say is, not to come some kind of dominant conclusion that everyone can agree with, but to recognise that terrorism is fundamentally a social fact rather than brute fact. As I have said already, political violence is a brute fact: people get killed, property gets destroyed, people are injured and hurt, etc. But the meaning of that violence and the label that gets assigned to it, whether it is assigned as 'collateral damage' or 'terrorism' or 'war' or 'legitimate self defence' or whatever; those things are negotiated socially. So the important point is that in any given historical context, certain acts will be defined as 'terrorism' in that context. So at the moment actions of Islamic extremist groups that use violence gets defined as ‘terrorism’. If we go further back in history and we look at the actions of the Resistance in France during the Second World War, for example, we would say that their actions were pretty much identical but that they were not called terrorists - particularly in the West. They were called terrorists by the Nazis. So each group and each society negotiates and socially constructs the category of terrorism.

In the current situation and the current field, if we were to try and come up with a definition of terrorism and we were to think about the existing definitions, I think that the scholars who are associated with CTS would adopt the view that terrorism is a tactic of political violence and that the nature of terrorism lies in the way in which the violence is used, the ends for which it is used and the intentions of the people using that violence. There are some people who think that terrorism is fundamentally an act of violence by non-state actors, but we would reject that view because it is nonsensical to say that only certain actors can use certain tactics.

Terrorism, in a way is like ambushes, it's a military tactic. To say that “only states can do ambushes” sounds ridiculous. So our argument would be that state and non-state actors can use the tactic of terrorism. If the intention of the actor is to terrify the audience through the threat or use of violence for a political purpose of some kind, then that is probably quite a good definition of terrorism that we would be happy with. You are right in saying that this definition is problematic for governments because it means that sometimes what they do would count as ‘terrorism’. And governments prefer not to tar themselves with the same brush that they would use against their opponents. But part of what CTS attempts to do is to say, let’s have a consistent definition of terrorism and let’s examine and try and de-legitimise all acts of terrorism, despite whom they are committed by.


IA-Forum: In your book, Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-Terrorism (2005), you emphasize the need to critically analyse the use of language, the construction of narratives and political discourse. How does understanding these things help us understand terrorism?

Dr. Jackson: Well, as I have said, because terrorism is a social fact rather than a brute fact, understanding what constitutes terrorism at any given moment involves understanding the broader political discourse of that particular society and the way in which terrorism is constructed as a discursive subject through the use of language, political discourse and also through aspects of culture, such as popular entertainment. So, far example, it would probably not occur that we would have films and television programmes about 'terrorist' groups fighting against the Nazis during the Second World War. We would instead refer to them as resistance or freedom fighters. We wouldn't construct them as terrorists. And in a way, every particular historical context uses parts of the broader political discourse and social and cultural narratives to construct the context in which it becomes intelligible to say this group is a terrorist group, this individual is a terrorist and these groups are not - even when they look very similar from a more objective perspective. So I think it is really important to understand the political, cultural and linguistic context in which people use the term 'terrorism' as a way of understanding.

This is only one part of the puzzle and it's only one part of studying terrorism. Discourse analysis of the language of terrorism could also be very useful for the way in which terrorist groups themselves construct the world, their reality, and the legitimacy of what they are trying to do. So in fact we could actually understand terrorism itself and the actions of so-called 'terrorist' better if we were to take their language more seriously: read the things they have written, talk to them, listen to their words and see how they construct the world and how they construct their own actions, their own position in the world, their goals, aims and aspirations, and so on. So I think the use of language, the construction of narratives and political discourse is vitally important both for understanding how terrorism is constructed in our society as a subject, but also for studying the phenomenon itself.


IA-Forum: Do you think that terrorism discourse was solely constructed, in a Foucauldian sense, to 'discipline' society; indeed to produce: “...a power situation of which they (the population?) are themselves the bearers” (Discipline and Punish) using language of fear, negative identification and normalisation (through the media and popular culture); or is there a genuine motivation, however small, to understand terrorists and terrorism?

Dr. Jackson: In sense, as I have said earlier, it isn't really helpful to speculate about the intentions of terrorism scholars, media reporters, etc. For one thing, we cannot know for sure what people's intentions are. What is much more crucial is simply to examine the effects and consequences of discourses. You can make a very strong argument that the terrorism discourse has been used by some economic and political elites to pursue particular projects. There are political projects, such as regime change in the Middle East, constructing more effect surveillance systems in the UK or the US, regulating immigration better, and so on, that use the terrorism discourse as a way, as you say, of 'disciplining' society and preventing dissent to these projects. We do have to look at that, but that is not to infer that this is all some kind of conspiracy by this group of people to control and discipline society. We can't know what the motives are, but what we can do is look at the effects. It seems clear to me that the -effects of the current terrorism discourse have been very disciplining on society, have suppressed dissent, have allowed elites to pursue illiberal political projects which have had bad affects on society, human rights, and so on.


IA-Forum: Can such discourses, now that they have been established, be demolished? Will CTS provide the hammers to do so?

Dr. Jackson: Discourses always change. They can change quite quickly. The Cold War is an example of a discourse which literally collapsed overnight. At other times, the change is a lot slower, a long process of struggle. If you think about environmental awareness or human rights, these discourses have taken decades to permeate into broader consciousness, to impact more on the Academy, on politics, and so on. So, sometimes discourses take a long time to change. I think that discourses change, not solely on their own, but also through discourse entrepreneurs who change the discourse by introducing new ideas and having their message heard in as many places as possible, by trying to make the argument.

I think that CTS is part of a broader set of challenges, if you like, to the existing terrorism discourse, in particular the 'war on terrorism' as the institutionalisation of that discourse. I think that it will be a long, slow process of change because the war on terror has in many ways been deeply institutionalised and embedded into society and counter-terrorism practices, new institutions, laws, and so on. And so it will be very hard to dislodge, but at the same time it seems to me that on-going failures in Iraq and Afghanistan raise questions about the discourse; scandals that have occurred, such as torture and rendition. All these factors, as well as the rise of CTS and scholars who challenge the dominant discourse, will hopefully, over time lead to a change in the discourse. I am quite optimistic, as scholars join in the CTS approach and begin to adopt some of our perspectives and engage in our debates, that the discourse will begin to buckle and change.


IA-Forum: So, we have discussed the new and exciting possibilities that CTS can provide our understanding of terrorism. What other areas of terrorism studies can CTS contribute too, indeed are there any areas which are currently neglected/ignored that CTS can invigorate?

Dr. Jackson: I think that there is a whole range of subjects that CTS is well equipped to bring into the study of terrorism; subjects that are not really understood or studied to date. I have talked a lot about the social construction of terrorism; the way it is constructed through discursive practices. I think that there is a need for more of that research. We need to understand more clearly how the terrorism discourse developed. It's interesting that the terrorism discourse is quite a recent one. It wasn't really a media subject before the late 1960s. Since then, and 9/11 as well, it has become a major subject of entertainment, academia, science and technology, government, and so on. It’s a very new discourse in a sense, but we still need to trace how it grew, how it was constructed, how it became hegemonic, if you like, in our culture, and what kind of effects that it has. I think also another key issue here, one which CTS is keen to promote and study, is the whole question of state terrorism.

While terrorism studies traditionally focused on non-state actors, it is clear that if we have a definition of terrorism as a tool that any actor can use, states have actually engaged in more acts of terrorism than non-state actors. They have used murder and assassination, kidnapping, violence, repression, and so on, as a means of terrifying people for political reasons for hundreds of years. We need a lot more research to understand why, how, to what end, and by what methods governments use terrorism. Is there, in fact, a connection between state use of terrorism and non-state use of terrorism; are the two related? Do non-state actors respond to state terrorism by launching terrorism of their own? Do they learn from states how to use political violence for political reasons? So there is a great need to ‘bring the state back in’, if you like, to the analysis of terrorism.

We also have to bring in a lot more historical context, try and re-contextualise, terrorism and understand it as the product of a particular society and a particular context. There is, unfortunately, a myth that we are experiencing a 'new' kind of terrorism; that since 9/11 terrorism is somehow different to all the other terrorism that has come before. This is not really true, and if we were to do more research into historical cases of terrorism, we would find that it is very similar to contemporary terrorism. We also need more research on perspectives from the South. In fact, most terrorism occurs in the developing world - in places like India, which have hundreds of terrorist attacks every year, far more than what occurs in western countries. We also need to look at questions of gender. The study of terrorism has been very male dominated. We still don't understand the extent to which women are involved in terrorism or counter-terrorism, and what impact gender issues have on the nature of terrorism. So I think there is a whole series of subjects that can emerge from adopting a CTS approach. By asking new kinds of questions, opening new areas of enquiry and suggesting a new kind of approach, CTS can, hopefully, reinvigorate the field.

Richard Jackson is a Reader in International Politics at Aberystwyth University, United Kingdom, where he teaches critical terrorism studies, security studies and conflict resolution. He is the founding editor of the journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism, and the author of ‘Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism’ (Manchester University Press, 2005). His most recent book, with Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning, is ‘Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda’ (Routledge, 2009).

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