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Terrorism and fear: do terrorists really want to scare?

Critical Studies on TerrorismJournal abstract

There is a widespread tendency among academics, state institutions and international organisations to regard intention to cause fear and intimidation as a key definitional characteristic of terrorism. This article argues that such a conceptualisation of terrorism is unfounded. A survey of mainstream terrorist doctrines (propaganda by the deed, foco theory–urban guerrilla warfare and armed propaganda, and jihadist doctrines) and writings of several pre-eminent terrorist ideologues provides little evidence to suggest that the main tactical goal of terrorism is to spread fear and intimidation. Rather, regardless of their ideological orientation and the historical period in which they operated, terrorists seem to be preoccupied with similar goals: mobilising what they regard to be their constituency, avenging their fallen comrades, extracting retribution for their allegedly wronged constituency, or, simply, with the physical destruction of their perceived enemies. This survey is complemented with a number of “crucial case studies”, where “most-likely cases” of terrorist justification of indiscriminate attacks and a detailed analysis of terrorist literature, which explicitly deals with the question of “fear”, are used to test the validity of the claim that terrorists aim to cause fear and intimidation. In both type of cases the hypothesis is invalidated. In cases of justification of indiscriminate attacks, there is no evidence to suggest that the aim of the terrorists is to spread fear and intimidation. Moreover, in the case of one particular terrorist ideologue who explicitly addresses the question of fear, the analysis of the texts indicates that fear among a population is not seen as an aim to be achieved but as an obstacle for mass mobilisation: an obstacle, which can only be overcome by the terrorist tactics. Thus, in this particular “most-likely case” the aim of terrorist tactics turns out to be encouraging masses for insurrection rather than intimidating them.