UPDATED 03/17/2021 Corrigendum: Published as a student project, this article featured a previously uncredited media file owned by Reuters, a situation which infringed on the owner’s copyrights. The author sincerely apologizes for this error and has lifted the media file from the current article.
By B. E. Ngoe
This essay attempts to investigate the causes of terrorism in contemporary human society by assessing the various definitive dimensions that both scholars and cultures have ascribed to the phenomenon. It seeks to answer the question of what terrorism is said to be today and of what is or are responsible for its continuous proliferation in human society. The author also sought to investigate, using the Hacker and Weaver Model of Group Intent, the possibility of predicting whether trends in any given crisis will result in outright terrorism. the study found among other things that scholars, agencies and governments have not come to agree on a specific and generalized definition for terrorism since each party has sought to define the term along its own ideological lines. Taking the Cameroonian example, the study found that to predict whether a crisis will result in terrorism requires a proper definition of the term itself as well as a long-term assessment of the trends of the crisis in question.
Key words: Terrorism, national security, violence, state terrorism, communication
Terrorism has become a topical issue for the past two decades and has heightened its reputation ever since the September11, 2001 Al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centre in New York (Blomberg, Hess & Tan, 2011; Bruce, 2013). From Africa to Asia, right across Europe to the Americas, the truth of people living in daily fear of possible terrorist attacks informs the topical concerns of every society. Terrorism owns a stubborn portion of daily news and has become commonplace talk in every corner of most cities in the world today. While there have been efforts by the international community to curb the phenomenon, terrorism remains a speaking reality, adamant to its course and gaining momentum with the days as reports of new terrorist organizations spring from every corner of the world today. As a matter of fact, the Global Terrorism Index – GTI (2015) says terrorism rose to about 80 per cent in 2014 with death tolls rising from 18.111 in 2013 to 32.685 in 2014. That of course is the highest recorded of terrorist activities in history. The question as to whether the world will finally deal away with terrorism remains heavily unanswered as humanity can only hope that one day the very bases that prompt terrorism will give way to tolerance and peace. Nevertheless, we can always seek to know what exactly the phenomenon of terrorism is an attempt to determine those factors that have incessantly orchestrated the act throughout the world in contemporary times. In this paper therefore, I seek to answer the questions: what is terrorism and what are the various propellers of the phenomenon in the 21st century? How can we determine the potentials of terrorism in developing-conflict areas by observing a given case study?
While the frequent use of the word terrorism, by not only the news media but also individuals and groups, has almost totally shifted its meaning to being obvious, defining terrorism can be as hard and laborious as the eradication itself of the heinous act. Although the phenomenon has had very tangible effects on societies and economies throughout the years (Blomberg, Hess & Tan, 2011), terrorism’s essentially contested nature has left it with no commonly accepted or recognized definition (Goodwin, 2006) As if this is not enough, to define terrorism within the precincts of its global meaning has been likened to a slippery human endeavor since various definitions of the term have tended to suit only the goals of the different bodies and agencies that attempt to offer them (Bruce, 2013; O’Brien, 2016). This suggests the presence of a plethora of opinions regarding what terrorism is all about, these opinions also being accentuated by the overt or surreptitious intentions of those defining the word per their agenda. Political pressure groups, government agencies, international organizations and bodies all have peculiar views and opinions regarding terrorism so that to pinpoint a universal definition for the term poses a serious problem. In addition to the galaxy of opinions held about terrorism is the huge number of ways agencies, organizations and groups attempt to tackle the vice. The United States for example is said to see terrorism “as an external threat and therefore prefers military action such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to thwart terrorists before they can reach U.S shores…” (O’Brien, 2016, p. 200). On the other hand, Europe is said to largely consider terrorism as an internal phenomenon (terrorists are homegrown) and thus, has a dual strategy of tackling terror both from within the polity and without it (ibid).
Even in the academia, defining terrorism has not had a consensual approach (Bockstette, 2008). The reason for this lack of generality in defining terrorism is, to an extent, due to the consideration that the concept itself is still very youthful. According to Bockstette (2008), terrorism as a military-political master plan has existed for only 40 years. Douglas (2014) however dates terrorism as far back as 1904, ascribing the term to have been used by Lieutenant General Luther von Trotha who commanded the German forces in South West Africa. While there is no conclusiveness with regards to how various legislatures define terrorism, there is however some suggestiveness regarding the debates surrounding the concept (ibid).
The inability to arrive at a resolute definition of terrorism can probably be explained by the complex nature of the phenomenon. While the act of terror can encompass a vast array of social phenomena, including domestic and workplace violence for example, terrorism seems to contain a certain spice that makes it unique as a form of social violence. What then can we say is terrorism? To answer this question, we will consider several definitions. According to Bockstette (2008, p. 8), terrorism is “political violence in an asymmetrical conflict that is designed to induce terror and psychic fear (sometimes indiscriminate) through the violent victimization and destruction noncombatant targets (sometimes iconic symbols)”. Aspects of this definition are also supported by de la Calle & Sanchez-Cuenca (2011).
From the definition above, one understands terrorism from several standpoints. The first is that terrorism is first and foremost some form of violence. This form of violence is unique in the sense that it is political. This means that terrorism, unlike domestic and workplace violence is usually sparked by a political problem. Terrorists usually use this form of violence to attain some political ends (O’Brien, 2016). The terrorist activities of Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria and Cameroon for example, are a very recent and speaking example of terrorism spiced by the want to achieve a political end (Agbiboa, 2016). This brings us to yet another stop in our understanding of the political motivation of terrorism. The Boko haram case, as it is the case with many other terrorist organizations in the Middle East, for example, is blended, with politics, by the quest for a national identity (ibid). ethnic sensitivity and religious fanaticism seem to have a diehard connection with the political underpinnings of terrorism.
Secondly, political violence, orchestrated by terrorists (terrorism), is born of asymmetrical conflicts (Bockstette, 2008; de la Calle & Sanchez-Cuenca, 2011). This suggests that we define violence as terrorism when parties involved in the conflict that leads to it are lopsided, misaligned or unequal in terms of economic, political and even ideological power. This of course is justifiable if we consider the next part of the definition which says that terrorism is “designed to induce terror and psychic fear”. People, aspiring to attain certain goals against very powerful odds but lacking the physical resources to get to their goal are prone to resort to psychological warfare as an alternative. Desperation in the face of weakness in terms of military and financial resources to combat opponents on an equal level of warfare is probably one of the things that lead to retaliatory violence to becoming terrorism.
Terrorism is also marked by the bullying and wrecking of noncombatant individuals and sometimes iconic symbols (ibid). This again tends to situate terrorism within the circle of violence resulting from a conflict in which the partners are apart in terms of resource power. Where the wielders of both hard and soft power machineries outweigh a seemingly marginalized group, which however is bent on defying its marginal position through violence, the resulting outcome becomes known as terrorism (Richards, 2010). Because terrorists understand that civilians and flags, for example, are not only humanly important to states but are also symbolic representations of the same, they tend to levy their attacks on these noncombatant targets to provoke their powerful opponents or destabilize them mentally.
Goodwin (2006) offers several other definitions which are worth considering. For time and space’s sake, we will consider one of them. Having assigned terrorism into several forms, Goodwin defines non-state terrorism as “the strategic use of violence and threats of violence by an oppositional political group against civilians or noncombatants, and is usually intended to influence several audiences”. The unique implication of this definition, while it ties with others (e.g. Bockstette, 2008; Findley, Piazza & Young, 2012; Krieger & Meierrieks, 2010) in various aspects, is that it warrants us to think more deeply into the forms and intentions of terrorism. It follows that terrorism may not necessarily be non-state only because by dichotomizing and treating an aspect of violence as “non-state”, the definition automatically suggests that there are several other forms of terrorism, including state terrorism. And of course, research has shown that state terrorism both exists and has been in practice for over half a decade (Antonelli & Cole, 2009; Piazza, 2008; Sluka, Chomsky & Price, 2002; Tamura, 2005)
Furthermore, the definition intimates that terrorism may have both intended and unintended motivations. My understanding of this stems from the fact that while terrorists usually have the intension of influencing certain audiences to their will, their execution of violence is not always necessitated by a planned or well-intended agenda to do so. Rather, there are times, it seems, when terrorists actualize violent acts upon well-meditated plans and strategies and there are other times when these acts fade away in mere threats (Goodwin, 2006). Again, even when threats result in actual violence, Wood (2010) suggests that casualties during terrorist attacks sometimes result from unintended circumstances, usually of a collateral origin, against civilians.
To arrive at a synthetically recognizable definition of a term which has been highly tailored by ideological rhetoric, Rodin (2004) provides four levels by which we can synchronize the various facets that have been used in defining terrorism all the while. These include providing the term with a tactical and operational definition, a teleological definition, an agent-focused definition and an object-focused definition. Terrorism is a strategic feat that takes into consideration the modes by which to get the target. Hence terrorists engage in the use of firearms to orchestrate havoc, they hijack planes and take hostages in order that their demands are met. Most acts of terror are usually branded to be politically motivated (ibid). Nevertheless, religious and ethnic sensitivities also spark terrorism as in the case of Boko Haram in northern Cameroon and Nigeria. In defining terrorism, it is important to think of who perpetuates the act. Expressions such as sub-state terrorism, to distinguish it from state terrorism, have emerged so strongly among the academia and especially among state agents who tend to reject the possibility of state terrorism. Finally, to think of terrorism, one must think as well of who suffers from terrorism (target). Most definitions place unarmed civilians as victims of terrorism, which is true only to the point that that class of targets is only a less relevant (though directly impacted) part of the main target of terrorism. As stated above, terrorists aim at hitting governments to which they are opposed. These form the primary target though indirectly impacted.
Even with this breakdown, one still finds it hard to define terrorism holistically without either leaving out an important detail or making the error of over defining the term. Nonetheless, my view of terrorism in the 21st century, and hence the working definition of the concept for this paper, rests on the notion that it is a deliberate act of violence by one group of people or an individual working on account of a (usually shared) ideology against another group or individual, usually coordinated by the use of strategic communication and communication tools, to achieve political, religious or other ideological goals, including ethnic or nationalistic goals.
What Prompts Terrorism?
This sounds like an overemphasized question to ask, given that a huge amount of literature exists explaining the causes of terrorism in the world today. While this is no doubt the case, the sheer tenacity of terrorism in our time makes it even more of a duty to assess its causes and why these have been so notorious in making the vice’s doggedness so true. As is the case with the causes of most phenomena, the winds that blow the masts of terror nowadays are not new. Nevertheless, they have taken upon themselves new natures (not necessarily identities) that revamp, every now and then, their powers to duplicate their erstwhile strengths into even stronger capabilities.
The most cited propellers of terrorism over the years remain religious fundamentalism, extremist supremacy, divisive demagogy, economic deprivation or marginalization, dictatorship, depletion of natural resources and very importantly, developments in information and communication technologies (Black, 2004; Findley & Young, 2011; GTI, 2015; Savun & Phillips, 2009; Piazza, 2011; Pietsch & McAllister, 2012).
To begin with, religious fundamentalism remains one the prime causes of terrorism especially when this must do with the rhetoric of a Christian/Muslim binary. Throughout history, these religious groups have fought each other over so-called holy lands and ideologies both from full scale international platforms to semi- or even intranational group-coordinated levels. Of course, many governments have rejected the idea that states perpetuate terrorism on other states or in other regions of the world simply because terrorism is supposed to be a non-state act of violence. The United States for example, has, since the 9/11 attacks, reported most terrorist activity on its soil from the perspective of radicalized religious fanaticism or hate (Powell, 2011). This fanaticism or hate has usually been attributed to Islam (ibid). Nevertheless, the GTI (2015) shows that Islamic fundamentalism is not the only cause of terrorism in the West and perhaps in the whole world. The index reveals that 80 percent of deaths resulting from terrorist activities between 2005 and 2014 were orchestrated by what it calls lone wolf attackers in the West. The reason for this proliferation of individualized terrorism brings me to examine other causes of terrorism in the world.
Wade and Reiter (2007) suggest that individuals and groups who get fed-up with regime excesses may result to violent activities that graduate into terrorism. They argue however that this is most probable to occur only in states where there is a commixture of democracy and authoritarianism. Following from the GTI (2015), however, individual perpetrators of terrorist activities were fired by right wing extremism, nationalism, political extremism and other forms of supremacy. Thus, whether a regime proves to be democratic or authoritarian does not fully necessitate individualized acts of terror. Rather, fundamental ideologies of race, ethnicity and nationalism lie at the bedrock of individual radicalism, having the potency of self-manifesting regardless of the political or even religious atmosphere. That notwithstanding, it is important to note that individuals have been known to act on their own motivation by way of sympathizing with certain group ideologies. Examples are ISIL and ISIS recruits from Western countries and the American Ku Klux Klan.
Poverty and the uneven distribution of wealth has also accounted for intranational terrorism which in some cases, eventually escalate into international terrorism (Abadie, 2006). While states are sometimes quick to brand terrorists as evil, psychedelic fanatics of violence, who are mere bloodthirsty humans with no sense of humanity (Rodin, 2004), the truth remains that some acts of terrorism are born entirely of a feeling of neglect on the part of common men (who later become terrorists) by their governments. There is a strong relationship between economic wellness and terrorism (Meierrieks and Gries, 2013). On its part, economic wellness depends on political openness and stability (ibid). an unstable political system, raked by corruption, neglect for the rule of law and an open resort to the vandalization of national resources yields a proper breeding ground for conflicts. The Biafran war of the 1960s was a good example of how economic and social deprivation could amount to devastating conflicts that may yield to longstanding acts of terror. Unfortunately, most African and Middle Eastern countries have not realized this connection or have simply refused to recognize the potential of economic deprivation leading to acts of violence and terror.
The United Nations came up with The United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy during its Sixty-sixth session on April 4, 2012. Agenda item 118 containing this strategy identifies a number of reasons why terrorism has been on the rise in the 21st century (see above) and proposes ways by which terrorism and its spread can be contained. There is consensus that internal conflicts between political factions, as in the case of the Talibans in Afghanistan, lack of dialogue between opposing parties, underdevelopment and social exclusion are the major factors that fan terrorism. Interestingly, among a plethora of actions the UN seeks to take to counter terrorism, one of the them includes designing a strong communication machinery that would disseminate the mission of the Counter-terrorism Strategy and hence absorb the shock that the vice meets on the world.
Curiously though, in examining the causes of terrorism, the UN fails to acknowledge the power of communication technologies in spreading the tentacles of terror throughout the world. The Internet and its accompanying arsenal of communication outlets has made it possible for terrorist organizations to operate as networks (Ishengoma, 2013). Groups agitating for different causes identify others with whom they share a certain amount of affinity, it could be religious or ideological, and decide to create dyads and even more sophisticated webs of terror-driven organizations. Boko Haram, which in 2014 accounted for more deaths than ISIS (GTI, 2015), became affiliated with the latter almost around that time. One can argue that the group’s success in exacting the magnitude of terror it has done so far is thanks to its intricate network with other terrorist organizations and ideological movements, including Al Qaeda. Therefore, although the UN recognizes the need for combating terrorism using the Internet, its giving a blind eye to the very power that the Internet has in maintaining the flames of terror alight is potentially a worthy call for concern over the effectiveness of its strategies. This is so because the stance taken by the UN to combat terrorism using the Internet seems only to be marketing UNESCO, which it places as a chief navigator of the peace process between divided cultures of the world. It does not consider the deep routes through which terrorism itself is navigated and marketed throughout the world and how group appeals tend to become individualized and channeled with such undetectable ease.
Can Terrorism be Detected?
Whether we can detect terrorism or not is an important question to ask. If we can, then we may be able to detect ways of reversing the flow. While usually it may seem to be too early to determine whether a crisis is turning into a terrorist situation, it is supposed to be a matter of grave relevance to strategic security officials to be in the business of nosing for any detectable clues in a crisis that may lead to terrorism.
Since November 2016, the Republic of Cameroon, West Africa, has been plagued by serious social unrest that for the country’s 55 years after reunification has never been witnessed. The English-speaking or Anglophone population has begun agitating against what they call French or Francophone Cameroon domination and marginalization of their 8 million population. Lawyers and teachers staged a strike which has affected all sectors of the two English-speaking regions of the country for over seven months now. In response, the government, under strongman,
Paul Biya, resorted to crackdown on leaders of the protests by branding them terrorists. The Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, the body that coordinates “non-violent” civil disobedience in defiance to government crackdowns has been outlawed as a terrorist organization by 84-year old President Paul Biya. In return, the Consortium has also branded the government as terrorists, banning all symbols, including the National Flag and national holidays in the two Anglophone regions of the country. The ruling CPDM party has also been tagged as a terrorist organization by the Consortium.
While the government has since responded with arbitrary arrests of anyone who sympathizes with the Anglophone movement and closed down the Internet for over three months beginning January 17 2017, the Consortium maintains a non-violent rhetoric but records a daily inventory of acts of vandalism, possibly perpetrated by Anglophone
Cameroonians (who prefer to be called Southern Cameroonians or Ambazonians). It has been the Consortium’s stand to blame every act of vandalism on the government and the government, on the Consortium. My interest in this quite complex situation is to find ways of determining whether in truth, Cameroon is in a state of terrorism. I will use the Hacker and Weaver Model of Group Intent to make intimations regarding the situation in Cameroon.
The Hacker and Weaver Model of Group Intent
Summary of the Model
The model relates that a combination of cultural factors and referenced sources will yield a discourse or narrative within a group. This in turn will divulge into attitudes, active social norms and self-perceived capabilities. The blend of these three become the mother of a group’s intent, leading to behavior. Culture, being a very important aspect of any group of people, harbors within it, certain symbolic data that connect members of a group together and give them a sense of singular identity to work for a cause. Within this cultural matrix are certain cites of reference, individuals of repute, with whom the sympathies of the group lie and who can define an agenda for the group. The fusion of these cultural symbols and reference points creates some form of cultural covalence that gives birth to a cultural ideology, a discourse or narrative that sort of gives members of the culture a level of identity. This then defines their worldview, sculpts their attitudes and perceptions and finally presents them with the truth of their strengths and weaknesses. At this point, a group can then form a collective agenda and execute it.
Anglophone Cameroonians have a cultural unison that is defined both by history and geography. Being natural neighbors, the two English-speaking regions of the country were administered in colonial times as a British protectorate of the League of Nations and the later the UN while the other eight regions were administered in the same capacity by the French. This establishes a natural difference between the two Cameroons which came together in 1961 as a federal state. British Cameroonians believe that they are endemically different from French Cameroonians and so allude to their past compatriots as the late P.M Kale as referents to their singularity. In the wake of the present crisis in Cameroon, British Cameroonians have kept a discourse of their exceptionality as the prime motive for which they must either walk out of the “failed” union or return to federalism, systematically dissolved by the francophone governments since 1972.
Hence, although declared in 1992, the idea of a Republic of Ambazonia has come to make meaning to British Cameroonians only after the present crisis ensued in November 2016. The rhetoric celebrating self-governance and control of the resources which amount to over 60% of Cameroon’s GDP has become the mainstay of even the commonest man. Consequently, with the Consortium’s ability to coordinate Ghost Towns that have seriously slammed the Cameroonian economy and virtually put an end to education in the country, people now believe that Mr Biya’s government has lost legitimacy in the Anglophone regions and are ready to push back every element of his rule from their “territory”.
Within the perimeter of determining whether the present crisis is leading to possible terrorism, I submit by revisiting the working definition of terrorism for this paper. Terrorism is a deliberate act of violence by one group of people or an individual working for a (usually shared) ideology against another group or individual, usually coordinated using strategic communication and communication tools, to achieve political, religious or other ideological goals, including ethnic or nationalistic goals. While the Anglophone Consortium denies all forms of violence in their struggle, one cannot ignore the fact that the sensitivity of its communication and rhetoric can push lay people to commit acts of violence on schools and other public places as a way of assuring the francophone government of their capabilities to take control of “their territory”. Hence, the logic of their discourse helps us point a finger at them when acts of violence are recorded in the territory. In the same vein, the government has a rhetoric of a one-and-indivisible Cameroon under which it justifies its acts of “violence” on the Anglophone populations, namely; mass arrest, killings and the shutdown of communications (Internet). Nevertheless, I feel the prospects of terrorism are not far-fetched in this crisis although I believe it is yet too early to conclude.
Terrorism remains an important topic of discussion for national security although it is not easy to get around a concrete definition of what it really is. While it has claimed many lives, rendered thousands hopeless, displaced and destitute, the roots of terrorism are not always occasioned by the mere love of violence on the part of terrorists. They some of the time stem from the dissatisfaction that groups or individuals perceive within their various spheres of operation. In as much as governments and other stakeholders determine to put an end to terrorism, the feat will remain incomplete until the deepest routes of the vice’s projections are tackled to the end. This is because, just as it is not easy to define what terrorism is, it is also an arduous task to track its development and hence combat it even before it yields its fruits (although this is not impossible).
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