In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geography of Terrorism

  • Introduction
  • General Studies of the Causes of Terrorism
  • Geographic Correlates of Terrorism
  • Terrorism in and outside of Civil War
  • GIS, Geocoded Data, and Data Challenges
  • Spatial Analysis of Terrorism
  • Diffusion of Terrorism

International Relations Geography of Terrorism
Andrew Braden, Matthew Cobb, Alex Braithwaite
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0229


The field of terrorism studies has grown rapidly since 9/11. There existed a solid track record of empirical research in the years prior to 2001. Since that time, however, there has been a concerted effort to further develop theoretical models and event-level data sets that can be used to test the implications of these theoretical models. Since about 2010, within this broader trend, there has also been an increasing interest in and exploration of the geography of terrorism processes. This article is designed to parallel this development. In particular, the focus here is on studies that draw upon the rational choice perspective. Naturally, of course, this approach has spawned a critical studies response, details of which readers are encouraged to seek out for themselves. The new revolution of rational choice studies began with analyses uncovering geographic correlates alongside a broader range of political, social, and economic correlates of violence. It then proceeded to examine the overlap between terrorist events (attacks against civilians) inside and outside of the context of larger-scale civil wars. We then observe the growth in use of geographic information system (GIS) technologies in the collection and analysis of data on transnational and domestic terrorism events. This subsequently facilitated the emergence of more sophisticated spatial analyses of terrorism events and campaigns, the majority of which have been carried out on more detailed case studies. Finally, the bibliography explores the diffusion of violent tactics between locations and through networks of relationships among nonstate actors. In sum, it is noteworthy that the geography of terrorism is now taking an increasingly prominent position in the empirical literature on terrorism studies. The authors feel confident that this momentum is likely to be maintained as improved data and analytical techniques are applied, and as scholars increasingly look to directly compare and contrast terrorist uses of violence alongside other forms of political and criminal violence, as well as nonviolent alternatives such as protests, boycotts, and strikes.

General Studies of the Causes of Terrorism

This section spans the 9/11 divide, providing a brief overview of a handful of the more fundamental citations in terrorism studies. These studies reflect key theoretical and empirical contributions. While they are not themselves focused upon explaining the geography of terrorism, it is important to recognize the role of rational choice in our broader understanding of the geographic correlates and processes of terrorism. Crenshaw 1981 offers a comprehensive rational account for individual- and group-level uses of terrorist violence. Kydd and Walter 2006 strengthens this rationalist theoretical perspective by detailing five plausible and non-mutually exclusive strategic motivations for nonstate actors’ uses of terrorist violence. Kydd and Walter refer to attrition, intimidation, provocation, spoiling, and outbidding strategies on the part of terrorist actors challenging ostensibly more powerful government actors. Enders and Sandler 2011 details the advances achieved with respect to the development of empirical tests of these rationalist accounts of terrorism. This book chronicles the authors’ own contributions to this literature over the course of almost thirty years. Sandler 2014 provides a summary assessment of the advances achieved in the study of terrorism via a rationalist perspective. This piece highlights areas of strength as well as those aspects of the literature that would benefit from continued or renewed interest among researchers. Schmid 1992 provides an early overview of one of the more prominent elements of this rationalist agenda: the observation that violent nonstate actors are especially able and willing to exploit the weaknesses embedded in democratic systems of government, taking advantage of the proactive dilemma in which democrats need to strike a balance between demonstrating a willingness to use force, on the one hand, and not overstepping the mark and violating perceptions of their democratic credentials, on the other. Pape 2003 identifies liberal democracies engaged in foreign occupation—often designed to counter terrorism—as being especially vulnerable to the costs imposed by suicide terrorist attacks. Chenoweth 2013 then provides a comprehensive update on this voluminous part of the literature, while also laying the groundwork for future research on the nexus between terrorism and democracy. As part of her study, Chenoweth notes the recent emergence of a literature paying close attention to the elements of regime types under the larger “democracy” and “autocracy” categories that make them especially vulnerable or immune to nonstate actor violence.

  • Chenoweth, Erica. “Terrorism and Democracy.” Annual Review of Political Science 16 (2013): 355–378.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-polisci-032211-221825

    Chenoweth offers a review of a voluminous literature on the nexus between terrorism and democracy. She also offers a novel contribution, seeking to explain the shift in terrorist attacks from democracies to nondemocracies in the post-9/11 era. She explains the shortcomings of four often-used approaches to studying terrorism, before delving into five theories that could explain the shift in target locations. She leaves the work of empirically testing these theories to future scholars.

  • Crenshaw, Martha. “The Causes of Terrorism.” Comparative Politics 13.4 (1981): 379–399.

    DOI: 10.2307/421717

    According to a rational choice logic, terrorism results from dissatisfied segments of the population attempting to gain publicity for a political cause. Terrorists often feel that violence is their only good option for influencing the political system. They hope to benefit from government responses that are either weak enough to indicate government ineptitude or harsh enough to confirm criticisms that it is unjust.

  • Enders, Walter, and Todd Sandler. The Political Economy of Terrorism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511791451

    Enders and Sandler provide a thorough discussion of the goals and tactics of ethno-nationalist, religious, and right- and left-wing groups. The also include detailed discussions about various terrorist groups, the logic behind suicide terrorism, how and why terrorists and the media are interconnected, how terrorist groups learn from one another, and the challenges faced by the world in combating modern threats such as al-Qaeda.

  • Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. 3d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

    Hoffman’s “go-to” text provides an excellent overview of the historical and cultural development of modern terrorism. Hoffman also provides a definitive explanation for the common tactics and characteristics of terrorist groups and their evolution over the last two centuries. This book provides useful insights into the differences between ethno-religious, nationalist, left-wing, and right-wing groups, with numerous examples of how these groups operate.

  • Kydd, Andrew, and Barbara Walter. “The Strategies of Terrorism.” International Security 31.1 (2006): 49–80.

    DOI: 10.1162/isec.2006.31.1.49

    Kydd and Walter apply a rationalist framework to explore the strategic motivations behind uses of terrorist violence. They frame terror attacks as “costly signals,” arguing that terrorist groups are often successful in altering states’ behaviors by conducting attacks that affect their strategic estimation about terrorists’ capabilities. Common terrorist strategies include attrition, intimidation, provocation, spoiling, and outbidding.

  • Pape, Robert. “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.” American Political Science Review 97.3 (2003): 343–361.

    DOI: 10.1017/S000305540300073X

    Noting that suicide tactics tend to be especially deadly, Pape argues that terrorists employ them in order to attract attention for violating norms against suicide. Suicide tactics are often effective in coercing states—particularly casualty-averse liberal democracies—into meeting terrorist demands, simultaneously generating publicity needed for recruitment. Although suicide tactics were once characterized as irrational, Pape argues that they are in fact strategic, allowing terrorist groups to better achieve their goals.

  • Sandler, Todd. “The Analytical Study of Terrorism: Taking Stock.” Journal of Peace Research 51.2 (2014): 257–271.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022343313491277

    Sandler surveys major topics of terrorism research, including a discussion of rational actor approaches, major databases of terrorism data, and the evolving nature of terrorist tactics. Regarding geographic issues, Sandler explains that terrorist attacks have a profound effect on people nearest to the attack, with more distant areas being influenced by ripple effects. Additionally, terrorist attacks tend to cause greater economic damage to smaller countries.

  • Schmid, Alex P. “Terrorism and Democracy.” Terrorism and Political Violence 4.4 (1992): 14–25.

    DOI: 10.1080/09546559208427173

    In his agenda-defining article, Schmid argues that terrorist groups may easily take advantage of the economic and political freedoms of democratic societies. He adds to this the claim that to fight terrorism it is essential for democratic governments to not undermine their popular legitimacy. This represents an early discussion of the proactive dilemma encountered by democratic polities.

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