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

  • Introduction
  • Specialized Sources
  • Separable from Guerrilla Warfare
  • Terrorism’s Particular Nature
  • Early Dynamics
  • Late-20th-Century Dynamics
  • Strategies
  • State Sponsorship
  • Specialized Topics
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction
  • War with Al Qaeda, 2001–

Military History Terrorism
Christopher C. Harmon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0062


Terrorism is well-defined as “the deliberate, systematic, murder, maiming and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends” (Jonathan Institute 1979). The United Nations has working definitions of terrorist acts. Many countries have formal definitions embedded in state codes. Should any precise definition seem unsatisfactory, Dutch expert Alex P. Schmid established another useful approach in 1983: listing multiple yet distinctive characteristics of terrorism. Examples may be the following: It is illegal violence or the threat thereof; it always has political content; most victims are non-belligerents/civilians; psychology and shock value are at a premium, not destruction of martial forces; and the intended audiences—to be frightened or influenced—are far wider than the crime scene. Terrorism has become an established factor in international relations and has its own position in the spectrum of irregular warfare. The topic has had no emphasis in standard military histories—although that may be changing after 2001. Terrorism is discernibly different in nature from military practice and experience, and is barred under international law and law of war. However, terrorism and guerrilla war have been part of many wars and low-intensity campaigns. Most insurgents have chosen to use terror. Substate actors may view terrorism as an alternative to war and perhaps even an alternative to planning and executing widespread insurgency. For all these reasons, terrorism deserves a place in a military bibliography, and to a degree the selections following are balanced in that direction.

Specialized Sources

In a world of current media, and engines such as LexisNexis and EBSCO that can search in academic journals, there is less inclination to turn to a printed encyclopedia. But two are briefed here as offering numerous, short, informative listings on named terrorist groups: Janke and Sim 1983 and Ashley (2011). These are followed by just three of the proliferating contemporary websites: Global Terrorism Database, the South Asia Terrorism Portal; and the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor. The US Department of State has done admirably, in almost all years, producing its annual Country Reports on Terrorism, which are useful on a dozen levels, including informing critics of official Washington’s point of view on overseas violence. Varied journals of strategic studies, international relations, military affairs, and small wars sometimes run useful articles on terrorism, or terrorism and its links to war. Specialized journals are available for regions of the world; these offer important background and general themes for the terrorism researcher at risk of delving too narrowly into a minority’s violence at the expense of context. For readers on terrorism with global interests and a current-day focus, three journals deserve mention for their qualities: Jane’s Intelligence Review; Terrorism and Political Violence; and Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.

  • Department of State (US). Country Reports on Terrorism.

    These are annual products of inter-agency collaboration and the considered opinions of officials in the security arena. Shorter in the 1980s and 1990s, they now run to 250 or 300 pages Each report covers events of the previous year, region by region and with strategic overviews, tables of data, and a glossary of named groups pitched to the operational level. State sponsors of terrorism are described, with notes on the consequences of being listed as such.

  • Global Terrorism Database. START. University of Maryland, College Park, MD.

    Naturally not as current as a newspaper, this website carries invaluable data on groups’ patterns of activity over time: e.g., how many violent actions—and of what types—a group took during named years. Or, data can pair with other resources to reveal the start-point or end of a group. It becomes evident that some groups do not indulge in public violence in their early years, yet other groups remain disturbing long after their last bombing.

  • Jane’s Intelligence Review. Defense and Security Intelligence and Analysis Section, IHS Jane’s.

    Military historians know Jane’s for its annuals on fighting ships, but today the company is far larger, and prints products about scores of security-related topics. This monthly is the single best English-language periodical with worldwide coverage on guerrilla wars and terrorism, and it is also informative on organized crime and narcotics. Jane’s also publishes Terrorism and Insurgency Monitor.

  • Janke, Peter, with Richard Sim. Guerrilla and Terrorist Organizations: A World Directory and Bibliography. New York: Macmillan, 1983.

    Former head of research at a British think tank, Janke assembled over five hundred pages of capsule material on famous and obscure groups up to his time. Remarkably reliable and valuable for scholars. But being outdated, it can be paired with the new, smaller, and less-tested collection by Paul Ashley: The Complete Encyclopedia of Terrorist Organizations (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2011).

  • South Asia Terrorism Portal.

    A website of the Institute of Conflict Management, New Delhi. Like the conflict journal Faultlines, of which there are now over twenty volumes, this website was established by the noted Indian police official K. P. S. Gill and colleague Dr. Ajai Sahni. Careful reporting, sober commentary, and an overall antiterrorist spirit come through in the web articles, which are often in profuse detail. The terrorist group profiles are excellent.

  • Studies in Conflict &Terrorism.

    Monthly journal edited by Bruce Hoffman, offering a strong range of authors and topics. For example, a special issue of 2005 by guest editor Cindy D. Ness was excellent on aspects of women engaged in terrorism, a theme continued by a 2013 article addressing the challenge of female suicide bombers in Iraq. There are few book reviews but many good articles each year.

  • Terrorism and Political Violence.

    A quarterly journal. For decades the editorial board has been dominated by British and American scholars, though not exclusively so. Right-wing terrorism, terrorist ideology, ecoterrorism, and strategy are examples of subjects well-covered, year after year. A few pieces are statistic-heavy, but the norm is prose from authors not working in quantitative science. “Special issues” overseen by John Horgan have sometimes evolved into published books.

  • Terrorism Monitor.

    A bi-weekly, online journal published by the Jamestown Foundation. This is a periodical by a think tank with evident expertise on Eurasia. Its detailed reports from the Caucasus, Russia, and other regions not well covered in Western media fill gaps in terrorism studies.

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