Geography Geography of Terrorism
Daanish Mustafa, Julian R. Shaw
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0066


Terrorism is a contested term, with fiercely partisan debates raging about its precise meaning, the labeling of its perpetrators, and the identification of its victims. Geographers paid relatively scant attention to the phenomenon until the terror attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001. The sizeable literature that emerged in the decade following the attacks was written mostly from a critical geopolitical perspective, with sizeable contributions from the subfields of hazards, spatial analysis / geographic information systems (GIS), and cultural geography within human geography. Although much of the literature covered in this bibliography directly addresses the phenomenon of terrorism, there is also substantial literature on geographies of violence that is also of relevance. Geographical literature on terrorism has been broadly concerned with definitional/agenda-setting arguments—locating the phenomenon of terrorism in space, identifying the root causes, investigating imaginaries of terror, and packaging the presentation of terrorism. Geographers have sought to address these objectives through the scalar politics of terrorism as well as through cultural, critical geopolitical, and empirical/quantitative perspectives. In the geographical literature on terror, the unifying theme has been a concern with the effect of terrorist violence on places and spaces that are affected by it and with the spectacular nature of the violence that terrorism engenders. In fact, within geography, both implicitly and explicitly, terrorism has been understood to be spectacular violence, targeting an audience and directed toward place destruction and place alienation. Place is understood to be where human emotions, experiences, and life worlds intersect with specific locations—place is inseparable from the human experience of it. Terrorism is, accordingly, a type of spectacular violence (made more potent by the almost globalized reach of the modern media) that destroys either places of everyday existence, such as cafés, markets, and transportation networks, or monumental places holding historical, cultural, or political significance for the target audience. Which terrorist actor, from state or nonstate, targets which places, at what scale, why, and to what effect are the questions at the heart of geographical inquiry on terrorism.

Reference Works

Research on the geography of terrorism draws on a range of data. Many geographers in this field choose to collect their own data in the form of empirical, ground-level fieldwork; textual and ethnographic analysis; and even discursive imaginations and political performance. However, this does not mean that a useful body of data sets beyond such academic literature does not exist. Data sets on global terrorism are readily available on modern (post-1970) terrorist attacks, largely as a result of increased US government funding following 2001 (e.g., the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) and the Terrorism and Preparedness Data Resource Center. Yet, less recent data on terrorism are harder to come by. In all cases, collecting data on terrorism has been a challenging task, if only because of the variety of contested definitions of the concept. Indeed, the GTD acknowledges such struggles with its changing definition of terrorism throughout its data collection. It is important for scholars to be aware that definitions of terrorism in data sets differ; the GTD defines terrorism as being perpetrated by a nonstate actor, whereas the Terrorism in Western Europe: Events Data data set includes events in which state authorities direct violent acts against civilians. Other differences of note are the ease a researcher has in establishing how data have been collected and coded in each set. The GTD, International Terrorism: Attributes of Terrorist Events, 1968–1977, and Terrorism in Western Europe: Events Data (TWEED) have codebooks readily available, to encourage scholarly scrutiny, whereas the RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents is harder to interpret without extensive contact with the creators of the data sets. The financial and academic genesis of the data set is another necessary consideration. The US National Institute of Justice has funded many data sets (e.g., the GTD) to meet its political goals, whereas RAND, a nonprofit institution, is commissioned by government agencies, foundations, and private-sector firms to meet their respective aims. Furthermore, the TWEED data set has been compiled by Jan Oskar Engene, of the University of Bergen, solely for the purpose of scholarly analysis of patterns of terrorism in western Europe. Such university-based research centers and data sets (e.g., the CDiSS Database, of Lancaster University; the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence [CSTPV], of the University of St. Andrew’s) provide useful comparative data to the state-funded projects common in the United States.

  • Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.

    Established in 1994 at the University of St. Andrews, CSTPV provides evidence-based scientific analysis of the determinants, manifestations, and consequences of terrorism. In 2010 CSTPV launched the online Journal of Terrorism Research. Although it has no specific data set, this center is emerging as a significant academic resource for terrorism research.

  • Engene, Jan Oskar, ed. Terrorism in Western Europe: Events Data.

    This data set draws on 11,026 events from 1950 to 2004. It contains information on domestic terrorism in eighteen western European countries and does not include any international terrorist events (except between western European countries). The data are categorized by date and location, agents of attack, type of action, target, and casualties inflicted.

  • Global Terrorism Database.

    The GTD compiles data on more than 98,000 terrorist incidents worldwide from 1970 to 2010. Included in the data are the date and location of the incident, the nature of the attack, the number of casualties, and the group responsible. All data collected are publically available. Any use of this data set by geographers, however, requires review of the codebook available on the website to get an appreciation of how data have been stratified.

  • International Terrorism: Attributes of Terrorist Events, 1968–1977.

    The Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) is a consortium of seven hundred academic institutions and research organizations funded by a number of government agencies and private foundations. The ITERATE 2 data set is a follow-up to an earlier study looking at the attributes of global terrorist events. This data set looks at 3,329 international terrorist attacks that occurred from 1968 to 1977. Included in the data are the date and location the event, the terrorist and victim characteristics, and the life and property loss that resulted.

  • RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents.

    Developed alongside US government demands, both with public and private sponsors, RDWTI draws on data from more than 36,000 incidents from 1972 to 2009. Included in the data set are the date and location of the incident, the target audience, the number of casualties, a description of the attack, and the perpetrators of the attack (including state sponsorship). The collected data come from extensive primary research conducted by staff with regional expertise and fieldwork experience.

  • Terrorism Databases for Analysis.

    Lists multiple global terrorism data sets supported by the institute, with a specific focus on events affecting the United States. Within this list are the databases Terrorist Indictments: The American Terrorism Study, researched with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); Pre-incident Indicators of Terrorist Activities, by the University of Arkansas; and Inventory and Assessment of Databases Relevant for Social Science Research on Terrorism, by the Library of Congress.

  • Terrorism and Preparedness Data Resource Center.

    Housed at the University of Michigan and sponsored by the US Department of Justice, the US Department of Homeland Security, and the National Science Foundation, the TPDRC draws on data from government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and relevant research data on terrorism from academics across the world.

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