In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geographies of the War on Terror

  • Introduction
  • Overview
  • Geographies of Terrorism: From Colonial Occupation to Cyberterrorism
  • Normalizing the Exception: The Use of Preemptive Measures in the War on Terror
  • Urban Spatialities and the War on Terror
  • Beyond Orientalism: The Racialization of Muslims as Terror Suspects
  • Gender and the War on Terror

Geography Geographies of the War on Terror
Shereen Fernandez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0280


The “war on terror” was declared by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the terror attacks on 11 September 2001. Although the United States had experienced terrorist attacks in the months and years before, in many ways the 9/11 attacks signified a rupture in time in which the terms “terrorism,” “terrorists,” and “extremists” circulated widely and were used increasingly to profile those racially viewed as Muslim and Arab. Immediately after the attacks, the United States declared a national emergency and Congress granted the president with an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to launch attacks on those nations that allegedly harbored and supported Islamist terror networks, beginning with Afghanistan and Iraq. In various speeches to the world, George Bush created a new geography through the prism of the “new” war on terror: one which divided the world into nations that supported terrorism and those that aimed to eliminate it, like the United States. As geographers and other scholars have argued, this “new” war was built on prior understandings of US foreign policy and a continuation of solidifying empire. As the threat of terrorism spiraled across the West, there was an endless cycle of legislating international and domestic counterterrorism operations, and a move toward embracing preemptive security strategies to “manage” the blowback of violence from the war on terror. Based on the mantra that prevention is the cure, states in the Global North and South have redefined what constitutes terrorism and relied upon preemptive strategies of policing and securitization to quash dissent and nonviolent ideologies to catch the “would-be-terrorist,” while aggressively threatening the civil liberties of communities and increasing racism, notably Islamophobia, as part of the ruins of the war on terror.


One of the many critiques of the war on terror has been its expansive and ambiguous nature. Much of this is due to how the definition of “terrorism” politically fluctuated prior to 9/11 to it then being framed as an act of evil and irrationality sought by Islamists against the West, as detailed by Stampnitzky 2013 and Mustafa 2005. Consequently, the war on terror has been dubbed by scholars such as Derek Gregory as an “everywhere war” (Gregory 2011) because of how the pervasive term “terrorism” allows for the escalation of military action, such as through drone warfare. Furthermore, Elden 2007 argues that geographers should consider the relationship between “terrorism” and “territory” in the war on terror, considering the strategic usage of spaces of exception that permitted the indefinite detention and rendering of those suspected of terrorism. An example of this is Guantánamo Bay prison, which Reid-Henry 2007 argues was used to detain those suspected of terrorism in American (extra)territoriality that “recognized” Cuban (pseudo)sovereignty. Guantánamo Bay’s imperial history permits the United States to “lease” the site as a prison away from US territory, whether to indefinitely detain terror suspects or Haitian refugees in the 1990s. Much of its history confirms the position of Lubin 2021 that the war on terror was an extension of US imperial power, rather than a “new” war waged against terrorism. The question of what constitutes terrorism is the subject of Das 2002, which reflects on the logics of violence in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, which saw the United States collapse acts of terrorism into a singular act, namely Islamic terrorism. Asad 2010 furthers this argument, looking at the ways that the war on terror was conceived of as a “just war” that sought to liberate and democratize those states that harbored Islamic fundamentalism through the premise of security. The role of knowledge production in constructing imaginary geographies of terrorism is detailed in Gregory 2004, which views the imagined geographies of the war on terror as part of the United States’ colonial present. More recently, Daulatzai and Ghumkor 2021 analyzed knowledge production and drone warfare in Afghanistan, examining the role of military agents and white scholars in reproducing violent geographies through knowledge production(s) inherently tied to colonial encounters in which only they can hear and see the victims of violence in the war on terror.

  • Asad, Talal. “Thinking about Terrorism and Just War.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 23.1 (2010): 3–24.

    DOI: 10.1080/09557570902956580

    In this paper, Asad examines how the war on terror was characterized as a humanitarian conflict in which there was a global responsibility to protect others from terrorism. However, Asad considers whether there is a distinction between war as “civilised violence” through the spreading of democracy and terrorism as “barbaric violence.”

  • Das, Veena. “Violence and Translation.” Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002): 105–112.

    DOI: 10.1353/anq.2002.0005

    Das explores the underlying tensions that the attacks on 9/11 exposed, in which terrorism became a global spectacle and call to action. The paper sets out how terrorism collapsed into a singular act of Islamic terrorism as a result of the 9/11 attacks, which voided or privileged certain acts of violence over others.

  • Daulatzai, Anila, and Sahar Ghumkhor. “Damage Control: The Unbearable Whiteness of Drone Work.” Jadaliyya, 16 March 2021.

    The authors examine the politics of knowledge production and the sanitization of drone warfare in Afghanistan. In particular, their article points to the way in which objectivity is constructed vis-à-vis white scholars and those within the military who can provide an “accurate” account of the horrors in Afghanistan during the war on terror.

  • Elden, Stuart. “Terror and Territory.” Antipode 39.5 (2007): 831–845.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2007.00554.x

    This article looks at the relationship between terror and territory in the wake of the war on terror. Elden argues that geographers should consider how the war on terror is bound to ideas of territory, given how terrorism was conceived of as “nonterritorial.”

  • Gregory, Derek. The Colonial Present. London: Blackwell, 2004.

    This book considers how US and European colonialism shaped the imaginative geographies of Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq, which was integral to the formation of the war on terror. In doing so, Gregory argues that the war on terror was a way in which the colonial present was articulated and remained intact.

  • Gregory, Derek. “The Everywhere War.” Geographical Journal 177.3 (2011): 238–250.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2011.00426.x

    Gregory’s article examines the everyday nature of war and violence to show the increased militarization of the planet and how state violence can occur anywhere. By moving the focus away from Iraq and Afghanistan as the initial battlefields of the war on terror, Gregory shows how the war on terror expanded beyond these realms with the United States’ use of drone warfare, indefinite detention, and extraordinary rendition programs.

  • Lubin, Alex. The Never-Ending War on Terror. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv182js59

    This book suggests that the construction of the US empire was necessary for the launch of the war on terror in 2001. Through an examination of keywords such as “privacy,” “security,” and “homeland,” Lubin presents how such words were the “building blocks” of the war on terror, which began with a national emergency and moved to a global conquest against terrorism.

  • Mustafa, Daanish. “The Terrible Geographicalness of Terrorism: Reflections of a Hazards Geographer.” Antipode 37.1 (2005): 72–92.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0066-4812.2005.00474.x

    This article explores the phenomenon of terrorism from the perspective of hazards research. By examining terrorism through this perspective, Mustafa considers how risk, whether terrorism or environmental, is benefited from and how the status quo is maintained. Furthermore, the article argues that geographical inquiry is fundamental to understanding terrorism and responses to it, as well as the issues relating to defining terrorism and how power is constructed through such actions.

  • Reid-Henry, Simon. “Exceptional Sovereighty? Guantánamo Bay and the Re-colonial Present.” Antipode 39.4 (2007): 627–648.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2007.00544.x

    Reid-Henry examines the legal constructs of Guantánamo Bay prison, arguing against claims that it was in fact a “legal blackhole.” Instead, the article looks at the imperial legacies of the US in Cuba and how its strategic interventions in the Spanish-American War of 1898 laid the groundwork for the US to use Guantánamo Bay to indefinitely detain terror suspects in the initial years of the war on terror.

  • Stampnitzky, Lisa. Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented “Terrorism.” Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139208161

    Stampnitzky examines the discourse and use of the word “terrorism” and the instability of the term. The book looks at how the counterterrorism industry relies on knowledge from “terror experts” who are considered as vectors of objectivity, trying to understand the irrationality of terrorism. In doing so, this book examines the implicit relationship between terrorism knowledge and a burgeoning counterterrorism industry.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.