Introducing Jonathan Armstrong

Jonathan ArmstrongJonathon Armstrong is currently studying for an MA in Geopolitics, Territory and Security at Kings College London after obtaining a BA in Government at the London School of Economics.


This article will argue that States can and frequently do commit terrorism. Furthermore the geographies of State terror can be divided in to personal, social and geographic spaces. The latter is particularly prominent when compared to non-state terror because of its connection to human identity, the destruction of which is the goal of State terror.

The question as to whether a State can commit terrorism rests almost entirely on one’s definition of the phenomenon. This is inherently problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, those who control the definition may have a vested interest in the matter, particularly where the label can be a powerful delegitimizing tool. Gibbs (1989) makes precisely this point, “labelling actions as terrorism promotes condemnation of the actors and may reflect their ideological or political bias”. A clear example of this is the US State department’s definition in which terrorism is committed only by “sub-national groups or clandestine agents” (Tilly 2004), thus excluding States as protagonists of terror.

It allows, as Connolly (1991) has it, “the state and the interstate system to protect the logic of sovereignty in the international sphere while veiling their inability to modify systemic conditions that generate violence by non-state agents”. This provides a powerful disincentive for a State to define terrorism. Definitions therefore tend to be a paternalistic and dramaticised description of the victim-terrorist relationship, where readers are encouraged to identify with the victim (Fortin as cited in Maskaliunaite 2002).

The second issue of concern is illegality as a necessary condition for terrorism. For Kofi Annan, terrorism is always a crime (Lind 2005) and the FBI defines terrorism as an “unlawful act” (Mustafa 2005). Both statements have important implications, they suggest terrorism is a necessarily illegal act and when one considers the acceptance of a State’s monopoly on coercive force it becomes difficult to separate legal from illegal State violence and thus this condition would exclude States from terrorism.

There is also, Gibbs asserts, often no law “but the will of the despot”, under this understanding States can commit acts of terror, but cannot be ascribed as terrorists. Conversely, a sufficiently vague definition such as Zinam’s (1978), would allow the State prosecution of illegal activities to be classified as terrorism. These considerations along with the confusing nature of including criminality into a classification (Lomansky 1991) (i.e. how crime is substantiated (Gibbs 1989) and where it is constituted Mustafa (2005)), makes it clear that a definition is therefore required that excludes illegality as a necessary criterion for terrorism.

There is more ambiguity when one considers the overlap between militarism and terrorism. The problem arises from the inclusion of civilians as legitimate targets which is the case with terrorist attacks but equally Total War Theory allows for State violence against “every man woman and child” (Hewitt 1987). Furthermore, the majority of war victims are non-combatants who are intentionally targeted as a “strategy of terror”. Just War Theory further complicates the matter, for example “a guerrilla fighter is simply a ‘terrorist’” however, if he is fighting a ‘just war’ than he is not (Freymond 1973).

However, this issue can be teased apart to reveal important ways of distinguishing between the two. Firstly, States are obliged to follow international law, which strictly governs the resort to war and the use of force during war. Therefore neither Just War Theory nor Total War Theory can be used to excuse State violence against non-combatants. For example, whether the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison amounts to torture is not a question for US political elites as Just War Theory would have it, but a decision ultimately for international lawyers (Lind 2005). Therefore under the UN charter there can be no place for these theories in the modern international order.

Academics have also drawn the line between terrorism and militarism with their definitions, Gibbs (1989) suggests that the difference lies in the purpose of the violence, an act is terrorism when it is not for the “permanent defence of the area” and “not expected to conceal the personal identity or future location of those committing it.” Therefore that differences can and should be drawn remains.

To answer the question, a definition must therefore be selected which does not require terrorism to be necessarily illegal and distinguishes it from militarism. The definition provided by Mustafa (2005) fulfils both these conditions; “an act of violence, different from other acts of violence, e.g. genocide, war, war crimes, political assassinations, etc” as well as providing three criteria, which can be used as a framework to compare the geographies of non-state terror from state-terror. These are ‘spectacle’, ‘place destruction’ and ‘place alienation’. Place is defined here as “constituted at the intersection of socio-economic processes and human experience of those processes”, which is particularly important because “terrorism is a phenomenon intricately tied to the concept of place” (Mustafa 2005). Later, this article will attempt to make the case for a fourth criterion, the legitimation of violence through the dehumanisation of the ‘Other’.

When Mustafa’s definition of terrorism is taken alongside Gibbs’s (1989) characterisation of State terrorism as “when a government or official engages in terrorism at the direction of or with the consent of a superordinate”, or as Tilly (2004) has it “governmental intimidation of citizens”, it will be concluded that states can commit terrorism.

Turning now to address the second part of the question this article will examine some of the differences in characteristics between non-state and state terror to establish the framework from which to approach the specificities of the differences in their geographies. Some of these are self-evident, such as the differences in scale.

Hewitt (2007) for example states that in the previous century “more civilians were killed by their own government than in any other form of armed violence”. Moreover, the Khmer Rouge executed a million of their own people in just four years and more Palestinians have been killed by the IDF than Israelis killed by Palestinian suicide bombers (Mazower 2002). State violence also tends to be systematic and well organized, largely as a result of the institutional structures available to them.

However, the most important difference between the two is their goals. These feed directly into their methods of terror and as a result explain the differences between the geographies of state and non-state terror. The aims of non-state terror as defined by Gibbs (1987) are to alter or maintain “a putative norm in a territorial unit or population”, while the goal of state terror as defined by Hannah Arendt (1970) is “the destruction of the human spirit for total submission to the regime”.

Arendt explains terror as a process “without end whose goal it is to reveal the superfluousness of human beings, to strip them of all dignity and demand absolute submission to the regime”. However unsavory, this is a goal that requires far more than just fear, but rather the infliction of total hopelessness, which, it will be argued is achieved through, among other means, methods of place destruction that are employed to a far greater extent than in non-state terror.

Hanlon (2000) divides the geographies of terror into visible and invisible acts, the former consisting of tangible acts of violence that could loosely be associated with the ‘spectacle’, examples of these may be dumping of bodies on roadsides or the militarisation of village life. The latter are the long-term psychological effects that one might loosely associate with ‘place alienation’. Moreover, because spaces define those to be included, or excluded through unequal power relations and boundaries that are both “spatial and social” (McDowell 1999), the outcomes of terror can be further classified in to personal, social and geographic spaces.

The personal space of terror can be equated with ‘personal suffering’; an example of this would be the targeting of the bodies of Maya women by Guatemalan state forces. In horrifying accounts collected by Hanlon (2000) they are identified as visible representations of their culture and community. The visible manifestation of this was the often public and systematic raping of these women, while the invisible were for example, children born to the victims. The effect this has on the mother, child and village community lasts therefore, over a number of generations.

Social spaces are expressed where state violence and terror shapes behaviour and human interactions. Hewitt’s (2000) description of Chile as ‘two countries’ is the case in point. Places of social gathering and communal life were targeted as massacre scenes. The effect was total alienation from one’s own home, where fear shaped movement in both private and communal areas with the aim of creating social disintegration and an atmosphere of mistrust. Similarly, Arendt (1970) argues that the real horror of the concentration camps was that the inmates were more removed from the world than the dead. They are denied their appearance in the world and are thus excluded from social spaces.

Geographic spaces of terror consist of attacks on the physical landscape itself, tactics such as scorched earth physically scar the land and violently change “geographic meanings and associations” (Hewitt 2000). This is particularly important because of the centrality of place to human identity, its destruction denies one a part of their identity and is by extension therefore, an attack on your humanity. Mustafa (2005) also makes this point, “sudden destruction of geographical spaces deprives the victims of a whole set of memories, meanings, and identities invested in their communities and life spaces”. This ties in with Arendt’s (1970) definition of the aim of state terror.

This geographical aspect of State terror is far more prominent than it is in non-State terror. For example, while the attack on the World Trade Centre buildings in 2001, changed the skyline of New York, it was primarily an attack on the institutions of global capitalism rather than an attempt to reshape the physical geography itself as opposed to the case in Guatemala (Hanlon 2000).

Before concluding, the arguments of this paper will be set against the case study of Israel, which demonstrates all three criteria set out by Mustafa (2005) and thus can be said to commit terrorism. Specifically, it is carrying out a systematic destruction of places, “designed to make things so unbearable that the Palestinians are forced to move” (Gregory 2004).

To begin with, there are clear instances of place alienation, Gregory (2004) points to the changing of names from the occupied territories to the disputed territories and then to zones a, b and c in order to remove associations and turn place to space, a strategy he calls ‘de-placing’. There is also place destruction, Graham (2002) among many others, documents the campaign of ‘urbicide’ of Palestinian homes and refugee camps where bulldozing has become a symbol of state oppression and acts to prevent modernisation. Salmon (as cited in Graham 2002) states, “What is most striking in Palestine now is the violence wrought against the land, the terrain”. Thirdly, there is the spectacle; in this case one could see the purpose of the Israeli West Bank Barrier not for keeping out non-state Palestinian terrorism but instead a reaffirming performance for the projection of Israeli state terror in to Palestine.

There is also, a fourth condition not part of Mustafa’s (2005) criteria and that is the legitimation of terror through the dehumanisation of the ‘Other’. “If a people are not thought of as human then you can justify any damage or pain you inflict on them” (Gregory 2004). In this case it is the representation of all Palestinians as suicide bombers or ‘barbarians’. We see therefore, that the conditions laid out by Mustafa (2005) bear close scrutiny and demonstrate the important differences between the geographies of State and non-State terror.

To conclude, it is clear that States can commit terrorism, the geographies of which can be split in to three spaces. Of these, geographic is the most important when compared to non-State terror because of its contribution to the destruction of the human spirit.


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Jonathan Armstrong: State terrorism – Definition, geographic spaces and place destruction
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