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Terrorism Theories and Media Discourse

Table of Contents
  1. Theoretical Comprehension of the Terrorism Phenomenon
  2. Mass Media Discourse Concerning Terrorism
  3. State of the Art in Combatting Terrorism
  4. Implications for the Future
  5. References

Terrorism is one of the most dangerous phenomena of our time, which is becoming increasingly more threatening. The scale of terrorism and its interstate nature made it absolutely necessary to establish an international system to counter it. There should be coordination of the efforts of various states on a long-term basis and at the highest level, and creation of international organizations to combat it. This phenomenon is complex, multifaceted, and requires an integrated approach using the latest advances in various sciences and best practices. Without scientific and practical solution of the problems of terrorism in modern conditions of high communication and universal interconnectedness, it is impossible to establish fruitful, mutually beneficial cooperation between different countries.

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Theoretical Comprehension of the Terrorism Phenomenon

For individuals, groups, organizations, and even states, terrorism has become just a simple way of solving problems – political, national, religious, subjective, personal, and selfish. This phenomenon can be considered from the standpoints of positivism, that is, rational choice theory, which is based on “methodological individualism” and has become popular in political science. The essence of it lies in the assertion that all social phenomena, including political ones, can be deduced from the behavior of individuals (Liu & Chen, 2019).

According to its supporters, political factors – voters, politicians, bureaucrats – pursue the goal of maximizing their material interests, in search of benefits in the form of votes, positions, and power (Somek, 2017). The models created on the basis of the theory of rational choice using mathematical methods touch upon the most complex aspects of political phenomena – the behavior and subjective choice of individual and collective participants in these phenomena.

Positivism reflects the desire for a rigorous and scientifically grounded study of political processes, the accuracy of which can be tested empirically on the basis of the natural sciences. Moreover, it makes conclusion about the increasing complication of social relations with the division of social labor, which is evidently observed in the ‘evolution’ of international terrorism. As a result of the involvement of a certain part of the highly professional and highly erudite intelligentsia in militant organizations, the most modern high technologies were put at the service of terrorism (Gupta, 2020). In this regard, the threat of production and use of weapons of mass destruction during terrorist attacks has increased.

Terrorists have targeted not only the country’s political, military and economic potential, but also the public management and information sphere (Gupta, 2020). The greatest danger in modern conditions is technological terro with the possible use of fissile nuclear materials, biological and chemical weapons. The technologicalization of society has led to an increase in the danger of terrorist attacks.

Modern terrorism as a social phenomenon in general has been poorly studied. The scientific literature reflects individual (in some cases quite successful, in our opinion) attempts by domestic and foreign researchers to look at terrorism as a phenomenon caused by globalization, which has exacerbated interethnic, confessional, economic, and political contradictions. Among the core causes for the “revival” of terrorist activities in the world, there are contradictions in the interests of various social groups, communities, and ethnic groups.

The complexity of such a socio-political phenomenon as terrorism also necessitates a more sensitive political science analysis and corresponding political reactions. Proceeding from this, representatives of a wide variety of disciplines, such as sociology, political science, psychology, jurisprudence, and history, have tried and are trying to comprehend the phenomenon of terrorism. Political science studies have developed a certain methodology for analyzing terrorism, the cultural context and interdisciplinary nature of this difficult socio-political phenomenon are visible.

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George W. Bush, being the vice-president of the United States, in the report of the interdepartmental commission on combating terrorism, defined terrorism as the unlawful use and threat of using violence against persons or objects to achieve political or social goals (Hain & Pisoiu, 2017). It usually aims to intimidate or coerce governments, groups or individuals to change their policies or actions. One of the most common definitions was proposed by the American researchers V. Malison and S. Malison – they define terrorism as the systematic use of extreme violence and the threat of violence to achieve public and social goals (as cited in Hain & Pisoiu, 2017).

Other definitions are also of significant interest for deep understanding of terrorism phenomenon. One of the world’s leading terrorologists, Lucker, believes that terrorism is the use of non-state violence or the threat of violence with the aim of causing panic in society, weakening and even overthrowing officials and making political changes (as cited in Breen, 2019).

His colleague Herzog refers to terrorism as the use or threat of use of violence by individuals for political reasons within the framework of a certain political strategy with the aim of providing mental influence (Breen, 2019). German criminalists say that the components of terrorism are the following: the presence of a political goal, the purposeful use of violence to intimidate, the presence of an organizational structure, and the social isolation of terrorist actors (Breen, 2019). To these components, it is necessary to add the duality of the object of terrorist influence.

This above-mentioned duality lies in the fact that the object of direct influence of terrorists are material objects. This also includes some categories of citizens, determined by political, social, national, religious or other principle, or not specifically defined in advance, random people. At the same time, the object of indirect influence of terrorists can be the constitutional system, territorial integrity, government, economic power, the status of a national-ethnic group. The political goal and the duality of the target of terrorist influence are two key components that distinguish terrorism from the actions of representatives of organized crime and other manifestations of violence.

International terrorists are able to use the information field with great efficiency for themselves. Today terrorist attacks in the traditional sense are used only as elements of information technology, and the attacks themselves are no longer the main goal and task of terrorists (Archetti, 2015). There has been an increase in the “quality” of terrorist attacks precisely as information products, due to which terrorist attacks lose their original role as a tool of local action and become a tool of global governance (Morell, 2015).

In fact, every day the world mass media report on the committed terrorist acts, which most often entail huge human casualties. Terrorism has become such a familiar part of the life of any state that information about new actions of terrorists ceases to be news in the press with the mark “urgently” from neighboring countries. The consolidation of the authorities of all powers occurs only in the event of manifestations of international terrorism, which, accordingly, is instantly reflected in the activities of both print and electronic media, and the entire media resource of the Internet.

A special place in the system of world mass media, which has tremendous experience in researching the causes of terrorism, is occupied by US publications due to their professional level, coverage, total volume of publications and the quality of the product offered on the media market. In addition, one can note that Washington’s geopolitical ambitions play an important role. The entire US foreign policy is aimed at both ensuring the security of its citizens and maintaining the image of an all-powerful state that has influence on the governments of many countries of the world, and even on entire regions.

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At the same time, an important point should be noted: although the US press strives to cover the facts of international terrorism, it is still more important for American journalists to study the problems of domestic terrorism (Abbas & Sulehria, 2020). Such a keen interest is dictated primarily by the fact that the American nation itself is heterogeneous and characterized by a heterogeneous national, religious and racial composition. Accordingly, conflicts on interethnic, racial and religious grounds arise here much more often than in countries with a more homogeneous population structure.

Mass Media Discourse Concerning Terrorism

It is interesting to note that the American mass media, accustomed to working in conditions of high competition and rivalry, often resorting to sensationalism to raise the rating of their publications, adhere to a more restrained position in covering terrorist acts. At the same time, they are not limited to simply informing about committed crimes, and serious analytics are often presented on the pages of leading American newspapers.

However, the internal political situation in the country influences the coverage of the discourse of terrorism in the mass media. In particular, in 2014, the main trend in US politics changed. If in the second election campaign for US President Barack Obama during the preparation and holding of elections from 2010 to 2012 there was a fight against the threats of terrorism, including domestic terrorism, then since 2014 a new trend of manipulating geopolitical processes in Ukraine and confronting Russia with the help of the introduction of various sanctions, and Obama is despite the fact that the problem of terrorist danger has not lost its relevance and even aggravated against the background of manifestations of international terrorism, a striking example of which is the Islamic State.

However, in general, journalists in American publications view terrorism in a political context especially. It can be shown by a comparative analysis of the content of newspapers, the peculiarities of rhetoric, methods and means of their influence on the audience, this is exacerbated during the periods of election campaigns.

The media occupy significant place in the fight against terrorism. In this context, namely they become the real “fourth estate,” which influences, on the one hand, the possibilities of promoting terrorism or, conversely, exposing it, and, on the other hand, the adoption of anti-terrorist decisions. Today’s terrorism has become a key media phenomenon of today, otherwise it loses this status without media coverage. Terrorists always use mass communications for their tactical and strategic goals. The effect they expect is justifiable, as evidenced by the examples of the coverage of the September 11, 2001 tragedy in the New York Times (Gupta, 2020).

However, the media can also block information flows provoked by terrorist organizations. Even in cases when terrorist attacks are publicized by the press, elements of propaganda necessary for terrorists are often omitted – reports on the deadly activities of terrorist organizations, frightening examples of the destruction of people. Thus, terrorist attacks are reduced to the level of criminal offenses or ordinary sabotage. At the same time, as a rule, the words “terrorism” and “terrorist attack” are not used in the headings of materials.

All American media have a common point of view: terrorism is the most dangerous phenomenon for society. Differences begin at the stage of determining the degree of rigidity in solving the problem of countering this global threat. However, not only the work of journalists at the scene of the terrorist act, but also the information support and provision of the event at all stages of the associated communicative resonance, require the mobilization of all media. The task in this process in the propaganda and promotion of the information discourse of the fight against international terrorism. In solving these problems, objectivity and timeliness of informing society about the nature and trends of the terrorist threat and the actions of state authorities to reduce the level of terrorist danger play an important role.

State of the Art in Combatting Terrorism

Since the beginning of the 70s, each successive American administration has had to address the problem of coordinating the efforts of federal structures in the fight against terrorism. At the same time, each government solved the issue in its specific way. The tragedy of 9/11 prompted the White House to create the Homeland Security Council (HSC), a new body designed to advise and assist the President in developing an internal security strategy and to become an instrument for coordinating the efforts of all executive structures that develop and implement domestic security policies (Abbas & Sulehria, 2020).

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A new position appeared in the administration – Assistant to the President for Internal Security. At the same time, the NSC continues to be responsible for coordinating counter-terrorism efforts overseas. Moreover, the post of Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism was created. He is in constant contact with the Assistant to the President for National and Homeland Security. As a result, all internal and external counter-terrorism efforts are coordinated by relevant committees within the NSC and HSC structures.

After the new coordinating structures were introduced in the executive branch, the Department of Homeland Security(DHS) was created, designed to ‘bring together’ most of the agencies and departments responsible for homeland security (including the Department of Border Protection and Transportation, Department Emergency and National Preparedness and Critical Infrastructure Protection Agency) (Abbas & Sulehria, 2020). The main task of the new ministry is to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce the country’s vulnerability to terrorists. Moreover, there is the need to minimize damage and help in eliminating the consequences of terrorist attacks committed in the United States.

Implications for the Future

The main principles of the functioning of the national system for countering terrorism are the continuous monitoring of terrorist activity and the early identification of threats, as well as the priority in providing the system with resources in relation to other subsystems of ensuring national security. However, the power of combatting terrorism must be adequate to its scale, organization, and variety of forms of terrorist manifestations. An increase in the capacity of countering terrorist activities is constrained by the absence of an integral national system for it, which includes both state and non-state subsystems. This idea has a deep scientific basis at an interdisciplinary level.

However, the psychology of civil servants has not yet been rebuilt. In addition, the security officials do not manifest serious attitude to the idea of using the resources of civil society in activities to ensure national security in general and in countering terrorism in particular.

On December 18, 2017, US President Donald Trump presented a new National Security Strategy. Among the main threats, the document names China and Russia, Iran and the DPRK, which sponsor terror and threaten America’s allies; international terrorist organizations are also noted as threat (Gupta, 2020). One of the priorities of the new strategy is the pursuit of terrorists to their base, isolating them from sources of funding, and countering radicalization and recruiting new members of terrorist organizations. It was originally envisaged that the national security strategy would be updated annually. However, in practice, it is revised every three to five years.

The fight against terrorism has been the main focus of Washington’s foreign policy over the past 20 years. The American strategy for this struggle must solve two main tasks: to protect the United States and its allies from terrorist attacks and to create an international environment unfavorable for terrorism. The modern United States counterterrorism strategy includes four basic elements:

  1. The use of American military forces, but not in the format of a full-fledged ground war;
  2. Training Syrians and Iraqis to fight terrorism;
  3. Strengthening international counterterrorism cooperation;
  4. The transition from a military to a political settlement of the Syrian crisis.

At present, terrorism has taken on new forms, and the Internet has become a key factor in the spread of extremist propaganda around the world. The Asia-Pacific region has both significant terrorist and counter-terrorism capabilities (Abbas & Sulehria, 2020). From the point of view of the national and global terrorist threat, three groups of countries in the region are of greatest interest to the United States today:

  1. Those that Washington has declared “sponsors” of terrorism (North Korea);
  2. States with a significant or predominant share of the Muslim population, susceptible to the propaganda of the Islamic Statea (Indonesia, Malaysia, partly China);
  3. Traditional partners of the United States in counterterrorism (Australia, Japan, South Korea).

American society manifests growing concern regarding increasing terrorism threat and emergence of its new forms and methods. According to the famous political scientist Joseph Nye, not only the American political elite, but society today is more concerned than ever with the problem of terrorism (as cited in Gupta, 2020). Hain & Pisoiu (2017) note that opinion polls in December 2015 showed that one in six Americans (over 16% of the population) identified terrorism as a major national problem. These authors emphasize that this is the highest percentage of Americans who cited terrorism as a top threat in a decade (Hain & Pisoiu, 2017).

Currently, there are several trends in the assessment of the terrorist threat, as well as the ability of the United States to resist it. The first of them is related to the official position, which can be conditionally called “balanced.” It is based on the perception of terrorism as a dangerous but solvable problem. An important role in the modern fight against terrorism, according to Washington, can be played by international cooperation, including the anti-terrorist coalition created by 65 countries, led by the United States.

However, in addition to the official position on the fight against terrorism, there are at least two other points of view in the United States that differ from the main one. One of them, the alarmist one, is based on a theoretical assessment of terrorism as an “ineradicable evil” (Jetter, 2017). At the ordinary level, terrorism is often perceived as overly affected, feeding the fears of Americans and becoming a factor in political radicalism and speculation on the part of politicians.

It is evident, for example, in the “anti-Muslim” rhetoric of the Republican candidate Donald Trump. The opposite approach, under the conventional name “elimination of evil,” is based on downplaying the threat of terrorism to American society. However, the existence of this problem is not denied – for example, Joseph Nye is confident that the threat of terrorism is now inflated by both presidential candidates and the media (as cited in Gupta, 2020). However, as a rule, this approach does not enjoy the support of society, since it does not correspond to the prevailing ideas about security.

The fight against international terrorism has been conducted by America since the time this phenomenon emerged in the political life of the world community. However, today it is clear that the US strategy to combat international terrorism is entering a new stage and is adapting to new realities (Nacos, 2017). Its missions – to protect the United States and American citizens from terrorist attacks and to combat international terrorism in the Middle East – remain unchanged, as any “innovations” concern mainly control methods (Semati et al., 2019). Solving the first task, the American government is revising its immigration policy, tightening control over citizens staying in the United States. It concerns especially those of them who have already visited areas of hostilities or in countries under the influence of terrorists.

It should be noted that the work of the multinational US-led counterterrorism coalition is a particular source of pride for the White House. Based on the findings of the terrorist attack in Paris on November 13, 2015, Belgium, Germany, Kuwait, and Tunisia carried out arrests of “terrorist cells” associated with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). Between November 2015 and January 2016, air strikes by coalition armed forces (involving Pacific Australia) destroyed 283 fuel trucks, 120 oil depots, and related ISIS infrastructure in Eastern Syria (Gupta, 2020). The United States and its coalition partners have launched 5,826 airstrikes against terrorist targets in Iraq and 3,037 airstrikes in Syria (Gupta, 2020). Thus, efforts still bring some results, although their pace does not correspond to the dynamic of modern terrorism development.

The tasks involve not only the participation of the American armed forces and special services in international operations in the Middle East, but also a set of other measures, including international cooperation, which is reflected in the new US National Security Strategy. The experience of the United States fighting international terrorism shows that its main interest is focused on two territories – the US itself and the Middle East. However, an essential part of the American counterterrorism strategy is monitoring other regions of the world, including the APR. A critical element of counter-terrorism strategy is monitoring the terrorism situation in East Asia. Washington is particularly interested in countries with a Muslim population susceptible to ISIS propaganda.

The United States and its allies, whose importance to America is growing every year, has to constantly adapt to modernizing terrorism by adjusting counterterrorism strategy. However, the problem is that international terrorism, despite America’s efforts to overcome it, does not weaken, acquiring new forms and new supporters around the world. The flaw in the US strategy is that the Americans are fighting not with the socio-economic and political causes of terrorism, but with its consequences and local manifestations.

In this regard, it is necessary to involve not only political scientists, but also social psychologists in the process of developing programs to combat domestic and especially international terrorism, as well as scenarios for possible adjustments of these programs when external environment conditions change.

In addition, broader participation of civil society in the fight against terrorism seems necessary. The prevention of extremism and terrorism is not only the task of the state, but to a large extent, it is the task of representatives of civil society. This work depends on the clear position of political parties, public and religious associations, and individual citizens. Preventive measures are a core priority in this important work. This fight can be successfully carried out only by joint efforts of the heads of administrations and law enforcement agencies, with the assistance of labor collectives and the public. The active role of civil society institutions is an element of the system of countering terrorism.

In order to develop international cooperation in this area, it would be advisable to strengthen cooperation at the level of civil society institutions. The strategic priority areas of cooperation should include assistance in the development of public-private anti-terrorist partnership with the participation of civil society and the media. Therefore, the task of all state structures, local self-government bodies, public associations, religious organizations, and all strata of the population is to jointly fight this evil. The main implication is to work proactively so that there will be no necessity to fight the consequences later.


Abbas, Q., & Sulehria, F. (2020). From terrorism to television: Dynamics of media, state, and society in Pakistan. Routledge.

Archetti, C. (2015). Terrorism, communication and new media: Explaining radicalization in the Digital Age. Perspectives on Terrorism, 9(1), 49-59.

Breen, C. (2019). Exploring terrorism through criminological theories. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 10(7), 195-211.

Gupta, D. (2020). Understanding terrorism and political violence: The life cycle of birth, growth, transformation, and demise. Routledge.

Hain, S., & Pisoiu, D. (2017). Theories of terrorism: An introduction. Routledge.

Jetter, N. (2017). Terrorism and the media: The effect of US television coverage on Al-Qaeda attacks. (IZA Discussion Papers No. 10708). Web.

Liu, Y., & Chen, H. (2019). Framing terrorist attacks: A multi-proximity model. International Communication Gazette, 81(5), 395-417.

Morell, M. (2015). The great war of our time: The CIA’s fight against terrorism. Twelve.

Nacos, B. (2017). Terrorism and counterterrorism: International student edition. Taylor & Francis.

Semati, M., Szpunar, P. M., & Brookey, R. (2019). ISIS beyond the spectacle. National Communication Association.

Somek, A. (2017). The legal relation: Legal theory after legal positivism. Cambridge University Press.

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