Introduction: The Study of Terrorism and Counterterrorism Today

Mathieu Deflem

This is a copy of the introduction to Terrorism and Counterterrorism Today, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Bingley, UK: Emerald, 2015.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2015. "Introduction: The Study of Terrorism and Counterterrorism Today." Pp. ix-xiii in Terrorism and Counterterrorism Today, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Bingley, UK: Emerald.

There is no rational way to deny the relevance of the tragic events of September 11, 2001 for the world’s social and political conditions –and not only with respect to continued concerns over the spread and evolving nature of terrorism. The shock of that day has also been felt in the academic community that was and/or should have been devoted to the study of terrorism and counterterrorism, and it has continued to affect, in varying and variable ways, the course and development of (counter)terrorism studies until this day. The present volume seeks to provide a state-of-the-art overview of some of the sociological and criminological dimensions and implications of the contemporary study of terrorism and counterterrorism since 9/11, with a view to the continued relevance of such work well into the future.

A little over a decade ago, a first collection of articles was published in the present series, “Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance,” that dealt with the criminology of terrorism and counterterrorism (Deflem, 2004). That volume grew directly out of the events of 9/11 and was mostly aimed at showing what social scientists interested in crime and social control could contribute to the study of (counter)terrorism, indicating a potential for theory and research that considerably exceeded what scholars actually had already achieved in this area of study. For, indeed, until those years, most relevant work in the area of terrorism and counterterrorism had been conducted by scholars of political science, international studies, and law. A pertinent book such as Terrorism Today, published shortly before September 11, could not have been written by a criminologist (Harmon, 2000). But immediately thereafter, those of us working in the broad field of criminology and criminal justice clearly felt the need to catch up with ongoing relevant developments in the social world (Deflem, 2009).

Over the past ten to 15 years, the situation of the study of (counter)terrorism has changed for the better, not least of all because concerns and problems over the terrorist matters have remained at the forefront of social and policy developments. This condition has favorably evolved to the extent that the study of terrorism and counterterrorism has attracted not only more attention from those scholars already well placed to study relevant issues, but has also been steadily developed and applied in those fields where such issues had erstwhile occupied a rather marginal place. Thus, rather than merely arguing for the usefulness of the perspectives and insights of sociology and criminology for the study of terrorism and its control (Savelsberg, 2006), we are now in the fortunate position of having garnered a considerable number of such works that have already made both theoretical and empirical contributions (Forst, Greene & Lynch, 2011; LaFree, 2009; Tracy, 2012). In fact, it is a testimony to the vibrancy of this area of research that some of its manifestations have already been subjected to evaluation and critique (Deflem & McDonough, 2015; Schmidt, 2011; Stampnitzky, 2011). It is within this intellectually exciting context that the contributions of the present volume are situated.

The chapters in this volume are presented in three thematic parts. In Part I, selected theoretical and conceptual issues are addressed in the study of terrorism from the viewpoint of crime and/or deviance. Opening up the discussion is a chapter by Gary LaFree and Laura Dugan that head-on addresses the issue of how criminologists have contributed to the study of terrorism. The authors demonstrate that criminologists have indeed, much more than before September 11, turned to the study of terrorism and made contributions in various respects, with the special observation that methodological work has exceeded theoretical criminological writings. Taking up this theoretical challenge, Mark Cooney and Nicole Bigman draw upon the insights of pure sociology, originally developed by Donald Black, to show how ordinary citizens can become radicalized to be attracted to a commitment to terrorist activities. Cooney and Bigman argue that this transition takes place in a specific social geometry that is marked by a social closeness to a powerful organization and a social distance from a constructed enemy. Extending the same broad underlying model of pure sociology, Bradley Campbell argues that terrorism has much in common with genocide, but also that there are differences between the two. The author maintains that the similarities between these two forms of violence include that they constitute forms of conflict between socially distant, unequal groups, while the main difference is the upward orientation of terrorism towards more powerful targets whereas genocide is usually downward in orientation. Cynthia Karaffa also takes up an important theoretical question by pondering on the reality and the constructed nature of terrorism, an issue that has been at the center of many terrorism studies. Reviewing the history and perceptions of terrorism, Karaffa shows that individuals create their own reality of terrorism in an (inter-subjective) cultural context that exerts great influence on such subjective interpretations.

The chapters of Part II carry on some of the conceptual issues in the study of terrorism to contemplate on various forms and variations of terrorism today. Brent Smith and associates focus on the phenomenon of the lone wolf terrorist. Based on systematic data, the authors demonstrate that these type of perpetrators tend to be more educated and socially isolated than group-based actors. They can also better evade arrests because they are able to temporally and geospatially position the planning and preparations of their criminal acts. Discussing the form of so-called ‘second order’ terrorism, Willem de Lint suggests the construction of a type of terrorism that is seen as a reaction against other, typically state-enacted forms of violence. From this perspective, de Lint sees emerging a complex constellation of terrorism and event, on the one hand, and counter-terrorism and interdiction, on the other. Turning to what they label as ‘terrok,’ Thomas Kron, Andreas Braun and Eva-Maria Heinke seek to make sense a new form of hybrid perpetrator merging the qualities of those who commit terror and those who run amok. The authors argue that what is new about such current forms of terrorism is the evolution of individual perpetrators who radicalize without any clear connection to a terrorist organization. Finally, Jason Manning discusses the terrorist form of suicide attacks on the basis of a social-geometric model that focuses on such characteristics as status inferiority, social distance, and large movements of social time. Also arguing that sacrifice is greater among socially marginal individuals, Manning reveals the similarities between suicide attacks and other forms of violence and suicide.

In Part III of this book, various dimensions of law, policy and law enforcement in connection with counterterrorism are examined. Co-authors Christopher Shields, Brent Smith and Kelly Damphousse offer an examination of the manner in which terrorism cases have been prosecuted in the United States over the past half century, especially in the years since September 11. The authors show that prosecutorial authority in U.S. terrorism cases has fluctuated in the evolving context of terrorist incidents and the relative success and failure of law enforcement efforts, whereby the most recent years have seen an unprecedented level of terrorism-related prosecutions and convictions. In the next chapter, Michael Welch delves into the presentation of scientific value in the practices of detention and interrogation in the US-led war on terror. The author shows that these practices can actually be questioned in terms of effectiveness and legitimacy and, worse yet, that they constitute torture and human rights abuses. Turning to the policing of terrorism, Gregg Etter discusses the impact of the events of September 11 on local law enforcement in the United States. The central issue, in the present post-9/11 environment, is how these new terrorism-related tasks co-exist with the traditional mission of police to control other, ordinary crimes. Rounding up the present investigations showing the value of the criminological study of terrorism and its control, Jennifer Gibbs attempts to clarify the concept of legitimacy in connection with counterterrorist policies. The author offers a basis to distinguish various counterterrorism policies on the basis of a typology of three categories of legitimacy, based on legality, customs, and consent, respectively.

Taken together, then, the chapters in this volume make a valid and valuable contribution to the study of terrorism and counterterrorism the world today. As such, they seek to offer an effort in the ongoing project to continue –recalling the now infamous words of Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper (Kaye & Béland, 2014)– to commit sociology and criminology for the benefit of the study of terrorism and counterterrorism.


Deflem, M. (Ed.) (2004). Terrorism and counter-terrorism: Criminological perspectives. Sociology of crime, law and deviance, Volume 5. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Deflem, M. (2009). Terrorism. In J. Mitchell Miller (Ed.), 21st Century criminology: A reference handbook (pp. 533-540). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Deflem, M. & McDonough, S. (2015) The fear of counterterrorism: Surveillance and civil liberties since 9/11. Society, 52, 70-79.

Forst, B., Greene, J.R. & Lynch, J.P. (2011). Criminologists on terrorism and homeland security. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Harmon, C.C. (2000). Terrorism today. London: Frank Cass.

Kaye, J. & Béland, D. (2014). Stephen Harper's dangerous refusal to “commit sociology.” The Toronto Star, August 22, 2014. Retrieved from

LaFree, G. (2009). Criminology's third war: Special issue on terrorism and responses to terrorism. Criminology & Public Policy, 8, 431-444.

Savelsberg, J.J. (2006). Underused potentials for criminology: Applying the sociology of knowledge to terrorism. Crime, Law and Social Change, 46, 35-50.

Schmidt, G.J. (2010). Sociology of terrorism following the events of 9/11/2001: A bibliography. International Journal of Contemporary Sociology, 47, 381-391.

Stampnitzky, L. (2011). Disciplining an unruly field: Terrorism experts and theories of scientific/intellectual production. Qualitative Sociology, 34, 1-19.

Tracy, P.E. (2012). Terrorism research in criminology: Current topics and future prospects. Crime & Delinquency, 58, 647-662.

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