On State Terrorism and Terrorist States

“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

George W Bush address to a joint session of Congress and the American people 20 sept 2001

“Wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not a war against terrorism”

Noam Chomsky 9/11 (2001)

Throughout history, emotions have played a key role in shaping our political societies and engagement.[1] Hobbesian theories of society conceptualise a polity based on the emotion of fear; Human beings, fearful for their own security in the state of nature – where “Man is a wolf to Man” – engage in a social contract as to ensure their own individual rights, in this contract: “Man is a god to Man”.[2] This essay argues that a more powerful emotion – terror – is used both by states and non-state actors for political projects. The distinction between fear and terror lies in the political objective of their usage. Fear, we argue, is the basis of many concepts of governance inside or outside polities; fear in Hobbes’ social contract forms the base of the norms inside a polity, similarly, the theory of Realism in the field of International Relations stipulates a constant need for states to gain and exert power as they fear for their own security[3]. Terror, however, inflicts an incapacitating sense of dread inside or outside a polity, it does not seek to control or regulate but to strike fright, to instill a late Wittgenstein mystique of terror[4] and to bend the entire society to its whims, indeed Orwell in his novel “1984” describes how the main character is tortured until he acquiesces – two plus two equals five.[5]

In this essay we argue that the lack of a global legal paradigm over what constitutes terrorism has enabled states to define both what terrorists are and the manner with which to fight them, moreover, states that systematically use terror to legitimize their rule are terrorists organisations or terrorist-states. We also argue that states that have used or promoted terrorism on a limited scale are not defined as terrorists-states. The argument is structured as follow; a first section briefly defines terrorism and the concept of state, a second section describes the use of terror by states as a means of action in achieving objectives, externally, internally or a combination of both– its systematic or limited usage defines the legitimacy of states per se.

The word terror in itself is a disambiguation from the Latin “terror”: to tremble violently and its adjective – terrorism – was first used to describe the public executions and their impact on the population, in the aftermath of the declaration of the first French republic in 1793 by the Jacobin government – la terreur. Terrorism first described a mode of government; as seen above terror is a powerful tool for the manipulation of a population. The word terror is often associated with political regimes, the Great Terror for example describes the systematic mass executions during the 1930’s in the USSR[6], but also the exactions by right-wing or left-wing forces on the population in the Russian civil war between 1918 and 1922 – the White or Red Terror[7]. Terrorism is associated with political concepts that seek to destroy the very existence of the concept of states, stemming from the actions of the late 19th century anarchists groups throughout Europe, “terrorism is felt to be something done by revolutionaries against the state”[8].

However while the word and concept are both more than two centuries old more than half (54%) of studies approaching terrorism published between 1971 and 2002 were written in 2001 and 2002 in the aftermath the attacks on the twin towers in New York in 2001.[9] Similarly, there is no existing international or legal treaty that defines terrorism, “(t)here is no explicit definition of “terrorism” as such in international humanitarian law. However, international humanitarian law prohibits many acts committed in armed conflict which would be considered terrorist acts if they were committed in times of peace”[10]. The very definition of the word is the subject of intense academic debate, as Silke notes; most studies on the subject first establish the different issues stemming from defining the term. The adage: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” or the 43rd United States’ president address that preludes this analysis exemplify the issues at hand, it is a political exercise in “othering”, [11] in the words of Schmitt “the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.”[12]

In this essay we follow a definition of terrorism proposed by Wilkinson:

“It is premeditated and aims to create a climate of extreme fear or terror; it is directed at a wider audience or target than the immediate victims of the violence; it inherently involves attacks on random and symbolic targets, including civilians; the acts of violence committed are seen by the society in which they occur as extra-normal, in the literal sense that they breach the social norms, thus causing a sense of outrage; and terrorism is used to try to influence political behaviour in some way.”[13]

We argue that this definition offers the best explanatory power because it defines the victims as instrumental to the political objective and as Primoratz argues, their innocence from the terrorist’s own point of view[14]. The focus of that definition is not on the actors but the actions themselves; it is apolitical thus does not remove the state from being such a perpetrator, neither does it prejudge the moral question of its justification, “only that terrorism if prima facie wrong, it does not rule out its justification under certain circumstances.”[15]

We have thus defined terrorism and will now define the concept of statehood. For the purpose of this essay we follow both the Montevideo Convention’s four criteria; a defined territory, a permanent population, a government and a capacity to enter into relations within other states[16] as well as Weber’s writing on the state being: “that human community, which, with a given territory claims for itself (successfully) the legitimate monopoly of physical violence”.[17]

As argued above, states such as the Jacobin government in France or the USSR, have used terror, nevertheless, through this understanding of the relationship between the state and violence, scholars argue that state terrorism is conceptually impossible as “the state is simply being itself, the repository of legitimate physical violence.”[18] Through this conceptualisation of statehood and link with violence Laqueur writes on terrorism that: “the very existence of a state is based on its monopoly of power. If it were different, states would not have the right, nor be in a position, to maintain that minimum of order on which all civilised life rests”[19] emphasizing violence as the propriety of states, he argues against the concept of state terrorism “there are basic differences in motives, function and effect between oppression by the state and (non-state) terrorism. To equate them, to obliterate them is to spread confusion” and, he argues, to equate the US with Nazi Germany or the USSR.[20] Blakeley argues that this analysis of terrorism relies on an actor base model rather than an action based one.[21]

Similarly she comments on Hoffman’s writing on the subject: “he argues that this difference is based upon the historical emergence of ‘rules and accepted norms of behaviour that prohibit the use of certain types of weapons’ and ‘proscribe various tactics and outlaw attacks on specific categories of targets’. He adds that ‘terrorists’ have by contrast ‘violated all these rules’.[22] This argument would only stand if it could be shown that states do not violate these rules, as set out in the Geneva Conventions. The reality is that they do.”[23] She adds: “Indeed, even in situations where, according to international law and norms, states have the legitimate right to use violence (jus ad bellum), it is not always the case that their conduct (jus in bello) is itself legitimate.”[24]

Indeed we argue that in the conduct of war itself Western states, which Laqueur and Hoffman precluded from terrorist acts for their norms of behaviour such as the Geneva Convention or just war theory, engage in terrorism. Walzer in his book Just and Unjust Wars exemplifies the lack of regard for safeguarding civilians lives in combat settings by using the account of British journalist Thompson in his book Cry Korea:

(After encountering enemy small arms fire) The troops stopped and dove for cover. Three tanks moved up, “pounding their shells into the (…) hillside and shattering the air with their machine guns. It was impossible in this remarkable inferno of sound to detect the enemy, or to assess his fire.” Within fifteen minutes, several fighter planes arrived, “diving down upon the hillside with their rockets.” This is the new technique of warfare, “born of immense productive and material might”: “the cautious advance, the enemy small arms fire, the halt, the close support air strike, artillery, the cautious advance, and so on.” It is designed to save the live of soldiers, and it may or may not have that effect. “It is certain that it kills civilian men, women, and children, indiscriminately and in great numbers, and destroys all that they have.”[25]

Through this account, Walzer argues that US forces in combat settings during the Korean War did not either follow the rules of just wars nor the Geneva Conventions, while deliberately inflicting terror on Korean civilians.

Further in his book Walzer also notes that the indiscriminate bombing of German cities by British forces from 1942 to 1945 do not respond to a military need but to a deliberate effort to target civilians, terrorise them and provoke their revolt. Douhet in The Command of the Air designed these methods of inflicting terror from massive “carpet” bombing from airplanes[26]. Walzer writes that: “Bomber Command was instructed simply to aim at the center of a city” “the aiming points are to the built-up areas, not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories.” [27] He adds: “Following the famous minute of Lord Cherwell in 1942, the means to this demoralization were specified: working-class residential areas were the prime targets. Cherwell thought it possible to render a third of the German population homeless by 1943.”[28] Cherwell had successfully advocated the use of a terror bombing policy, which would have considerable precedent for the fire bombing of Japanese and German cities and the use of atomic bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima.[29]

Western states, states that Laqeur and Hoffman argued could not be terrorist, thus engaged in state terrorism through their actions in combat settings. We argue, following Stohl’s writing, that defining the state through its monopoly on “legitimate violence” neither disqualifies its agencies’ actions as terroristic nor qualifies every action by the state’s agencies as normatively positive.[30] As Stohl argues: if “the state, and its agency the government, have a legitimate monopoly on physical violence, it may still use that violence (and its threat) in ways as unacceptable as terrorism, mass killings and other forms of repression and human rights violations.”[31] In other words this legitimate monopoly of violence can be abused to the point where such violence become illegitimate. Given the long recorded history of human violence, state repressions, and human rights violations; it can be argued that all forms of government of states have, at one point or another in history, engaged in some form of state terrorism, whether within their own border or internationally.[32] It is in the scale of its use that states are defined as terrorist states, whether it uses of terror occured on a systematic scale or limited one.[33]

Systematic use of terror refer to totalitarian states, examples include the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. In these states, violence as Brzezinski described:

Becomes capricious, totalitarian terror reaches an extreme. It aims to fill everyone with fear and vents in full its passion for unanimity. Terror then embraces the entire society, searching everywhere for actual or potential deviants from the totalitarian unity. Indeed, to many it seems as if they are hunted, even though the secret police may not touch them for years, if at all. Total fear reigns. (…) The total scope and the pervasive and sustained character of totalitarian terror are operationally important. By operating with the latest technological devices, by allowing no refuge from its reach, and by penetrating even the innermost sanctums of the regimes (…) The atmosphere of fear it creates easily exaggerates the strength of the regime and helps it to achieve and maintain its facade of unanimity. Scattered opponents of the regime, if still undetected, become isolated and feel themselves cast out of society. This sense of loneliness, which is the fate of all but more especially of an opponent of the totalitarian regime, tends to paralyze resistance and make it much less appealing. It generates a universal longing to “escape” into the anonymity of the collective whole. Unanimity, even if coerced, is a source of strength for the regime. [34]

However this overarching terror is not all encompassing to every aspect of life with individuals under such a regime permanently fearing for their very existence or imminent arrest. The violence is indeed pernicious, but it is first through a process of internalisation of the terror and its potentiality. Individuals thus respond by externalising what Friedrich and Brzezinksi call a “behaviour of loyalty”[35], to conform to what is asked of them in the public sphere – two plus two equals five. Consequently as a second generation brought up in a system of indoctrination that result in their complete loyalty to the regime, comes of age, brute force or the first step of the totalitarian regime can be decreased. Thereafter, the state apparatus for the use of terror never goes away, “terror as a last resort is always present in the background, and the potentiality of its uninhibited use does not disappear.”

This process is visible in Nazi Germany through the use of concentration camps –Dachau was first built in 1934 – street paramilitary gangs (which will later be defined as death squads in the state terrorism apparatus) and the Hitler Youth, which through the indoctrination of children promoted a culture of denouncement throughout the society (Khmer Rouges terror would go a step further by conditioning young children into executioners[36]). Individuals at random or targeted would be either interned in concentration camps for a period of up to three years, or beat up in the streets, this policies were increasingly decreasing by 1939, while the Hitler Youth organizations were rapidly increasing. The “brown shirts” for example would be purged from the Nazi party with the “night of the long knives” in 1934.[37]

However, to first establish such a totalitarian system Schmitt argues that a political concept is first introduced to the polity, which he names Ausnahmezustand – the state of exception[38] – it is the ability of the state to transcend the rule of law and declare a restriction of civil liberties. Its proclamation, length in time, details and or areas of effect are the prerogative of the state sovereign.[39] As state sovereign Schmitt means where the head of government lies. Thus it is in hands of a state’s government in which the responsibility of the prerogatives of the state of exception and therefore the decision of the scale of the use of terror would therefore be placed. We argue that the manner with which a government is chosen and the political culture within which it inscribes its legitimacy thus impacts whether we can define a state as a terrorist state or not. Davenport thus argues “Thirty years worth of statistical research has revealed that only two variables decrease human rights violations: political democracy and economic development”.[40] Similarly Gurr has noted:“The disposition to use state terror is most effectively constrained if elites hold democratic values and are checked by democratic institutions. The relationship is not coincidental or spurious. Democratic political norms emphasize compromise in conflict and participation and responsiveness in relations between rules and ruled, traits that are inconsistent with reliance on violence as an instrument of rule or opposition”.[41]

An example of the use of terror in a limited scale is visible throughout the counterinsurgency techniques used by the United States, France and the United Kingdom respectively in the Vietnam War, the Algerian War, and the period of the Troubles. These methods were first developed by the French and British war efforts, the French “made extensive use of torture against large sectors of the Algerian population, both in Algeria itself by police forces and in France”,[42] while the British army was proven to subject fourteen men “to beatings with batons and kicking, often until they passed out; hooding; stripping; sensory assault, including being subject for a whole week to constant noise at various levels of intensity; food, water and sleep deprivation, and prolonged stress positions”.[43]

Moreover, in a 2003 documentary, Escadrons de la mort, l’école française, French journalist Robin interviews figures of the United States sponsored Condor programme: the French general Aussaresses, the ex-chief of the Chilean secret police Contreras and argentine generals Harguindeguy, Bignone and Bessone. All confess that torture techniques, including rape and mutilations, counter-insurgency tactics such as maiming, torturing and targeted killing of civilians and combatants, and terrorist tactics such as the act of disappearing someone, were developed during the Algerian War and the battle of Algiers, summarised into a manual and later taught at American and South American military schools sometimes by Aussaresses himself. These techniques, along with British exported ones from the counter-insurgency tactics used in Malaysia during the 1940’s and 1950’s, would form the basis for project X, operation phoenix, and Condor. However all these would be brought to an end before the end of the 1970’s and their inefficacy proven – Massu the commander of the battle of Algiers admitted as such in his memoirs. Although the revelations of the CIA’s black sites as well as the cases of torture inside the prison of Abu Ghraib evokes strong linkage.

We qualify this use of terror as limited because while Condor, the exactions of paramilitaries in Guatemala, the cases of the disappeared in South American countries, and the counterinsurgency techniques used by Western states do constitute terrorism committed by a state, they targeted specific political objectives in a specific area and during a specific time, similarly, sources that openly demonstrated the use of this terrorism greatly helped expand our understanding of terror. Terror tactics were used and its perverting effect still holds today, but debates and conversations on the subject area are possible, the terror has thus been limited in its scope and scale.

In Conclusion, we have argued extensively that State terrorism does exists as a political concept and that state do engage in terrorism, however the term terrorist states and the negation of state sovereignty it entails should be reserved to totalitarian states. Moreover I would personally argue that avenues for further studies on state terrorism should look at, whether nuclear deterrence – and asymmetrical nuclear deterrence- constitutes state terrorism therefore whether nuclear armed states are terrorist states. Whether China’s state maintenance system is a state of exception therefore whether the People’s Republic of China is a totalitarian system and a terrorist state. Totalitarian states, we have seen, always seek new technological devices to help further their terror – China’s facial recognition cameras and the credit score system fits this definition. Finally, whether Trump’s border policy of family separation constitutes terrorism on a limited scale.


Blakeley R. (2009) “State Terrorism and Neoliberalism: The North in the South”, Routledge.

Bleiker, R and Hutchison, E. (2008) “Fear No More: Emotions and World Politics”, Review of International Studies, 34(s1): 115-135.

Conroy, J. (2001) Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, London: Vision Paperbacks.

Davenport C. (1999) “Human Rights and the Democratic Proposition.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 43(1): 92-116

Douhet G. (1921) “The Command of the Air”, translation by Dino Ferrari (1942) Coward McCann

Friedrich C. and Brzezinksi Z. (1965) “Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy”, Cambridge : Mass., Harvard University Press

Friedrichs Jörg, “Defining the International Public Enemy: The Political Struggle behind the Legal Debate on International Terrorism”, Leiden Journal of International Law, 19 (2006), pp. 69–91

Gerth H. and Mills C.W. (1958) “From Max Weber”, Glencoe, Illinois, p. 78

International Committee of the Red Cross (2010) “Challenges for IHL – terrorism: overview”, https://www.icrc.org/en/document/challenges-ihl-terrorism

Laqueur (1986) “Reflexions on Terrorism”, Foreign Affairs, 65, 86-100.

Laqueur (2003) “No End to War: Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century”, New York, Continuum.

Lum, C., Kennedy, L., and Sherley, A. (2004) “The Effectiveness of Counter-Terrorism Strategies: A Campbell Systematic Review Protocol.” Campbell Collaboration Systematic Reviews

Orwell G. (2013) 1984. London: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (original work published 1949)

Power S. (2002) “”A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide”, Basic Books

Primoratz I. (2004) “State Terrorism and Counter-terrorism”. In: Primoratz I. (eds) Terrorism; 113, Palgrave Macmillan, London

Safire W. (2008) “Safire’s Political Dictionary”, Oxford University Press, 2008, p.470

Schmitt C., Der Begriff des Politischen (1932), translated by G. Schwab under the title The Concept of the Political (1996)

Stohl M. (2006) “The State as Terrorist: Insights and Implications, Democracy and Security”, 2:1, 1-25.

Vidal-Naquet P. (1963) “Torture: Cancer of Democracy”, Middlesex: Penguin Books

Walzer M. (1977) “Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations”, Basic books.

Wilkinson, P. (1992) “International Terrorism: New Risks to World Order”, in Baylis J. and Rengger N.(eds.) Dilemmas of World Politics: International Issues in a Changing World, London: Clarendon Press,pp. 228–257

Wittgenstein L. (1961). “Tractatus logico-philosophicus”, London: Routledge Kegan Paul. (original work published 1921.)

[1] Bleiker, Roland and Hutchison, Emma, Fear No More: Emotions and World Politics, 2008, p.115.

[2] ibid

[3] ibidem

[4] Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 1961, p.151

[5] Orwell, 1984, 2013

[6] Stohl, The State as Terrorist: Insights and Implications, Democracy and Security, 2006, p.8

[7] idem

[8] idem, p.7

[9] Lum, Kennedy, and Sherley, The Effectiveness of Counter-Terrorism Strategies: A Campbell Systematic Review Protocol, 2004

[10] ICRC challenges for IHL – terrorism: overview, 2010

[11] Friedrichs, Defining the International Public Enemy: The Political Struggle behind the Legal Debate on International Terrorism, 2006, p.67

[12] Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, transl. 1996, p.26

[13] Wilkinson, International Terrorism: New Risks to World Order, 1992: 228–229

[14] Primoratz, State Terrorism and Counter-terrorism, 2004, p.113

[15] idem

[16] Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (1933), Article 1.

[17] Gerth and Mills, From Max Weber, 1958, p. 78

[18] Stohl, The State as Terrorist: Insights and Implications, Democracy and Security, 2006, p.3

[19] Laqueur, No End to War: Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, 2003: 237

[20] Laqueur, Reflexions on Terrorism, 1986: 89

[21] Blakeley, State Terrorism and Neoliberalism: The North in the South, 2009, p.28

[22] Hoffman 1998: 34 as cited in Blakeley

[23] Blakeley, State Terrorism and Neoliberalism: The North in the South, 2009, p.29

[24] idem

[25] Reginald Thompson, Cry Korea (London, 1951), pp. 54, 142-4) as quoted in Walzer

[26] Douhet, The Command of the Air, 1942 (originally published in 1921)

[27] Noble Frankland , Bomber offensive: The Devastation of Europe (New York, 1970), p.41 as quoted in Walzer

[28] C. P. Snow, Science and Government (New York, 1962) as quoted in Walzer

[29] Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 1977, p.255

[30] Stohl, The State as Terrorist: Insights and Implications, Democracy and Security, 2006

[31] idem

[32] idem

[33] Primoratz, State Terrorism and Counter-terrorism, 2004, p.113

[34] Friedrich and Brzezinksi, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, 1965, p.169

[35] idem

[36] Power, “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, 2002

[37] Safire, Safire’s Political Dictionary, 2008, p.470

[38] Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, transl. 1996, p.26

[39] idem

[40] Davenport, Human Rights and the Democratic Proposition, 1999, p.92

[41] Gurr

[42] Vidal-Naquet, Torture: Cancer of Democracy, 1963, pp.40-44

[43] Conroy, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, pp.5-11


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