Democracy And Terrorism Essays

What is the link between democracy and terrorism?
{War Studies Department, King’s College London}



‘(Our) response to violence is more democracy…greater political participation'[1]

‘Tolerating the intolerant, democracies allow terrorists to….strike'[2]

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his essay critically examines the relationship between democracy[3] and terrorism[4], concluding that exclusively analysing this ‘link’ is deeply flawed. Scholars often conflate variables such as media influence or regime instability with democracy, subsequently and misleadingly suggesting that frequency of terrorism correlates with democratic regimes. The contradictory quotes above demonstrate the dichotomised debate. In Western democracies, one argument states, terrorist incidents should be fewer; a tactic of a few marginalised men, lacking popular legitimacy[5]. By contrast, others argue that, unlike dictatorships, democracies are contractually obliged to protect their citizens, creating an abundance of potential victims[6]. This essay studies the effect of media freedom on terrorism, demonstrating variables other than democracy and terrorism must be analysed for empirically-based conclusions to be formed.

Objective deductions in the democracy-terrorism debate could reveal weaknesses inherent in democratic norms, also undermining doctrines of foreign policy that see democracy-promotion as a panacea to transnational terrorism. However, I argue that scant evidence exists of a clear-cut positive or negative relationship. Firstly, I analyse the role of a free media in facilitating terrorism, demonstrating that media influence is often confused with ‘democracy’ itself. Subsequently, I critique empirical data from prior studies, emphasising that conflicting data is demonstrative of a need to consider multiple variables.

The Media and Terrorism

Often, scholars include liberal institutions, such as a free media, within the umbrella term of ‘democracy’, without scrutinising them independently. Democracy and the media are separate variables; that press freedom affects frequency of terrorism does not underpin flaws in democratic processes. Whilst a media-terrorism relationship exists, this is sometimes misleadingly used to demonstrate a democracy-terrorism link. Shurkin, in stating that ‘without the media, there would likely be no modern terrorism[7]’, rightly denotes media effects as the key facilitator of terrorism, rather than the ballot box.

Terrorism does not operate solely on a ‘body count’ basis, instead relying on operations that influence public opinion by coercion[8]. The September 11th attacks were not designed to annihilate the United States, but to create reverberating traumatic-psychological effects, facilitated by intensive media coverage[9]. Terrorism is emotive, boosting ratings, yet simultaneously providing terrorists with the necessary ‘oxygen’ to propagate both their objectives and a state of fear[10]. The ‘violence-obsessed’ Western media devotes excessive coverage to terrorism[11]. An irresponsible, free press both facilitates and exaggerates terrorism, making it disproportionately palatable.

Therefore, a free media places itself in a ‘dysfunctional position relative to terrorism[12]’. Publicity is essential for terrorists; they are most likely to attack states with a free press, because incidents there will probably be reported[13]. This ‘symbiotic’ relationship between terrorists and independent media[14] generates ‘a real positive effect on…terrorist incidents[15]’. Freedom of the press also restricts government suppression of terrorist attacks. That a free media publicises terrorist attacks, regardless of their traumatic ramifications, compared to their state-controlled counterparts in other regimes who repress the data, artificially inflates the positive correlation between democracy and terrorism[16].

Hence, media freedom guarantees maximum returns for terrorists, simultaneously over-exaggerating the democracy-terrorism link. Scholars should examine not only the link between terrorism and democracy, but also the correlation between terrorism and press freedom. Simply studying the association between ‘terrorism and democracy’ oversimplifies a complex relationship involving multiple variables. Subsequently, I shall critically analyse previous research, in order to demonstrate that contradictory evidence garnered from studying the democracy-terrorism link provides evidence of other factors at work, such as the media.

Analysing Important Statistics

Because assessing all findings from this debate is beyond the scope of this study, I focus on the most important empirical data. For instance, Weinberg and Eubank suggest terrorist groups are three-and-a-half times more likely to form in democracies[17]. Additionally, Weinberg and Eubank claim that both terrorists and victims are more likely to be citizens of democratic regimes[18]. Indeed, Forster analysed US State Department Statistics from 2000-2003, proving that, during these years, the majority of terrorist attacks took place in liberal democracies[19].

When analysing State Department figures from 2008-2010, the opposite appears true. During 2008, forty percent of terrorist attacks occurred in the Middle-East[20], the most repressive region in the world[21]. That similar results exist for 2009[22] and 2010[23] shows a pattern far from an oasis of democracy under constant terrorist siege. Forster’s study is not necessarily invalid, but the inconsistency of results suggests that variables beyond the terrorism-democracy prism must be considered. Frequently, authors conflate terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq following US occupation as proof that democracy encourages terrorism[24]. However, whilst the US’ intention may have been to facilitate democratic reforms, Iraq is still classed as a ‘hybrid regime[25]‘, whereas Afghanistan is an ‘authoritarian regime[26]’. Hence, utilising these nations as case studies as to why democracy promotes terrorism is false and misleading.

Though sixty percent of terrorist attacks in 2009 occurred in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan[27], Pape suggests that, whilst not undertaken in full democracies, the message of these attacks were directed towards Western consumers of news[28]. This frames terrorist occurrences in non-democracies towards the preeminent role of a distant free media, rather than the existence of electoral representation. Additionally, Pape claims that whilst democracies are ‘probably’ not inherently susceptible to terrorism, terrorists perceive them as ‘soft’ targets[29]. Hence, it is necessary to look beyond a statistical comparison of democracy and terrorism and focus on other variables, including the link between terrorist perceptions and a free media, and the inherent instability wrought by regime change.

Finally, this debate must be contextualised within the limited, peripheral nature of terrorism against American targets. Excluding events such as 9/11, which are extremely rare, 2009 saw nine US civilian deaths from terrorism[30], and five in 2010[31]. Since one-half of the world’s population now lives in a democracy[32], and terrorism statistically seems sometimes as predominant in non-democracies as in ‘free’ regimes, terrorism poses no more than a peripheral threat to liberal regimes. Despite the continuing US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, reciprocal terrorist action is mainly localised in these non-democracies. That, despite its’ low ‘body count’, terrorism maintains a high psychological and media presence in the West, conforms to my hypothesis regarding the sensationalised role of a free media, rather than electoral systems, in entrenching perceptions of terrorist threats.


‘Some features of democracy make it vulnerable to terrorism. Other features make democracies strong and resilient'[33]

This quote underpins the ambiguous data garnered from studying the terrorism-democracy relationship. Both sides make crucial points, but unsubstantiated conclusions. Terrorism is not wholly facilitated by one factor[34]; one of terrorism studies greatest strengths it its’ use of multi-disciplinary methods and analyses. Examining the ‘link between terrorism and democracy’ is inherently flawed; a plethora of other variables require consideration in their own right. Unlike other studies, I do not seek to prove that democracy is a cause of or cure for terrorism, only noting the flaws in existing studies. The peripheral nature of terrorism and contradictory evidence does not discredit liberal democracy as a basis for government. Nevertheless, there remains scant empirical data that democracy inherently reduces terrorism.

Hence, scholars must stop analysing this debate through a ‘terrorism-democracy’ lens; other influences must be scrutinised, such as political involvement, state instability and terrorist perceptions. Whilst a free media is more likely to exist in a democracy, these variables must be studied separately in future research. This essay, in a very limited analysis of the media, demonstrates the lack of depth available when studying the phenomenon as part of the wider democracy-terrorism debate. Future studies should utilise past empirical data, whilst eschewing some of the conclusions, in order to use these figures as a foundation for a more precise, less controversy-seeking conclusion.

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibligraphy”]

[1] Stoltenberg (2011).
[2] Schmid (1993) p14.
[3] By ‘democracy’, I am referring specifically to a system of government whereby ruling representatives are elected by full adult suffrage; not confounding the term with associated concepts, such as press freedom.
[4] I utilise the terrorism definition extrapolated by Hoffman (2006), p2-5.
[5] Townshend (2002) p73.
[6] Schmid (1993), p19.
[7] Shurkin (1970), p82.
[8] Townshend (2002) p58.
[9] Townshend (2002) p2.
[10] Ranstorp (2007) p1.
[11] Schmid (1993), p22.
[12] Shurkin (1970), p81.
[13] Li (2005), p281.
[14] Shurkin (1970), p82.
[15] Li (2005), p282.
[16] This artificial inflation only partially mitigates data suggesting that terrorists preference democracies over non-democracies when planning attacks. See Gause (2005), p67.
[17] Eubank, Weinberg (1994), p426.
[18] Gause (2005), p65.
[19] Forster (2006), p2.
[20] US State Department (2009), p9.
[21] The Economist Democracy Index (2010), p26.
[22] US State Department (2010), p10.
[23] US State Department (2011), p252.
[24] Gause (2005), p66 is guilty of this, see also Pape (2006), p15.
[25] The Economist Democracy Index (2010), p6.
[26] The Economist Democracy Index (2010), p7.
[27] US State Department (2009), p295.
[28] Pape (2005), p7.
[29] Pape (2005), p9.
[30] US State Department (2010), p298.
[31] US State Department (2011), p252.
[32] The Economist Democracy Index (2010), p1.
[33] Schmid (1993), p16.
[34] Sinai (2007), p36.


Economist Intelligence Unit (2010), ‘Democracy Index 2010: Democracy in Retreat’, The Economist, Stable URL: (Last accessed 15th November, 2011).

Eubank, William L., Weinberg, Leonard (1994), ‘Does Democracy Encourage Terrorism?’, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 6, No. 4, pp. 417-435.

Forster, Chris (16th February 2006), ‘Democracy, Terrorism and the Middle-East’, The Foreign Police Centre, Stable URL: (Last accessed 15th November, 2011).

Gause III (2005), Gregory F., ‘Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 5, pp. 62-76.

Hoffman, Bruce (2006), Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press).

Li, Quan (April, 2005), ‘Does Democracy Promote or Reduce Transnational Incidents?’, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 278-297.

Pape, Robert A. (2006), ‘Suicide Terrorism and Democracy: What We’ve Learned Since 9/11’, Policy Analysis, No. 582, Stable URL: (Last accessed 15th November, 2011).

Pape, Robert A. (2003), ‘The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism’, American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 3, pp. 343-36.

Randstorp, Magnus (2007), ‘Introduction’, in Randstorp, Magnus (ed.), Mapping Terrorism Research (London: Routledge), pp. 1-28.

Schmid, Alex (1993), ‘Terrorism and Democracy’, in Crelinsten, Ronald D., Schmid, Alex (eds.), Western Responses to Terrorism (London: Routledge), pp. 14-25.
Shurkin, Joel N. (2007), ‘Terrorism and the Media’, in Bongar, Bruce (ed.), Psychology of Terrorism (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 81-86.

Sinai, Joshua (2007), ‘New Trends in Terrorism Studies: Strengths and Weaknesses’, in Randstorp, Magnus (ed.), Mapping Terrorism Research (London: Routledge), pp. 31-50.

Stoltenberg, Jens (17th August 2011), ‘We Choose Democracy’, The Huffington Post, Stable URL: (Last accessed 15th November, 2011).

Townshend, Charles (2002), Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press).

United States Department of State Publication: Office of the Co-ordinator for Counter-Terrorism (2009), ‘Country Reports on Terrorism: 2008’, U.S. Department of State, Stable URL: (Last accessed 15th November, 2011).

United States Department of State Publication: Office of the Co-ordinator for Counter-Terrorism (2010), ‘Country Reports on Terrorism: 2009’, U.S. Department of State, Stable URL: (Last accessed 15th November, 2011).

United States Department of State Publication: Office of the Co-ordinator for Counter-Terrorism (2011), ‘Country Reports on Terrorism: 2010’, U.S. Department of State, Stable URL: (Last accessed 15th November, 2011).


Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism
by Eric Hobsbawm
(184pp, Little, Brown, £17.99)

It has been Eric Hobsbawm's fate to live to see the institutions whose rise he analysed as a historian of the modern world decline or disappear. Empires are gone, except for one, and that one is floundering. Nation states control less and less, while often pretending they control more and more. Democracy puffs itself up, but politicians wonder privately how long its eroded routines will continue to command allegiance. Mass parties and ideological movements survive largely as shells. Even the rebels who challenge established states are in confusion, pursuing unrealistic objectives while discarding rules that once limited political violence, an ominous combination. "We do not," Hobsbawm says in this collection of recent essays and lectures, "know where we are going."

When a scholar as eminent as Hobsbawm professes perplexity as well as pessimism about the future the rest of us will be naturally inclined to share his anxieties. His worries are those of a man who, in spite of his reputation as a radical, has had a lifelong attachment to order. At different times he has had different views of what constitutes that order. But the essence, it may be ventured, is that order rests on understanding. Human beings need to comprehend change, to grasp the ways in which it can be managed, to cope with history rather than to be crushed by it. Our situation now, he argues, is that there is even less of such a rational understanding, particularly in Washington, than there was in the past.

Since change is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, he says, that is truly dangerous. During the cold war era, for all its dismal aspects, there was more recognition of constraints and limits, and history, in any case, was going more slowly. People woke up each morning to a world in which certain things, both good and bad, were fixed. Not so now. The demise of the Soviet Union has, he suggests, set off a pathological political process in the United States. He confesses that he does not know why America has abandoned "a real hegemony" based on consent and soft power for the illusory pursuit of world domination. At one point he suggests that recent American foreign policy has been the result of a kind of mad negotiation between its relatively sophisticated coastal parts and a central region with no understanding of the world. At another he offers the rather standard thought that American over-reaction to the threat from terrorists amounts to "inventing enemies that legitimise the expansion and use of its global power".

Events have moved us on since those words were written. It can be argued that there has been an over-reaction to America's over-reaction. One might say that the problem now is not that the United States is pursuing world domination but that it does not know what it is pursuing. Can America, in the wake of failure in the Middle East, revert to the softer hegemony of which Hobsbawm speaks, or has too much damage been done? Yet, in most of these essays Hobsbawm writes as if the change in the direction of US foreign policy under George W Bush was likely to be permanent, although certain to fail. He does not here consider the possibility that this was both a freakish and an unlucky moment in American history, and that we are on our way back to something that, for want of a better word, could be described as "normal". The process of "educating or re-educating the US" of which he speaks at the end of his concluding chapter has surely already begun.

If much of what Hobsbawm has to say in these pieces is familiar, that is of course partly because he is one of the leading intellectual authors of the concepts and the language in which all of us now discuss our situation. He sketches here with great lucidity and his usual effortless compression the new landscape of the 21st century. Globalisation has brought societies together as never before, but politics is still confined to the nation state, which will continue to be the main framework in which people live out their lives. But it will be weaker than before, contending both with less loyal citizens at home, and, abroad, with other actors in the global space who will often undercut and outflank it. That will make democracy less workable, and also less transferable. His thoughts on the difficulties of implanting democracy, with Iraq his obvious reference, are particularly gloomy. He does not examine the case that Iraq had a democratic tradition and a real national identity which, given a better-managed intervention, might have come to the fore. And, while warning against the dangers of intervention, he offers no answer to the question of what the stronger states should do about societies suffering under oppressive regimes or under regimes that have ceased to be able to govern.

On terrorism, he is both dismissive and concerned. Dismissive of the idea that today's terrorism is an existential threat to established and powerful societies; concerned about the reaction of those societies. Terrorism has always been with us, he says, and today's groups are not so different from those of the past, except that some are more internationalised and readier than they used to be to kill innocents on a large scale. Unless and until terrorists acquire nuclear weapons, however, Hobsbawm repeatedly argues, it is nonsense to suggest that al-Qaida or similar movements present an existential danger. Rather, the use of an alleged existential danger to justify extreme policies is where the real threat to world stability lies.

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