Terrorism Research Paper

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Although the terrors of war and criminal violence have been known since the dawn of human existence, the concept of terrorism as a form of political violence originated in le terreur of the French Revolution. Initially a word for the brutal excesses of a revolutionary government (some forty thousand persons were guillotined), by the late nineteenth century ‘‘terrorism’’ referred almost exclusively to the antigovernment violence of groups such as the Russian Narodnaya Volya (‘‘Will of the People’’). Since then, the designation of particular groups and actions as terrorist has varied with political assumptions and aims.

To defenders of government, almost any violence by opponents may be defined as terrorism. To opponents, virtually any governmental effort to restrain or repress opposition may be defined as terrorism. Whether ‘‘oppositional’’ or ‘‘state’’ terrorism, the distinction itself is embedded in a snarl of issues raised by the intersection of ideological and analytical concerns.

Defining Terrorism

After noting that more than one hundred definitions have been offered, Laqueur (1999) concludes that the only generally accepted characteristic of terrorism is that it involves violence or the threat of violence. Nonetheless, most observers also include political motivation and some notion of an organization that accepts and fosters violence as a political tactic.

Political motivation may vary from a scarcely articulate resentment of felt obstructions and sensed antagonists to a highly developed consciousness and analysis of political relationships.

Mob violence against despised racial or ethnic groups typically has no specific political rationale and goals, despite the tendency of politicians and media commentators to impute responsibility for such violence to agitators and conspirators. At a somewhat higher level of political consciousness are planned attacks by individuals aroused by ideological messages warning them of some threat (e.g., extinction of the white race, loss of national sovereignty, environmental catastrophe, economic ruin) and blaming it on some population (e.g., Jews, Arabs, nonwhites, whites) or institution (e.g., the American ‘‘Zionist Occupation Government,’’ the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund). Revolutionary strategists such as Che Guevara and Carlos Marighela, as well as counterrevolutionary strategists such as East Germany’s Markus Wolff and Argentina’s General Augusto Pinochet, exemplify the application of reason to planning and justifying the systematic use of terrorism and other forms of violence for political ends. Whether in the revolutionists’ manuals of guerrilla warfare and bomb-making or the counterrevolutionists’ manuals of ‘‘low intensity warfare’’ and antiterrorist operations, the rationales for violence are derived from quite explicit (though sometimes bizarre) understandings of the historical and social dimensions of the conflict situation.

Whether individuals acting on their own initiative may be terrorists depends on how one defines political organization. Wardlaw is one of the few analysts to allow for the possibility of a lone terrorist who uses or threatens violence to coerce a target group, beyond the immediate victims, into acceding to political demands. Theodore Kaczinski (the Unabomber) might be seen as an example. However, the Unabomber acted in awareness that a great many people agreed or sympathized with his views on the environmental threats posed by corporate greed aided and abetted by irresponsible scientific research and governmental corruption. Similarly, the fugitive Eric Robert Rudolph, wanted for abortion clinic bombings as well as for the Atlanta Olympics bombing, acted with at least the tacit (and probably some material) support of antiabortion and antigovernment extremists. That their views were drawn from or coincided with the ideologies of terrorist organizations (ranging from Earth First and the May 19th Communist Organization (M19CO) to Aryan Nations and The Order) indicates that they acted in an organizational context, from which they drew inspiration, orientation, and justification.

The notion of organizational context implies that terrorists may be more or less loosely organized, and that particular organizations may be indirectly as well as directly responsible for terrorist incidents. For instance, while the Saudi Arabian exile Osama bin Ladan cannot possibly be directly responsible for every attack by Islamic fundamentalists, his ideological and financial support for their cause encourages terrorism far beyond the operations of his own organization. Indeed, bin Ladan’s organization appears to be more accurately described as a network of quasiindependent militant groups who benefit from his capacity to provide inspirational leadership and logistical support.

So far we have observed that terrorism is politically motivated violence for which organizations are directly or indirectly responsible. What remains to be settled is just how terrorism differs from other political violence. To begin, no definition of terrorism has included rioting, civil war, revolution, or international war, though analysts have agreed that terrorist incidents may occur in conjunction with or as a part of such violence. The consensus is that terrorist violence is more organized and deliberate than rioting, lesser in organization and scale than war. And though guerrillas are often pictured as terrorists by their government opponents (e.g., the Zapatista rebels in Mexico), guerrilla resistance to governmental forces does not necessarily involve terrorist acts. Differentiating assassination and terrorism is more problematic. Ben-Yehuda argues strongly that terrorism must be distinguished from assassination, but has been unable to pin down the exact nature of the presumed differences. He suggests that terrorism is indiscriminate killing aimed at a general target while assassination targets specific individuals, but is admittedly unable to maintain the distinction in his own case analyses (pp. 38, 46–47). As the number of victims rises, observers appear to be increasingly likely to describe the incident as terrorism rather than assassination. And insofar as ‘‘innocents’’ such as children, café patrons, and passing motorists are victims, the violence is more likely to be viewed as terrorism. But the difficulty is that deliberate attacks on specific individuals because of their political importance may harm people who just happen to be in the line of fire or nearby when the bomb explodes. Moreover, ‘‘innocents’’ may be victimized by assassins not only accidentally but sometimes deliberately—for example, to eliminate witnesses, distract pursuers, or intimidate bystanders.

Perhaps the best working solution is to accept Ben-Yehuda’s general point: that assassination is targeted at specific persons even though others may be harmed, while terrorism is characterized by essentially random targeting. Both aim at maximum political impact, but differ in the rationale for target selection: the assassin believes that killing one or more specific persons will be effective in weakening the will of the opposition; the terrorist believes that the randomness of victimization—especially if casualties are maximized—will be effective, particularly by spreading the perceived risks of victimization.

To summarize, terrorism is defined as politically motivated violence, for which organizations are directly or indirectly responsible, that is intended to weaken the will of the opposition by using random targeting to spread the fear of victimization.

Terrorism and Law

There is no established legal definition of terrorism. Internationally, efforts within and outside the United Nations have failed in the face of widely divergent perceptions of what constitutes terrorism and who are terrorists. In 1972 the General Assembly formed an Ad Hoc Committee on Terrorism that met for seven years. There were prolonged debates on whether it is necessary or possible to reach a definition (Higgins). Moreover, it became clear that terrorism cannot be defined in terms of specified acts, targets, purposes, or actors. For instance, the shooting of a high official by an individual may be motivated by personal jealousy or envy; a plane may be destroyed in a plot to collect insurance; a diplomat may be kidnapped to force payment of a ransom.

Beyond the apparent technical impossibility of defining terrorism as a distinct criminal offense, international rivalries make it politically impossible.

Probably the most intractable political issues have been whether a legal definition should or can include (1) violent actions by a state, and (2) violent resistance to internal or foreign oppression. On the question of state terrorism, governments have adamantly rejected any legal definition that might apply to their own acts of violence against external or internal enemies. On the second issue, governments have sharply disagreed on whether the concept of terrorism might extend to violence on behalf of such causes as ‘‘national liberation’’ from colonial rule or imperial domination, ‘‘progressive’’ opposition to capitalism, resistance to ‘‘cultural genocide,’’ or impeding ‘‘assaults on the environment.’’ The outcome has been a consensus to abandon the quest for a legal definition of terrorism in favor of a piecemeal strategy: the ad hoc prohibition of carefully delimited acts against specified targets such as skyjacking commercial airliners.

Apart from the United Nations, there have been other multinational attempts to establish a legal basis for cooperation against oppositional (including state-sponsored) terrorism. Most such efforts involve operational agreements among states to help one another in such ways as sharing intelligence, apprehending and extraditing suspects, and joint training of special police and military units. The most ambitious such arrangement is the 1992 agreement (the Maastricht ‘‘third pillar’’) institutionalizing cooperation among the twelve members of the European Union in combating ‘‘terrorism, drug trafficking, and serious organized crime’’ (Chalk, p. 3). The treaty commits the members to eliminating internal border controls, while leaving the definition of terrorism to the discretion of the operational executive (the ‘‘K4 Committee’’). Given the greater freedom of movement and the lack of oversight by either national parliaments or elected EU institutions, there is some concern that Western Europe is becoming more vulnerable to terrorism while at the same time weakening democratic legal controls over antiterrorism policy decisions (Chalk).

Within the United States, the legal status of terrorism is similarly unsettled. Although it is the subject of a growing stream of congressional committee hearings, presidential statements, and reports from the cabinet level down through the complex of intelligence and investigative agencies, terrorism is as much a term of convenience in American legal discourse as it is in international law. A statutory definition is found in the United States Code, Section 2656f(d): ‘‘premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetuated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.’’ However, it is used by the State Department as a guideline for compiling incidence reports, but not by either the Defense Department or the F.B.I., which have their own definitions reflecting the differences in agency priorities and interests (Hoffman, pp. 37–38). Though crimes of violence believed to be politically motivated are given the highest investigative priority, the F.B.I. emphasizes specific criminal conduct in developing evidence on which charges are based. Accused persons are indicted not for terrorism but for ‘‘a plethora of traditional and, occasionally, exotic criminal offenses’’ (Smith, p. 7). Two sets of guidelines have been issued by the Attorney General: domestic terrorism investigations are conducted under explicit public guidelines, ‘‘foreign-based’’ terrorism investigations under classified guidelines allowing greater leeway. Increased federal powers (including controversial restrictions on habeas corpus) to deal with both domestic and foreign terrorism were provided in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (Kappler). It is increasingly clear that although political motivation is typically avoided as an element in the prosecution of terrorists, conviction does result in significantly longer sentences (averaging 167 months) than for comparable conventional offenders (averaging 46 months)—with identification as ‘‘terrorist’’ being the most powerful predictor of sentence severity (Smith and Damphousse).

Because of their openness and commitment to the rule of law, democracies are indeed more likely than dictatorships to suffer terrorist attacks, and tend under attack to increase police discretionary powers. (For the classic review of the issues, see Wilkinson.) It appears highly unlikely that democratic institutions can be protected from oppositional terrorism without sacrificing, at least temporarily, some freedoms. Whether and how far antiterrorism measures can proceed without themselves contributing to the permanent weakening of democracy is the subject of continuing debate.

Explaining Terrorism

Research aimed at explaining terrorism has focused on the psychological characteristics of individual terrorists, the nature of terrorist organizations, and the social or cultural environments in which terrorist organizations emerge.

The Psychology of Terrorists

In a useful summation of the literature, Ross has identified seven psychological approaches that have been used in efforts to understand terrorists: psychoanalytical, learning, frustration-aggression, narcissism-aggression, trait, developmental, and motivational/rational choice. Finding some merit in each, though none is satisfactory in itself, he proposes an integration of their key features in a model consisting of five ‘‘etiological features of terrorism listed in increasing order of importance’’ (p. 182). First: the development of facilitating traits, with the most often reported being fear, hostility, depression, guilt, antiauthoritarianism, perceived lack of manliness, selfcenteredness, extreme extroversion, need for high risks or stress, and alienation. Second: frustration or narcissistic rage resulting in aggressive behavior. Third: associational drives arising from social marginality and isolation. Fourth: learning opportunities to which members of terrorist organizations are exposed, through which orientations and behaviors are shaped. Fifth: cost-benefit calculations by which terrorist acts are justified as the only or most effective means to achieve political goals.

To his credit, Ross argues that these psychological factors constitute a process inclining, though not determining, an individual to become a terrorist. Further, he embeds the psychological model in a larger model of historical and structural factors that define the contexts, either facilitating or inhibiting, in which the processes operate. The full model incorporating both psychological and structural factors summarizes numerous hypotheses about causal paths. This is an ambitious and commendable effort to organize all that has been learned about terrorists and terrorism, as the basis for further research. However, the vast body of research on which it is based is extremely uneven in quality, in terms of both conceptual and methodological rigor. In particular, the psychological studies have generally ignored the political and ideological clashes in which terrorists and terrorism are defined. The assumption of psychopathology has dominated the field of terrorist research, and the measurement of psychological variables has been characterized by low reliability and dubious validity.

The potential value of psychological studies of individual terrorists appears to be quite limited at best. Perhaps the most promising line of inquiry is to follow Crenshaw’s lead in recognizing that terrorist behavior is a matter of strategic choice. In Hoffman’s words, the ‘‘terrorist is fundamentally a violent intellectual, prepared to use and indeed committed to using force in the attainment of his goals’’ (p. 43). Whatever one thinks of the content and implications of terrorist reasoning, it is clear that terrorists do base their decisions on what they know, or believe they know, about the realities of the political situations in which they operate. That their knowledge and the conclusions to which it leads may be mistaken or even bizarre in the eyes of outsiders is a function not of psychopathology but instead of the information and analyses to which they have access. Among the most important determinants of what terrorists can know and believe are the organizations to which they belong, or at least from which they receive inspiration and direction.

The Nature of Terrorist Organizations

Terrorist organizations vary from the classic secret ‘‘cell’’ structure to loosely defined networks of persons with essentially the same political ideology who have adopted terrorist tactics. Examples of tightly organized (and extensively researched) groups are the Irish Republican Army, the Italian Red Brigade, the German Baader-Meinhof Group (Red Army Fraction), and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). There are fewer examples of terrorist networks, and less has been written about them, partly because they have proven to be more difficult to locate and study and partly because the shift toward less tightly knit and identifiable organizations is a relatively recent development. (Debates in the 1960s–1980s era over the existence of a worldwide terrorist network dominated by the former USSR were driven by cold war politics rather than any real evidence.) Perhaps the prototypical network internationally is that associated with Osama bin Ladan, widely considered ultimately responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York, the 1996 destruction of an American military housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and the 2000 attack on the U. S. S. Cole while berthed for refueling at Aden, Yemen.

Within the United States, there is an emerging network of right-wing terrorists, many of whom are sometime members of an assortment of militias, secessionist communities, white supremacy organizations, and morality movements, most of them adherents to some variant of Christian Identity ideology. The main impetus for shifting to more loosely organized domestic terrorism is the success of the F.B.I. and other law enforcement agencies in obtaining criminal convictions of leaders and members of such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan and Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations, which have also been bankrupted by civil suits. To date, the most deadly incident linked to the rightist network is the 1995 bombing of the Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City (in which 168 people died) by Timothy McVeigh, with help from a few associates and at least tacit approval of many others.

Becoming a terrorist appears to be a ‘‘process of radicalization’’ (Turk) in which politically aware individuals move through blurred and overlapping stages of alienation, searching, recruitment, commitment, and action. Whether a particular individual will in fact become a terrorist cannot be predicted because of the myriad factors affecting the transitions at every point. One of the few safe generalizations is that the many who begin the process become a relative few by its end. And it should be kept in mind that what is known about the radicalization process is based almost entirely on studies of ‘‘cell’’ organizations. The trajectory begins with a vaguely disturbing sense that ‘‘our’’ kind of people and values are threatened, combined with the assumption that one can ‘‘do something about it.’’ This level of political consciousness tends to reflect the individual’s perceptions of social divisions and conflicts, with the most common being those associated with class, ethnic, racial, nationalist, and ideological distinctions. Accordingly, it is very likely that a particular group will be seen as the threat which needs to be countered. Conventional political activities such as helping in elections and signing petitions may result in perceived failures to improve the situation. Repeated experiences of political failure lead to frustration with conventional politics: the resentment of threatening others is now heightened by alienation from ‘‘the system.’’

Searching for alternatives may take the alienated individual through a range of ideological and organizational possibilities. Reading, listening to speeches and debates, going to meetings, arguing with others: the search may lead from one version of truth to another, from one group to another, in what some searchers find a confusing odyssey that they wish to end in a clear resolution. They feel the need to believe and do ‘‘something.’’ Some of the options will at least raise the issue of whether and when it is right to use violence to further political objectives. And some will offer convincing justifications for violence. Whatever the form of violence advocated or encouraged, eventually the killing of opponents will be the key issue in deciding how serious are one’s political concerns. Taking up the gun or bomb is at this point the test of commitment.

The searcher will by now probably have been noticed by those already committed to terrorism. Whether the individual will become a terrorist is problematic, as terrorist organizations screen out the great majority of potential recruits. Regardless of their fervor, individuals seen as lacking the potential for total commitment and disciplined action will not be recruited. Those who are selected will have to ‘‘cross the bridge’’ to be accepted as members of the terrorist organization, which usually means they will be given the assignment of murdering a police officer or committing some other deadly act. The test serves both to confirm the recruit’s willingness and ability to carry out an act of illegal violence and to give the organization the power to turn the offender over to the authorities if necessary—for example, in the event of a refusal to obey orders or a future change of heart.

Commitment is ensured by a strict regimen of internal discipline combining isolation, blackmail, coercion, and indoctrination. Physical and social isolation is accomplished by persuading or forcing the individual to cut off ties to family, friends, and anyone else outside the organization. In rare instances, a contact may be authorized, usually in order to obtain funds, supplies, information, target access, or something else of use to the organization. Movements from place to place are tightly controlled. Members are required to turn over all financial and other personal assets to the organization. Blackmail is a constant threat should the member become seriously troublesome. More often, members who are thought to be weakening in their commitment or to be insubordinate, careless about security, or losing their nerve are punished by beatings, confinement, deprivation of food or other amenities, torture, rape, or murder.

While the elements of isolation, blackmail, and coercion place the individual terrorist in a highly vulnerable controlled environment, real commitment is achieved by indoctrination. Access to unauthorized sources of information is prohibited, exposure to authorized sources is required. Increasingly, the terrorist develops a perspective shaped only by the organization’s ideology. Factual assertions cannot be checked, explanations cannot be tested, assumptions and implications cannot be debated. Dissensus becomes an impossibility as well as an offense within the organization. Not surprisingly, the world view promoted by indoctrination typically exaggerates the salience and resources of the organization and the effectiveness of its actions. The major themes are that the cause is just, the organization’s power is growing, the struggle is the foremost political reality for opponents as it is for the terrorists, the opposition is weakening, and victory is assured.

The end product of the radicalization process is a dedicated terrorist, whose convictions are nonetheless real even though based as much on isolation and lack of knowledge as much as on collegial support and knowledge of political realities. To the terrorist, responsibility for terrorism and its casualties lies with the opposition, whose threats and intransigence have forced adoption of the terrorist option. The struggle is not a ‘‘fantasy war’’ but a real one.

Environments of Terrorism

Excepting the most ruthless dictatorships, terrorist organizations have emerged in virtually every kind of society: democratic and authoritarian, developed and developing, ethnically or racially diverse and homogeneous societies. The diversity of social and cultural environments of terrorism has, so far anyway, defeated efforts to explain terrorism by pointing to class, racial, or other social inequalities; economic exploitation or decline; political oppression; demographic imbalances; or other social structural factors. (For exhaustive reviews of general theories of terrorism and other forms of political violence, see Schmid and Jongman, and Zimmermann.) If theories focused on political and economic factors have achieved little, their failure has at a minimum encouraged the questioning of the common assumption that violence is a political abnormality somehow caused by political and/or economic inequities. That violence may well be not just a potential aberration but an ever-present option in political conflicts is suggested by Laqueur’s observation that terrorist organizations usually arise from ‘‘a split between the moderate and the more extreme wings of an already-existing organization’’ (p. 104).

A far more promising path to explanation is suggested by the increasing significance of religious elements, and the declining importance of secular materialist notions of class and power struggles, in the ideologies of terrorism. Juergensmeyer has in a monumental study opened up the implications of this historic shift, demonstrating that the meaningfulness of their struggle for most contemporary terrorists derives from religious traditions and innovations (seldom acknowledged as such) that constitute, or are compatible with, ‘‘cultures of violence’’ (pp. 10–12). The thesis is developed through case studies of ‘‘social groupings’’ (encompassing huge and small networks as well as tight organizations) whose ideologies express themes found in five major religious traditions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and Buddhism.

In each case it is shown that the terrorist ideology cannot be cavalierly dismissed as simply a distortion or deviation. Christian antiabortionists such as Michael Bray justify the bombing of clinics and the murder of surgeons by complex theological arguments against killing the innocent and for establishing a new moral order. Yoel Lerner’s 1995 assassination of Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was justified by Rabbi Meir Kahane as a religious act to ensure the survival of the state of Israel, which is the essential forerunner of the biblical Israel to be fulfilled through divine redemption (the coming of the Messiah). The World Trade Center bombing and other violence against the United States and its allies is defended by invoking the Koran’s prescription of violence to defend the faith against its enemies, including whoever threatens the material and cultural survival of the faithful. Sikh terrorism in India and abroad is similarly justified by such leaders as Simranjit Singh Mann as protecting the faith from the corrosive effects of secularism and Hinduization. And despite Buddhism’s pacifist teachings, Shoko Asahara found justification for releasing sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in traditional Buddhist teachings that the rule of nonviolence can be broken when five conditions are satisfied: ‘‘something living must have been killed; the killer must have known that it was alive; the killer must have intended to kill it; an actual act of killing must have taken place; and the person or animal attacked must, in fact, have died’’ (Juergensmeyer, p. 113). Force may be used to defend the faith and to establish a peaceful moral order.

In each case, religious ideas provide an explanation of the believer’s sense of loss and threat in this world; define in cosmic terms the need to struggle against those responsible; and give the believer’s life a wonderful new significance as a holy warrior in a just cause. Doubt, confusion, and hopelessness are overcome by a transcendent truth that makes sense of what for many have been ‘‘real experiences of economic destitution, social oppression, political corruption, and a desperate need for the hope of rising above the limitations of modern life’’ (Juergensmeyer, p. 242). Increasingly, the religious ideologies driving terrorist movements resonate with widely held feelings that the secularism of the modern world order is threatening the nonmaterial values (family, morality, faith, caring, sharing) on which human societies depend for meaning and survival.

Three conclusions are drawn from reviewing efforts to explain terrorism. First, terrorists are not psychologically much different from the rest of us. Second, their organizations are shifting toward looser networks rather than the tight hierarchies of the past. Third, the environments inspiring terrorism are increasingly cultural, and specifically religious. The implications for the future appear to be grim.

The Future of Terrorism

Because individual terrorists and their organizations are becoming harder to keep track of, and given the difficulties of identifying terrorists and terrorism in the first place, the policy assumptions of the past are likely to be counterproductive in the future. Containment, in particular, does not seem to be a promising strategy when the ease of travel and communication are helping to make anachronisms of international borders. Similarly, efforts to control investments and limit technology transfers appear to be not only failing but also aggravating the fears of people around the globe who distrust the motives of multinational economic and political entities. The 2000 demonstrations in Seattle and elsewhere against the International Monetary Fund are harbingers of what we can expect as the development-investment programs of the Western power centers sharpen the great differences between those favored by the programs and those disadvantaged by them.

The ‘‘new terrorism’’ of religiously dedicated holy warriors is less vulnerable to being deterred by military and law enforcement threats. Indeed, the use of violence has not only failed to diminish international and domestic terrorism but also provided the ideologists of terrorism with useful ammunition. Rightist domestic terrorism in the United States has been strengthened by such incidents as the Waco assault, as has Islamic terrorism by the attempted assassinations of Osama bin Ladan and other leading figures. Though understandable and perhaps even appropriate in some instances, military tactical responses to terrorist threats and attacks have given credence in the eyes of believers to religious depictions of Western, particularly American, societies as satanic. The new terrorists are convinced of divine approval of their actions and of ultimate victory, even if it is to be a supernatural one. As Laqueur emphasizes, the new terrorists are so dangerous precisely because they ‘‘are not primarily interested in gain or glory, but instead want a state or a society in their own image, cleansed of their enemies’’ (p. 277).

Such warriors can be expected to show little reluctance to use weapons of mass destruction. Although governments have concentrated investigative resources on reducing the threat of major nuclear attacks, most analysts are more concerned with the growing possibility of smallscale yet spectacularly alarming weapons being used. Small nuclear devices are perhaps less likely to be used than chemical or biological weapons, but in any event the casualties of the future will probably be much greater on average than in the past. Meanwhile, conventional weapons continue to be readily available, along with instructions on how to make and use them. The portent is more incidents, more deaths and injuries, and more terrorist challenges to established social orders.


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