Is foreign terrorism a constructed threat?

As pointed in our first chapter, the Copenhagen’s School adopted a constructivist approach toward security. Our research led us to question the empirical nature of the foreign terrorist threat in Britain and to question if its perception was rational. Pointing out the lack of empirical evidence on the seriousness of the foreign terrorist threat, we also argue that a security-research apparatus has been built on the fear of terrorism. Therefore, multiple actors have incentives; economic and personal to maintain the constructed fear.

Is foreign terrorism a serious threat for Britain?

Terrorism is empirically not an existential threat. Oxfam (2013) used in its report “What if we allocated aid $ based on how much damage something does, and whether we know how to fix it?”.

Aiming to demonstrate how specific threats have been over-securitized and received less political, media and financial support, it proves how terrorism is empirically a low range threat. Armed conflicts, malaria, road traffic accidents, air pollution, overweight and obesity, all these issues which are concern a higher number of civilians worldwide do not benefit from the same media coverage.

Europol started publishing its yearly reports on terrorism in Europe in 2008. Europol defines four main types of terrorism: The Islamist, right-wing, leftist and separatists. Terrorist attacks occurring in Europe mainly come from separatists and extreme leftists’ groups.


Most of the terrorist attacks do not occur in the UK and most of their motivations are separatists. In this regard, it seems that the UK faces empirically, and comparatively to other EU countries, a relatively lowforeign terrorist threat. However, the observed over-securitization of this low intensity threat poses serious issues. Firstly, it completely shifts public attention from essential time ticking-bomb issues such as climate change, for example, which will result in a lot more casualties than terrorism. Secondly, it has been argued by John Mueller (2005) that the greatest cost of terrorism is not necessarily the direct victims of attacks. On the contrary, these issues come from the embedded fear, panic and over-reaction catalyzed by the media which strengthens terrorist groups to a great extent. The academic proposes that, “policies designed to deal with terrorism should focus more on reducing fear and anxiety as inexpensively as possible than on objectively reducing the rather limited dangers terrorism is likely actually to pose. Doing nothing (or at least refraining from overreacting) after a terrorist attack is not necessarily unacceptable”. (2005: 487)

The research and security industry: threat creation

Why is terrorist threat portrayed as a serious issue? Transnational non-state actors and home-grown terrorists are small groups with relatively weak conventional weapons. However, due to over-securitization and intense media coverage terrorists receive enough recognition to reshape domestic agenda even if they utilize minimum resources.Douglas and Zulaika (1996) points out how terrorist structures largely benefit from being portrayed as an existential threat:

There is one crucial element required for the “terrorism” of small militant groups to make miracles, an element that is entirely beyond their very limited strength – namely, that the collective imagination of whole countries empowers them beyond their wildest dreams into a finely honed international network capable of engaging the entire spectrum of world governments in instrumental combat. For this, ironically, the terrorists count on an army of experts, academics, and journalists, whose role it is to convince the general public that, indeed, terrorism as a world threatening force. Thus, terrorists have a common bond, i.e., share a common interest, with counter terrorists. (1996: 24)

Furthermore, for David Miller & Tom Mills (2009), knowledge on terrorism also “reflects priorities and interests” of states and academia itself (2009: 415). The increasing academic writing on this subject, as demonstrated in the graph below, reflects how security-intelligence apparatus has been significantly strengthened and developed due to terrorism issue.

Gearty (1991) expresses the way terrorism covering is being conducted like a soap opera:

“The publicity achieved by terror is fleeting however, and the attention focused on its perpetrators soon wanders. A whole campaign of terror therefore, is required to reduce the risk of media neglect. But systematic violence in itself is not enough. Terror cannot afford to be repetitive, for the Western public is not much moved by an atrocity which has already distressed them in some earlier incarnation. (…) Thus, as with an old TV soap desperate to keep its ratings, the producers of terror dramas are forced to escalate their actions with each episode.” (1991: 10)

Chomsky (1998) demonstrates the way mass media manufacturers its content and consequently plays an essential part in the social construction of reality. In his propaganda model it is demonstrated, the way political elite utilizes “the power of the government to fix frames of references and agendas, and to exclude inconvenient facts from public inspections “(Chomsky,1988, xii). The scholar also points out the way mass media is manipulated to convey “messages and symbols to the general populace (…) to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society” (Chomsky,1988, p.1). However, their focus on “sensationalism” (Chomsky,1988, xiv) nourished, what Downs (1984) theorized, as the issue-attention cycle. It is explained by the fact that public attention rarely remains sharply fixed upon any one issue. Instead, a systematic

“issue-attention cycle” influences public attitudes and behavior concerning most key domestic problems. (Downs 1984: 38)

Douglas Kellner (2002) tackles the issue of media spectacle. He utilizes the term “society of the spectacle” developed by situationist Guy Debord who argues that its’ function is to “serve to enculturate individuals into its way of life, and dramatize its conflicts and modes of conflict resolution “(2002: 5). The scholar argues that it is “a tool of pacification and de-politicization (…) which stupefies social subjects and distracts the most urgent task of real life” (2002: 6). Bin Laden has been presented as a “megaspectacle” (2002: 21). This confirms Jean Braudrillard’s position that “that we are currently living in an era of simulation in which it is impossible to tell the difference between the real and fake, reality and or constructed prism” (2002: 22).

Hickman, Thomas and Silvestri (2011) also address the effect of strong language in mass media in relation to terrorism. Influential utterances in press and political debates are often accompanied by a certain portrayal of nations which at that point undergo terrorist attacks. People of these states are often described as “consisting of decent, civilized, law-abiding, moderate and secular citizens and values” (2011:3) which simultaneously creates an, often unspoken, juxtaposition to those who attempt to threaten this utopian image of democracy.



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