Publication Details

Martin, B. "Terrorism as a backfire process." Nonviolence: An Alternative for Defeating Global Terror(ism). Ed.S. Ram and R. Summy. United States: Nova Science Publishers, 2008, 57-69.

Additional Publication Information

ISBN: 9781600218125


Terrorism is widely seen as an injustice, naturally enough because it is a blatant violation of human rights. The reaction against actions that are perceived as unjust can be called 'backfire'. The concept of backfire is an extension of Gene Sharp's political jiujitsu concept. The strange thing about terrorism is that it seems designed to backfire. Look in turn at each of the five methods of inhibiting backfire. First is cover-up. Terrorists commonly carry out their actions publicly and announce responsibility for them. They expose their actions rather than covering them up. Second is devaluing the target. Usually terrorists have lower status than their targets, especially when prominent citizens are targeted. The potential for devaluing the targets of terrorism is not great. Third is reinterpreting the action. Terrorists seldom say that there was not really a bombing or that the number of dead is exaggerated or that the attack was a mistake. Fourth is using official processes to give the appearance of justice. Terrorists usually have no access to courts, commissions of inquiry or other official processes for justifying their actions. Fifth is intimidation and bribery. Terrorists can threaten those who criticize them, especially those in their own milieu. But their ability to bribe targets and witnesses is limited. In summary, terrorists have limited capacity to inhibit outrage about their actions. Indeed, they often go out of their way to magnify the sense of outrage, for example by seeking media coverage. Therefore it is predictable that most terrorist actions backfire against the terrorists. This analysis applies only to non-state terrorists, the ones that receive the bulk of attention by governments and the media. The question remains why non-state terrorists often behave in a way that is almost guaranteed to backfire. This chapter will analyze both state and non-state terrorism using backfire analysis and spelling out implications for nonviolent resistance to and prevention of terrorism.