Terrorism in Asymmetric Conflict

As someone who served many years in prison for being a “terrorist,” I incline to bristle when meeting the term in the work of academics. The intense and prolonged Irish prison protests of three decades ago, in which I took part, were as much a rejection of the terrorist label as they were a refusal to accept the status of criminal. The need to attach the label “terrorist” onto an opponent, so that it is displayed everywhere like a car number plate, is a crucial weapon employed by ensembles including states who use the same violent methods for which they have dismissed their enemies as terrorists.

In this most probing of examinations, Ekaterina Stepanova approaches the vexing issue of terrorism with subtlety of mind and a penetrating intellect. She employs the term “terrorist” only after much thought and then avoids the moral haughtiness so often adopted by those most persistent in its usage. She is not blind to the widespread existence of state violence against civilian populations nor does she seek to excuse states when they engage in it. She finds an academic utility value in her management of the term and it is through that prism that her work should be read.

Her definition of terrorism is “the form of violence that most closely integrates one-sided violence against civilians with asymmetrical violent confrontation against a stronger opponent, be it a state or a group of states.”1 This locates terrorism exclusively within the armoury of the weak as a weapon against the strong. Terrorism is strategically directed violence against civilians as a means of redressing a power disparity. By way of example, she illustrates Palestine, where she argues that an asymmetry between high nationalist mobilisation and a low possibility of that nationalism achieving its goals increases the likelihood of terrorism being deployed.

In the post-9/11 world, Stepanova, without losing sight of the fact that local acts of terrorism produce more fatalities, posits a quasi-religious armed force as the major form of terrorism and her focus is on the brand that gives the greatest “bang for the buck”— superterrorism. Stepanova with considerable persuasiveness explains how global Islamic terrorism has evolved using a combination of the vanguardist ideas recommended by the martyred thinker generally identified as having spawned Islamic terror, Sayid Qutb, and the Brazilian communist Carlos Marighela’s prescripts for networking terrorism. These new networks of terrorists are more difficult to contain than the old localized hierarchical structures.

For Stepanova, this highly toxic blend in the hands of bellicose Islamic global terrorism poses a major threat to civilian populations. But rather than argue that the objective of those trying to eradicate the phenomenon should be utter obliteration, she calls for a radical reorientation toward inserting a strategic wedge between the nationalistic and the religious components that constitute the overall terrorist grid.

Her logic is stunningly simple: the international system of modern states is in no position to compete with the extremists in terms of ideological mobilzation. Since the collapse of Marxism, Islamicism offers an alternative global ideological vision. Against it the Western state system stands little chance of providing an alternative ideological centre of gravity that can draw masses away from violent Islam. “It is self-delusional to think that quasireligious extremism can be neutralized by using modern western style democratic secularism.”2 For Stepanova the only alternative is to encourage the nationalisms and the combination of forces in their orbits that the West once sought to suppress.

Underpinning this radical assertion is a contention that the state has “something in common with even the most violent and radical ethnoseparatists, including those that employ terrorist means, the central focus on the state itself as the main point of reference.”3 If those fighting the state merely seek to achieve an improved upon copy of what they are battling the opportunity opens up for the in situ state to “identify, deal with, and transform” the insurgents.4 In a recent work by the Liverpool academic Kevin Bean this was made demonstrably obvious in the case of the defeat of the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland. There that defeat was secured by the British state manoeuvring, cajoling, flattering, and squeezing the IRA leadership into a position where it too could poke its snout into the state gravy train. By contrast, religious terrorism operating outside the state framework shares no common ground which the state could fertilize, and out of which could sprout an accommodation with its violent adversary.

Stepanova believes that because scholars and academics do not come up with a thorough understanding of Islamic terrorism then public comprehension of the matter is shaped in the main through the much distorted filters of the security experts. Just how damaging, not to mention useless, this corpus has been in helping society better understand Northern Ireland is not for discussion here. It is enough to say that were its perspectives to have held sway over the past two decades Northern Ireland would still be in the grip of armed conflict. Scholars and academics need to be reinforced by a wider perspective which looks at the quasi religious phenomenon which Stepanova so firmly believes Islamism is.

The broader religious terrorist phenomenon is not rooted solely in matters of “pure” theology. It is constitutive of wider ranging societal concerns such as politics, economics, culture, and identity. Most groups that operate locally and are Islamist based are also subject to strong nationalist influences. Examples illustrated are Chechnya, Kashmir, and Iraq.

In particular Stepanova seems to develop her perspective from her observations of the Hamas experience. In it she sees a group that, whatever the theological leanings of its key figures, is very much tempered and constrained by its need to keep public support in the areas where it is most representative. This “resort to nationalism” has a moderating affect on their violence.5 In the application of this to Iraq Stepanova argues for a move away from a security based policy of suppressing nationalist elements towards one which is more supportive of such elements. It has the ring of rather than unite and conquer the US forces should divide and conquer. But there is nothing new under the sun here. The decision is as always who to side with. Then when the excesses of the supported side can no longer be hidden from public view, as it occurred in Argentina, the US ends up in the dock of world opinion and its reputation excoriated.

One anomaly in Stepanova’s perspective is where she labours somewhat to argue that the end goal of Islamic terrorism, the establishment of the Caliphate, is “by no means an analogue of the theocratic state in its Western interpretation.”6 She claims that rather than have a ruling clergy the Caliphate is ruled directly by god. How useful a distinction this is remains dubious. What makes clerics of all varieties powerful and influential is their ability to sell themselves as specialized or privileged interpreters of the thought of God.

Nevertheless, this is a refreshing work. Rarely are so few pages as tightly packed with ideas, reasoned argument, and skilful presentation as Ekaterina Stepanova has managed here.

1. E. A. Stepanova, Terrorism in Asymmetric Conflict: Ideological and Structural
Aspects (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
2. Ibid., 153.
3. Ibid., 53.
4. Ibid., 125.
5. Ibid., 115.
6. Ibid., 73.

Ekaterina A. Stepanova: Terrorism in Asymmetric Conflict: Ideological and Structural Aspects (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Review first published in Democracy and Security, 5:100–102, 2009.


  1. Would love to leave a constructive comment but it would not fit in with this womans way of life, thank Budda for the english language or is it

  2. is keiarn nugent a criminal for pulling a member of his community from his car saying its for the cause or can the northeren bank robbers say its for the cause cause were skint

  3. This is why I'm not an academic. My rule of thumb is simple enough: when, as part of an armed campaign, you are purposely targeting pizza delivery men for delivering pizza, it is a good bet that the armed campaign can fairly be called a "terrorist" campaign.

  4. Sorry , but I could not follow the language you used here. Any chance of simplifying it.

  5. Anonymous at 10am:

    It is an exact copy of a review written for an academic journal. It is what it is and has been carried on the blog like other things I write for publications other than the blog. You will most likely not miss much by it not being 'easy' to follow.


  6. It would be interesting to learn more about what strategies the author proposes for separating the theologically-inspired 'terrorists' from the nationalistic ones. The interweaving networks and motivations - even within individuals - suggest this would be difficult. In addition, there might not be much guarantee that just because nationalism is something a western state can 'deal' with, that a deal can be struck.

    You mention Chechnya. It will be interesting to see how things pan out there. It may now be led by a puppet of Moscow, but such is the extent of his power that it may not be easily controlled.

    Then what?

    Stepanova sounds like a worthwhile read. You might like to have a gander at Terror and Consent if you get a chance. Would be good to hear your views on that.

  7. NCM

    Mmmmm, my rule of thumb for terror is when a ship bobbing up and down in the gulf, fires of a salvo of missiles onto a sleeping city, killing men women and children, including the odd Pizza delivery man.


    As a young man, I once asked a 'Marxist' at a conference why he kept using language that I and others in the hall could not understand. He replied because it is the language used in academia when discussing complex subject.

    Bollocks I said, if you cannot speak and write in layman's language what is the point, beyond creating an elite group that feeds off one and another and shuts the working class out.

    No offense but I still think I was right back then, although today I might use more diplomatic language.

    Have a heart, I still have a problem spelling bourgeois, I will never master asymmetric.

  8. Belfast Gonzo,
    Stepanova is an interesting read, much better than the second one on the topic I was asked to review and which should appear soon
    Terror and Consent sounds a good read. I would like to have a go at it some time given the commentary on it but I never have time to get through what is in front of me. I end up buying the same book twice at times, thinking it is a must read! Then it goes to the back of the ever growing queue.

  9. Mick, I have mixed views about academic language. There are degrees of it. Because it deals so much in concepts there is a conceptual language that becomes shorthand for academics. Sometimes once grasped it clarifies and at other times it so obfuscates that nothing can be grasped. Of those I have read in recent years Fredric Jameson was probably the most difficult as was Derrida. Danny Morrison once termed some jail writing Marxist Esperanto. I thought it an apt phrase.

  10. Mick Hall: "Mmmmm, my rule of thumb for terror is when a ship bobbing up and down in the gulf, fires of a salvo of missiles onto a sleeping city, killing men women and children, including the odd Pizza delivery man."


    Mick, next you'll say that it is torture to waterboard someone 183 times in a month.

  11. Still trying to work out exactly what her definition of terrorism means... sometimes education is merely the attainmnent of a higher level of confusion, if you ask me.

    I remember a Palestinian suicide bomber once being interviewed as to why he intended to take his own life as well as others. He explained that he no more wanted to leave his family than anyone else... 'this is about creating an equality of fear' he said. It was probably as close as I have come to understanding the mindset...