Fantasy and the Epistemological Crisis of Counter-terrorism

As we know,

There are known knowns.

There are things we know we know.

We also know

There are known unknowns.

That is to say

We know there are some things

We do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns,

The ones we don’t know

We don’t know.

(Donald Rumsfeld, 12 February 2002.)


In an earlier blog, I discussed a very weird experience a colleague of mine had in which airport security called the police after finding books on terrorism in his backpack and then decided to send the books back through the x-ray, presumably in case the words and paper were concealing some kind of threat that the first x-ray had failed to detect. I want to suggest that this experience is not an anomaly; it’s not merely an isolated case of some over-eager, ultra-cautious official. Rather, it is emblematic of the current paradigm of counter-terrorism thought and practice, and probably one of numerous similar examples of bizarre official behavior that occurs every day. Apart from searching old ladies and babies’ nappies at airports – practices I have personally observed – a few selected other examples of weirdness by counter-terrorist officials includes: worrying that terrorists could introduce biological weapons into the water supply through fire hydrants; worrying that terrorists might use hand-gliders to deliver suicide bombs; worrying about how candy machines might be vulnerable to terrorists; and worrying that America’s hundreds of amusement and water parks are all potential terrorist targets. What all these examples illustrate is the key role of fantasy in counter-terrorism; that is, officials imagining often unrealistic – or at least reality-enhanced or entertainment-based – possible terrorist scenarios and then treating them as real threats requiring a practical response.

How do we explain this tendency towards fantasy thinking in counter-terrorism? I believe the explanation lies in what we might call the epistemological crisis in terrorism knowledge today. This refers to the profound lack of knowledge about terrorism that officials and experts claim to have: ‘we just don’t know where, when or how terrorists might attack’, they maintain. Terrorism is, according to the experts and officials, fundamentally unknown, incalculable and unpredictable. It’s what Rumsfeld referred to as an ‘unknown unknown’: we don’t even know what it is we don’t know about terrorism. Once officials admit that they don’t know anything about terrorism, then the only way they can possibly detect them and deal with them is to try and imagine what they might do – and imagination inevitably leads to fantasy.

How did we get to this position where not knowing is the main thing we know about the terrorist threat? How did this epistemological crisis – this crisis of knowledge, of what we know or don’t know – first arise? I propose that it took five key steps. First, as sociologists like Ulrich Beck have explained, over the past few decades, traditional risk analysis has been replaced by precautionary thinking, and public officials have come to be preoccupied with the possible over the probable. That is, they’ve come to prioritize and worry about the terrible consequences of potential risks, rather than about the very low probability of those risks actually materialising. For public officials, what could happen in future acts of terrorism now assumes greater significance than what hashappened over the past centuries of terrorist violence or what might actually happen. At the same time, officials have come to believe that society expects them to adopt a zero-risk approach to public safety: no level of risk, even a one percent risk, can now be tolerated. Therefore, officials are bound to take every precaution to prevent public harm from materializing.

Second, terrorism, particuarly since 9/11, has been constructed by academics and the media as fundamentally ‘new’ (the so-called ‘new terrorism’) and catastrophic (‘catastrophic terrorism’ or ‘superterrorism’). Often, these assertions about the nature of terrorism have been accompanied by a series of collectively understood frames and metaphors, including the idea that terrorism can be understood as kind of infectious disease or poison, or a spectre or phantom. Unlike the so-called ‘old terrorism’ of political groups like the IRA or ETA, officials and many ‘terrorism experts’ now insist that today’s terrorism is unlike anything that has come before, and therefore all the evidence, data, and analysis of earlier terrorists is no longer relevant and cannot tell us anything about the current terrorist threat. In other words, it is official opinion that there is no previous knowledge on terrorism which is reliable for telling us about the current terrorist threat. Instead, we are starting from a position of zero knowledge about a threat which spreads like an unknown disease or phantom.

Third, as the famous quotation from Donald Rumsfeld suggests, counter-terrorism officials have come to focus on the ‘unknown’ element of terrorism, especially all the ‘unknown unknowns’ – all the things we don’t even know we don’t know about terrorism. As such, they have embraced ontological uncertainty as the fundamental condition of terrorism knowledge. In effect, they have severed all links to previous empirical evidence and knowledge: if terrorism is defined primarily by what is unknown, then there is no reliable empirical evidence or data which can help us ‘know’ terrorism. In effect, this means there is no reason for empirical evaluation or cost-benefit analysis of current counter-terrorism measures.

Fourth, as I have argued elsewhere, officials have also engaged in ‘knowledge subjugation’ – the process of maintaining a series of ‘known unknowns’, or things we ‘know’ but which we don’t want to ‘know’. This is achieved by suppressing evidence, knowledge and perspectives which challenges accepted ideas (or in this case, accepted ignorance) – such as the knowledge that anti-American terrorism is primarily caused by US military intervention overseas. Instead, officials, the media and many experts assert that we simply do not know why terrorists attack. We don’t know why they do it; it’s completely inexplicable that they would engage in such behavior against us. Unsurprisingly, the deliberate suppression of certain forms and types of knowledge further contributes to the epistemological crisis of counter-terrorism.

Finally, at the same time as terrorism has been constructed as unknowable and unpredictable, and officials have become preoccupied with the possible over the probable, they have also embraced the impossibility of ever completely securing the nation against terrorism. This is evident in the Prepare strand of the UK’s CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy: prepare, in this case, means prepare for catastrophe; prepare for the inevitable terrorist attack which will occur regardless of all the measures undertaken to prevent such an outcome. In other words, official policy is based on the assumption that no matter what they do, or what they know about terrorism, they will never be able to prevent future terrorist attacks.

It is easy to see that the combination of all these assumptions creates a profound crisis of knowledge about terrorism – an epistemological crisis. Faced with this profound lack of knowledge and seemingly permanent condition of uncertainty, counter-terrorism officials are thus forced to use their imaginations to try and detect, prevent and deter terrorist attacks before they occur. Forced to employ imagination rather than empirical evidence, data and scholarly analysis, it is inevitable that officials sometimes resort to fantasy thinking. In other words, in a field defined by a deep and profound epistemological crisis about the nature and threat of terrorism, bizarre counter-terrorism practices are not exceptions; they are the new normal; they are the inevitable response to the condition of unknowing. By my reckoning, you can expect to have your books x-rayed, and your baby’s nappies searched, and your duty free alcohol confiscated, for some time to come yet.

About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently Professor of Peace Studies and the Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of pacifism and nonviolence, terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: The Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies (Routledge, 2016); Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism. In 2014, I published a research-based novel entitled, Confessions of a Terrorist (Zed Books, 2014) which explores the mind and motivation of a terrorist.
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9 Responses to Fantasy and the Epistemological Crisis of Counter-terrorism

  1. KarlDeRouen says:

    thanks for the interesting posts Richard. I have a couple of points to make. Here you state its ‘official position’ that experts cannot learn from the past. I disagree with this and would love to see your evidence on this point. The US govt funds START and funds many Rand projects that do look at and asess old evidence and policies. Also you wrote a couple of days ago that there has been no acountability on the 3.3 trillion spent to date. You might have a look at a report by the General Accountability Office on this very topic.

    • Thanks for your comments, Karl. I would love to know which GAO report it is you are referring to. I had a look and couldn’t really find anything that comes close to what John Mueller and his colleagues have done in recent years in terms of assessing how much security we get for our buck. They’ve actually worked out the cost-benefit of counter-terrorism spending, and found it to be a major waste of money. I would imagine that if some official body had done a similar cost-benefit evaluation of specific measures or of the total costs of the war on terror versus the resulting security benefits, its results would be all over the media. Does the GAO say how many plots exactly airport security measures have prevented, or how does the security achieved compare to the economic losses to the economy of delays for businessmen, or whether airport security deflects terrorists onto other targets? The GAO reports I could see (admittedly I didn’t look that hard) seemed to be about government reporting procedures and the costs of foreign programmes. Several of them seemed to suggest that more financing of counter-terrorism measures was required! In any case, no such evaluation has been done in the UK, Australia or New Zealand that I am aware of. The money just keeps pouring into counter-terrorism and we’re never told whether it actually works or is worth the money. For that amount of money, I want a major public inquiry and proof of its effectiveness!

      On the issue of not learning from the past, I am mainly going from all the academic work which basically says 9/11 rendered all existing terrorism knowledge obsolete (there’s a quote to that effect in Hoffman’s book), and from all the political speeches I analysed for my books and articles. Other studies like Lisa Stampnitzky’s forthcoming ‘Discipling Terror’ show the same thing, only she calls it the politics of anti-knowledge. I call it the rise of the ‘new terrorism’ discourse – the belief that terrorism since 9/11 is unlike what came before. In the UK, I heard government ministers publicly say that there was nothing we could learn from Northern Ireland that would be helpful for the current terrorist threat, because the new Islamic terrorists had nothing in common with the ‘political’ groups like the IRA. I would be surprised if you ever got an official to admit that we could learn a lot about terrorism today from the IRA. On the other hand, maybe things are changing and the US government is today more open to learning from the past. Maybe it no longer believes that we are facing a new and unprecedented threat, but the same politically-motivated terrorism as has always existed.

      In either case, the combination of precautionary thinking, zero tolerance approaches to risk, and a focus on the ‘unknown’ aspects of terrorism still creates an epistemological crisis and is the primary characteristic of counter-terrorism today. It’s also why no amount of empirical evidence showing the low threat of terrorism and small number of incompetant terrorists (as Mueller keeps showing) will ever be enough evidence to allow policy-makers to drastically reduce spending on counter-terrorism.

  2. Gareth says:

    good post – what is Hoffman’s book where I can get the qoute from? This will be helpful for a paper on the psychology of ‘what if’ ….

  3. Gareth, it’s from Inside Terrorism by Bruce Hoffman. I think I quoted it in my article with Jeroen on religious terrorism – which you can link directly to on the CST journal website.

  4. D says:

    It seems to me that the epistemological crisis of counter-terrorism is entirely intentional. Witness the careful situating of “terrorism law” in the no-mans-land between criminal law and the laws of war. Exaggerating the lack of knowledge relating to terrorism leads to three important policy outcomes: 1) it allows officials to excuse themselves from any responsibility should a terrorist attack occur; 2) it provides the rationale for a security apparatus that is intent on actually finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, that is, they will create a surveillance system that monitors everything and views everyone as a potential terrorist; 3) putting “terrorism law” in an ill-defined category between criminal law and the law of war allows government agencies total discretion regarding who to investigate, prosecute, execute. It appears that “terrorism” is both the raison d’être for and a diversion from the organization of a coercive apparatus to hold together the social relations of late-capitalism through the use of naked force and intimidation. The discourse of “terrorism” seems tailor-made to secure the social interests of an unaccountable elite.

  5. John Paul CSTPV says:

    Richard, thank you very much for a really interesting piece and a lucid argument. I agree with a large part of what you say here. However, I think you exaggerate when you state: “official policy is based on the assumption that no matter what they do, or what they know about terrorism, they will never be able to prevent future terrorist attacks.”

    Prepare is not a surrendering to the inevitable, but an acceptance of the risk that – despite all efforts – a terrorist plot may succeed. It is not defeatist, but rather an acknowledgment of the realities of a confrontation with a resourceful opponent (recall Clausewitz, conflict is not an action against an inanimate body but a clash of two dynamic forces). It is also a matter of common sense, because the only thing more damaging than a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 or 7/7 would be one in which the government’s management of the aftermath is seen as inadequate.

    Although I have seen the heads of MI5, MI6 and the police all state publicly that they can’t guarantee the safety of the public, I disagree with your interpretation of what this means. This is not a disclaimer from the responsibility to protect the public, but rather a necessary message that we and our politicians must understand.Picking up on Clausewitz, with a shrewd enemy who is eager, creative and resourceful, our security is simply not a zero sum enterprise. And with something in excess of 12 major plots foiled by MI5 over the last decade (according to its former chief) the odds are building up against us. Even the luckiest of gamblers has a game plan for failure. Prepare is that plan.

    (posted in error on your last entry -pls delete that copy)

    • Thanks for your comment. In isolation, you might be right in your generous interpretation. But I can’t help but think that in conjunction with the ‘new terrorism’ narrative, the embrace of zero risk and precautionary risk assumptions, and processes of knowledge subjugation, the acceptance of the inevitability of counter-terrorism failure becomes another supportive plank in the construction and maintenance of an epistemological crisis.

  6. mjrinski says:

    Fascinating post!

    I absolutely agree with D’s points. If some of the evidence were acknowledged – like the doubtful efficiency of counter-terrorism spending or true causes of ‘terrorism’ – it would come as a great loss to governments. If the ‘terrorist threat’ is not as great and the ‘terrorist’ motives (to some extent) understandable then how does affect the political landscape? A powerful political card would eventually be lost, one that allows for legally dubious interventions, military campaigns and extra-judicial assassinations. Governments (I mainly have the US in mind) have direct interest in subjugating ‘terrorism’ knowledge.

    This political game reminds me of Israel’s threats towards Iran – thanks to keeping the “grave Iranian threat” (which validity is questionable at the very least) as a main issue on the agenda they’ve managed to avoid any serious discussion on the Palestinian issue. Had they attacked Iran, they would’ve lost that valuable card.


  7. mjrinski says:

    Not to mention what would happen to the revolving door between the defence ministry and the arms industry; Had counter-terrorism spending been cut (as is the rational choice when the evidence is acknowledged), there’d be a significant shortage of jobs for former defence and army officials!

    Guardian: “MoD staff and thousands of military officers join arms firms”:

    A fantastical threat from super-terrorists is systematically and knowingly exaggerated so that our ruling elites can earn more money… What a farce!!!

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