War of the Words: Reconsidering ‘Terror’ in 2015

Terrorism succeeds by instilling fear and mass hysteria within targeted populations. In the contemporary world, ‘terror’ is ubiquitous. Daily headlines and news feeds are dominated by fears of outsiders and terrorists seeking to disrupt normal life. Rather than tangible threats, however, it is largely the perception of terror that consumes global audiences. The first decades of the twenty-first century have witnessed mounting fears of ‘global jihad’, ‘global terror networks’, and militant organisations such as al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, or most recently, the Islamic State (IS). The twenty-first century reign of terror rages on.

As the threat of terrorism becomes more deeply entrenched in everyday life, so too has the language used to describe terror. The ‘politics of fear’ have become a governing principal in the United States and many parts of Europe over the course of the twenty-first century—largely triggered by the terrorist attacks that took place on 11 September 2001. In the aftermath of these attacks, US President George W. Bush notoriously declared a ‘war on terror’. By playing into discourses of war and the exceptional nature of threats posed by terrorism, the Bush administration sought to justify military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as substantial domestic reforms in the name of ‘terror’. The militarised language games employed in the ‘fight against terrorism’ were, in part, successful on the basis of ambiguity— fallaciously associating terrorism with the religion of Islam and blanketing many parts of the Middle East as being constitutive of an ‘axis of evil’ [1]. Politicians and media outlets around the world accordingly mobilised this disruptive and obsessive fear of ‘terror’.

Discourses about terrorism—both past and present— help to construct perceptions about the world we live in. Our words are never neutral. Could the ways that we speak about terrorism in the contemporary world be motivating fear and violence? How was ‘terror’ spoken about in 2015?

Image courtesy of Kwikwaju, © 2015, some rights reserved.


War on Terror 2.0

The nature of terrorism is constantly transforming. Contemporary references to ‘terror’ are not merely a continuation of the US war on terror but rather encompass a much broader series of developments. Indeed, the context of terror has changed in several meaningful ways since the beginning of the millennium. Most strikingly, terrorism has embraced the power and depth of the digital age. Social media platforms, mobile devices, and nonstop news media coverage are collectively broadening the potential scope of terrorism, presenting threats that are increasingly global and ubiquitous. Acts of violence or intimidation occurring all over the world are directly broadcasted to viewers on multiple platforms. Information technologies and the Internet equally facilitate the global coordination of terror networks as well as the recruitment of international supporters and followers. Many militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have maximised the power of the Internet in both circulating their propagandised acts of brutality and navigating the dark web to coordinate underground activities. With these developments in mind, it is possible to envision how notions of ‘global’ terrorism are becoming increasingly tangible and powerful.

Information technologies and media are influencing not only how we think about terror but also the manner in which we speak about terror. The language of terror—the way in which terrorism is operated as a strategic rhetorical tool—has been increasingly invoked across the world, in an attempt to portray a globalising narrative of terror. Building on the legacy of the US war on terror, political and media discourses are well aware that references to ‘terror’ trigger powerful emotional and social cues rooted in fear. By depicting terrorism as a global phenomenon with interlinking events and threats, it becomes possible to exploit the shock value of terrorism. Indeed, the ‘global war on terror’ has become a multifaceted and masterfully constructed language game, tactfully employed by many politicians and media outlets to invoke fear and justify otherwise unjustifiable actions. Declaring an all-encompassing ‘global war against terrorism’ is not, by any means, a subtle gesture. Global audiences equally contribute to this language of terror, reacting to existing discourses as well as distributing new information through social media and mobile technologies. The media frenzy surrounding terrorism directly serves the objectives of terrorists by isolating individuals and groups around the world and promoting misinformed narratives of ‘terror’. Paradoxically, this clouded ‘globalisation of terror’ becomes one of the most powerful weapons available to those seeking to target the ‘Western world’, reinforcing dangerous generalisations and validating ideological goals.

The question remains: How could the ways we speak about ‘terror’ be motivating violence? Through an examination of political and media discourses— largely focused on events occurring in the United States and parts of Europe— it becomes possible to critically re-engage with ‘terror’ in 2015.

The Pen and the Sword

The first week of 2015 witnessed events that would be referred to as the ‘French September 11’ [2]. On 7 January 2015, two gunmen attacked the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo—initiating violence that would leave 12 dead across Paris. Almost immediately, global media outlets and political figures began framing the developments as having links to terrorism. French President Francois Hollande was among the first to set the tone, declaring that the events constituted a ‘terrorist attack’ and calling for unity after ‘an exceptional act of barbarism’ [3]. International news outlets depicted a scene of ‘terror in Paris’ [4]. While political and media discourses were quick to label the events as terrorism, none could provide conclusive evidence linking the gunmen to existing terror organisations. The attackers—the Kouachi brothers—were depicted as Algerian jihadists orphaned and radicalised at a young age ‘in the name of Islam’ [5]. Almost a week after the attacks, an al-Qaeda offshoot in Yemen stepped forward to confirm their involvement but these details remain underdeveloped [6]. Indeed, many of the initial narratives characterising the Kouachi brothers as known terrorists were forced to back-pedal on original statements, scrambling to retrospectively develop their trajectory from ‘amateur to ruthless jihadist’ [5]. What becomes clear is that the language of terror was invoked well before a timeline of the events had been established and investigations had begun. Al-Qaeda consequently seized the opportunity to be associated with the tragic events in Paris as well as heightening fears of terrorism across Europe, irrespective of their direct affiliations with the gunmen.

The attacks on the Charlie Hedbo publication—renowned for its controversial political cartoons and caricatures—were framed not only as terror attacks on France but as attacks on the values of the ‘Western world’, becoming embroiled in a simultaneous debate concerning the freedom of speech. In the aftermath of the violence, the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ solidarity movement spread across Paris, quickly permeating social media around the world. Supporters and demonstrators held signs reading: ‘We are all Charlie’. Others drew upon the metonymic adage: ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’. The tragic attacks on Charlie Hebdo would become an iconic albeit ironic example of the power of words in a world gripped by ‘terror’.

From Paris to Beirut

In November 2015, a series of tragic events in Paris were once again leading global headlines. On 13 November, several coordinated attacks left 128 people dead across the French capital [7]. Headlines detailing the violence in Paris expressed resounding grief and fear. Similar to the development of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, media coverage and political responses were quick to brand the violence as part of a continued sequence of terror in France, suggesting the country had become a principal ‘target for jihad’ [8].

The Islamic State stepped forward to claim responsibility for the attacks in Paris, calling them ‘the first of the storm’ [9]. President François Hollande immediately addressed the nation, describing the events as ‘an act of war, committed by a terrorist army, ISIS, an army of jihadists, against France’ [10]. Hollande went on to declare that the French response would be ‘ruthless’ [10]. In the aftermath of the attacks, several media outlets began drawing comparisons between the discourse of President Francois Hollande and that of former US President George W. Bush, following the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, the French president readily embraced the rhetoric of a war against terror à l’américaine [11]. Hollande, like Bush, spoke with tremendous conviction, describing a situation of ‘war’ while also appealing to a larger, global risk and the need for an equally global response. Akin to actions pursued by the Bush administration, the French president also outlined justifications for domestic reforms to strengthen government power in the ‘fight’ against terrorism [12]. Hollande reaffirmed that domestic and international efforts to ‘eradicate’ terrorism would require cooperation and solidarity in respect of ‘our’ values [12]. In the face of national tragedy and threat, the respective discourses of Bush and Hollande reveal how words become weapons, shaping aggressive perceptions of the world and making dangerous distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

On 12 November— one day prior to the attacks in Paris— the city of Beirut was also attacked, leaving 43 people dead and nearly 200 wounded [13]. Headlines framed the violence as a ‘suicide bombing’ in a ‘stronghold of a Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement’ within Beirut [14]. Unlike the Paris attacks, which were advertently described with the language of terror, the events in Beirut were largely ‘reduced to geopolitics’, according to Aryn Baker of Time magazine [13]. Many viewers around the world were quick to recognise disparities between the respective news media and social media exposure in both cities. The Paris and Beirut attacks were consequently pinned against each other, in a competition for international empathy and attention. While global spectators were justified in their acknowledgment of inequalities between media coverage and responses to events in Paris and Beirut, their criticisms illuminated a much broader issue, where some instances of ‘terror’ seem to mean more than others [15].

 Jihadis Next Door?

In the wake of violence in Paris and Beirut, international media coverage quickly shifted towards another act of ‘terror’ in the United States. On 2 December 2015, 14 people were killed during a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Tafsheen Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, carried out the attack, which was referred to as the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 [16]. Yet it seems necessary to ask— when does a mass shooting become an act of terror? The violence in San Bernardino was framed using the language of terror from the outset of the investigations. On 4 December, FBI Director James B. Comey declared that the attacks would be treated as terrorism, citing ‘indications of radicalisation by the killers, and of potential inspiration by foreign terrorist organisations’ [17]. Although media outlets worked to uncover a trail of suspected connections to terror organisations, direct links to the Islamic State or other militant groups remained largely speculative [17]. According to Reuters, the Islamic State stepped forward to praise the actions of their ‘followers’ in the United States but these details have yet to be verified [18]. In the absence of conclusive links to an established terror network, the San Bernardino attacks focused new attention towards lone wolf terrorism and ‘the search for the terrorist next door’ [19]. Playing into existing discourses of a pervasive ‘global war on terror’, the notion of the ‘jihadist next door’ suggests that everyone may be a suspect while equally promoting discriminatory racial and religious targeting of individuals who fit the socially constructed ‘image’ of a terrorist or jihadist. Most often, Muslim populations are beleaguered by law enforcement in Europe and the United States in an attempt to root out radicalised factions and ‘Main Street solo holy warriors’ like Malik and Farook [19]. These efforts, however, are both futile and misinformed, further isolating communities and creating dangerous divisions within society on the prospective basis of ‘terror’.

In response to the allegations of terrorism in San Bernardino, US President Barack Obama was more cautious than his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, treading the lines of ‘terror’ cautiously. The Obama administration has been very conscientious of the powerful relationship between language and terrorism, suppressing references to an ambiguous global war against terrorism and propagandised links to Islam. In his address to the nation following the San Bernardino shooting, President Obama also urged the American people to ‘enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate’ [20]. In spite of attempts to play down the hyperbolic character of the war on terror, President Obama has faced backlash from many domestic voices across the United States with regard to his inability to confront threats to American security. Many prominent Republicans have condemned Obama’s refusal to say the phrase, ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ which they continue to employ in exponential fashion [20]. Beyond political rifts and rallies, however, ‘the rhetorical wrangling underscores the extent to which a president who pledged to end his predecessor’s war on terror is still navigating how to explain the threats that persist to the American public, while also being mindful of the impact his words can have abroad’ [21].

 Je Suis Refugee

In the midst of apprehension and confusion surrounding ‘terror’ and compelling narratives of global terrorism, another series of coinciding issues have heightened the importance of re-engaging with language. The migrant and refugee crisis across parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East has become increasingly interwoven within the ambiguous thread of ‘terror’, consequently blurring fears of terrorism with fears of outsiders. As migrants and refugees seek new homes in parts of Europe and North America, there has been an increasing and unsettling tendency towards their demonization. Millions of displaced peoples fleeing violence and disorder have been depicted as potential terrorists and continue to be subjected to discriminatory categorisations.

Consider the headlines that have emerged: ‘Refugees, Terror, and Impotence’ [22]. ‘All the terrorists are migrants’ [23]. Some politicians in Europe have gone as far as to suggest that terrorists could pose as refugees or homeless people on the Paris metro [24]. Several independent studies have also examined the plausibility that IS fighters, posing as refugees, have been ‘smuggled’ into the European Union in order to conduct terror operations [25].

Many responses to acts of violence over the course of 2015—some hitherto discussed—also placed tremendous emphasis on the backgrounds of the perpetrators, seeking to make connections between increasing refugee flows and increasing manifestations of terrorism. If direct links between terrorism and refugees were insufficient or unsubstantiated, some media outlets and politicians began referencing ‘home-grown terrorism’ and heightening threats of localised terror cells, created by refugees and migrants from countries like Syria or Iraq. After the attacks in Paris during November 2015 as well as the mass shooting in California during December 2015, many Americans expressed increasing disapproval of incoming refugees and sought to prevent more refugees and migrants from entering the country [26]. Fears of terror across the United States and Europe have been plainly pronounced.

Despite attempts to target refugees as the source of terror, there have been many prominent voices in opposition to these claims. In a 2015 article for Time magazine, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright ardently recounts: ‘Our enemies have a plan. They want to divide the world between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between the defenders and attackers of Islam. By making…refugees the enemy, we are playing into their hands’ [27]. Similarly, Adam Taylor of The Washington Post writes: ‘What seems almost certain is that the Islamic State wants you to equate refugees with terrorists. In turn, it wants refugees to equate the West with prejudice against Muslims and foreigners’ [28]. Through acknowledging the influence of political and media discourses, many have recognised that there is power in resisting the prevailing language of terror, specifically with regards to refugee and migrant populations.

 The Future of ‘Terror’—What’s Next?

We live in a world where the threat of terrorism has been masterfully embedded into our daily lives. By re-engaging with a select number of political and media discourses throughout 2015, it becomes clear that a wide array of phenomena around the world have been threaded together by the word ‘terror’. The distinguishing lines between the highlighted events become increasingly blurred as they are added to the chronicle of the so-called ‘global war on terror’. Terror is often used to blanket a vast minefield of otherwise complex situations and contexts, supporting a misinformed clash of civilisations and promoting dangerous binaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that fuel antagonism and the potential for violence.

Taking a slightly different approach, it is also possible to observe how language exposes an equally dangerous and exclusive definition of terror. This article has sought to focus on events that prompted political and media responses in the United States and Europe. While the language of terror was employed to depict an extensive ‘global’ crisis, the events that garnered an international response were geographically limited. What about acts of extremist violence occurring in Nigeria? Kenya? Yemen? Egypt? Turkey? The list of affected communities goes on but the international media attention does not. Indeed, political and media responses to events like those in Paris and Beirut reveal that not all ‘terror’ is the same.

How—if at all—can we speak about terror? The language of terror is bursting with paradox. Should references to terrorism be completely avoided? Should we ‘silence’ terrorism? The Al Jazeera Network has previously faced criticism for using words like ‘martyr’ to describe alleged terrorists killed in action [29]. More recently, however, Al Jazeera has advised its employees to wholly refrain from using the words ‘terrorist,’ ‘Islamist,’ and ‘jihad’ in order to avoid problematic characterisations and political controversy [30]. While perhaps with good intention, this move does little to improve the issues at hand. Instead of dismissing words altogether, it would seem more effective to openly address the misnomers and engage with the powerful symbiotic relationship between language and terrorism.

Politicians, mass media, and global audiences alike should seek to make an active change in how ‘terror’ is conceptualised, moving away from militarised language and hyperbolic insinuations of a boundless war on terror. In a hyper-connected world— characterised by a ceaseless stream of readily accessible information— words are pervasive and persuasive. Discourses may be manipulated to achieve a variety of different and sometimes contradictory objectives. While the language of terror should be invoked with caution, it should not be suppressed. Most importantly, we should be critically aware of the word ‘terror’, the context in which it is used, as well as the comprehensive effects of language. The pen may not always be mightier than the sword but its strength should not be underestimated.


[1] George W. Bush, ‘State of the Union Address’ (29 January 2002).

[2] ‘Le 11 septembre français’, Le Monde (9 January 2015).

[3] Laura Mofta, ‘French President Decries Barbarism Of Charlie Hebdo Shooting As France Raises Threat Level’, International Business Times (7 January 2015).

[4] ‘Terror in Paris’, The Economist (10 January 2015).

[5] Rukmini Callimachi and Jim Yardley, ‘From Amateur to Ruthless Jihadist in France: Chérif and Saïd Kouachi’s Path to Paris Attack at Charlie Hebdo’, The New York Times (17 January 2015).

[6] Margaret Coker, Maria Abi-Habib, and Hakin Almasmari, ‘Al Qaeda in Yemen Claims Responsibility for Charlie Hebdo Attack’, The Wall Street Journal (14 January 2015).

[7] Steve Almasy, Jim Bittermann, and Pierre Meilhan, ‘Paris Massacre: At least 128 killed in gunfire and blasts, French officials say’, CNN (14 November 2015).

[8] Ian Bremmer, ‘Why Is Paris Such a Target for Terrorist Attacks?’ Bloomberg News (13 November 2015).

[9] Rukmini Callimachi, ‘ISIS Claims Responsibility, Calling Paris Attacks ‘First of the Storm’, The New York Times (14 November 2015).

[10] Paul Armstrong and Brian Walker, ‘Francois Hollande blames ISIS for terror attacks’, CNN (14 November 2015).

[11] Arthur Goldhammer, ‘A French War on Terror?’ Al Jazeera (18 November 2015).

[12] William Audureau, ‘Après les attentats, les similitudes entre les discours de Hollande et de Bush en 2001’, Le Monde (17 November 2015).

[13] Aryn Baker, ‘Beirut Wonders if Some Terror Attacks Mean More than Others’ Time Magazine (15 November 2015).

[14] Lina Sinjab, ‘Beirut attacks: Suicide bombers kill dozens in Shia suburb’ BBC News (12 November 2015).

[15] Nadine Ajaka, ‘Paris, Beirut, and the Language Used to Describe Terrorism’, The Atlantic (17 November 2015).

[16] ‘San Bernardino Terror Attack’, Los Angeles Times (9 December 2015).

[17] Richard Perez-Pena and Michael S. Schmidt, ‘F.B.I. Treating San Bernardino Attack as Terrorism Case’, The New York Times (4 December 2015).

[18] Yasmeen Abutaleb and Rory Carroll, ‘Islamic State says California mass killers were their followers’, Reuters (5 December 2015).

[19] Daniel Williams, ‘Solo Jihad and the Search for the Terrorists Next Door’, The World Post (8 December 2015).

[20] Julie Pace, ‘White House Grapples With Fraught Terrorism Language’, The Huffington Post (31 January 2015).

[21] Jon Greenberg, ‘War of Words: The fight over radical Islamic terrorism’, Politifact (11 December 2015).

[22] Michael Brenner, ‘Europe’s Crisis: Refugees, Terror, and Impotence’, The World Post (7 December 2015).

[23] Matthew Kaminski, ‘Viktor Orbán: All the terrorists are migrants’, Politico (23 November 2015).

[24] Charles Platiau, ‘Jihadists could pose as homeless people to launch Paris metro terror attacks – French politicians’, Reuters (16 January 2016).

[25] Jessica Ware, ‘ISIS fighters posing as refugees are being smuggled to Europe on migrant boats, report says’, Independent (17 May 2015).

[26] Daniel Nasaw, ‘After terror attacks, Americans less willing to accept Syrian refugees’, The Wall Street Journal (16 December 2015).

[27] Madeleine Albright, ‘ISIS Wants Us to Think Refugees Are the Enemy’, Time Magazine (17 November 2015).

[28] Adam Taylor, ‘The Islamic State wants you to hate refugees’, The Wall Street Journal (16 November 2015).

[29] Sebastian Usher, ‘Al Jazeera marks martyr’s death’, BBC News (21 May 2004).

[30] Cheryl K. Chumley, ‘Al Jazeera English bans words: ‘Terrorist,’ ‘Islamist,’ ‘jihad’ off-limits to news employees’, The Washington Times (28 January 2015).

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