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Terrorist victimization: victims of terrorism


Victimization can be understood as the action of singling someone out for cruel or unjust treatment. This section explores terrorist victimization, for example, the factors that come into play when targeting the future victims of a planned terrorist attack. 

Terrorist attacks can be broadly categorized into two categories: focused and indiscriminate. Historically, terrorism has largely fallen under the former category. As noted earlier, terrorist attacks were used as an instrument for politically motivated action, which targeted specific members of governments or political actors for the purposes of attaining a particular political aim (Schmid, 2006, p. 3; Turković, 2006, p. 55). Such attacks involved some element of participation in the conflict, albeit indirectly, between the terrorist group and the adversary. However, contemporary terrorism is characterized by an increasing frequency and magnitude of indiscriminate violence. Victims of terrorist attacks are not usually specifically selected on the basis of their individual characteristics, but are "chance" victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. These victims serve as an instrument designed to influence third party actors (Šeparović, 2006, p. 20). It is partly this element of unpredictability and randomness of victim selection that gives terrorism its modern power-"a power enhanced manifold by the media's display and replay of acts of victimization" (Schmid, 2006, p. 9). This evolution of the focus of terrorism reflects a shift from individual terror to a dimension of mass murder and psychological warfare (Schmid, 2006, p. 9). In this sense, terrorism attempts to coerce a population and/or its leadership by inciting fear of being hurt (Šeparović, 2006, p. 21).

Primary (direct) victims of terrorist acts or campaigns

  • Those who are killed by terrorist kidnappers, hostage-takers, gunmen or bombers.
  • Those who are injured, mutilated or mentally tortured by terrorists but ultimately released or liberated.
  • Those who are wounded or die in a counter-terrorist rescue operation at the hands of terrorists or armed first responders.
  • Those who become mentally or physically handicapped or die (commit suicide) in a causal sequel to one or several terrorist events in which they were involved or of which they were direct witnesses.
Alex Schmid (2006). "Magnitudes and Focus of Terrorist Victimization." In Uwe Ewald and Ksenija Turkovi ć eds. Large-Scale Victimisation as a Potential Source of Terrorist Activities, IOS Press, p. 4.

Although terrorist attacks are indeed serious crimes, it is important to remember that terrorist victimization differs from criminal victimization in that the former has an inherent political dimension. This political dimension may also encapsulate ideological or religious aims. For instance, the direct victim of a terrorist attack is rarely the ultimate target of the violence. Rather, the act of singling out a target serves as an amplifier to convey a broader message and to influence a wider audience, such as an adversary State of the terrorist organization (Schmid, 2006, p. 4). An important goal of terrorism is for mass audiences to pay attention to the messages being conveyed, and to undergo a sense of terror and panic as a result of the terrorist attack. The terror invoked in individuals is further amplified by a process of identification with the victim, a fear that "it could have been me" (Schmid, 2006, p. 7).The victims of terrorist attacks therefore serve as symbols of shared group or class characteristics, which in turn form one basis for their selection as victims (Šeparović, 2006, p. 21). In this sense, victims of terrorism serve as instrumental targets.

Ten terrorist audiences

  1. The adversary/-ies of the terrorist organization (usually one or several governments)
  2. The constituency/society of the adversary/-ies
  3. The targeted direct victims and their families and friends
  4. Others who have reason to fear that they might be the next targets
  5. "Neutral" distant audiences
  6. The supporting constituency of the terrorist organization
  7. Potential sympathetic sectors of domestic and foreign audiences
  8. Other terrorist groups rivalling for prominence
  9. The terrorist and his or her organization
  10. The media.
Alex Schmid (2006). "Magnitudes and Focus of Terrorist Victimization." In Uwe Ewald and Ksenija Turkovi ć, eds. Large-Scale Victimisation as a Potential Source of Terrorist Activities, IOS Press, p. 4.

By using violence, or the threat of violence, wider audiences are put in a state of chronic fear or terror which takes a physical, psychological, social, political and economic toll on society as a whole (Šeparović, 2006, p. 21; Schmid, 2006, p. 5). This indirect method of combat can have several aims: to produce disorientation and/or force their targets to comply with their demands (e.g., government); to mobilize third party actors to act; or, to stir society and public opinion in order to change attitudes or behaviours that benefit the interests of the perpetrators. Successful victimization of sectors of society signals to the public at home and abroad that the State cannot protect them effectively, and this sense of insecurity may be further exploited by violent extremist organizations (see further Module 2) (Schmid, 2006, p. 4). The ability of terrorist organizations to manipulate wider audiences by the public victimization of a few indirect victims in an environment that is media-rich has transformed terrorism from a marginal mode of protest, blackmail and intimidation into a major form of psychological warfare.

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