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Confronting the Terrorist/Refugee Narrative

This is part of our special feature on Forced Migration, Cultural Identity, and Trauma.


“It’s a big problem! We don’t know anything about them. We don’t know where they come from, who they are. There’s no documentation. We have our incompetent government people letting ’em in by the thousands, and who knows, who knows, maybe it’s ISIS.”
—Donald J. Trump, 25 April 2016[2]


On 27 January 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to ban all refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. As horrified observers scrambled to re-evaluate—once again—the shrinking gap between Trump’s rhetoric and action, countless individuals were experiencing the ignominy of suspicion unfold in real-time, and almost, it seemed, at hyper-speed. Despite the chaotic implementation of the ban and the accompanying sense of disbelief, these measures should not come as such a surprise: they represent the culmination of long-established narratives that attribute a de facto identity of threat not only to Muslims, but particularly to those who seek refuge from war-torn countries, such as Iraq and Syria.

This article critically interrogates the “terrorist/refugee” narrative that has become a mainstay of increasingly right-wing political and (social) media discourse, the effects of which reached a climax on 27 January 2017. It contextualizes the conflation of “refugees” with “terrorism” by reference to logics of contemporary counter-terrorism practices, which tend to securitize entire populations based on the threat that they might produce. It ultimately argues that the terrorist/refugee narrative has steadily erased the humanity of its subjects, thus reinforcing a securitized orthodoxy that keeps refugees “out there” and further away from the help that so many desperately require.

The article is a precursor to the I Am Not a Terrorist project, which will begin in February 2017. I Am Not a Terrorist will investigate how “terrorism” and related counter-terrorism practices are manifest in the everyday: that is, in the stories and self-told experiences of “ordinary citizens” across time and space. In coordination with EuropeNow, the project will establish an interactive repository populated with the self-told stories of individuals labelled as “terrorist,” by virtue of their creed, ethnicity, refugee status, and/or political beliefs. Recorded in written, audio and video forms and made freely available to the public, it is hoped that this repository will not only help to capture some of the less visible, everyday effects of (counter)terrorism, but will also provide a space for those erroneously denoted as “terrorists” to positively refute this label on their own terms.


Terrorist, Radical, Refugee: What’s in a name?

In 2016, empirical evidence signified that the world is in the midst of the most acute forced displacement crisis since (UNHCR) records began; it became true to say that a total of 65.3 million, or one in every 113 people globally, “is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee.”[3] In 2016, empirical data from the widely cited Global Terrorism Index report also showed that the total number of deaths attributed to terrorism in 2015 stood at 29,376 (a 10% decrease on 2014 numbers), with 74% of these deaths attributable to just four groups: ISIS (or the Islamic State), Boko Haram, the Taliban and al Qaeda.[4] While most acts of terrorism are concentrated in zones of open and protracted conflict—in this case, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Afghanistan—the report nonetheless appears to give credence to the popular notion that Europe, and indeed ‘the West’ more generally, is experiencing a visceral spike in terrorist activity: 313 deaths from 67 attacks in OECD countries in 2015, or a rise of 650% when compared with 2014. Despite these optics—coupled with the popular temptation to relate correlation to causation—there is, in fact, “no evidence [to suggest] that migration leads to increased terrorist activity”[5]; while it is also worth noting that today’s figures pale in comparison with the number of attacks/deaths attributed to terrorism in the West throughout the 1970s and 1980s.[6]

Clearly, such figures are malleable and open to interpretation. Much of the reason behind this lies in the fact that definitions of “terrorism”—which underpin database output—are notoriously loaded;[7] in fact, reputable terrorism scholars have often argued that in the absence of the very possibility of a neutral definition, the best way to countenance terrorism is to rely on aesthetics: that is, to intuitively know it when we see it[8]. The problem with an intuitive approach to knowing terrorism, however, is that it tends to reinforce popular notions of threat that have become sedimented as common sense: evidence, or indeed “political correctness,” be damned. In a modern calculus of risk affected so deeply by 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror, populist monikers—such as President Trump’s “radical Islamic terrorism” or Geert Wilder’s 2017 rallying cry of “No more Islam”—effectively reinforce what has become intuitively known by so many people: “radicalised Muslims are the source of modern terrorism.”[9] To follow this logic to its natural conclusion, the key to eradicating terrorism, then, lies in the act of preventing radicalisation; a common sense solution that appeals not only to broad sections of society, but underpins the very basis of many contemporary counterterrorism practices. As will be discussed later, however, the systematic implementation of such logics bears significant ramifications for the lives of countless human beings who cease to live as ordinary citizens, but as “potential terrorists;” a dangerous moniker which deserves to be radically challenged.

As with terrorism, one also finds something of a definitional deficit with regard to “refugees.” Enshrined in International Law by virtue of the 1951 Refugee Convention, its 1967 Protocol and other key legal texts, a refugee is someone “who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence,” who “has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group” and most likely ‘cannot return home or are afraid to do so.”[10] This is in contrast to migrants, who travel to another state in order to improve their lives via employment, education and so on, but can expect to receive protection from their government upon return to their home country.[11]

Despite these distinctions, it has become a mainstay of increasingly right-wing political and (social) media discourse to collapse the categories of “refugee” and “migrant” into one another (thus, refugee/migrant), creating an amorphous daub defined not by humanity and individuality, but by homogeneity and a unifying sense of motion. Hence, David Cameron’s alarm at a “swarm” of refugees/migrants,[12] ex-Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond’s talk of “marauding migrants,”[13] and countless media headlines that scream the dangers of vagrants and wasters arriving in “waves.”[14] The purpose of this vocabulary is to suggest that without adequate means of defense—such as a sweeping travel ban—these  powerful forces have the potential to overwhelm the sovereign and cultural boundaries that define a nation state; that which secures ‘us’ against ‘them’ and provides a sense of collective self-identity in the process. It is important to note that this inside/outside dynamic is not a mere by-product of sovereignty, or indeed politics more generally; rather, sovereignty only exists via the continuous demarcation “between inside and outside, between self and other, identity and difference, community and anarchy”[15]. Refugees are thereby inevitable products of an international system that continues to be defined in sovereign terms, for: “as long as there are political borders constructing separate states and creating clear definitions of insiders and outsiders, there will be refugees…refugees are victims of an international system that brings them into being, then fails to take responsibility for them.”[16] Western states’ increasing abdication of responsibility towards a record-breaking humanitarian crisis is borne of this inside/outside dynamic, and rhetorically justified by an instantly familiar appeal to terrorism, Trojan horses, and an ever-present spectre of catastrophe. If this narrative is easily absorbable, it is, perhaps, because its underlying tones have also been definitive of a post-9/11 security milieu predicated on securitizing entire populations against acts of terrorism that they might produce: we have, in essence, heard it all before.

Inside/Outside: The War on Terror, radicalization and the logic of prevention

In an interview during the 2008 Presidential campaign, US senator John McCain, speaking on the War on Terror, declared “the enemy” as follows: “We are facing a transcendent evil of radical Islamic extremism that wants to destroy everything we stand for and value.”[17] In this brief statement, the specific identity(/ies) of the enemy that constitute ‘Islamic extremism’ is concealed and yet immediately activated by a familiar characterization of the Other: that which seeks to annihilate the values that constitute the very identity of the US (and, by extension, “the West”). George W. Bush’s immediate post-9/11 discourse sets a clear tone:

America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world[18]

We value life; the terrorists ruthlessly destroy it. We value education; the terrorists do not believe women should be educated or should have health care, or should leave their homes. We value the right to speak our minds; for the terrorists, free expression can be grounds for execution[19]

While the formative years of the War on Terror were undoubtedly predicated against an Islamic extremist/terrorist Other that existed “out there” and somehow beyond sovereign territories (in caves, mountainous regions, and so on), this dynamic was soon accompanied by a parallel narrative that situated the extremist/terrorist Other as existing within (and, indeed, living under the protection) of the (neo)liberal state. This narrative is particularly pronounced in the UK, whereby in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings (perpetrated by UK citizens, or “home-grown” terrorists) “radicalization” became the key signifier of an Islamic terrorist threat that was increasingly migrating from the outside to the inside. The focus on radicalization represented a significant shift away from geopolitics and the overt use of violence as a means to defeat Islamic terrorism (though this also continued), towards something much more encompassing. This was to be a more local, liberal form of counter-terrorism—that which would prevent terrorism by targeting the ideologies and social processes that lay behind one’s supposed journey towards violent extremism.[20]

Essentially, the fight against radicalization is predicated on the management of a “risk society”[21] increasingly defined by the spectre of catastrophe (the imaginary for which has arguably been provided by the spectacle of 9/11). Subjects of this risk society are securitized in terms of what they might produce,[22] effectively becoming what de Goede and Simon have called “anticipatory epistemic objects.”[23] Governing for this unknowable future, then, demands particular actions in the present[24] and the empirical results lie in the establishment of a suite of preventive measures such as community policing, outreach strategies, de-radicalization programs and, more recently, the constriction of public and online spaces for the articulation of radical perspectives.[25] The problem with this preventive logic is that existing strategies are mostly predicated on the belief that one’s journey towards radicalization can be effectively mapped in advance and, thus, suitably anticipated by specific preventative interventions. As scholars such as Jonathan Githens-Mazer and Arun Kundnani have shown, however, we simply do not know what the causes of radicalization are: new cases are just as, if not more likely to contribute to an expanding multitude of potential indicators as they are likely to contribute towards an ever-more crystalised notion of “root causes.” As Anthony Richards puts it:

We don’t know—nor, it appears, are we ever likely to know—why some young men resort to violent extremism and others do not. Nor, it seems, has there been any consistent notion of what is meant by “radicalization,” with the last five years providing a legacy of confusion as to what forms of “radicalization” should be the focus of a counterterrorism strategy.[26]

Given that terrorism scholars and counter-terrorism practitioners are no closer to developing a checklist understanding of radicalization, measurement becomes a significant issue. If the ultimate arbiter of preventative strategies is the lack of terrorism, then the absence of a terrorist attack arguably sustains a baseline of credibility. An increase in the level of arrests can be construed as expanding vigilance, a lack of arrests can be construed as evidence that “radical” activity is decreasing, thereby retrospectively legitimizing preventive policies.[27] In essence, then, there is no reliable (or scientific) way to confirm the veracity of its outputs. Contemporary counter-terrorism measures, therefore—such as the Department of Homeland Security’s Think again, Turn Away program,[28] the FBI’s Don’t be a Puppet initiative[29] or the MTA’s encompassing If You See Something, Say Something[30] campaign—are, at best, a shot in the dark, and at worst, a series of hopelessly misconstrued exercises, the false positives of which bear very real effects on the lives of ordinary citizens who find themselves caught in an ever-widening net of suspicion; effectively labelled as “potential terrorists” until proven otherwise. Rarely have we seen this dynamic so viscerally manifest than at ports of entry across the United States over the past number of days.


Securitizing the Terrorist/Refugee

As outlined by Pantazis and Pemberton[31] among others,[32] Muslims as a collective have become the suspect communities par excellence of a modern security milieu. Suspicion, however, is by no means a perfect science; indeed, the moral panic induced by a societal obsession on what particular groups might produce entails that a range of ancillary identifiers are brought into the fold: interpreted thus, ethnicity, skin color, dress, facial hair and spoken language (particularly in areas of heightened security, such as airports) cease to become humanizing traits, but risk coda—regardless of whether those identifiers can be linked to a person’s religious faith or not. It is in this environment that everyday actions, such as reading a book on terrorism in a university library—as in the case of UK student Mohammed Umar Farooq[33]—or speaking Arabic on an airplane—as in the case of Iraqi refugee Khairuldeen Makhzoomi in the US[34]—are enough to cross an ever-decreasing threshold of suspicion and trigger the ultimate intervention of a state’s security apparatus.

The pervasive nature of contemporary counter-terrorism measures—which actively promote or mandate citizen engagement in identifying cases of possible radicalization—entails that the classic Orientalist dichotomy between ‘”good Muslim” and “bad Muslim” that was (re)activated in post-9/11 discourse[35] has morphed from a geopolitical demarcation of inside/outside (think Bush’s ultimatum that “you are either with us or against us”) to a deeply societal one. As such, Muslims are expected to be particularly demonstrative of “good citizenship;” a feat that can be achieved by, for example, publically testifying loyalty to the nation and asserting belief in its democratic or cultural ideals.[36] Laws and governmental strategies passed on the basis of cultural assimilation—such as the infamous “burkini ban” in France—feed, then, not only into this narrative of “good/bad citizenship” but also into the narrative of security/terrorism which cross-contaminates it at almost every point. Read thus, a “good Muslim” is one fundamentally defined by their lack of violence; and a “bad Muslim?” Well, we already know what bad Muslims are capable of. On this basis, Mamdani’s summation of a post-9/11 environment in which “unless proved to be ‘good,’ every Muslim was presumed to be ‘bad’”[37] still holds true and has, in fact, seeped ever deeper into states’ internal sense of security, cohesion and national identity.

The major difference between securing domestic citizens on what they might produce and incoming refugees/migrants on the same basis, is that refugees/migrants are already seen to exist beyond state borders and therefore unable to prove themselves “good” through active citizenship. Furthermore, the majority of refugees/migrants crossing the major routes into Europe hail from three nations that have become synonymous with terrorism: Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.[38] In the absence of certainty, the simplistic solution of shutting borders and erecting barriers (instantly gratifying measures long associated with anti-terrorism) serves as an attractive preventive measure that can bypass the very need to engage in “good/bad” judgement calls; particularly if these groups approach in “swarms,” look like they could be Muslims and might just be terrorists. To a populist right apparently unconcerned with the burden of proof, the conflation has proven irresistible; despite countless reports to the contrary:

[T]errorists have exploited mass migration by mingling in the mass of people leaving their homes in the hope of a better life…We don’t think that everyone is a terrorist, but no one can say how many terrorists have arrived already, how many are coming day by day? (Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orba, 15 November 2015)

The danger [of admitting Syrian refugees] is real—false passports. A real passport given to Islamic fundamentalists in the influx of immigrants to enter the country with the intent to commit terrorist attacks. It’s a danger… We know Islamic fundamentalists have infiltrated this flux of migrants to slip by unnoticed (Marine la Pen, 26 November 2015)

I call it extreme vetting right? Extreme vetting. I want extreme. It’s going to be so tough, and if somebody comes in that’s fine but they’re going to be good. It’s extreme. And if people don’t like it, we’ve got have a country folks. Got to have a country. Countries in which immigration will be suspended would include places like Syria and Libya. And we are going to stop the tens of thousands of people coming in from Syria. We have no idea who they are, where they come from. There’s no documentation. There’s no paperwork. It’s going to end badly folks. It’s going to end very, very badly. (Donald Trump, 31 August 2016)


In the closing phase of the recent pro-Brexit campaign, Nigel Farage stood, pointed, and vowed to take Great Britain back from “BREAKING POINT.” Farage’s infamous poster did not contain the words “refugee,” “migrant,” or associated derivatives, but of course, it did not need to; the long line of young, brown-skinned and oft-bearded men—quite literally amassed in the shape of a wave—was enough to speak to an intuitive sense of danger that has defined collective notions of risk for decades; and particularly since 9/11. On 27 January 2017, the world bore witness to lines of a different kind, yet peppered with the same familiar faces, as individuals associated with seven proscribed Muslim-majority countries were detained, interrogated and remanded under indefinite suspicion. We were told that there was “nothing nice” about protecting the homeland, with the assertion that there were “a lot of ‘bad dudes’ out there!” trumping any recourse to empirical evidence: the number of terrorist attacks on US soil attributed to individuals from the proscribed countries? Zero.[39] The number of individuals placed under indefinite suspicion as a result of the executive order? Approximately 227,000,000.[40] This is post-9/11 calculus of risk put into overdrive, but one that has been definitive of a contemporary security milieu for quite some time, and at considerable human cost.

Is sum, the once-separate dangers elicited by “migration” and “terrorism” have become wound ever tighter by an influential right-wing narrative that replaces humanity with an overbearing fetish for security; all the while, hitherto-protected space(s) for the articulation of resistance, including universities and other public fora, are becoming constricted in the name of prevention.[41] In this environment, it is perhaps more essential than ever that existing spaces for resistance are not only protected, but that new spaces are also opened. While such spaces will always develop organically—for their creation is woven into the inherently political character of society itself,[42] as per the spontaneous global protests that have erupted against Trump[43]—I believe that academics can use their positions of limited access and relative privilege to positively affect this debate.[44] This is what I Am Not a Terrorist sets out to achieve, and I hope that you might join us in this endeavour.

Dr. James Fitzgerald is Lecturer in Terrorism Studies at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University and co-convenor of the Critical Studies on Terrorism Working Group. He is Programme Director of the International Masters in Security, Intelligence and Security (IMSISS), and principal investigator of the Irish Research Council Project funded Human Stories of Resistance. His current research interests include: everyday resistances to (counter)terrorism; storytelling approaches to international politics; and reflexivity in “academic writing.”

Photo: We Stand United – NYC Rally on Night Before Trump’s Inauguration | Flickr


[1] Dr. James Fitzgerald is Lecturer in Terrorism Studies at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University and co-convenor of the Critical Studies on Terrorism Working Group. He is Programme Director of the International Masters in Security, Intelligence and Security (IMSISS), and principal investigator of the Irish Research Council Project funded Human Stories of Resistance. His current research interests include: everyday resistances to (counter)terrorism; storytelling approaches to international politics; and reflexivity in “academic writing”

[2] Engel, P. 2016. Trump on Syrian refugees: ‘Lock your doors, folks’. Business Insider UK, 25 April. Available at:

[3] UNHCR, 2016. Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015. P. 2. Available at

[4] Institute for Economics and Peace. 2016. Global Terrorism Index 2016: Measuring and Understanding the Impact of Terrorism. p. 3. Available at

[5] Refugees and terrorism: “No evidence of risk” – New report by UN expert on counter-terrorism. 21 October. Available at:

[6] ‘Learning to live with it’, The Economist, 3 September 2016. Available at:

[7] Stohl, M., 2012. Don’t confuse me with the facts: knowledge claims and terrorism. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 5(1), pp.31-49

[8] As Terrorism Studies doyen Paul Wilkinson put it: “common sense indicates that the general public in most countries in the world can recognise terrorism when they see campaigns of bombing, shooting attacks, hostage-takings, hijackings and threats of such action, especially when so many of these are deliberately aimed at civilians”. Wilkinson, P. 2011. Terrorism Versus Democracy: The Liberal State Response. London: Rutledge., p. 1

[9] This is, of course, despite the fact that violent right-wing extremists have been responsible for more deaths in the US and Europe for the past 15 years than violent Jihadists. See  Ellis, C. Pantucci, R., van Zuijdewijn, J. D. R., Bakker, E., Gomis, B., Palombi, S., Smith, M. 2016. Lone-Actor Terrorism Final Report. Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. Available at:

[10] UNHCR. What is a Refugee? Available at: (

[11] Ibid.

[12] See Elgot, J. 2016. How David Cameron’s language on refugees has provoked anger. The Guardian, 24 June

[13] See Peraudin, F. 2015.  ‘Marauding’ migrants threaten standard of living, says foreign secretary. The Guardian, 10 August

[14] See Matthew, S. 2015. Germany throws its doors open to the wave of migrants as Merkel urges the rest of Europe to show ‘fairness and solidarity’. 4 September

[15] Walker, R. B. J. 1993. Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory. Cambridge University Press, p. 174

[16] Haddad, E., 2003. The refugee: The individual between sovereigns. Global Society17(3), pp.297-322. p. 297

[17] ‘2008 election interview with Charlie Gibson’, ABC News, September 3, 2008. Available at:

[18] Bush, G. W. 2001. ‘Statement by the President in Address to the Nation’, 11 September. Available at

[19] Bush, G. W. 2001. ‘President Declares ‘Freedom at War with Fear’’, September 20. Available at:

[20] Kundnani, A., 2012. Radicalisation: the journey of a concept. Race & Class, 54 (2), pp.3-25

[21] See Beck, U., 1992. Risk society: Towards a new modernity (Vol. 17). Sage; Amoore, L., 2009. Algorithmic war: Everyday geographies of the War on Terror. Antipode41(1), pp.49-69

[22] See Heath‐Kelly, C., 2013. Counter‐Terrorism and the Counterfactual: Producing the ‘Radicalisation’Discourse and the UK PREVENT Strategy. The British Journal of Politics & International Relations15(3), pp.394-415. p. 395;  Amoore, L. and de Goede, M. eds., 2008. Risk and the War on Terror. Routledge.

[23] De Goede, M. and Simon, S., 2013. Governing future radicals in Europe. Antipode, 45(2), pp.315-335. p. 321

[24] See Martin, T., 2014. Governing an unknowable future: the politics of Britain’s Prevent policy. Critical Studies on Terrorism7(1), pp.62-78


[26] Richards, A., 2011. The problem with ‘radicalization’: the remit of ‘Prevent’ and the need to refocus on terrorism in the UK. International Affairs87 (1), pp.143-152, p. 143

[27] See Fitzgerald, J., 2015. Why me? An autoethnographic account of the bizarre logic of counterterrorism. Critical Studies on Terrorism8(1), pp.163-180

[28]See Miller, G., Higham, S. 2015. In a propaganda war against ISIS, the U.S. tried to play by the enemy’s rules. The Washington Post, 8 May. Available at:

[29] See


[31] Pantazis, C. and Pemberton, S., 2009. From the ‘old’to the ‘new’suspect community examining the impacts of recent UK counter-terrorist legislation. British Journal of Criminology49(5), pp.646-666

[32] Cherney, A., and K. Murphy. 2015. “Being a Suspect Community in a Post 9/11 World: The Impact of the War on Terrorism on Muslim Communities in Australia.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology,  49(4), pp.480-496

[33] See Ramesh, R., Halliday, J. 2015. Student accused of being a terrorist for reading book on terrorism. The Guardian, 24 September. Available at:

[34] See Mackey, R. 2016.Iraqi Refugee Kicked Off Plane for Speaking Arabic in L.A. Says Islamophobia Boosts ISIS. The Intercept, 18 April. Available at

[35] See Mamdani, M., 2004. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. Unisa Press

[36] See Maira, S., 2009. ” Good” and” Bad” Muslim Citizens: Feminists, Terrorists, and US Orientalisms. Feminist Studies35(3), pp.631-656; Ragazzi, F., 2016. Countering terrorism and radicalisation: Securitising social policy? Critical Social Policy (forthcoming)

[37] Mandami, 2004, p. 5

[38] Mandić, M. 2017. Anatomy of a Refugee Wave: Forced Migration on the Balkan Route as Two Processes. EuropeNow. Available at:

[39] New America Foundation, 2016. Terrorism in America After 9/11. Available at:

[40] This figure is collated from the combined populations of the seven Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Somalia, as per the most recent United Nations Revision of World Population Prospects estimates. See

[41] See, for example, Fitzgerald, J., Ali, N. and Armstrong, M., 2016. Editors’ introduction: critical terrorism studies: reflections on policy-relevance and disciplinarity. Critical Studies on Terrorism9(1), pp.1-11; Turkey Rounds up Academics Who Signed Petition Denouncing Attacks on Kurds. The Guardian, January 15.

[42] See, for example, Mouffe, C. 2005. On the Political. London: Routledge

[44] For a more thoughtful explication of this position, see Fitzgerald 2015.


Published on February 1, 2017.

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