The best books on terrorism and why it matters

Vicente Medina Author Of Terrorism Unjustified: The Use and Misuse of Political Violence
By Vicente Medina

Who am I?

I was born and spent my childhood living under a tyrannical regime that indiscriminately used violence against innocent civilians. Such cruelty made a lasting impact on me. For the past thirty-two years, I have been teaching philosophy at Seton Hall University. Given my childhood experiences, I have chosen to write on issues related to social and political philosophy and applied ethics. After the catastrophic event of 9/11, I wondered about the motivations, explanations, justifications, or excuses for this kind of unprecedented act of war against civilians. I have spent a great deal of my research exploring the relationship between justified acts of war and terrorist acts.


I wrote...

Terrorism Unjustified: The Use and Misuse of Political Violence

By Vicente Medina,

Book cover of Terrorism Unjustified: The Use and Misuse of Political Violence

What is my book about?

I argue against those who defend a relativist or perspectival view that there is “good” and “bad” terrorism depending on political considerations, be they on the left or the right. In this post-truth and postmodernist era, many are willing to justify the use of violence against those who can be seen as innocent noncombatants. I tried to offer a presumably compelling defense of those whom I describe as hard-core opponents of terrorist violence. For hard-core opponents of terrorism, like me, terrorism or the deliberate or reckless use of political violence against innocent noncombatants with the aim of influencing a domestic or an international audience is never justified. However, whether such a questionable use of violence might be excused under extreme circumstances remains an open question.

The books I picked & why

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Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation

By Igor Primoratz,

Book cover of Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation

Why this book?

This is a well-argued and illuminating book to understand the complexity of terrorism. Primoratz focuses mostly on what we understand by the term “terrorism” and some of its most important characteristics. In doing so, he offers a definition of terrorism that meshes with our ordinary use of it. So, for him, terrorism is the deliberate use of violence against innocent people to intimidate and coerce others into doing what they otherwise would not do.

One of the virtues of his definition is that it avoids the double standard that policymakers presuppose when they define terrorism solely as the deliberate use of violence by non-state actors. Such a narrow definition of terrorism allows for representatives of states, be they tyrannical or democratic, to engage in vicious violence against innocent noncombatants without assuming moral or legal responsibility for their despicable violent acts that are no less terroristic, sometimes even more so, than the ones that some nonstate actors perpetrate.

Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation

By Igor Primoratz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Terrorism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the first comprehensive study of the core philosophical questions posed by terrorism such as: How should we define it? Is it morally distinctive? Can it be morally justified? Igor Primoratz seeks to overcome relativism and double standards that often plague debates about terrorism. He investigates the main ethical approaches to terrorism: in terms of its consequences, rights and justice, supreme emergency, and the collective responsibility of citizens. The book provides a rigorous, yet accessible analysis of a range of moral positions, from the acceptance of terrorism when its consequences are good on balance to its absolute rejection. Primoratz…


Morality and Political Violence

By C.A.J. Coady,

Book cover of Morality and Political Violence

Why this book?

This is an accessible book for those who want to learn about some of the arguments in favor of a just war tradition and pacifist arguments against any use of political violence. Coady does justice to both traditions. He defends the sometimes neglected or misunderstood “doctrine of double effect” to offer a compelling argument against the deliberate use of terrorist violence by either nonstate or state actors against innocent non-combatants. While not popular nowadays, Coady makes a compelling case that unless we take the doctrine of double effect seriously, noncombatant immunity would be significantly reduced. Our ordinary intuition shows that if we remove the idea of intentionality from evaluating people’s behavior, especially in war, we are virtually giving a carte blanch for all parties involved to deliberately target the innocent. 

Morality and Political Violence

By C.A.J. Coady,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Morality and Political Violence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Political violence in the form of wars, insurgencies, terrorism and violent rebellion constitutes a major human challenge. C. A. J. Coady brings a philosophical and ethical perspective as he places the problems of war and political violence in the frame of reflective ethics. In this book, Coady re-examines a range of urgent problems pertinent to political violence against the background of a contemporary approach to just war thinking. The problems examined include: the right to make war and conduct war, terrorism, revolution, humanitarianism, mercenary warriors, the ideal of peace and the right way to end war. Coady attempts to vindicate…


What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat

By Louise Richardson,

Book cover of What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat

Why this book?

Louise Richardson’s book is an insightful investigation for people who want to understand the motivation of terrorists and their supporters, especially those who engage in suicide terrorism. She makes a persuasive argument that suicide terrorists are motivated by political objectives understood in the broad sense of this term. They have long and short-term political objectives among which are revenge, renown, and reaction. She refers to these motives as the three Rs. She contends that those who engage in suicide operations are disaffected individuals supported by a community that espouses a legitimizing ideology, be it political, religious, or both. As result, their deep-seated grievances can turn into deep-seated resentment against powerful nations which they blame for intervening in their own country. For example, they oftentimes blame the US government for maintaining a presence in Islamic countries, including supporting despotic and nepotic regimes, such as the present Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat

By Louise Richardson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked What Terrorists Want as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“This is at the top of my list for best books on terrorism.”–Jessica Stern, author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill

How can the most powerful country in the world feel so threatened by an enemy infinitely weaker than we are? How can loving parents and otherwise responsible citizens join terrorist movements? How can anyone possibly believe that the cause of Islam can be advanced by murdering passengers on a bus or an airplane? In this important new book, groundbreaking scholar Louise Richardson answers these questions and more, providing an indispensable guide to the greatest…


The Just War Revisited

By Oliver O'Donovan,

Book cover of The Just War Revisited

Why this book?

O’Donovan offers us a short but elegantly written book on just war from antiquity to the present. He convincingly argues in favor of the foundational role that religious and theological ideas going back to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas play in the development of a Christian just war approach. He underscores that what we have come to understand as “just war theory” is a misnomer. There is no such thing as just war theory but rather a proposal of practical reason to develop good judgments in the light of armed conflict or war. The backbone of these good judgments is that the deliberate killing of innocent noncombatants is never morally justified. This prohibition remains constant whether we are dealing with counterinsurgency, the development and use of weapons of mass destruction, or terrorism. 

The Just War Revisited

By Oliver O'Donovan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Just War Revisited as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Leading political theologian Oliver O'Donovan here takes a fresh look at some traditional moral arguments about war. Modern Christians differ widely on this issue. A few hold that absolute pacifism is the only viable Christian position, others subscribe in various ways to concepts of 'just war' developed out of a Western tradition that arose from the legacies of Augustine and Aquinas, while others still adopt more pragmatically realist postures. Professor O'Donovan re-examines questions of contemporary urgency including the use of biological and nuclear weapons, military intervention, economic sanctions, war crimes trials and the roles of the Geneva Convention, international conventions…


War and Ethics: A New Just War Theory

By Nicholas Fotion,

Book cover of War and Ethics: A New Just War Theory

Why this book?

Fotion has written a short and accessible book for a general audience defending the relevance of just war theory to address issues of war. He distinguished between two different conceptions of just war: one that applies to interstate armed conflicts and one that applies between states and non-state actors. While the distinction between interstate armed conflicts and those between state and non-state actors might be useful at times, the principles of jus ad bellum (the right to wage war) based on the right of self-defense and jus in bello (the right way to wage war) based on respecting the immunity of innocent civilians remains constant in both types of armed conflict. Yet since he explores the nuances of both approaches, his book is a welcome development illustrating the relevance of the just war tradition nowadays.

War and Ethics: A New Just War Theory

By Nicholas Fotion,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked War and Ethics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 prompted unprecedented public interest in the ethics of war, a debate that has raged furiously in the media, in politics and in the public consciousness ever since. In this fascinating and informative book, Nicholas Fotion, an expert on the ethics of military action, explores the notion of developing an ethical theory that guides the behaviour of those who are at war. Fotion gives a clear account of just war theory, presenting it as a useful device in helping us make decisions about what we should do when war appears on the horizon. Examining…


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