The best books on the history of terrorism and counterterrorism

Daniel S. Chard Author Of Nixon's War at Home: The FBI, Leftist Guerrillas, and the Origins of Counterterrorism
By Daniel S. Chard

Who am I?

I’m a history professor at Western Washington University. I first got interested in understanding social movements, power, and political violence in the late 1990s and early ‘00s as a young anarchist. Later, while studying history in graduate school, I realized that much of what I thought I knew about the FBI, violence, and radical movements of the 1960s and ‘70s was inaccurate. I don’t have any magic solutions to the problems facing humanity, but I believe that studying history—including the history of political violence—can help us better understand our present moment and how we might build a more just and peaceful world.

I wrote...

Nixon's War at Home: The FBI, Leftist Guerrillas, and the Origins of Counterterrorism

By Daniel S. Chard,

Book cover of Nixon's War at Home: The FBI, Leftist Guerrillas, and the Origins of Counterterrorism

What is my book about?

During the presidency of Richard Nixon, homegrown leftist guerrilla groups like the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army carried out hundreds of attacks in the United States. Nixon’s War at Home shows how America's war with domestic guerrillas prompted a host of new policing measures as the FBI revived illegal spy techniques previously used against communists in the name of fighting terrorism. These efforts did little to stop the guerrillas—instead, they led to a bureaucratic struggle between the Nixon administration and the FBI that fueled the Watergate Scandal and brought down Nixon. Yet despite their internal conflicts, FBI and White House officials developed preemptive surveillance practices that would inform U.S. counterterrorism strategies into the twenty-first century, entrenching mass surveillance as a cornerstone of the national security state. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror

Why did I love this book?

Anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani wrote Good Muslim, Bad Muslim shortly after the 9/11 attacks. The book is a rebuttal of the U.S. government’s justifications for the War on Terror and military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which relied heavily on the inaccurate notion that terrorism is a product of anti-modern passions embedded in Islamic culture. Mamdani uses history as a corrective, illustrating how such “culture talk” has deep roots in European imperialism, and how a violent strand of political Islam emerged from modern anticolonial movements in the Middle East and gained global influence amid U.S. covert military operations in the second half of the Cold War, particularly in Afghanistan. I learn something new every time I reread this fantastic book for my U.S. and International Terrorism history course. 

By Mahmood Mamdani,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this brilliant look at the rise of political Islam, the distinguished political scientist and anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani brings his expertise and insight to bear on a question many Americans have been asking since 9/11: how did this happen?

Mamdani dispels the idea of “good” (secular, westernized) and “bad” (premodern, fanatical) Muslims, pointing out that these judgments refer to political rather than cultural or religious identities. The presumption that there are “good” Muslims readily available to be split off from “bad” Muslims masks a failure to make a political analysis of our times. This book argues that political Islam emerged…

Book cover of Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented 'Terrorism'

Why did I love this book?

This book turned the field of Terrorism Studies on its head. Historical sociologist Lisa Stampnitzky demonstrates that the legion of terrorism experts who rose to prominence in North America, Western Europe, and Israel in the 1970s were not neutral analysts of political violence. Rather, through their intellectual work, much of it funded with government grants, terrorism scholars helped construct the contemporary meaning of terrorism as a threat to society fundamentally different from other forms of violence, crime, and political activity. This book made it clear that we can’t understand the history of “terrorism” without analyzing the history of the term itself, and how the use of this term in law, academia, politics, international relations, and popular culture has shaped political power and violent conflicts between states and insurgents.

By Lisa Stampnitzky,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Since 9/11 we have been told that terrorists are pathological evildoers, beyond our comprehension. Before the 1970s, however, hijackings, assassinations, and other acts we now call 'terrorism' were considered the work of rational strategic actors. Disciplining Terror examines how political violence became 'terrorism', and how this transformation ultimately led to the current 'war on terror'. Drawing upon archival research and interviews with terrorism experts, Lisa Stampnitzky traces the political and academic struggles through which experts made terrorism, and terrorism made experts. She argues that the expert discourse on terrorism operates at the boundary - itself increasingly contested - between science…

Book cover of Killing Strangers: How Political Violence Became Modern

Why did I love this book?

Prior to this book, most works on the long history of terrorism applied contemporary definitions of the term to various incidents throughout world history. Wilson turned the page on this framework. Killing Strangers analyzes the gamut of political violence in Western Europe and North America since the late eighteenth century to explain how we’ve arrived at a contemporary reality characterized, in part, by recurring fear of impersonal atrocities carried out in public gathering spaces. Wilson shows how, on one hand, the rise of the modern bureaucratic state’s “monopoly” on legitimate force pushed most violent challengers to the fringes of society. On the other hand, various technological innovations—from dynamite and automobiles to commercial airlines and satellite television—offered new possibilities for those intent on violent havoc. 

By T. K. Wilson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A bewildering feature of so much contemporary political violence is its stunning impersonality. Every major city centre becomes a potential shooting gallery; and every metro system a potential bomb alley. Victims just happen, as the saying goes, to 'be in the wrong place at the wrong time'.

We accept this contemporary reality - at least to some degree. But we rarely ask: where has it come from historically? Killing Strangers tackles this question head on. It examines how such violence became 'unchained' from inter-personal relationships. It traces the rise of such impersonal violence by examining violence in conjunction with changing…

Book cover of Does Terrorism Work? A History

Why did I love this book?

The field of terrorism research is dominated overwhelmingly by social scientists. However, Richard English has established himself as a leader in the historical study of terrorism and counterterrorism. As the title suggests, this book tackles a difficult, frequently avoided question. Using four case studies—al-Qaida, the Provisional IRA, Hamas, and the Basque ETA in Spain—English demonstrates that the answers are complex, and best explicated through long-term historical analysis. Terrorism has augmented other types of political action, enflamed broader political crises, and provoked disproportionate state responses, frequently with high costs and unintended consequences. While terrorism sometimes has achieved some of its perpetrators’ political goals, it also often has backfired. English shows that terrorism history is not only bloody, but messy, and entwined with wider conflicts between states and dissidents.

By Richard English,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Terrorism is one of the most significant security threats that we face in the twenty-first century. Not surprisingly, there is now a plethora of books on the subject, offering definitions of what terrorism is and proffering advice on what causes it and how states should react to it.

But one of the most important questions about terrorism has, until now, been left remarkably under-scrutinized: does it work? Richard English now brings thirty years of professional expertise studying terrorism to the task of answering this complex-and controversial - question.

Focussing principally on four of the most significant terrorist organizations of the…

Book cover of To Deter and Punish: Global Collaboration Against Terrorism in the 1970s

Why did I love this book?

The 1970s was a pivotal decade in the history of terrorism and counterterrorism. Airplane hijacking became widespread and widely televised during this period, as did other forms of politically motivated hostage-taking, bombings, and assassinations. Drawing from archival research in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, Zoller explains how states of the Global North responded with efforts at international cooperation, particularly as Palestinian nationalist militants and their allies traversed borders to enact ostensibly anticolonial violence far beyond contested territories in the Global South. International antiterrorism accords met limited success, however, as they frequently conflicted with various states’ geopolitical interests. Zoller demonstrates that by the early 1980s, multilateralism had given way to a militarized form of counterterrorism led by the United States that established a precedent for the post-9/11 War on Terrorism.

By Silke Zoller,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, governments in North America and Western Europe faced a new transnational threat: militants who crossed borders with impunity to commit attacks. These violent actors cooperated in hijacking planes, taking hostages, and organizing assassinations, often in the name of national liberation movements from the decolonizing world. How did this form of political violence become what we know today as "international terrorism"-lacking in legitimacy and categorized first and foremost as a crime?

To Deter and Punish examines why and how the United States and its Western European allies came to treat nonstate "terrorists" as a…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in terrorism, political violence, and the Cold War?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about terrorism, political violence, and the Cold War.

Terrorism Explore 82 books about terrorism
Political Violence Explore 17 books about political violence
The Cold War Explore 199 books about the Cold War

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Incendiary, The Circle, and The Political Economy of Terrorism if you like this list.