GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

5.5 Nationalism, Separatism, and Terrorism


We have so far presented an overview of nationalism and briefly discussed its uses and how it operates. Nationalism clearly has implications for human security, as it may serve as a foundation or mobilizing force for separatism or terrorism.

Separatism is the desire for independence and self-determination by national or ethnic groups; this usually entails a claim to specific territory and the intent to secede from a larger state. There are several well-known examples of separatist movements throughout the world, including Kurdish separatism in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria; Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka; Tuareg separatism in Mali and Niger; Quebecois separatism in Canada; Basque separatism in Spain; and so on.

Terrorism is “organized violence that deliberately targets civilians and that is intended to sow fear among a population for political purposes” (Gregory et al., 2009, p. 747), though other definitions broaden this definition somewhat. For example, Borum defines terrorism as “acts of violence (as opposed to threats or more general coercion) intentionally perpetrated on civilian non-combatants with the goal of furthering some ideological, religious or political objective” (2004, p. 4). There are debates among scholars as to whether terrorism is, by definition, perpetrated only by non-state actors, or whether states can engage in terrorism (see also English, 2019).

It is absolutely crucial to bear in mind that states exert a significant amount of control over discourses of terrorism. States have the power to construct groups as terrorist in nature through rhetoric and the selective release of information. Consequently, it is important to keep a critical perspective on what does and does not constitute terrorism, bearing in mind that what is framed as a terrorist organization by one authority may be framed as freedom-fighters by another. The lines are not always clear, thus it is important to ask why a given group is (or is not) deemed a terrorist organization by a given state.

Understanding the relationships between nationalism, separatism, and terrorism

To some degree, nationalism, separatism, and terrorism are universes unto themselves. Yet we can consider these three phenomena as both coexisting and overlapping, as in a Venn diagram: some nationalist movements are also separatist; some terrorist movements are nationalist; some separatist movements are driven by terrorist organizations; and sometimes an organization or movement can embody all three of these. 

Before we continue, we want to offer the following caveats. First, it is imperative to remember that not all nationalism leads to separatism and not all separatism is nationalist in orientation. As an example of the latter, consider narrow-scale separatist religious communities like the Old Order Amish, who purposefully maintain a geographic separation from broader US society by creating rural settlements that Stump refers to as “rural colonies” (2008, p. 24) — this is a form of separatism that is neither nationalist in orientation nor seeks to create an independent state.

Likewise, not all nationlist or separatist movements resort to terrorism, and not all terrorism is linked to nationalism or separatism (consider, for example, anti-abortion bombings, or the environmentally-motivated violence perpetrated by Ted Kaczynski — both of which are/were acts of domestic terrorism). Finally, not all violence is terrorism — an armed uprising by a mass of civilians is a socially, politically, and geographically different event than a planned and targeted bombing by an individual or organization. 

With these caveats in mind, we want to emphasize a few specific points here about the relationships between nationalism, separatism, and terrorism.

First, many separatist movements are rooted in nationalism, and often use nationalist rhetoric as a means of mobilizing support for their causes (Ryabinin, p. 2017). While some separatist movements resort to violence (and sometimes terrorism) to achieve their goals, not all do.

Separatist movements are complex with respect to their relationship to terrorism; a single separatist movement may have several factions that differ on political and strategic grounds (see, e.g., the variety of Kurdish political parties in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey as described in Hevian, 2013); some factions might favor violent action to achieve their goals while others rely on nonviolent strategies (e.g., forming political parties that try to operate within the existing state system). As we noted above, not all separatist movements resort to violence or terrorism — but states sometimes discursively construct peaceful separatist movements as terrorist movements (Pokalova, 2010).

While separatist movements are largely driven by nationalism, the converse is not necessarily the case. That is, nationalist movements do not necessarily seek the establishment of a separate, independent state. For example, the current increase in nationalist movements throughout Europe is in many cases a reaction to immigration and economic conditions; these movements are led by groups that seek to push immigrants out rather than to break away from existing states (see BBC News, 2019).

Like separatism, nationalism more broadly has a complex relationship with terrorism (see Reinares 2005). On the one hand, nationalism can be used as a means of rationalizing terrorist activity, often in the cases of religious and ethnic nationalism. This has certainly been the case for the Irish Republican Army in North Ireland, and for the Basque separatist group ETA in Spain (Sànchez-Cuenca, 2007). On the other, nationalism can also be used to try to curb terrorism. This has been the case with Saudi Arabia’s plan to counter violent extremism in the last two decades, as noted in the 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism from the US Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism (emphasis added):

To promote a more comprehensive, collaborative, and proactive approach to CVE, Saudi activities focused on identifying pathways to terrorist radicalization and recruitment; and countering these by government messaging that emphasized nationalism, rejected intolerant ideologies, including those based on religious interpretations, and cultivated appreciation for Saudi culture and heritage as the basis for national identity. (US Dept of State, 2019)

As part of this plan, the Saudi Ministry of Education has implemented programs in schools that “seek to educate students about the dangers of terrorism and aim to promote nationalism,” and which Saudi officials compare to drug awareness and milk consumption programs in American classrooms (Boucek, 2008).


Jabareen, Y. (2015). The emerging Islamic State: Terror, territoriality, and the agenda of social transformation. Geoforum, 58, 51-55.

Pokalova, E. (2010). Framing separatism as terrorism: Lessons from Kosovo. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33(5), 429-447.

Reinares, F. (2005). Nationalist separatism and terrorism in comparative perspective. In T. Bjørgo (Ed.), Root causes of terrorism: Myths, reality, and ways forward (pp. 119-130). Routledge.


Caló, B., Malet, D., Howie, L, and Lentini, P. (2020). Islamic Caliphate or nation state? Investigating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's imagined Community. Nations and Nationalism, 26(3), 727-742.

Additional References:

BBC News. (2019, November 13). Europe and right-wing nationalism: A country-by-country guide

Borum, R. (2004). Psychology of terrorism. University of South Florida.

Boucek, C. (2008). Report: Saudi Arabia’s “soft” counterterrorism strategy: Prevention, rehabilitation, and aftercare. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

English, R. (2019). Nationalism and terrorism. In E. Chenoweth, R. English, S. Kalyvas, and A. Gofas (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of terrorism (pp. 268-282). Oxford University Press.

Gregory, D., Johnston, R., Pratt, G., Watts, M. J, and Whatmore, S. (2009). The dictionary of human geography. Wiley-Blackwell.

Hevian, R., (2013). The main Kurdish political parties in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey: A research guide. Middle East Review of International Affairs, 17(2), 94-112.

Ryabinin, Y. (2017), The basic causes of the contemporary separatism, Journal of Geography, Politics and Society, 7(1), 5-9.

Sànchez-Cuenca, I. (2007). The dynamics of nationalist terrorism: ETA and the IRA. Terrorism and Political Violence, 19(3), 289-306.

Stump, R. (2008). The geography of religion: Faith, place, and space. Rowman & Littlefield.

United States Department of State. (2019). U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2019. Retrieved from the Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism.