Securitisation Theory and the Islamic State


This essay examines and challenges some of the core elements and assumptions of the Copenhagen School’s “Securitization Theory”. After examining the theory, this essay argues that not only states and formal institutions but also non-state actors that might be labelled “illegitimate” as transnational terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State (i.e. IS), could be “securitizing actors”. In contrast, they portray security threats as “existential” threats through “speech acts” that are considered legitimate and convincing for specific/target “audiences”, who accept the use of violence and the application of “exceptional” and “extraordinary” measures by the leaders of the group to alleviate these “security” threats for their survival. In the following sections, this argument is further elaborated, using the securitization theory, about the case of IS; to examine how it securitized the West, convinced the target audiences that the West is a real threat, recruited sympathizers and legitimized the use of violence and conducting terrorist attacks against civilians in European countries.

Securitisation Theory

There have always been debates over what is a “security” issue (Mclnnes and Rushton, 2011). Is it only for “military” issues? Or should security be extended to areas of migration, health, environment, etc.? And more importantly, who is to determine what a “security” threat is, for whom and how to resolve it (Eroukhmanoff, 2018)? Thus, in attempting to resolve this puzzle, in the late 1980s, a significant contribution was made by Barry Buzan and Ole Waever, who established the securitization theory (Hirschauer, 2014, p.24).

The securitization theory mainly argues that for something to become a “security threat”, the “securitizing actor” should portray it discursively as such through a “speech act” to be threatening the existence of a legitimate “referent” object (Taureck, 2006). This is called a “securitizing move”, through which the securitizing actor is taking the security issue in question out of the realm of everyday politics to emergency politics; to be able to adopt ”extraordinary” measures for alleviating that threat and saving the referent object (Wilkinson, 2007; Hirschauer, 2014, p.24; Eroukhmanoff, 2018; Baysal, 2020, p.4). Besides, these measures are not necessarily violent, yet there could be economic or legal sanctions that are unusual, which makes them “extraordinary” or “exceptional” (Hirschauer, 2014, p.27). In short, the theory explains how the securitizing actor portrays/designs and manages the constructed security threat (Balzacq, Léonard and Ruzicka, 2015).

Based on the theory’s central thesis, there are two important points to touch upon. First, what counts as a “security threat”, and here, any issue could be constructed as such, whereas the theory did not provide specific criteria to follow while identifying security threats. Instead, it is an inter-subjective construction left for the world views, conceptions and understandings of the securitizing actor and should be accepted by a target audience as a real threat (Taureck, 2006; Balzacq, 2015). This means that the securitizing actors are selective while deciding on the issues present on the security agenda (Sethi, 2015). This leads to the second point: the core elements in the securitization process. As shown in the primary claim above, there should be a “securitizing actor” who maintains social, political and institutional power and capabilities to construct a security threat and has a legitimate right and claim to provide security to a “referent object” (i.e. the entity in threat, which is not necessarily the state, yet could be society, the environment, the individual, etc.) (Taureck, 2006; Zarb, 2015, p.26).

Moreover, the actor should be able to convince the “audiences” (i.e. they could be the public or functional actors within the state as the police, for instance) with the intensity of the threat and the legitimacy of his claims to be able to take “extraordinary measures” (Floyd, 2011). It is as if the actor is taking their consent and permission. This determines the success of the securitization move (Hirschauer, 2014, p.27-28; Zarb, 2015, p.23). The actor might need to provide the audience with some evidences during the “speech act”; to support the claims, and ensure that they do not doubt any of them; otherwise, de-securitization would take place (McInnes and Rushton, 2011).

These are the core elements of the Copenhagen School’s “Securitization Theory”. However, the theory has received several criticisms in the literature. For instance, Baysal (2020) argues that the securitization theory is an elitist theory regarding the relationship between the securitizing actor and the audiences. In contrast, it suggests that only state elites are those who construct security threats and the audiences are only passive listeners who either accept or reject threat constructions without engaging in the construction process (p.9). This essay directs another criticism against the theory, which is related to the “identity of the securitizing actor”.

The theory suggests that securitizing actors would be state officials/elites or formal institutions, such as the EU, mainly since security was initially defined as “national security” by Ole Waever. The securitization theory follows the “threat-defense” logic that Waever thought could be extended to other sectors rather than the military (Charrett, 2009, pp.13,24). Besides, it is state elites who have got the power and capabilities to frame and security manage threats (Balzacq, Léonard and Ruzicka, 2015). However, this is a limitation in theory, whereas non-state organizations are critical in international security, as they have interests and seek legitimacy and recognition, just like their state counterparts (Kruck and Schneiker, 2017, p.5). Baysal (2020) has touched upon a pretty similar point: he argued that the theory lacks a “dual approach” as it only focuses on how the issue/threat is constructed from one side only, which is the side of the securitizing actor that is labelled “legitimate” while ignoring a state or a non-state-actor (p.10). For instance, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in his speech in the House of Commons on the 2nd of December 2015, portrayed the Islamic State as an existential threat that should be dealt with and eliminated for the survival of the British nationals. He said, “We face a fundamental threat to our security”, and this is to justify the intervention in Syria and the extraordinary measures taken against Muslims.

Furthermore, he reiterated, “we should not wait any longer to reduce the threat…it is not about whether we want to fight terrorism but about how best we do that” (Eroukhmanoff, 2018). This was accepted by the UK, as it was perceived as counter-terrorism measures from a “legitimate” securitizing actor. On the other hand, the actions of the Islamic State and their speech acts and threat perceptions were perceived as illegitimate and were dealt with as acts of “terrorism”. Yet, this is not only because the Islamic state is a non-state actor. Kruck and Schneiker (2017, p.3) argue that some non-state organizations are considered “legitimate” securitizing actors, while others are not. This means that determining which is “legitimate” and which is not is a game of politics. What is important here is that what seems illegitimate for some is legitimate for others, which is the case with transnational terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. The following section applies the core elements of the securitization theory on the Islamic State; showing how an “illegitimate” non-state actor, as perceived by the international community, securitized the west and was able to convince a target audience discursively with that threat to support the group’s violence against Europe.

Islamic State as a “Securitizing Actor”

Following the securitization theory, the Islamic State is, in fact, a “securitizing actor.” It frames the western culture/values and civilization as “infidel”, and that infidelity is threatening the security and existence of the “Muslim Umma” (Mueller and Stewart, 2016; Sandal, 2018; Hussain, 2019), which is the “referent object”. This security threat is discursively portrayed through the Islamic State’s official media platforms/wings, such as the Al-Hayat Media Wing. For instance, it issued Al-Dabiq and Rumiyah Magazines in several languages. The Islamic State could portray the West as a threat and provide evidence to convince its target audiences (Günther, 2015; Ubayasiri, 2019).

Thus, the security threat is portrayed by the Islamic State through a “speech act”. In Al-Dabiq, the Islamic State portrayed western ideologies and civilizations as “complete falsehood” (Dabiq: 2: p. 5), which poses a real threat to the Muslim Umma, and the West is producing generations “void of faith” (Dabiq: 15, p.20). The Islamic State also provided some evidence that the West is “infidel” while portraying working in the capitalist economic structure as working in a “Modern-Day Slavery…that leaves Muslims in constant subjugation to a Kafir (i.e. infidel) master” (Dabiq: 3: p.29). Moreover, the Islamic State claimed the right to provide security to the Muslim Umma by claiming itself as Dar al-Salam, the Islamic Caliphate and God’s fighters on Earth (Johnsen, 2016; Mueller and Stewart, 2016).

This is the Islamic State’s “securitization move”, which is to frame/portray an existential threat to a referent object that is “legitimate” for specific “audiences”, especially for those who identify with the Muslim Umma and sympathize with the Islamic State’s cause. Moreover, consequently, the group is accepted as a “legitimate” securitizing actor by that group of audiences. The Islamic State targeted specific groups for the audience through each magazine/video/speech. As a securitizing actor, this indicates that the Islamic State is well aware of the importance of selecting suitable language/words to convince its target audiences of the “extraordinary measures” it wants to take to alleviate the perceived threat. In Al-Dabiq, it was targeting European Muslims (Chan, 2015). Hence, throughout the magazine, the Islamic State called European Muslims to leave Europe and migrate to the Islamic State, which is a religious duty (Dabiq: 3, p.27).

And for those who would not be able to do “Hijra”, they should remain in their countries and fight against their homelands by committing terrorist attacks, which is also a “religious duty” (Johnsen, 2016). Otherwise, they would be “hypocrites who willingly sacrifice themselves to infidel western immoral freedom and secular liberalism” (Dabiq: 3, p.27; Dabiq: 15, p.25). In that way, the Islamic State legitimized and justified the “extraordinary measures” it saw necessary to alleviate the perceived threat, which was destroying the infidel west. Not only that, it portrayed destroying it as a “religious duty” that true Muslims would get rewarded for.

In assessing whether the Islamic State’s securitizing move was successful, the securitization theory suggests looking at the acceptance/rejection of the audiences. In the case of the Islamic State, several IS-sponsored attacks were conducted by IS affiliates who were European nationals, such as the January 2015 Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Bata-clan, the 2016 attacks in Brussels and the 2016 attacks on the Christmas markets in Berlin and Stockholm (Global Terrorist Index, 2016 and European Parliament, 2017). Not only that but also several Europeans travelled to the Islamic State bases in Iraq and Syria. In late 2015 alone, more than 5,000 Europeans did al-Hijra to Syria, believing it was a “religious duty” (European Parliament, 2017).

This means that a considerable number of European Muslims consider the Islamic State and its claims legitimate, which means that the Islamic State’s securitization move achieved a significant degree of success. This is just an example of how terrorist groups could be securitizing actors too, and how the securitizing theory applies to non-state actors and states, even if they are not recognized or labelled “illegitimate” by the international community.


This essay shows how the elements of the securitization theory could be applied to an internationally “illegitimate” non-state organization, such as the Islamic State. This means that the theory needs to be revisited to analyze all the sides, especially on terrorism and counter-terrorism topics, whereas portraying the Islamic State as illegitimate. The European states, as legitimate, for instance, would not be helpful if this would lead to neglecting the securitization process that the Islamic State underwent to recruit sympathizers and legitimize its actions. Thus, the theory needs to accept states and non-state actors as securitizing actors, as long as they have “audiences” who consider the actors and their claims to frame threats and provide security legitimacy.

About the Author

Mariam Sabry is a Non-Resident Research Officer at the International Institute for Global Strategic Analysis (IIGSA). She is an Egyptian M.Sc student in political science. She graduated in 2020 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political science from the British University in Egypt and London South Bank university.

Her research focuses on Counter Terrorism, National Security and Strategic Studies. Both her BA and M.Sc theses examine the involvement of women in terrorist groups and different forms of violent resistance. She also works on the link between religion, politics, culture, peace and gender studies. Previously, she worked at the British University in Egypt for two years. She has been published in Core Middle East Magazine.

Table of Contents


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