Colombia – ‘Rebel Attacks on Oil Sites Threaten Peace Talks in Colombia’ (LA Times, 2015)

By Emily Maddox (2015)

The article I am analysing was posted by ‘LA Times’ on 14th June 2015, entitled ‘Rebel Attacks on Oil Sites Threaten Peace Talks in Colombia’ written by Chris Kraul. In June 2015, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as FARC, engaged in a week of violence against their state, forcing oil to be poured into the rivers, attacking electricity pylons leaving an estimated one million people without power, and killing two members of the Colombian civil service. The oil spill, caused by bombing of pipelines and the ambush of truck drivers, created what may be “the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history” (Brodzinsky, 2015: 1). FARC is a left-wing organisation which was established in 1964 following a decade of civil war, set up by “land-hungry peasants” (Molano, 2000: 23) who strove to “seek power and social legitimacy” (Bibes, 2001: 245). The organisation has since expanded and engaged in criminal activity which has significantly funded the movement, including kidnappings and drug trafficking. In this essay I will critically analyse the report and the type of attack that took place, considering what terrorist attributes and motives can be seen within FARC.

The article employs a number of photographs evidencing the event supported by comments alluding to FARC’s forceful nature. The aggressive lexis used, discussing FARC’s “senseless” (Kraul, 2015: 1) nature following their attacks which will “harm the livelihoods of poor workers” (Kraul, 2015: 1), immediately indicates the stance of the article, remaining noticeably hostile towards the actions of FARC. In the entirety of the article, merely one sentence is allocated to FARC’s motives for the attack, thought to be to “force the government to agree to a bilateral cease-fire” (Kraul, 2015: 1). The majority of the text includes an array of quotations discussing FARC’s actions, all of which condemn the attacks and consider the “growing hatred” (Kraul, 2015: 1) towards the revolutionary group. The article maintains an anti-terrorist stance, promoting the “US vision and version of terrorism” (Freedman and Thussu, 2012: 5) which is “extended to reach a global audience” (Freedman and Thussu, 2012: 5).

Terrorism is a topic that is permanently on the international agenda, ever-developing as an increasing issue in today’s world. Michael Clarke describes terrorism as a “criminal act that has planning” (Clarke, 2004: 294) designed to “foster fear and dread outside the immediate impact area” (Clarke, 2004: 294), supporting Martha Crenshaw’s statement that terrorism “targets the few in a way that claims the attention of the many” (Crenshaw, 1995: 2). Other scholars consider terrorism as a “form of warfare” (O’Neill, 1990: 24) typically directed at non-combatants – “usually unarmed civilians” (O’Neill, 1990: 24) – however, FARC have focused their attack on the environment and military, yet are still labelled as terrorist by many global powers. Therefore, it is evident here that there is “no single, commonly accepted definition of terrorism” (O’Neill, 1990: 24), hence why assessing terrorism and concluding how to respond to a domestic or international threat is so challenging. FARC’s influence has grown significantly over the past decades, due to both their increase in membership as well as finances. FARC has developed to recruit children and women into their movement, with the number of female terrorists increasing “several hundredfold in the past few years” (Bloom, 2011: 1). Their Marxist ideas, inspired by the Soviet Bolshevik revolution, have spread internationally; as a result, virtually “all left-wing Latin American revolutionaries” (Martin, 2010: 181) have Marxist ideologies embedded within their cause. The Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement is an example of this, who aimed to establish a Socialist state. Due to the spread of revolutionary ideas, terror in Colombia has become a “contagious physical reality” (Uribe, 2004: 80) through the use of force and violence.

It is important to analyse whether FARC members can be considered terrorists, or fighting for the greater good for the people. The infamous statement, “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” (Freedman and Thussu, 2012: 7) comes into consideration here. FARC was born out of Colombia’s agrarian movements of the 1930s and 1940s, ultimately excluding themselves into the countryside following the civil war. They have always claimed to fight for the country’s rural poor and attempted to gain land and recognition to further their case, after feeling neglected by the Colombian government. Following the Colombian government’s attack on outcast communities in May 1964, individuals physically fought back at government forces, and FARC emerged. For these reasons, FARC would argue they are “freedom fighters waging a just war” (Martin, 2010: 8) as a means of defence against a greater, oppressive power.

To analyse the nature of the group further, it is necessary to assess the types of terrorism that appear to be demonstrated. In Gus Martin’s book, ‘Understanding Terrorism: Challenges, Perspectives and Issues’, he discusses Peter Sederberg’s research regarding the different types of dissident terrorism: revolutionary, nihilist, nationalist and criminal. Revolutionary terrorism is regarded as “the threat or use of political violence aimed at effecting complete revolutionary change” (Martin, 2010: 111), with dissidents often “outnumbered and outgunned by the established order” (Martin, 2010: 111). This attitude is evident when FARC was first established in 1964 in response to the governments’ use of force against them, whereby their aims were interpreted as an objective to “overthrow the democratic Colombian government” (Cragin, 2007: 18) and “replace it with a Communist regime” (Cragin, 2007: 18) based on their Marxist-Leninist ideology. The government gradually became more responsive to FARC’s demands following many years of conflict, and peace talks ensued throughout the mid-1980s. During this time, FARC co-founded the Patriotic Union who stood to represent them in parliament. From this point, it is possible to consider FARC a sub-revolutionary terrorist group; they exert the same tendencies as revolutionary, but aim to introduce “various changes in a particular political system” (Martin, 2010: 111) without entirely abolishing it.

Sederberg considers national dissident terrorism as a movement motivated by “the desire for some degree of national autonomy, such as… regional self-governance, or complete national independence” (Martin, 2010: 112). This can be seen through FARC’s desire to obtain “their control of territory as a bargaining chip against the government” (Ngweno, 2007: 82) as they aim to increase their influence and power by taking control of parts of rural land. An area “about the size of Switzerland” (Ngweno, 2007: 82) is now under FARC’s control, and has been since 1998. The FARC are recognised by their rural, working class background and Communist outlook, separating them from the capitalist society of Colombia and providing them with a nationalised identity.

In the latter decades of FARC’s establishment, their increasing involvement with criminal terrorism positioned them as a greater threat to the Colombian government. FARC engaged in kidnappings and holding hostages for ransom, murders and drug trafficking, which financially aided them significantly. The “drug trade boom” (Otis, 2015: 1) experienced in the 1970s and 1980s meant that FARC was able to “finance its revolution” (Martin, 2010: 182) and fuel their empire; it was estimated that at its peak, FARC’S drug trade was worth over $350million (Martin, 2010: 249). Patricia Bibes analyses the success of FARC’s drug trafficking in her book ‘Transnational Organized Crime and Terrorism’, estimating that “each FARC guerrilla makes $14,000 per year” (Bibes, 2001: 247). Bibes makes the correlation between the wealth increase in criminal networks and violence at national level as a result, which is “characterised by confrontations that use terrorist tactics” (Bibes, 2001: 244). This form of activity is labelled narco-terrorism, which has evolved to become a “major contributor to political conflict” (Bibes, 2001: 244) as well as a significant crime problem. Due to FARC’s involvement with the drug trade, they gradually became “independent from outside aid” (Martin, 2010: 182), influenced by their belief that, due to their boom in wealth and power, they were “providers of economic progress” (Bibes, 2001: 245) and “defenders of national sovereignty” (Bibes, 2001: 245). This amounts to the ‘gray area phenomenon’ as professed by Bruce Hoffman in his book ‘Inside Terrorism’, who addresses the issue of control shifting from “legitimate governments to new half-political, half-criminal powers” (Hoffman, 2006: 18) in immense regions or urban areas due to the growth of criminal terrorism. He identifies the growth of “irregular forces” (Hoffman, 2006: 18) that create conflicts, which “no longer conformed to traditionally accepted notions of war” (Hoffman, 2006: 18). FARC is an example of this proven through their attacks on military personnel and the environment. The revolutionary group have “made an industry out of kidnap and extortion” (Wilkinson, 2001: 19), with Colombia maintaining the highest record of terrorist attacks in the world between 1970 and 2008 with 6,777 incidences (Freedman and Thussu, 2012: 1). As a result, the “distinction between narco-war and guerrilla war is blurred” (Bibes, 2001: 246) and FARC has continued to grow as an increasing threat posed to both the Colombian government and international relations.

Vertical organization of a terrorist group, also known as cell terrorism, is a new, 21st century method of structure which the FARC adopted. Cell terrorism implements “indistinct command and organisational configurations” (Martin, 2010: 127), meaning that if one cell or its members are attacked, “little damage” (Martin, 2010: 128) is done to other independent cells. This is a significant benefit and clearly demonstrated by FARC, having experienced numerous conflicts with the Colombian forces, yet still have the capacity to continue fighting today – 51 years after their establishment. Their level of terrorism can be seen as national, as they argue they are “defenders of national sovereignty” (Bibes, 2001: 245) due to their belief they were ignored by the government, therefore commit acts of terrorism to liberate the people they stand for.

Scholars have proposed a range of psychological explanations reasoning why individuals are influenced to oppose certain organizations and act against societal norms. Edwin Sutherland put forward the ‘differential association theory’ which advocates that organizations “foster criminal behaviour” (Matsueda, 2000: 127) as a result of social disorganisation. When a community is unable to resolve its issues and “achieve shared values” (Matsueda, 2000: 127), crime rates are heightened. In turn, Sutherland also argues that people learn their behaviour in association with others, therefore crime influences crime. ‘Radical criminology’ is an additional psychological explanation that Gus Martin addresses. This is similar to the ‘differential association theory’, in that it supports the idea that those who feel “shut out” (Martin, 2010: 58) resort to criminal activity; however ‘radical criminology’ focuses on “unequally distributed” (Martin, 2010: 58) power and wealth as the reasoning behind exclusion. This is a theory Marxism supports, and uses as a leverage to promote Communist ideas. Emile Durkheim proposed ‘anomie and strain theories’ as an additional reason for engaging in terrorist behaviour. The theory of anomie focuses on “cultural goals and institutional means” (Featherstone, 2003: 472), whilst the theory of strain concludes there is unequal availability to these resources across society, resulting in individuals “more likely to pursue illegitimate means” (Featherstone, 2003: 472) to obtain these goals if they are “blocked from accessing the institutionalized means” (Featherstone, 2003: 472). When comparing these theories, it is evident to see that they all focus on unequal distribution of wealth or power, resulting in individuals or groups feeling isolated and deprived. This can justify why FARC swiftly grew in membership when it was established, as people felt dissatisfied with the Colombian government therefore turned to the biggest growing crime: drug trafficking.

FARC adopted terrorism arguably as a defensive mechanism following a Colombian military attack on their rural communities in 1964. FARC was born out of a decade of civil war, known as ‘La Violencia’, whereby there was mass unrest and unstable politics. The political process theory can be applied here, which argues that “social movements emerge as a result of “expanding” political opportunities” (Goodwin and Jasper, 1999: 30); FARC developed in an unstable political climate, allowing them to gain support and present themselves as an ideal alternative to other political parties. They were able to retain a “cult of strong leadership” (Crenshaw, 1995: 236) posing a great threat to the Colombian government through their terrorist activities, to the point of which “huge rural areas of the country are now totally ungovernable” (Wilkinson, 2001: 19). The growing global demand for drugs in the late 20th century further endorsed a political climate in which FARC could benefit financially. The resource mobilization theory considers support from the elite, and examines how they can “create or gain access to key resources” (Corte, 2013: 29). Prior to the drug boom, FARC received “weapons, training, and financial assistance from Cuba” (Otis, 2015: 1) who supported their Marxist-Leninist way of thinking. Their support from a powerful neighbour further increased their decision to engage in terrorist activity as they were sustained both financially and morally. However, resource mobilization theory also values symbolic resources, such as moral standing, charisma and hype, which results in movements “working closely together with liberation movements and solidarity movements” (Klein, 2011: 458). FARC’s “extreme kidnapping records and involvement in the drug trade” (Shifter, 2012: 1) gradually resulted in a decline of support, demonstrated in 1999 when “a quarter of the Colombian population” (Shifter, 2012: 1) protested across the country against FARC. As a result, they have been left somewhat isolated, and have no domestic movements to cooperate with. This issue is addressed in the article, as we are left with the rhetorical question enquiring, “how will the referendum go given the growing hatred toward the FARC?” (Kraul, 2015: 1). FARC’s adoption of terrorism was initially successful given the political climate at the time; however, since Colombia’s society has progressed, their criminal and violent nature is no longer as supported.

In order to address the legitimacy of attacks discussed in the article, the ‘just war’ theory and its principles can be applied. We must firstly consider jus ad bellum, having “the correct conditions for waging war in the first place” (Martin, 2010: 8) and whether FARC considered these before their attack. FARC executed the week of attacks to produce a “bilateral cease-fire” (Kraul, 2015: 1), therefore, as an attempt to re-establish peace between the two groups. It can also be argued that the attacks were motivated by the prospect of readdressing a wrong, as FARC felt they were ignored by the government and their needs dismissed. Secondly, we must consider jus in bello, the “correct behaviour while waging war” (Martin, 2010: 8). If we analyse each assault independently, this is applicable to FARC’s attack on infrastructure. This did not result in physical human suffering, but “produced limited destruction” (Sanin, 2006: 137) and inconvenience. However, the assassination of two service men is not applicable within the just war theory: the loss of lives, without FARC receiving any solid gain, is not proportional to the violence employed. Furthermore, “terrorist groups… and guerrilla groups are not seen as legitimately authorised to wage war” (Smit, 2005: 117) and as FARC does not represent, nor obtain, a legitimate authority, they have ultimately facilitated an unjust war.

When applying Martha Crenshaw’s theory of terrorism, it is possible to analyse the rationality of FARC’s actions. When FARC was first established, the present Colombian government was relatively weak, resulting in a permissive precondition. Another precondition is modernisation, which creates both “opportunities and vulnerabilities” (Crenshaw, 1981: 381) for terrorists. This is evident in FARC’s attack on electricity pylons and oil pipelines; they are attacking infrastructures which are symbolisms of how society has progressed, and damaged them to cause inconvenience for thousands of citizens. Crenshaw addresses the need for a group to appear inspiring within a society that seemingly lacks opportunities for participation and dissatisfaction with the elite. FARC distinguish their group as having a “high symbolic and expressive value” (Crenshaw, 1995: 2), representing those people who have been alienated by the Colombian government. Urbanization is an additional permissive precondition which FARC utilised to their advantage during the 1970s and 1980s to fuel their drug trafficking, as the urban environment stood as a recruiting ground offering a multitude of targets. Lastly, cultural facilitation is a precondition which encourages terrorism. Crenshaw argues that “broad attitudes and beliefs that condone terrorism are communicated transnationally” (Crenshaw, 1981: 383), which is evident when analysing FARC’s inspiration from the Bolshevik revolution. From this, FARC adopted their Marxist-Leninist ideas and mimicked their rural, Communist way of life, as well as violent, revolutionary nature.

When identifying direct causes of terrorism, Crenshaw’s main argument towards fuelling terrorism is the “existence of concrete grievances among an identifiable subgroup of a larger population” (Crenshaw, 1981: 383). FARC emerged amongst “the peasants in rural areas” (Bibes, 2001: 287), thus felt an oppressed minority within their country resorting to acts of violence to gain identity and attention. An additional direct cause is “lack of opportunity for political participation” (Crenshaw, 1981: 383), which is demonstrated through the extermination of 2,000 UP leaders and followers “ten years after it had been founded” (Arnson, 1999: 177), proving the Colombian government was not willing to cooperate with FARC, even within a political, non-violent atmosphere. The LA Times states FARC’s motive was to “force the government to agree to a bilateral cease-fire” (Kraul, 2015: 1). Had the Colombian government not rejected political discussions by assassinating members of FARC’s governmental party, FARC’s acts of terrorism, by attacking infrastructure and killing members of the civil service, may not have been committed. We can therefore conclude that when applying Crenshaw’s model, it is evident that many of her variables are in place prior to FARC committing acts of terrorism. It can be argued the attack was a rational choice due to lack of government recognition, in relation to weak government and inspiration preconditions, as well as direct grievances and lack of opportunities.

The “score of attacks” (Kraul, 2015: 1) inflicted by FARC in their “week of violence” (Kraul, 2015: 1) during June 2015 have had varied rates of success. One of their main overriding aims as a terrorist group is to “achieve internal recognition as… a political actor that overshadows the Colombian state” (Rochlinm 2003: 140); their attacks on infrastructure have been documented globally, making recognition in LA Times, BBC News and Panam Post. An effective method of terrorism is to “use the environment in delivering and developing a terrorist threat” (Clarke, 2004: 301) which FARC have clearly exercised here by attacking oil pipelines and contaminating rivers. Despite the attacks, President Santos stated he “vowed to push ahead with the peace talks” (Kraul, 2015: 1), however it arguable whether this is a success or failure for FARC. It has been criticised that FARC have become “decadent guerrillas rather than genuine revolutionaries” (Wilkinson, 2001: 19), therefore whether their intended outcome was to continue peace talks or escalate violence with the government is debatable. Furthermore, due to the stance of the article, the writer has taken the attack as an opportunity to promote negative support for FARC, stating that if FARC were to be convicted of their attacks, “89% of Colombians believe FARC leaders should do time” (Kraul, 2015: 1).

In response to terrorist attacks exercised by FARC, the Colombian state has worked closely with USA and adopted many of their training methods in order to tackle the issues. In the book ‘America’s Other War’, Doug Stokes has outlined some of the methods Colombia adopted from USA in response to countering terrorism. One method was entitled ‘Handling Sources’, which stated that “good techniques” (Stokes, 2004: 60) to force people to provide information about terrorists is “the targeting of family members and use of physical violence” (Stokes, 2004: 60). Another method was the “abduction and harsh treatment of civilians” (Stokes, 2004: 61) with the aim of raising awareness about the “associated costs of dissent” (Stokes, 2004: 61). The Colombian government practiced this method during the 1990s with the removal of members of UP and their supporters, which saw a decline in FARC members. It is therefore demonstrated that the Colombian government responded with state terrorism in reaction to countering FARC via the removal of political opposition and civilians. However, the “week of violence” (Kraul, 2015: 1) implemented by FARC as discussed in the article stands to highlight the failures of the state’s methods of counter-terrorism. The article does not outline any government plans to respond with violence, but President Santos plans to take “the high road in insisting that the talks must continue” (Kraul, 2015: 1). However, given events from history, with dissident terrorism countered by state terrorism, it is unsure whether the state’s response will provide Colombia with an end to FARC’s terrorism.

Overall, it can be concluded that FARC was a revolutionary group inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideas, which fuelled their hostilities towards the Colombian government and provided them with an identity to represent the working rural class. Whilst claiming they fight for the liberation of their people, they have committed terrorist acts against government and military personnel repeatedly throughout their history. Their involvement in criminal terrorism has provided them with a ‘gray area’ image, appearing half-criminal, half-political, resulting in them losing mass support in recent years. The political climate of which they were first established favored their outlook and movement, however Colombian society has since progressed and grown unsympathetic towards their actions, proven by the 1999 demonstrations against FARC. Crenshaw’s model clearly outlines the rational thinking behind FARC’s terrorist actions, centered on a weak government and concrete grievances. The attacks which took place in June 2015 fuelled international recognition from the media – an aim which FARC primarily desired. However, the article has utilized the attack as an opportunity to promote negative support for the group, therefore the extent to which the attacks can be considered a success are significantly hindered.




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One thought on “Colombia – ‘Rebel Attacks on Oil Sites Threaten Peace Talks in Colombia’ (LA Times, 2015)

  1. This is an excellent analysis: very well researched, well written, and demonstrating very good understanding of the case study, very good application of scholarly work to the case study, and very good critical thinking.

    At the same time, perhaps the essay spends rather long covering types of terrorism. The extensive analysis is good, but the pace could have perhaps been a little sharper. This would have allowed the essay to expand a bit on other issues, such as counter-terrorism – allowing it for instance to reflect in more detail on the peace process, or on the role of the US in the conflict. Moreover, although the analysis is systematically very good, sometimes it’s a little short of ‘excellent’ in that it’s not as strong and fully developed and applied to the case study as elsewhere. The discussion of psychological and other causes could also have been a tad more rigorous at times.

    Nonetheless, this remains an excellent essay, demonstrating outstanding critical analysis.


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