“They Are Amongst Us”: News About Islamist Terrorism, Perceptions of Sleeper Terrorists, and Negative Stereotypes Toward Muslims in the West

Jörg Matthes, Ruta Kaskeleviciute


In the debate around Islamist terrorism, experts and journalists often refer to the notion of “sleeper terrorists.” This notion rests on the idea that Islamist terror attacks in the Western world are difficult to prevent because potential terrorists typically live completely ordinary and inconspicuous lives among us while plotting terror attacks. We investigated how exposure to news about Islamist terror relates to audience perceptions of sleeper terrorists and how these perceptions are associated with negative stereotypes about Muslims. A two-wave panel survey conducted in Austria (NT2 = 524) showed that exposure to news about Islamist terror was not directly related to negative stereotypes but was positively associated with the perceived existence of sleeper terrorists. These perceptions, in turn, were positively related to negative stereotypes. Additionally, we found a positive association of negative stereotypes with sleeper terrorist perceptions. Implications for news reporting about Islamist terrorism are discussed.


terrorism news, Islamist terrorism, sleeper terrorists, stereotypes, Muslims

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