Definition of terrorism

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This article is one in a small series of "drafts," within a coordinated effort to consolidate and refactor between existing articles. Involved articles include Terrorism/Draft
Car bombing
Suicide bombing
Nuclear terrorism
Independent actors

There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. According to expert Walter Laqueur, "the only general characteristic generally agreed upon is that terrorism involves violence and the threat of violence."

This criterion alone does not produce a useful definition, as it includes many acts not usually considered terrorism—war, organized crime, revolution, or even a simple riot. Asymmetric warfare and low-intensity operations are military terms for tactics that can include terrorism.

At its core, the definition of terrorism is not so much a description of a particular kind of violence, like bombing or assassination, but a way to characterize an act of violence relative to the speaker, and their point of view.

"Terrorism," thus is a term that attempts to define, as a separate phenomenon, a philosophy of coordinated violence which tends to have a high degree of social impact on the target society. Terrorist violence may be perpetrated by rebels in opposition to an established social order or it may be inflicted by a state upon its own citizens or those of another state (see State terrorism).

One 1988 study by the US Army [1] ( discovered that over 100 definitions have been used. Some examples:

  • U.S. Code of Federal Regulations: "...the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives" (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).
  • Current U.S. national security strategy: "premeditated, politically motivated violence against innocents."
  • United States Department of Defense: the "calculated use of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies in pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological."
  • British Terrorism Act 2000, defines terrorism so as to include not only attacks on military personnel, but also acts not usually considered violent, such as shutting down a website whose views one dislikes.
  • 1984 U.S. Army training manual says: "Terrorism is the calculated use of violence, or the threat of violence, to produce goals that are political or ideological in nature."
  • Brian Jenkins: "Terrorism is the use or threatened use of force designed to bring about political change."
  • Walter Laqueur: "Terrorism constitutes the illegitimate use of force to achieve a political objective when innocent people are targeted."
  • 1986 Vice-President's Task Force: "Terrorism is the unlawful use or threat of violence against persons or property to further political or social objectives. It is usually intended to intimidate or coerce a government, individuals or groups, or to modify their behavior or politics."
  • James M. Poland: "Terrorism is the premeditated, deliberate, systematic murder, mayhem, and threatening of the innocent to create fear and intimidation in order to gain a political or tactical advantage, usually to influence an audience."

The following are some further criteria that are sometimes applied, and the acts they exclude from the definition of "terrorism". Note that many incidents often labelled as terrorist fail one or more criteria.

  • Target - It is commonly held that the distinctive nature of terrorism lies in its deliberate and specific selection of civilians as targets. Furthermore, an act is more likely to be considered terrorism if it targets a general populace than if it purposefully targets a specific individual or group. See also Noncombatant and Collateral damage.
This criterion excludes: assassination of a head of state or leader of comparable stature (such as that of United States President John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr.), conventional warfare in accordance with the laws of war, attacks on military targets (such as the bombing of the USS Cole), and guerilla warfare and revolution when limited to military targets.
  • Objective - As the name implies, terrorism is understood as an attempt to provoke fear and intimidation. Hence, terrorist acts are designed and intended to attract wide publicity and cause public shock, outrage, and/or fear. The intent may be to provoke disproportionate reactions from states.
This criterion excludes: the Holocaust and other cases of genocide, which are undertaken to exterminate, not to intimidate, and which are usually hidden rather than publicized. Also, any violence against targets unlikely to attract public notice and having little effect on the populace at large.
  • Motive - These acts are intended to achieve political or religious goals, not for personal gain. For example, a gang of bank robbers who kill the bank manager, blow up the vault and escape with the contents would normally not be classed as terrorists, because their motive was profit. However, if a gang were to execute the same assault with the intent of causing a crisis in public confidence in the banking system, followed by a run on the banks and a subsequent destabilization of the economy, then the gang would be classed as terrorists.
This criterion excludes: organized crime (the Mafia, etc.)
  • Legitimacy - Some hold that a legitimate government cannot, by definition, commit terrorism on its own territory. In this view, a state can commit war crimes or crimes against humanity, but these actions are distinct from terrorism. See state terrorism.
This criterion excludes: warfare between states, government repression, the Holocaust and other state-sponsored genocide or ethnic cleansing.
  • Dominance - Some, particularly political conservatives, claim that only acts of "revolutionary" violence should be considered terrorist in nature; in this context, only members of a disgruntled group seen (by both themselves and others) as having a subordinate position within the larger society in which they live are capable of "revolutionary" violence, and any similar acts committed on behalf of the dominant or majority segment of the populace are "reactionary" and hence do not qualify as terrorism (when the "have-nots" do it it's "terrorism," but when the "haves" do it they are defending "tradition," "order," etc.)
This criterion excludes: groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and those who commit racial hate crimes or gay-bashing

Noam Chomsky, the noted activist, points to the claims that distinguish between the targeting of civilians and the targeting of military personnel. If the logic underlying "counterterrorism" is used consistently, the use of military force against civilians must also qualify as terrorism. Violence, Chomsky says, is objective, wheras "terrorism" is relative to the speaker or their point of view. He states in his book 9-11, page 76: "The wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not a war against terrorism."

To term an act as a "terrorist" act, will thus carry with it the above connotations, even if they may not factually fit the definitions. Thus there are large divergences between the legal use of the term, and the polemic use, which carries with it some common distortions: 1. The early characterization of an act as "terrorism", and 2. The classification as "terrorism" of actions by those considered "terrorists." For example, the assassination of individuals, if committed by "known terrorists," will be called "terrorism." Because of the above distortions, the distinctions between types of actors (military, paramilitary, unlawful combatant) in the laws of war tend to be less than the definition of the violent act itself.

The "terror" or pronounced state of fear that is manifest as a result of an act of terrorism is limited in terms of its immediate threat, but causes enough of a general disturbance to threaten this existing social order. Thus, terrorism, can loosely be defined as the use of violence to bring about a change in a particular social order. It is violence as a means to get political attention for causes that are out of, or contradictory to, the established agenda —which may itself also use asymmetrical and immoral violence to enforce its established political and social order.

The central item that distinguishes terrorism from other kinds of coordinated violence is the often-random choice of targets, giving the appearance of senselessness and chaos. The low-profile of terrorism actors tends to make them less succeptible to moderate common influences, and the danger imposed by enforcers of the existing order makes the potential actors more out of touch with their larger collective political body.

Politicization of the term

Because there is no single accepted definition of "terrorism," there is a tendency to use the term only when politically convenient. Hence, the term "terrorist" is heavily politicized, especially since the September 11th attacks. The actual definition of terrorism is not as much debated as which parties and which acts of violence are to be labeled "terrorist."

Noam Chomsky, a prominent historian and linguist at MIT, states that "the term 'terrorism' is used, standardly, to refer to the terrorism that they carry out against us, whoever 'we' happen to be. Even the worst mass murderers—the Nazis for example—adopted this practice." [...] "Since the rich and powerful set the terms for discussion, the term 'terrorism' is restricted, in practice, to the terror that affects the US and its clients and allies." [2] (

In his polemic 9-11, Chomsky says "[the] wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not a war against terrorism." In reference to the violence by the United States, called "counter-terrorism" or the "War on Terrorism," he refers to the fact that state powers use the same methods—torture, bombings, etc—which are also "terrorism".

Chomsky and others argue that "terrorism" is used not to describe a type of behavior, but as a label to demonize a perceived enemy in terms that promote and moral repulsion and outrage. In post-9/11 Western society, the terms "terrorism" and "terrorist" are used so frequently as to lose any distinction with other political terms. They may even be used (within contexts) as 'polite' or 'acceptable' racial or political euphemisms for "Arabs" or "Muslims," and any violence associated with them. Accurate or not, the label of 'terrorism' is a powerful political weapon for marginalizing or invalidating various political factions, even extending to non-violent groups, or related groups detached from violent factions. Because it is impossible to define the term "terrorism" in any neutral or objective way, the term "terrorism" is inherently and inescapably political in nature —always defined and used politically. Just as "history is written by the victors," it is the dominant society who dictates to history which particular acts of violence will or will not be labeled as "terrorism."

According to another definition Terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians in order to create terror and fear. Terrorism includes the killing of armed or unarmed civilians and state employees or representatives. Not terrorism but criminal acts are the killing of armed or unarmed on duty security personnel (soldiers/policemen; security-, body guards) and government members. This definition goes along the lines of martial law for warfare. It discriminates between combatants and non-combatants. Encroachments onto non-combatants, like f.e. civilians would then be war crimes. Analogous to that terrorism could be categorized as undue deviance from ordinary clandestine, hence insurgency or rebel warfare which is directed against a military enemy.

According to this definition acts of terrorism would include:

1. Bombings of non-military installations, like residential or commercial structures. 2. Bombings of non-security-related governmental structures, like government agencies and non-security-related government ministries. 3. Attacks on Members of Parliament and other non-security related government officials.

According to this definition not acts of terrorism, but rebel warfare would be:

1. Attacks on military installations and on-duty personnel. 2. Attacks on police stations and other state-employed on-duty security personnel. 3. Attacks on members of a presidential cabinet.

Examples of category one terrorist attacks would include bombings of houses, public transport, but also the World Trade Center. Category 2 would include the Oklahoma City bombing. Category 3 would've been an attack on the Capitol.

Examples of rebel warfare would be for example assassination attempts on a sitting president or his cabinet members as well as bombing of f.e. the white house. I might also be argued that according to this definition the 9/11 bombing of the department of defense in washington was a insurgent attack, rather than a terrorist attack.

The purpose of this distinction is again similar to the distinctions of legitimate acts of warfare and war crimes.

Obviously not every use of armed forces is illegal. The UN Charta for example grants countries the right to use military force to fend off invasions. Yet no war party - aggressive or defensive - has the right to commit targeted attacks on noninvolved individuals like civilians.

Analogously it could be argued that not every use of insurgency - meaning, clandestine, asymmetric - warfare is illegal. If that was not the case, armed insurgent resistance for example against occupying Nazi-german forces during WW II or assassination attempts on prominent Nazi leaders would be considered illegitimate. Also resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would be considered illegitimate, if every form of rebel warfare, even against an aggressor was illegal. Yet no insurgent organization - legitimate or illegitimate - has the right to commit targeted attacks on noninvolved individuals like civilians.


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