Defining Terrorism: difficulty in devising a universal meaning

Terrorism is a difficult term to define in a neutral manner.  Efforts to come up with a legal definition of terrorism in the United Nations failed due to states being unable to agree what is a legitimate use of violence and what is terror.  The issue of politics has complicated coming up with a definition of terrorism that is more than “violence we disapprove of.”  This tendency has been prevalent throughout recent history, for example during President Reagan’s term the Contra guerillas were portrayed to the American public as freedom fighters, and given U.S. aid, despite attacks against civilians.[1]  Currently something similar is happening in the Ukraine, where armed forces in Eastern Ukraine are being called terrorists by the Ukrainian government, but are called oppressed protesters by the Russian government.[2]  The emotional association with the term terrorism has lead to a situation where the term gets assigned to a wide range of violent activities, which potentially makes concepts like counter-terrorism or a “War on Terrorism” nebulous.

While there is no single accepted definition of terrorism, there are a few key factors that are generally agreed to be parts of the definition of terrorism.  Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman carried out a study examining different definitions of terrorism and developed a list of 109 definitions, and within these definitions found that these five concepts were the ones most prevalent- 1) Violence, force 2)Political 3) Fear, terror emphasized 4) threat 5)(Psych.) effects and (anticipated) reactions.[3]  These five concepts form a strong foundation for any potential definition of terrorism.  For an action to be considered terrorism, there should be an element of violence, it should be driven by political considerations as opposed to profit or random violence, it should be designed to inspire fear in a specific population and the psychological effect and response should be at least as important as the actual physical effect.  Another common factor is that many experts consider terrorism acts committed by non-state actors, whereas states can commit terror, they are not usually thought of as terrorist actors.

In trying to determine what a terrorist action is, it can be helpful to compare it to other acts of violence.  For example, if a gangster kills a rival, it meets some of the criteria for terrorism, but not all of them.  There is of course violence, a likelihood of fear in the other gang members, a possible threat of further violence, but there is no political motive.  There are several cases that are more challenging asses.  One case is that of Pablo Escobar.  Escobar’s primary motivation was to earn a profit, but he carried out several terrorist style attacks, such as an airplane bombing or assassinations, to try to sabotage a U.S.-Colombia extradition treaty to avoid being tried in the United States.  These attacks meet all the criteria that the common criminals attack did, but it is harder to establish whether these attacks had a political motive or not.  Trying to end a treaty between two states is clearly political, but it is arguable whether trying to avoid being jailed in the United States is a political motivation or not.  Until there is a commonly accepted, non-political, definition of terrorism, beyond a set of mostly accepted factors, there will remain a grey area where there is disagreement and uncertainty about the process of labeling attacks terrorism, or criminal, or whether groups are protestors, insurgents or terrorists.


[1] Stephen Kinzer, “Big Raid by Contras Produces Casualties But No Visible Gain,” The New York Times, July 19, 1987.

[2] Alec Luhn, “’Anti-terrorist’ campaign in peril as Kiev’s writ fails to reach Ukraine’s east,” The Guardian, April 14, 2014.

[3] Alex p. Schmid and Albert J. Jongman, Political Terrorism: A New Guide To Actors, Authors, Concepts, Data Bases, theories, and literature, (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1988), 6.

About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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