Defining Terrorism

Category: Terrorism, Violence
Last Updated: 04 Jul 2021
Essay type: Process
Pages: 8 Views: 51

If people around the world were surveyed and asked to define terrorism, the answers would be seemingly endless. It has been said, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. ” From culture to culture, people view terrorism in a different way. An inherent definition of terrorism would be the act of creating terror, but not everyone is terrified of the same thing. So how then is it possible to come up with one definition for the word?

“A 2003 study by Jeffrey Record for the US Army quoted a source that counted 109 definitions of terrorism that covered a total of 22 different definitional elements.

    Order custom essay Defining Terrorism with free plagiarism report

    feat icon 450+ experts on 30 subjects feat icon Starting from 3 hours delivery
    Get Essay Help
  •  In the book Understanding Terrorism, the author Anthony Marsella comes up with “four problems associated with efforts to define terrorism today:

(a) there have been historical changes in the definition, (b) media and states have been inconsistent in their use of the term, (c) there are multiple definitions across agencies even within a single country such as the United States, and (d) there is international disagreement on the definition of the term. ”

  • Some views of terrorism say that it must have political goals, while other do not believe this.

Some views state that it must be innocents or civilians who are the victims, while other definitions do not believe this. Another argument is whether or not the terrorists must be non-state actors. Definitions are different based on whether they were created for legal purposes or international agencies. In this paper, I will go through some of the different arguments in order to provide a clearer sense of what terrorism truly means in this day in age. Most books written on terrorism begin by giving a definition of the word in the author’s opinion in order to put it into context for the remainder of the book.

The entire first chapter of Bruce Hoffman’s book Inside Terrorism is dedicated to trying to define terrorism. Terrorism now seems to be a part of our everyday life. It appears as though every act of violence is perceived as being ‘terrorism. ’ Every time violence occurs people immediately think terrorism. The term terrorism is so hard to define and there is so much controversy about how to define it that it is easy to make the assumption that all violence is terrorism. At the same time, because of the controversy, many media sources are reluctant to use the word. Instead, they give attacks different titles.

The Oxford Canadian Dictionary defines terrorism as the “systematic employment of violence and intimidation to coerce a government or community, especially into acceding to specific political demands. ” This definition might satisfy Hoffman because he believes it must be stressed that terrorism is the use or threat of violence to achieve a political aim. Without a political aim, there cannot be terrorism. Nor can there be terrorism without the threat or use of violence. Hoffman believes it is difficult to define terrorism because of its ever-changing meaning throughout history.

A factor that makes defining terrorism difficult is that the definition has changed over time. The original definition of the word is no longer the definition used today. The word originally gained support during the French Revolution as part of the “Reign of Terror. ” The purpose was to scare people in order to prevent further revolutions from occurring. The terror was created by the state. Although the definition has changed since the “Reign of Terror,” there are two points that are similar in today’s definition. First, the regime de la terreur was neither random nor indiscriminate, as terrorism is often portrayed today, but was organized, deliberate, and systematic. ”Terrorists plan out their attacks, they are not random or spur of the moment. Targets in present day are often chosen based on what will receive the most media attention. “Second, its goal and its very justification was the creation of a “new and better society” in place of a fundamentally corrupt and undemocratic politically system. ” Simply put, terrorist attacks occur in order to achieve a political goal.

Later, during the Industrial Revolution, Carlo Pisacane argued that the most effective way to publicize his cause was through violence, and that no other means would generate the same amount of attention. This revolutionary-style terrorism remained up until the First World War. “By the 1930s the meaning of “terrorism” had changed again and was used to describe the practices of mass repression employed by totalitarian states and their dictatorial leaders against their own citizens. ” After the Second World War, the term returned to the original connation of a revolutionary type act.

Up until the 1960s, terrorism was largely considered to be domestic. In the late 1960s and 1970s, terrorism began to become more international. It is important to discuss the three types of terrorism: international, domestic and “new terrorism. ” Domestic terrorism is terrorism that takes place against people within your country. International terrorism is terrorism that takes place against people by a group that is not native to the country. New terrorism may have no political aims, but instead are more religious based and mainly concern themselves with destruction.

The textbook The Globalization of World Politics states that there are “three factors that led to the birth of transnational terrorism: the expansion of air travel; the wider availability of televised news coverage; and the broad common political and ideological interests. ”These terrorist attacks initially took form in airplane hijackings, but as security tightened up, the terrorists instead chose American targets in foreign countries. Since the September 11th attacks on the United States, international terrorism is mainly what people think of when they think of terrorism.

Those attacks were very publicized and had a huge impact on international relations. As well as understanding the different types of terrorism, it is also important to distinguish the difference between a terrorist, a guerrilla and a ‘freedom fighter. ’“The freedom fighter conducts a campaign to liberate his people from dictatorial oppression, gross disarmament, or the grip of an occupying power. ” A guerrilla is fighting against a military and most importantly the terrorist goes after civilians. Any group can use terrorism to achieve their goals.

In the book Terrorism: The New World Order, Fotion et al explain that there are narrow and broad views of terrorism. The narrower views insist that victims of terrorism must be innocent. A problem with the narrower view is that although it is most often innocents who are targeted by terrorists, they did not see a distinction. Whether they target a military organization or innocent civilians, they are performing terrorist acts. Their objective does not change based on who they are attacking from one day to the next. Their goal is to demoralize their opponent. It is very hard to differentiate the difference between a guerrilla and a terrorist.

Although a guerrilla would be attacking military personnel, they could be labelled differently based on their intentions. They could be attacking merely to kill and weaken their opponents or they could be attacking in order to scare the opponents into possibly retreating. By defining terrorism as only attacking civilians, it makes analyzing terrorism a lot more difficult. Fotion et al discussed the paradigmatic scheme, which represents the most generally accepted view of a terrorist attack.  “An attacking group (or individual) victimizes some group of people by harming or killing them.

The attackers then escape either before, during or after the victimizing event. Others, seeing what has happened to the victim group become terrorized (frightened, anxious, etc. ). We will call this the immediate effect or result of the process of creating victims. While in their state of terror, they pressure their government to change its political outlook in a way that satisfies the goals of the attackers and, most likely, displeases the government and many of its people. This pressure and resulting changes count as the secondary effect or result of the victimization process.  The book Terrorism: The New World Order points out that the word terrorism is seen as having negative connotation, so those who are often labelled as such, would try and find a definition that does not apply to them.  “Those labelled "terrorists" by their opponents rarely identify themselves as such, and typically use other terms or terms specific to their situation, such as separatist, freedom fighter, liberator, revolutionary, vigilante, militant, paramilitary, guerrilla, rebel or any similar-meaning word in other languages and cultures. In the past, people did not hide behind these labels and proclaimed themselves as terrorists and their tactics to be terrorism.  This inability for people to acknowledge they are terrorists makes coming up with a definition near impossible. Robert Keeley wrote an entire article about trying to define terrorism. In this article he pointed out that freedom fighters and terrorists are two different things, however freedom fighters often use terrorism. Keeley believes aims of terrorism include “to advertise for the terrorists’ cause and to weaken morale on the attacked side and build up morale on the attacking side. Because of the pejorative connotation of the word, during warfare, groups often label their opponents as ‘terrorists’ in order to gain more support for their own side. This furthers the difficulty of defining terrorism, as everyone wants to say their opponent is a ‘terrorist,’ which makes everyone a terrorist. At the end of his article, Keeley did not seem to be any closer to finding a true definition than at the beginning. In the book Terrorism: Origins and Evolution, Lutz and Lutz say there are six main parts to defining terrorism.

They believe that violence is directed to political ends and that there must in fact be violence or a serious threat of violence. Terrorism must affect a wide range of people, not just the victims of the action. People need to be aware when a terrorist act has happened; there must be an audience. If no one is aware of an occurrence, then the attack has failed. Terrorism is organized and it is performed by a non-state actor. It is important to note the difference between war and terrorism.

In simplest words, a war is a conflict between two organized groups. The difference between a war and terrorism is that terrorism occurs by a non-state organization. In recent years, with the availability of the Internet, it has become much easier for terrorists to spread their ideas. It is now simpler to gain the audience that is required to be a successful terrorist. Finally, they believe that terrorism is a weapon of the weak. Terrorist acts occur when the terrorists have no other options in order to achieve their political goals.

Though there are many definitions for the word terrorism, it seems that all the definitions stressed that it is political in nature. The act is used to achieve a political aim through the means of violence. Terrorists do not require extensive supplies and the goal is to gain support and demoralize their opponent. As long as those who may be seen as terrorists find other names to describe themselves, unwilling to admit that they are a terrorist, I believe it will continue to be difficult to agree on a specific definition. With no one willing to admit to being a terrorist, the word becomes completely subjective.

There will always be controversy over finding one definition, especially with the “new terrorism” in which religion plays a huge role. These terrorists want nothing, but to create terror and cause destruction. They do not fit in the accepted definition of violence with a political motive, yet what they are doing is creating terror and therefore should be considered terrorism. People will find ways to describe themselves as anything but, and their opponents will try to stress that they are in facts terrorists. “Terrorism is ultimately a form of psychological warfare, nd it is designed to induce fear. ”


  1. Baylis, John, and Steve Smith. Globalization of World Politics an Introduction to International Relations. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Bisset, Alex, ed. "Terrorism. " The Canadian Oxford Paperback Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Fotion, Nicholas, Joanne K. Lekea, and Boris Kashnikov. Terrorism The New World Disorder (Think Now). New York: Continuum International Group, 2008. Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Jackson, Robert, and Georg Sorensen.
  2. Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Keeley, Robert V. "Trying to Define Terrorism. " Middle East Policy IX. 1 (March 2002): 33-39. Lutz, James Michael, and Brenda J. Lutz. Terrorism Origins and Evolution. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Moghaddam, Fathali M. , and Anthony J. Marsella, eds. Understanding terrorism psychosocial roots, consequences, and interventions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2004. 8.

Cite this Page

Defining Terrorism. (2018, Feb 04). Retrieved from

Don't let plagiarism ruin your grade

Run a free check or have your essay done for you

plagiarism ruin image

We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you’re on board with our cookie policy

Save time and let our verified experts help you.

Hire writer