It is controversial whether the concept of terrorism can be applied to states. It is usually applied to non-state actors. The Chairman of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee has stated that the Committee was conscious of the 12 international Conventions on the subject, and none of them referred to State terrorism, which was not an international legal concept. If States abused their power, they should be judged against international conventions dealing with war crimes, international human rights and international humanitarian law. Kofi Annan. at the time United Nations Secretary-General, has said that it is "time to set aside debates on so-called 'state terrorism'. The use of force by states is already thoroughly regulated under international law" However, he also made clear that, "...regardless of the differences between governments on the question of definition of terrorism, what is clear and what we can all agree on is any deliberate attack on innocent civilians, regardless of one's cause, is unacceptable and fits into the definition of terrorism. And I think this we can all be clear on."
Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, described as pioneers in the concept of State Terrorism, have argued that the distinction between state and non-state terror is morally relativist, and distracts from or justifies state terrorism perpetrated by favored states, typically those of wealthy and developed nations (Chomsky and Herman, 1979).
The traditional approach views terrorism as a form of random behavior perpetrated by international criminals, treating it as a special type of deviant behavior (Helen Purkitt, "Dealing with Terrorism.," in Conflict in World Society, 1984, p. 162.) In contrast, a broader interpretation of the nature of terrorism has been increasingly discussed within the literature that establishes a meaning to account for the concept of state and state-sponsored terrorism. (Michael Stolhl, p. 14). The authors cite former US Secretary of State George Shultz who elaborates on this conceptual framework shift:
The term "Establishment" and "Structural terrorism" is sometimes used to describe state terrorism that posits the existence of 'a form of political violence" in the structure of contemporary international politics. This includes policies or actions by governments that encourage the use of fear and violence in pursuit of political ends. As such, state terrorism is conceived to have become an integral element of many state's foreign policies (Michael Stolhl, p. 15). Academic Conor Cruise O'Brien argument is cited, as an example:
In this view terrorism emanates from legitimate political institutions intent upon creating a state of fear for political ends, and therefore includes the activities of sovereign states themselves. Michael Stohl has argued:
Prof. Stolhl and George A. Lopez designate three particular forms of state terrorism exhibited in foreign policy behavior (p.207-208):
Some scholars argue that a institutionalized form of terrorism carried out by states have occurred as a result of changes that took place following World War ll. In this analysis state terrorism as a form of foreign policy was shaped by the presence and use of weapons of mass destruction, and that the legitimizing of such violent behavior led to an increasingly accepted form of state behavior. The argument is discussed by Professor of Political Science Micahel Stohl and George A. Lopez, in their book "Terrible beyond Endurance? The Foreign Policy of State Terrorism." 1988.
The earliest use of the word terrorism identified by the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1795 reference to what the author described as the "reign of terrorism" in France. During that part of the French revolutionary period that is now known as the Reign of Terror, or simply The Terror, the Jacobins and other factions used the apparatus of the state to execute and cow political opponents. The Oxford English Dictionary still has a definition of terrorism as "Government by intimidation carried out by the party in power in France between 1789-1794".
The Encyclopedia Britannica Online defines terrorism as the "the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective. Terrorism has been practiced by political organizations with both rightist and leftist objectives, by nationalistic and religious groups, by revolutionaries, and even by state institutions such as armies, intelligence services, and police". The Encyclopedia Britannica also states that "Establishment terrorism, often called state or state-sponsored terrorism, is employed by governments—or more often by factions within governments—against that government's citizens, against factions within the government, or against foreign governments or groups. This type of terrorism is very common but difficult to identify, mainly because the state's support is always clandestine.."
Linguist and US policy critic Noam Chomsky, described by some as a pioneer in the literature of state terrorism, has equated low-intensity warfare with State Terrorism. He writes: "The U.S. is officially committed to what is called 'low-intensity warfare'.... If you read the definition of low-intensity conflict in army manuals and compare it with official definitions of 'terrorism' in army manuals, or the U.S. Code, you find they're almost the same." See Low intensity conflict for the army definition.
Scholars Emizet Kisangani and Wayne Nafziger argue that democide is equivalent to state terrorism.
Philosopher Igor Primoratz provides four reasons why he believes that state terrorism is typically morally worse than non-state terrorism. First, because of the nature of the modern state and "the amount and variety of resources" available even for small states, the state mode of terrorism claims vastly more victims than does terrorism by non-state actors. Secondly, because "state terrorism is bound to be compounded by secrecy, deception and hypocrisy," terrorist states typically act with clandestine brutality while publicly professing adherence to "values and principles which rule it out." Thirdly, because unlike non-state actors, states are signatories in international laws and conventions prohibiting terrorism, when a state commits acts of terrorism it is "in breach of its own solemn international commitments." Finally, while there may be circumstances where non-state actors are in such an oppressed situation that there may be no alternative but terrorism, Primoratz argues that "it seems virtually impossible that a state should find itself in such circumstances where it has no alternative to resorting to terrorism."
In his university-level textbook, "Understanding Terrorism:Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues", Gus Martin argues that the work of organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are among the "approaches to the analyses of state terrorism [that] are useful for evaluating different types of state-sponsored violence" arguing further that during the late 1970s and 80's “in its annual global human rights reports Amnesty International has extensively documented the escalation in state terror…Amnesty International identified the main forms of state terror as arbitrary detention, unfair trial, torture, and political murder or extrajudicial execution.
GAL (Antiterrorist Liberation Groups; Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación in spanish) is the State Terrorism of the Spanish government to fight ETA and the Basque people, which took place in the 80's both in Spain and France.