The word "terrorism" is politically and emotionally charged, and this greatly compounds the difficulty of providing a precise definition. A 2003 study by Jeffrey Record for the US Army quoted a source (Schmid and Jongman 1988) that counted 109 definitions of terrorism that covered a total of 22 different definitional elements. Record continues "Terrorism expert Walter Laqueur also has counted over 100 definitions and concludes that the 'only general characteristic generally agreed upon is that terrorism involves violence and the threat of violence.' Yet terrorism is hardly the only enterprise involving violence and the threat of violence. So does war, coercive diplomacy, and barroom brawls." Angus Martyn in a briefing paper for the Australian Parliament states that "The international community has never succeeded in developing an accepted comprehensive definition of terrorism. During the 1970s and 1980s, the United Nations attempts to define the term foundered mainly due to differences of opinion between various members about the use of violence in the context of conflicts over national liberation and self-determination. For this and for political reasons, many news sources (such as Reuters) avoid using this term, opting instead for less accusatory words like "bombers," "militants," etc.
In many countries, acts of terrorism are legally distinguished from criminal acts done for other purposes (see below for particular definitions). Common principles amongst legal definitions of terrorism provide an emerging consensus as to meaning and also foster cooperation between law enforcement personnel in different countries.
There has been a dispute between states since the laws of war were first codified in 1899. The Martens Clause was introduced as a compromise wording for the dispute between the Great Powers who considered francs-tireurs to be unlawful combatants subject to execution on capture and smaller states who maintained that they should be considered lawful combatants. More recently the 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, recognised in Article 1. Paragraph 4 "... in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes..." contains many ambiguities that cloud the issue of who is or is not a legitimate combatant. Hence depending on the perspective of the state a resistance movements may or may not be labelled terrorist group based on whether the members of a resistance movement are considered lawful or unlawful combatants and their right to resist occupation is recognized. Ultimately, the distinction is a political judgment.
The term "terrorism" comes from Latin terrere, "to frighten" via the French word terrorisme, which is often associated with the regime de la terreur, the Reign of Terror of the revolutionary government in France from 1793 to 1794. A leader in the French revolution, Maximilien Robespierre, proclaimed in 1794, “Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country's most urgent needs.” The Committee of Public Safety agents that enforced the policies of "The Terror" were referred to as "Terrorists. The English word "terrorism" was first recorded in English dictionaries in 1798 as meaning "systematic use of terror as a policy." The term appeared earlier in English in newspapers, such as a 1795 use of the term in The Times. The Oxford English Dictionary still records a definition of terrorism as "Government by intimidation carried out by the party in power in France between 1789-1794. Generally, a policy intended to cause terror in those against whom it is adopted.
Reasons for controversy
The modern definition of terrorism is inherently controversial. The use of violence for the achievement of political ends is common to state and non-state groups. The difficulty is in agreeing on a basis for determining when the use of violence (directed at whom, by whom, for what ends) is legitimate. The majority of definitions in use have been written by agencies directly associated with a government, and are systematically biased to exclude governments from the definition. Some such definitions are so broad, like the Terrorism Act 2000
, as to include the disruption of a computer system wherein no violence is intended or results.
The contemporary label of "terrorist" is highly pejorative; it is a badge which denotes a lack of legitimacy and morality. The application "terrorist" is therefore always deliberately disputed. Attempts at defining the concept invariably arouse debate because rival definitions may be employed with a view to including the actions of certain parties, and excluding others. Thus, each party might still subjectively claim a legitimate basis for employing violence in pursuit of their own political cause or aim.
The United Nations
states that "The question of a definition of terrorism has haunted the debate among states for decades. A first attempt to arrive at an internationally acceptable definition was made under the League of Nations, but the convention drafted in 1937 never came into existence. The UN Member States still have no agreed-upon definition. Terminology consensus would, however, be necessary for a single comprehensive convention on terrorism, which some countries favour in place of the present 12 piecemeal conventions and protocols
. The lack of agreement on a definition of terrorism has been a major obstacle to meaningful international countermeasures. Cynics have often commented that one state's "terrorist" is another state's "freedom fighter"." Proposed definitions include:
- 1. League of Nations Convention (1937): "All criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public".
- 2. UN Resolution language (1999):"1. Strongly condemns all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, wherever and by whomsoever committed; 2. Reiterates that criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them". (GA Res. 51/210 Measures to eliminate international terrorism)
- 3. Short legal definition proposed by Alex P. Schmid to United Nations Crime Branch (1992): Act of Terrorism = Peacetime Equivalent of War Crime
- 4. Academic Consensus Definition: "Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby - in contrast to assassination - the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organization), (imperilled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience(s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought" (Schmid, 1988).
United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 discusses terrorism and is a primary UN authority for terrorism because it was issued under Chapter VII UN authority.
Resolution 1566 gives a definition:
On March 17, 2005, a UN panel described terrorism as any act "intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act."
The General Assembly resolution 49/60,, titled "Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism," adopted on December 9, 1994, contains a provision describing terrorism:
Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.
According to Antonio Cassese
, that provision "sets out an acceptable definition of terrorism."
Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan has stated that there are several Conventions on Terrorism by non-state actors. They a) define a particular type of terrorist violence as an offence under the convention, such as bombing, financing, etc...; b) require State Parties to penalise that activity in their domestic law; c) identify certain bases upon which the parties responsible are required to establish jurisdiction over the defined offence; d) create an obligation on the State in which a suspect is found to establish jurisdiction over the convention offence and to prosecute if the Party does not extradite pursuant to other provisions of the convention.
Andrew Byrnes suggested in 2002 that:
Two and a half years after Byrnes pointed out a political desire for an international definition, The UN Security Council passed Resolution 1566 went some way to addressing this issue, but it was there is still no multilateral treaty on terrorism.
The European Union employs a definition of terrorism for legal/official purposes which is set out in Art. 1 of the Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism
(2002). This provides that terrorist offences are certain criminal offences set out in a list comprised largely of serious offences against persons and property which;
"given their nature or context, may seriously damage a country or an international organisation where committed with the aim of: seriously intimidating a population; or unduly compelling a Government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act; or seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation."
The United States
has defined terrorism under the Federal Criminal Code. Chapter 113B of Part I of Title 18 of the United States Code defines terrorism and lists the crimes associated with terrorism. In Section 2331 of Chapter 113b, terrorism is defined as:
…activities that involve violent… or life-threatening acts… that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State and… appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and… (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States… [or]… (C) occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States…"
Edward Peck, former U.S. Chief of Mission in Iraq (under Jimmy Carter) and ambassador to Mauritania:
In 1985, when I was the Deputy Director of the Reagan White House Task Force on Terrorism, they asked us — this is a Cabinet Task Force on Terrorism; I was the Deputy Director of the working group — they asked us to come up with a definition of terrorism that could be used throughout the government. We produced about six, and each and every case, they were rejected, because careful reading would indicate that our own country had been involved in some of those activities. […] After the task force concluded its work, Congress got into it, and you can google into U.S. Code Title 18, Section 2331, and read the US definition of terrorism. And one of them in here says — one of the terms, “international terrorism,” means “activities that,” I quote, “appear to be intended to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.” […] Yes, well, certainly, you can think of a number of countries that have been involved in such activities. Ours is one of them. Israel is another. And so, the terrorist, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.
The United Kingdom
defined acts of terrorism in the Terrorism Act 2000 as the use or threat of action where:
(a) the action falls within subsection (2),
(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a
section of the public and
(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological
(2) Action falls within this subsection if it
(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person’s life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.
Section 34 of the Terrorism Act 2006 amended sections 1(1)(b) and 113(1)(c) of Terrorism Act 2000 to include "international governmental organisations" in addition to "government".
Laws and government agencies
- 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."
- USA PATRIOT Act: "activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the U.S. or of any state, that (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping, and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S."
- The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) described a terrorist act as one which was: "premeditated; perpetrated by a subnational or clandestine agent; politically motivated, potentially including religious, philosophical, or culturally symbolic motivations; violent; and perpetrated against a noncombatant target."
- The British Terrorism Act 2000 defines terrorism so as to include not only violent offences against persons and physical damage to property, but also acts "designed seriously to interfere with or to seriously disrupt an electronic system". This latter consideration would include shutting down a website whose views one dislikes. However, this, and any of the other acts covered by the definition would also need to be (a) designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, AND (b)be done for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.[the latter three terms are not defined in the Act].
- The Supreme Court of India adopted Alex P. Schmid's definition of terrorism in a 2003 ruling (Madan Singh vs. State of Bihar), "defin[ing] acts of terrorism veritably as 'peacetime equivalents of war crimes.'"
- Schmid and Jongman (1988): "Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-)clandestine individual, group, or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal, or political reasons, whereby—in contrast to assassination—the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organization), (imperiled) victims, and main targets are use to manipulate the main target (audience(s), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought".
- L. Ali Khan: "Terrorism sprouts from the existence of aggrieved groups.
- Jack Gibbs (1989): "Terrorism is illegal violence or threatened violence directed against human or nonhuman objects, provided that it: (1) was undertaken or ordered with a view to altering or maintaining at least one putative norm in at least one particular territorial unit or population: (2) had secretive, furtive, and/or clandestine features that were expected by the participants to conceal their personal identity and/or their future location; (3) was not undertaken or ordered to further the permanent defense of some area; (4) was not conventional warfare and because of their concealed personal identity, concealment of their future location, their threats, and/or their spatial mobility, the participants perceived themselves as less vulnerable to conventional military action; and (5) was perceived by the participants as contributing to the normative goal previously described (supra) by inculcating fear of violence in persons (perhaps an indefinite category of them) other than the immediate target of the actual or threatened violence and/or by publicizing some cause."
- David Rodin (Oxford Philosopher): "Terrorism is the deliberate, negligent, or reckless use of force against noncombatants, by state or nonstate actors for ideological ends and in the absence of a substantively just legal process."
- Walter Laqueur: "Terrorism constitutes the illegitimate use of force to achieve a political objective when innocent people are targeted."
- Boaz Ganor: "Terrorism is the deliberate use of violence aimed against civilians in order to achieve political ends
- 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."
- M. Cherif Bassiouni: "'Terrorism' has never been defined...
- League of Nations Convention (1937): all criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public.
- Darul Uloom Deoband Anti-Terrorism Conference (2008): Any action that targets innocents, whether by an individual or by any government and its agencies or by a private organisation anywhere in the world constitutes, according to Islam, an act of terrorism.
Criticisms of the term
Jason Burke, an expert in radical Islamist
activity, has this to say on the word "terrorism":
- "There are multiple ways of defining terrorism, and all are subjective. Most define terrorism as 'the use or threat of serious violence' to advance some kind of 'cause'. Some state clearly the kinds of group ('sub-national', 'non-state') or cause (political, ideological, religious) to which they refer. Others merely rely on the instinct of most people when confronted with innocent civilians being killed or maimed by men armed with explosives, firearms or other weapons. None is satisfactory, and grave problems with the use of the term persist. Terrorism is after all, a tactic. The term 'war on terrorism' is thus effectively nonsensical. As there is no space here to explore this involved and difficult debate, my preference is, on the whole, for the less loaded term 'militancy'. This is not an attempt to condone such actions, merely to analyse them in a clearer way." ("Al Qaeda", ch.2, p.22)
Other arguments include that:
- * There is no strict worldwide commonly accepted definition.
- * Any definition that could be agreed upon in, say, English-speaking countries would be biased towards those countries.
- * Almost every serious attempt to define the term have been sponsored by governments who instinctively attempt to draw a definition which excludes bodies like themselves.
- * Nowadays, most groups called "terrorist" deny such accusations. Virtually no organisation openly calls itself terrorist.
- * Many groups referred to as "terrorist" also call their enemies "terrorist".
- * The word is very loosely applied and very difficult to challenge when it is being used inappropriately, for example in war situations or against non-violent persons.
- * It allows governments to apply a different standard of law to that of ordinary criminal law on the basis of a unilateral decision.
- * There is no hope that people will ever all agree who is "terrorist" and who is not.
- * The term as widely used in the western world reflects a bias towards the status quo. Violence by established governments is sold as "defence", even when that claim is considered dubious by some; any attempt to oppose the established order through military means, however, is often labelled "terrorism".
- * If we labelled groups terrorist on the basis of how their opponents perceive them, such labels would be very controversial, for example:
- * State of Israel, USA, but also the states of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban
- * The contemporary Palestine Liberation Organization
- * Groups conducting revolution, such as the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), are routinely denigrated as "terrorist"
- * Almost all guerrilla groups (like Tamil Tigers or Chechen rebels) are accused of being "terrorist", but almost all guerrilla groups accuse countries they fight against of likewise being "terrorist".
- * Resistance movements during World War II. For instance, French Resistance against the Nazi occupation of France and the Nazis' collaborators (see also Vichy Government).