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Terrorism Definitions and Controversies Term Paper

In the last 10 years, over 190,000 people perished as the result of terrorist attacks. 1 These numbers are indeed staggering. They indicate that terrorism has truly become one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century. Yet, terrorism is not a new notion. It has existed in some way, shape, or form, throughout the history of humanity. The concept likely appeared along with the concept of warfare. However, there is a stark difference between the two. While a clear and well-known definition for warfare already exists, the international community is still unable to create a definition for terrorism that is universally agreed upon. The feeling of uneasiness over the inability to come up with an all-inclusive term, along with the perceived necessity to do so, had been plaguing the UN ever since the 1980s.

The consultations regarding the matter were reinvigorated after the events of 2001, when Al-Qaeda committed an attack on the World Trade Center. However, the impulse quickly died out as the committee failed to come up with any reasonable conclusions. Now, faced with the threat of ISIS, which is often referred to as a “Terrorist State,” the world feels the necessity for clear definitions arises once more. The history of failed attempts at defining terrorism on an international scale indicates that the goal is likely unattainable, as it seeks to find a compromise between a wide range of conflicting parties. The purpose of this paper is to explore this issue, provide facts that support its thesis, and come up with comprehensive conclusions about what needs to be done.

History of Terrorism

The face of terrorism today is much different from what it was several centuries ago. Modern terrorist organizations are massive and powerful. They possess numerous ways of causing havoc to promote their nefarious agendas. The history of the word “Terrorism” traces back to the French Revolution of 1794 and the Revolutionary Terror – a statewide strategy against the people who were perceived to be the enemies of the New Order. Therefore, the first definition of terrorism that appeared in the world was that of state terrorism, which conflicts with the majority of modern definitions of the act. The enactors viewed terrorism as a form of social justice. 2 Naturally, they did not use bombs as means to an end. However, the actual practice is much older than that. It is as ancient as warfare itself – there are many surviving accounts of atrocities committed by either ancient states or individuals that were meant to sway, coerce, or intimidate others to follow a particular line.

To know the history of terrorism is to understand why a concise and practical definition of the term is so problematic to come up with – the practice continues to evolve. While certain terminologies could be used to describe the acts of terrorism that happened a couple of centuries ago, they would be hopelessly outdated when confronted with the events that happened in the recent past. While terrorism had changed substantially over the years, it retained certain essential characteristics that are universal, no matter the country or time period. However, these characteristics are very basic and are not enough to differentiate terrorism from open war or simple criminal acts committed by either singular offenders or groups of individuals.

Why do We Need to Define Terrorism?

An ancient military axiom says that one cannot fight that which he or she cannot see. The lack of a proper and practical definition of what could and what could not be considered terrorism is the reason why it exists on such a large scale. A unified action could not be taken if the members of the coalition do not agree on the target. As a result, the efforts made to neutralize it are often inadequate and haphazard. This issue is clearly illustrated by the modern operations of Russia and the USA-led coalition against ISIS. The point of contention appears over whether or not the Syrian rebel army should be considered terrorist. The USA claims that they are freedom fighters since their proclaimed goals involve dethroning the Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad. Russia does not make a difference between the rebels and ISIS terrorists because their methods are very similar and involve bombings and guerilla warfare. 3 If we cast aside the political interests both sides have in the region, these are all very valid concerns.

Aside from these practical points, there are also theoretical and scholarly concerns that must be addressed. A clear definition is the building block for any research conducted on the subject. According to Papacharissi and De Fatima Oliveira, “Definitions of terrorism determine how research is conceptualized, executed, and employed in public policy.” 4 The lack of definite criteria makes it harder to account for all the victims of terror and classify them as such. The Global Terrorism Database reports experiencing significant difficulties when compiling and gathering information, without having a precise definition to rely upon. To set example, let us assess the situation in Syria again. Could the people killed by the Syrian rebels be considered victims of terrorism? The answer would depend on the definition of what terrorism is. Without it, any answers given to this question are moot. This situation alone proves that the need for a definition is much more fundamental than a simple argument about the semantics.

Existing scholarly definitions

There is a great number of definitions of terrorism. Trying to address all of them within this paper would be a meaningless exercise that would only distract the reader from the subject at hand. Still, the more popular and influential definitions must be analyzed in order to create a more concrete picture of the topic.

According to the Free Dictionary, terrorism is the use of violence, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political goals. While a definition from an online dictionary does not hold any academic value, it shows us the popular perception of the word “terrorism.” It is very basic and does not address many important aspects of the issue. It does not tell us about the nature of the offenders, their modus operandi or any other goals they could be trying to achieve. This definition might be enough to get a general understanding of the situation, but when inspected up close it does not hold up to scrutiny.

This definition is similar to that provided by Bruce Hoffman – a known theorist and expert on the subject of terrorism. He classifies terrorism as “violence – or equally important, the threat of violence- used and directed in pursuit of, or in service of, a political aim.” 5 While this definition has many elements absent, it does consider the threat of violence – a very important factor, which significantly broadens the margins of what should be considered terrorism. It addresses the practice of taking hostages or threatening violence to further certain agendas and goals. Carsten Bockstette gives the term a much broader definition:

Terrorism is defined as political violence in an asymmetrical conflict that is designed to induce terror and psychic fear (sometimes indiscriminate) through the violent victimization and destruction of noncombatant targets (sometimes iconic symbols). Such acts are meant to send a message from an illicit clandestine organization. The purpose of terrorism is to exploit the media in order to achieve maximum attainable publicity as an amplifying force multiplier in order to influence the targeted audience(s) in order to reach short- and midterm political goals and/or desired long-term end states. 6

This definition covers many points; it mentions the targets, the perpetrators’ agendas, the methods of achieving their goals and spreading the message. Psychological terror is a key component of terrorism that is often overlooked in many interpretations of the word. Successful acts of terrorism tend to have a great negative impact on the population. The memory of past tragedies plays an important part in coercing the population and the governments into collaboration, as nobody wants to live under the threat of it happening again.

Existing Practical Definitions

Unlike the scholars, the governments of the world that often have to deal with domestic terrorism require personal definitions of the word, which are often tailored to address the issues within a particular region. The same could be said for the intelligence organizations such as the CIA and MI-6, each having their own definitions of terrorism. In order to understand the governmental stance on the issue of terrorism, let us look at their definitions of the term:

India, in its Prevention of Terrorism Act, defines it as a war crime committed during the time of peace. This interpretation is built upon the works of Alex Schmid, and it is an interesting one since it equates terrorism with war crimes, putting them under the jurisdiction of the military tribunal. 7

The definition of terrorism in Pakistan is a peculiar one. It equates the acts of robbery, child molestation and rape to acts of terrorism, alongside the standard practices that are branded as such. Rape has a history of being used as a fear weapon since ancient times, and this found its imprint on the Pakistani definition of terrorism. 8

The Terrorism Act of the United Kingdom defines terrorism as an act of violence or threat of violence against someone’s life, health, and property in order to help advance political and ideological goals, to frighten the population and to influence the government or international governmental organizations. The bill also labels acts that seriously disturb the stability of electronic systems as terrorism. This doctrine is currently in use by the MI-6. 9

The CIA, on the other hand, uses a different definition, when identifying and conducting operations against the organizations it considers terrorist: “The term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” 10

What is similar between all these definitions is that all of them identify terrorists as strictly non-state agents, thus excluding any governmental actions from being potentially regarded as terrorist. This leads to the next important point in our discussion.

The Sources of Controversy

While the entire world agrees that terrorism is evil and must be stopped, the issues tend to begin whenever a congress is assembled in order to work on a resolution regarding the definition of terrorism and how it should be opposed. While individual governments have their own views and ideas on the term, the United Nations did not come up with any official words considering the definition of terrorism. Numerous drafts were written, but neither was fully approved. There are three main sources of controversy for the issue:

  • The negative emotional perception of the term
  • The legitimacy aspects
  • The scenario where the State could be branded terrorist

The term “terrorism” is a very emotionally charged word, which creates certain difficulties whenever there are attempts at formulating a definition for it. Instead of an emotionally neutral connotation that is expected from a legal term, the word is commonly associated with unlawful violence. This stretches the definition outside its area of legislation, which effectively ruins it. Historically, the term did not always have a negative connotation. In the past, the states of the world often branded their political opponents as terrorists, and the term was synonymous with the word “freedom fighter,” such as it was in the Russian Empire. Russian terrorists were often in opposition to the authoritarian monarchy and sought to end the tyranny through political assassinations, often employing bombs. Western media turned the word into a pejorative, often associated with Islamic terrorism and deaths of countless innocents over religious motives, which is not always the case. Consequently, anyone branded terrorist will be viewed by the public with scorn, regardless of their motivations, methods and the extent of damage done.

The legitimacy aspect is another thing that raises many legitimate questions and considerations. As it stands, the states currently hold the monopoly over the legitimacy of violence enacted against individuals, groups or other states. Many governments define terrorists to be explicitly non-state agents. This creates a moral dilemma, as the states have a possibility to dismiss their own actions that otherwise fit all the required definitions of terrorism, while simultaneously accusing non-government groups and organizations of using similar methods and tactics. Some scholars, such as Hoffman, Hoen, Masters, and Weinberg, argue that such a stance is a fallacy and a semantic device that allows the governments to escape the consequences of their own infractions and crimes. 11 Another qualm considering the legitimacy of violent actions comes from the conflict of definitions between terrorists and freedom fighters. Both groups use similar methods to achieve their goals and often engage in urban and guerrilla warfare. However, freedom fighters supposedly possess some validity and legitimacy to their goals and claims while the terrorists do not. The blurry line between these two concepts serves as another reason why a precise definition of the word was not yet adopted.

The issue of legitimacy is closely tied with the concept of the State being considered terrorist. This issue became increasingly prominent ever since the rise of ISIS as a terrorist state. Historically, the states have been responsible for organized terror and violence on a much greater scale than any non-state organizations and agents. The death tolls between the two are incomparable. The Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are the two most prominent examples, as both used terror tactics both inside and outside of their countries to facilitate their agendas. The number of civilian casualties caused by the allied operations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan can rival that of the terrorists.

This issue makes many people uncomfortable with the fact that the states are currently excluded from many modern definitions of the term. In order to create a successful and universally accepted definition of terrorism, the controversy regarding the use of terror tactics by the state has to be resolved. Right now, it is causing division, which circumvents any progress on the issue. The states are naturally apprehensive of the idea of sharing the definition, as it would take away a powerful tool, which they could use to discredit any legitimate movement that opposes the state tyranny, should they move beyond peaceful protests and use direct action and violence. At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that the reversed situation is equally bad – equating terrorist organizations to freedom fighter groups is going to generate even more controversy regarding whether the international community has the right to oppose them or not.


Terrorism has proven itself to be an ever-evolving, complex, and multi-faceted issue. It is very difficult, if not outright impossible, to create a short, crisp and practical definition that would include all the major points without contradicting one another. Even if such a definition were to be created, it is unlikely it would last long due to the changing nature of terrorism. Once it becomes outdated, the community would have to face the same issues again. While the need for a clear definition is universally acknowledged, there are too many conflicting interests of numerous parties involved, making consensus an unlikely option. The political interests of different countries often come into play during the negotiations, particularly over the issues of the state terror and the vagueness between terrorists and freedom fighters. The latter presented a large issue during the latest UN congress, as the Arabic delegation insisted on outlining the difference between these terms.

Instead, the world should give up on the pointless exercise of trying to come up with an all-inclusive definition and instead create multiple definitions that would fit particular situations and scenarios. Many governments already employ similar strategies in order to solve the problems of domestic terrorism at home. With the adoption of a multitude of specialized definitions that would satisfy certain parties involved, the counter-terrorist efforts would not be impeded by a universal lack of consensus. Of course, this idea has its own flaws. There is the ever-present risk of division, as certain members of the anti-terrorist coalition might get into an argument over which definition is applicable towards a certain situation, thus generating duplicity and confusion.

In order to avoid the numerous issues that come with the pejorative meaning of the word “terrorism,” it is advised to replace it with a term that does not have a clearly negative emotional coloration. Adopting the word “militantism,” for example, would help avoid the exploitation of the term by the states and solve many issues that would arise in the future creation of the set of definitions that would fit particular scenarios and situations. It remains to be seen whether such an approach towards terrorism is going to succeed or fail. However, it is obvious that the current method, marked by numerous failures, is a waste of time.


Chaliand, Gerard and Arnaud Blin. The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to al Qaeda. California: University of California Press, 2007.

Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. Colombia: Columbia University Press, 2006. Statista. Web.

Pakistan Government. Web.

Papacharissi, Zizi and Maria de Fatima Oliveira. “News Frames Terrorism: A Comparative Analysis of Frames Employed in Terrorism Coverage in US and UK Newspapers.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 13, no. 1 (2008): 52-74.

UK Government. Web.

“Terrorism – Definition.” Liquisearch. Web.

Central Intelligence Agency. Web.

Indian Government. Web.

Sputnik International. Web.


  1. “Number of Casualties due to Terrorism Worldwide between 2006 and 2015,” Statista, Web.
  2. Gerard Chaliand and Arnaud Blin, The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to al Qaeda, (California: University of California Press, 2007), 34.
  3. “What is the Difference between Russia’s and US’ Air Campaigns in Syria?” Sputnik International, Web.
  4. Zizi Papacharissi and Maria de Fatima Oliveira, “News Frames Terrorism: A Comparative Analysis of Frames Employed in Terrorism Coverage in US and UK Newspapers,” The International Journal of Press/Politics 13, no. 1 (2008): 60.
  5. Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, (Colombia: Columbia University Press, 2006): 13.
  6. “Terrorism – Definition,” Liquisearch, Web.
  7. “The Prevention of Terrorism Act,” Indian Government. Web.
  8. “Pakistan Anti-terrorist (Amendment) Ordinance,” Pakistan Government. Web.
  9. “Terrorism Act,” UK Government. Web.
  10. “Terrorism FAQs,” Central Intelligence Agency, Web.
  11. Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, (Colombia: Columbia University Press, 2006): 78.
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