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Terrorism: Searching for a Definition Essay


Today, more than ever before, nations around the world are expending huge financial and material resources to curtail acts of terrorism and to bring terrorists to account as was demonstrated by the recent killing of Osama bin Laden, the leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Despite the constant fear of terrorism, however, there exists no universally agreed and legally binding definition of the term ‘terrorism,’ leaving States to unilaterally define what constitutes terrorism without any regard to outer legal boundaries set by the international community (Saul, 2005).

The above scenario has raised serious challenges in the fight against terrorism as some actions that may be largely viewed by some nations as terrorist in nature and orientation are only passed as self-determination struggles by other nations.

To complicate matters further, some nations are known for their urge to repress or de-legitimize political opponents by labeling them as terrorists, effectively throwing more confusion into the works.

For example, China bluntly refers to Uighur separatists as a terrorist network, while Russia affirms that Chechen rebels are terrorists even though it is widely acknowledged that many of these rebels are fighting in an internal conflict (Saul, 2005).

To avoid these discrepancies in definition, this paper aims to research various definitions of terrorism, analyze their content, and determine what components should be included in the definition of terrorism.

A meta-analytic review of research articles interested in security issues reveals over 100 definitions of terrorism (Robbins, 2009). The League of Nations cited in Aly & Green (2010) “…defines terrorism as criminal acts directed against a state […] intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons, group of persons or general public” (p. 268).

This definition, however, fails to meet the tenets of modern-day terrorism, which is not only directed at creating fear at the minds of particular people, but also at large-scale destruction of property perceived to belong to the enemy.

The United States generally defines terrorism as “…the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce in furtherance of political or social objectives” (Aly & Green, 2010, p. 268).

The U.S. Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism defines terrorism as “…premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience” (Stevens, 2005, p 512).

While it is indeed true that one of the intents of most terrorist activities is to occasion fear to particular persons, the definitions fails to account for terrorist activities that are initiated for religious and personal ends, not mentioning that they fail to account for state-sponsored terrorism.

The United Kingdom, on its part, defines terrorism “…as the use of violence for political ends and includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public or any section of the public in fear” (Aly & Green, 2010, p. 268).

The Australian Defense Force defines terrorism “…as the use or threatened use of violence for political ends or for the purpose of putting the public or any section of the public in fear” (Aly & Green, 2010, p. 268).

Again, these definitions fail to account for terrorism that is perpetrated for religious or personal ends. Indeed, Stevens (2005) notes that terrorism motivated by religious zealotry is to a large extent more pervasive and deadly than terrorism motivated by political or ethnic ends.

In addition, the definitions fail to account for terrorism directed towards the wanton destruction of property.

It is indeed challenging to develop a unified definition of terrorism that can be widely adopted mainly due to the fact that the term posses political and emotional variants, and also due to conflicting interest and worldviews held by state and non-state actors (Stevens, 2005).

The above mentioned definitions, however, highlight particular characteristics of terrorism that can be integrated with the missing components to form a personal definition of terrorism.

From the definitions, it is true that terrorism: uses violence or threats to violence; targets civilians or non-combatants; is ineluctably political in its broad aims and objectives; is intended to influence intimidate or coerce; is usually premeditated; is perpetrated by sub-national groups or clandestine agents; creates a state of terror and inculcates fear and; most importantly, terrorism is intended to cause far-reaching psychological consequences beyond the immediate victim or target.

When the above components are integrated with the missing components (contribution of state actors; religious, ethnic, and personal orientations towards terrorism; and terrorism targeted at wanton destruction of property), a personal definition of terrorism would be “the use of politically, religiously, or ethnically motivated and premeditated violence or threat to violence by state actors, sub-national groups or clandestine agents with the intention to cause psychological fear to persons, group of persons, or states either through inflicting damage against noncombatant targets or premeditating to cause wanton destruction of property to achieve the same objective of causing fear and derision among the populace.”

Again, it is imperative to note that this definition is subject to criticism.

Reference List

Aly, A., & Green, L. (2010). Fear, anxiety and state of terror. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33(3), 268-281. Retrieved from Military & Government Collection Database

Robbins, C.W. (2009). Finding terrorists’ intent: Aligning civil antiterrorism law with national security. St John’s Law Review, 83(4), 1201-1273. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database

Saul, B. (2005). Definition of “terrorism” in the UN Security Council: 1985-2004. Chinese Journal of International Law, 4(1), 141-166. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database

Stevens, M.J. (2005). What is terrorism and can psychology do anything to prevent it? Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 23(4), 507-526. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database

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Ramos, L. (2019, May 6). Terrorism: Searching for a Definition [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/terrorism-searching-for-a-definition-essay/

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Ramos, Lilia. "Terrorism: Searching for a Definition." IvyPanda, 6 May 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/terrorism-searching-for-a-definition-essay/.

1. Lilia Ramos. "Terrorism: Searching for a Definition." IvyPanda (blog), May 6, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/terrorism-searching-for-a-definition-essay/.


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Ramos, Lilia. "Terrorism: Searching for a Definition." IvyPanda (blog), May 6, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/terrorism-searching-for-a-definition-essay/.

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Ramos, Lilia. 2019. "Terrorism: Searching for a Definition." IvyPanda (blog), May 6, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/terrorism-searching-for-a-definition-essay/.

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Ramos, L. (2019) 'Terrorism: Searching for a Definition'. IvyPanda, 6 May.

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