Defining Terrorism

Publication Type:

Book Chapter


Combating Transnational Terrorism, Procon, Sofia, p.1-16 (2016)


If you Google “definition of terrorism,” in less than half a second you get 48 million hits. The search for a definition of terrorism has been equated to the search for the Holy Grail. It has also been called the “Bermuda triangle of terrorism research.” Indeed, “terrorism” is a controversial and essentially contested concept, politically loaded and emotionally charged, since it involves moral judgment and matters of life and death. It is contested in politics as well as in the academic community. The following brief list of contested elements is illustrative of this challenge: 1. Some observers stretch the concept of terrorism to include attacks on the military, while at the same time excluding certain activities by the military. 2. Some people include attacks on the military outside zones of combat and outside wartime as terrorism, while others do not. 3. Some are prepared to label the destruction of property as terrorism. 4. Some are also prepared to label certain harmful acts like computer hacking as terrorism, even when there is neither direct violence, nor fear involved (as has been the case so far with so-called ‘cyber-terrorism’). 5. Some authorities tend to label all forms of violence by militant groups as terrorism, once a group has been designated a terrorist organization. 6. Some people exclude from their understanding of terrorism acts carried out by, or on behalf of, states or governments. 7. Some exclude certain intimidating violent activities committed by organized crime groups from being labeled terrorism. 8. Many people exclude ‘freedom fighters’ (either those who are struggling for national liberation or who are trying to rid a territory of foreign occupation). Often, this is without regard for how popular, or unpopular, their actions may be, and is despite the fact that there is no definition of “nation” or “people” in international law. 9. Some include assassinations in the concept of terrorism, while others do not. 10. Some argue that terrorism has nothing to do with religion, while others see a link between terrorism and faiths which claim to be in possession of absolute truth (as Karl Marx once stated, terrorists are “dangerous dreamers of the absolute”). In the face of such complexity, some have called for a ‘common sense’ approach. As Jeremy Greenstock, British Ambassador to the United Nations, argued in 2001 “Let us be wise and focused about this: terrorism is terrorism ... What looks, smells, and kills like terrorism is terrorism.” This may seem an alluring argument, however, as President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon proclaimed in 2004 “It is not enough to declare war on what one deems terrorism without giving a precise and exact definition.” Similarly, Ben Saul pointed out that “In the absence of a definition of terrorism, the struggle over the representation of a violent act is a struggle over its legitimacy.” Finally—and contrary to what many believe—Boaz has argued that “an objective definition of terrorism is not only possible; it is also indispensable to any serious attempt to combat terrorism.”