Small Wars Journal

Defining Terrorism: A Strategic Imperative

Thu, 01/24/2013 - 3:00am

On September 11, 2012, a group of assailants, now believed to be part of, or affiliated with, the terrorist organization Ansar al-Sharia attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing the American Ambassador and three others.  In the following weeks, U.S. political discourse focused on one question: was the event a terrorist attack or simply a spontaneous response to a viral internet video mocking the prophet Muhammad and the Islamic religion?  For counterterrorism scholars and practitioners alike, the debate reaffirmed familiar challenges associated with studying terrorism or developing counterterrorism strategies. Namely, “terrorism” is a difficult concept to define. 

Even if a video attacking the Muslim faith had in fact inspired a spontaneous attack on the Consulate, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or 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.”  This definition certainly seems applicable in such an instance.  Nevertheless, applying the label “terrorism” or “terrorist” to any one event, person, or group conjures visceral emotions, incites ideological sparring, and stirs vociferous political debate that reverberate well beyond the initial application of the term.               

This article recognizes that developing a universally accepted definition of terrorism is unlikely – if not impossible – when “universal” encompasses a stakeholder group, including nation-states, sub-state organizations, individual non-state actors, and scholars. Nation-states, sub-state organizations, and individual non-state actors frequently object to definitions which are perceived to target their modus operandi. Indeed, these groups charge that “terrorists” are merely pursuing just ends with the only means available.  Furthermore, scholars and political scientists are professionally inclined to push theoretical boundaries, test hypotheses, and question assumptions.  Expecting academics to agree on a definition for an esoteric concept like terrorism might be a bridge too far.  Rather, this analysis will demonstrate that terrorism can and should be defined for the discrete purpose of developing international counterterrorism strategies within a international framework bound by countries with common interests and shared objectives. 

In these terms, developing an accepted definition for a limited group of stakeholders for a single purpose becomes feasible and useful.  This argument is framed in three sections.  The first section examines the historical and existent barriers that prevent individuals, organizations, and governments from defining terrorism in universally accepted terms.  The second section argues that terrorism must be defined to provide governments, government agencies, and security practitioners a common reference point for developing effective counterterrorism strategy.   The third section evaluates two illustrative international frameworks and definitions and proposes a recommended way-ahead.

“Not one, but many Terrorisms”

Walter Laqueur’s observation that any attempt to define terrorism in specific terms “is bound to fail” for the simple reason that there is “not one but many terrorisms[1]” recognizes the multitude of factors, motivations, and activities considered when describing terrorism.  The old adage, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” succinctly captures a present-day challenge: a group or individual’s sympathies typically lie with either the “terrorist” perpetrator or the victim, and those sympathies unavoidably shape how the term’s application is applied or rejected.   Labeling actions that simultaneously places on a moral judgment on those actions is unavoidably shaped by the orientation of the definer and the receiver.  “Terrorism” is a pejorative label. Characterizing an individual or organization with the term “terrorist” implies wrongdoing, and that reality has historically enticed governments, organizations, and individuals to indiscriminately apply the term to suit overtly political agendas.          

Moreover, the meaning of the word “terrorism” has also changed over time.  The term originated from the French Revolution “Reign of Terror” which associated terrorism with actions designed to restore order and deter counterrevolutionary critics.[2]  In this context, French loyalists viewed state-sponsored terrorism – and the term’s associated meaning – as a positive good supported by the generally accepted principle that state authority holds a monopoly on violence to maintain order. From this historical perspective, terrorism was considered a necessary and just application of the state’s power to protect the civilian populace and to prevent a sub-state organization from resorting to violence to impose political change.  During the next century, Europeans used the term to describe violence and intimidation directed against the state as opposed to the state’s use – or threat – of violence.  In this context, terrorism assumed the negative connotation it bears today.[3]

The meaning of term continued to evolve over the centuries, describing anti-monarchical movements in the late 19th century, repressive tactics employed by authoritarian and fascist states like Russia and Germany during the 1930s, anti-colonial and nationalist movements during next two decades, political extremists and disenfranchised minorities during 1960s and 1970s, and religious extremists during the late 1980s.  Each of these distinct “periods” witnessed different applications of violence to serve different ideological, political, and religious motivations.  The dynamic nature of terrorism has left many to conclude that only constant variable in terrorism is that it will change.  

These historical challenges have convinced many counterterrorism thought-leaders that establishing a universal definition for terrorism is a futile effort.  William Connolly argues that defining terrorism is problematic because the term is an “essentially contested concept” – an idea so internally complex that disagreements arise not only over the interpretation of the available evidence but also over the system of concepts and rules that make objective analysis possible.[4]  Alex P. Schmid and Albert. J. Jongman highlight the inherent difficulty in defining terrorism in their 1988 study which presents 109 distinct definitions deconstructed into 21 commonly referenced definitional elements.  Indeed, some scholars like Walter Laqueur conclude that “after thirty years of hard labor there is still no generally agreed definition of terrorism” and the debate does not contribute to the study of the subject.

“For without a Consensus of what Constituted Terrorism, Nations could not Unite Against It”

Conversely, there is broad consensus that there needs to be a universally accepted definition of terrorism for both analytical and practical purposes.  Definitional elements shape the type data collected to develop or disprove theories in the study of terrorism.  Moreover, a universally accepted definition would influence domestic policy, international agreements, and global strategies to counter terrorism.  The challenge associated with classifying a singular event, like the Benghazi attack, under a universally agreed definition becomes even more when complicated when the application of term is part of national and international policy-making.

The U.S. Department of State (DOS), Bureau of Counterterrorism lists the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).[5] While the FARC has remained a State Department designated FTO since 1997, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez considers the group a legitimate rebel force and provides the organization with material aid and sanctuary for its leaders.  The stark differences between how the U.S. and Venezuelan governments characterize the FARC is further evidence of the challenges associated with defining “terrorism” in universally (or internationally) accepted terms. 

Although countries like Venezuela and their public leaders might publically condemn terrorism, agreeing on the specific definitional elements becomes problematic when they are intended to shape policy and influence behavior.  Each of the State Department designated FTOs must either engage in “terrorist activities” or have the capability and intent to conduct “terrorist activities” as defined by the 1988 Foreign Relations Authorization Act.  Moreover, the State Department outlines the desired effects for placing organizations on the FTO list, which include:

1.     Supports efforts to curb terrorism financing and to encourage other nations to do the same

2.     Stigmatizes and isolates designated terrorist organizations internationally

3.     Deters donations or contributions to and economic transactions with named organizations

4.     Heightens public awareness and knowledge of terrorist organizations

5.     Signals to other governments our concern about named organizations[6]

Indeed, the United Nations (UN) recognized that “without a consensus of what constituted terrorism, nations could not unite against it.”  Nevertheless, eleven years after 9/11 the UN has been unable to agree on a definition of terrorism.  The UN has generated numerous motions, resolutions, and committees to draft a comprehensive definition of terrorism. The Ad Hoc Committee to Eliminate Terrorism established in 1994 has been stifled by disagreements over how to address “freedom fighters,” “national liberation movements,” and “state sponsored terrorism.”   A transcript from a 2005 General Assembly meeting indicates that  

“some delegates also cautioned against identifying terrorism with a particular religion.  The representative of Singapore said it was wrong ‘to dignify the murders that these terrorists have committed around the world by associating them with any great religious faith of the world.’  If measures to counter terrorism were to involve crude methods of profiling and targeting the followers of one religion, that would be ‘falling into the trap of the extremists who hope to sow divisions and provoke a clash of civilizations when no such clash needs to take place.’”[7]

Even attempts to deconstruct terrorism into the term’s most basic conceptual elements – means and ends – become problematic when the very concepts are contested.  Ganor suggests that while different organizations may have similar strategic, political, or ideological ends, those organizations that choose to violate normative principles codified in international law and customs by willfully pursuing means that deliberately target noncombatants or civilians lose any claim to jus ad bellum.  However, “just war” concepts and normative principles are not universal and are subject to moral debate, ideological perspective, and political interests.  Instead, any “universal” interest in developing an accepted definition of terrorism must first focus on an alliance of international partners for the discrete purpose of developing a coherent, coordinated international counterterrorism strategy.


An International Framework for an International Problem

The urgent need to develop an international coalition committed to defining terrorism and developing counterterrorism strategies is manifest in the transnational nature present-day terrorism assumes.  Terrorist organizations recruit, finance, and operate across, and between, internationally recognized boundaries.  An international framework is necessary to defeat an international problem.  While the UN Assembly readily admits there needs to be a consensus on a definition of terrorism, the international net the organization casts is far too large.  The European Union provides an instructive example on how an internationally accepted definition can be used to combat terrorism.   The Council Framework Decision announced on June 13, 2002 for combating terrorism established an accepted definition of terrorism and represents the cornerstone in EU counterterrorism policy and strategy.  Article 1 of the Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism defines terrorism as any act that

“may seriously damage a country or an international organization where committed with the aim of: seriously intimidating a population; or unduly compelling a Government or international organization to perform or abstain from performing any act; or seriously destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organization.”[8]

The Framework Decision also articulates the intent to “[harmonize] the definition of terrorist offenses in all Member States” to establish “jurisdictional rules to guarantee that terrorist offences may be effectively prosecuted”[9]  The EU Framework Decision provides an excellent model for defining terrorism in an international construct to shape coordinated counterterrorism policy.  However, the definition refrains from describing the political, ideological, or religious motivations that drive terrorism. The definition only describes the potential effects arising from terrorism.  The overly broad definition prevents the narrow focus required to develop effective counterterrorism policies or strategies. 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against individuals or property in an attempt to coerce or intimidate governments or societies to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives.”[10] However, unlike the EU definition, the NATO definition does not outline the strategic aim for defining terrorism in universal terms.  

The nation-members of both the EU and NATO could and should work to establish an international coalition that will commit to 1) defining terrorism and 2) outlining clearly stated objectives for such an agreement.  Each organization has already proven that this goal possible and that the effort is urgently needed.  A codified definition of terrorism agreed upon by a coalition from member nations of both organizations would create a strong international voice that 1) clearly identifies what constitutes terrorism, 2) unanimously condemns those activities, 3) enables a coordinated approach to developing international counterterrorism strategy, and 4) forces non-compliant states, sub-state organizations, and non-state actors to recalibrate the cost-benefit analysis of resorting to, or supporting, terrorism.

[1] Walter Laqueur, The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction, New York: Oxford University Press (2000), p. 46.

[2] Alison M. Jaggar, “What Is Terrorism, Why Is It Wrong, and Could It Ever Be Morally Permissible?” Journal of Social Philosophy, vol. 36, no. 2 (May 2005), 202.

[3] Jaggar, 203.

[4] Leonard Weinberg, et al., “The Challenges of Conceptualizing Terrorism,” Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 16, no. 4 (2004), 778.

[5] “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism, September 28, 2012.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Agreed Definition of Term ‘Terrorism’ Said to be Needed for Consensus on Completing Comprehensive Convention Against It,” 60th General Assembly, Sixth Committee , 4th Meeting, July 7, 2005.

[8] Council Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism, Council of the European Union, Brussels, 18 April 2002, Art. 1.

[9] Amendment of the Framework Decision on combating terrorism and Evaluation report on the implementation of the Framework Decision on combating terrorism, MEMO/07/448, Brussels, 6 November 2007.

[10] NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions, AAP-06 Edition 2012 Version 2.


About the Author(s)

Captain Eric Chase is a former Intelligence Officer in the United States Marine Corps with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.  He currently commands Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines and he works at Toffler Associates as a consultant specializing in defense strategic planning and irregular warfare.



Fri, 02/15/2013 - 6:12am

Good observations all, I think. In a nutshell, we are in a phase of “piecemeal” (as opposed to “wholesale”) definition of terrorism: we determine and criminalize its “fruits”, like money laundering as financing of terror, hijacking, indiscriminate and premeditated (as opposed to involuntary or hazardous) attack on civilians, diplomatic agents and non-combatants, taking of hostages, preparation and use of dangerous substances, etc.
This is useful, although not “strategic”, as it is in principle in this realm of determinable things, visible risks and dangers, day to day threats, that decent citizens of different nations share the same “values” and may agree on what they don’t want. They will of course continue to disagree on what they want.
In this “piecemeal” stage, we even so managed to sign five “universal” UN sponsored conventions (1973-2005), eight multilateral conventions or protocols (1963-1991), and at least seven regional conventions or treaties (1971-1999). Is it too much? Is it too less? Do conventions secure an effective network of international cooperation? What does definition serve for, without executive action? How can executive action claim to be universally “legal”, if it doesn’t follow a “definition”? What comes first, chicken or egg?
These are the questions, for now.
So, in an “ideal”, unified world (that will never exist while there is freedom of expression), a whole encompassing, “strategic” definition of terrorism could be possible. But not in the flesh and blood existence we call human life.
N. Rogeiro


Thu, 02/14/2013 - 5:34pm

In reply to by Sparapet

Of course state actors are capable of and do inflict deliberate violence on their own populations and/or civilian populations elsewhere, for political purposes. I would have no problem defining that as state terrorism.

My point of view is that if you allow the state to do the defining of what terrorism is, you are going to get something vague and catch-all. Better for those who are deliberately harmed in the cross-fire between two political antagonists to have more say. Usually both the state and the non-state actor are engaged in operations to win over (or instill fear in) the population, but if we want to be clear about what represents behavior that we cannot condone, it should be deliberate infliction of violence on those not directly associated with either group, just to prove a political point. We would hope that a state with moral standards would not engage in such tactics.

One thing I did find very interesting was that by "civilian" Ganor explicitly does not mean "non-combatant," which actually opens the door for legitimizing certain asymmetrical warfare tactics by guerrilla fighters/non-state actors. This is perhaps controversial, and why I think he's not going to succeed in getting any state to adopt his definition. But in any case, I do think that it is more clear on terrorism as a tactic, rather than a "pejorative label." Altogether, though, I do understand that there are shades of grey in every aspect of this; thanks for your response.


Thu, 02/14/2013 - 3:32pm

In reply to by jzhou

If terrorism is defined as an act of personal indiscriminate violence against civilian persons with the intent of only targeting the persons and not their activity, I guess what you descrive could be useful. Anything else and we have a bit of conundrum that my tank platoon pointed out in 2004 when being briefed on the latest from the Pentagon on terrorism. That conundrum is that every other definiton seems to make us terrorists, too.

By way of example, let's say we are fighting a state with a hostile population and to defeat them we are targeting their telecom, media (even if their press is generally free), manufacturing, transportation, electricity, and food supply, all targets that inherently involve enemy civilian employees and users. And let's say we use psychological means to instill fear in the population to help turn them on the organized defenders, or to stop them from enabling the enemy war effort. So, are we then terrorists? Are we not using the civilians as a medium through which we are attempting to achieve a political goal (e.g. victory in war)?

What then is the difference when a rebel group targets those same enterprises such as blowing up a police station or army check point, killing lots of civilians nearby? Today we call them terrorists. Incidentally, our enemies call us terrorists, but owing to their limited credibility with those whose opinion matters to us, we label this enemy propoganda.

For years I have thought of terror as an end-state, and terrorism as the loose catch-all for the tactics that are intended for that purpose. In other words, the intent of instilling terror is the distinguishing aspect of terrorism, not who it targets and how. It's morality is irrelevant, since our morality is satisfied with prohibitions against genocide, wanton violence, rape, indiscriminant targeting of civilians etc. Al Qaeda would be no less "dangerous" if they were labeled "non-state enemy organization" than they are as a "terrorist organization".

This looseness of concept makes the term terrorism impossible to disassociate from politics and this linkage makes it analytically useless. Terrorism becomes relative, while a search for definition implies some objective standard to be sought and discovered. In other words, the terrorist becomes simply the irrational enemy of the one calling him a terrorist. Irrational because clearly, if they were rational, they would not resort to terror.

Ironically, I think our love of the word terrorist forces our hand in foreign policy. By labeling non-state actors as terrorists in other states, we may be forcing ourselves into denouncing organizations whose activities are actually in our own state interest. AQ in Syria is our enemy, that they seemed to have joined the side many of us feel we ought to be supporting is no more problematic than "terrorists" doing the same. The terrorist label is kind of useless except as propoganda in support of our efforts, and more problematically, it has the potential to force us into arbitrary decision points along the way.

Or so it seems...

The most compelling definition of terrorism I have heard is from Boaz Ganor, whom you mentioned. He has argued that terrorism should be defined very simply as the deliberate targeting of and use of violence against civilians for political purposes. This clearly distinguishes terrorism as a tactic separate from say, guerrilla warfare - and reprehensible no matter who it is perpetuated by. This works to cut out much of the politics.

But IMO, a common, internationally accepted definition is just not going to happen.


Thu, 01/31/2013 - 8:42am

Although one understands the need for a legal, universal, "positive" (not what terrorism is not, but what it is), comprehensive, core-based (not as today on the "fruits" of terror, but on its "tree")definition, terrorism is the last "political crime" still endangering free societies (all other "political crimes" only threaten police states). And politics is the realm of controversy, permanent controversy, irrevocable controversy.
So in the present state of world affairs, essays at much more than peacemeal definitions of terrorism are difficult, if not impossible.

Nuno Rogeiro, Lisbon, Portugal