terrorismThe word “terrorism” is politically and emotionally charged1, 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 elements2. 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 bar room brawls.”3 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.”4 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. 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 combatants5. 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, recognized 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 labeled terrorist group based on whether the members of a resistance movement are considered lawful or unlawful combatants and their right to resist occupation is recognized6. Ultimately, the distinction is a political judgment.

The term “terrorism” comes from Latin terrere, “to frighten.” The terror cimbricus was a panic and state of emergency in Rome in response to the approach of warriors of the Cimbri tribe in 105BC. The French National Convention declared in September 1793 that “terror is the order of the day.” The period 1793-94 is referred to as the regime de la terreur (Reign of Terror). Maximilien Robespierre, a leader in the French revolution proclaimed in 1794 that, “Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible.”7 The Committee of Public Safety agents that enforced the policies of “The Terror” were referred to as “Terrorists.” The word “terrorism” was first recorded in English-language dictionaries in 1798 as meaning “systematic use of terror as a policy.”8 Although the Reign of Terror was imposed by the French government, in modern times “terrorism” usually refers to the killing of innocents by a private group in such a way as to create a media spectacle. This meaning originated with Russian radicals in the 1870s. Sergey Nechayev, who founded People’s Retribution (Народная расправа) in 1869, described himself as a “terrorist.”9 German anarchist writer Johann Most helped popularize the modern sense of the word by dispensing “advice for terrorists” in the 1880s.


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.



  • United Nations

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 favor 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 man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.10 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), (imperiled) 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).11

5. SAJID DAWAR define terrorism as “The act or threat of violence by any individual, group, organization or state aimed at to secure predetermined ends through illegal channels”

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 refers to it as: criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.  —UN Security Council Resolution 1566

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.”12

The General Assembly resolution 49/60,13 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.14

According to Antonio Cassese, that provision “sets out an acceptable definition of terrorism.”15

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.16

Andrew Byrnes suggested in 2002 that:

These conventions – all of which are described by the United Nations as part of its panoply of anti-terrorist measures17 – share three principal characteristics:

(a) they all adopted an “operational definition” of a specific type of terrorist act that was defined without reference to the underlying political or ideological purpose or motivation of the perpetrator of the act – this reflected a consensus that there were some acts that were such a serious threat to the interests of all that they could not be justified by reference to such motives;

(b) they all focused on actions by non-State actors (individuals and organizations) and the State was seen as an active ally in the struggle against terrorism – the question of the State itself as terrorist actor was left largely to one side; and

(c) they all adopted a criminal law enforcement model to address the problem, under which States would cooperate in the apprehension and prosecution of those alleged to have committed these crimes.

This act-specific approach to addressing problems of terrorism in binding international treaties has continued up until relatively recently. Although political denunciation of terrorism in all its forms had continued apace, there had been no successful attempt to define “terrorism” as such in a broad sense that was satisfactory for legal purposes. There was also some skepticism as to the necessity, desirability and feasibility of producing an agreed and workable general definition.

That situation appears to have changed with the events of September 11. This is not only because States wish for political reasons to be seen to be taking action on a broad front against terrorism by adding to international and national prohibitions on terrorism. It has also become a matter of some legal importance. Following the events of September 11, the UN Security Council, in a binding resolution (Resolution 1373), obliged Member States of the UN to take a wide range of actions to prevent and punish terrorist acts and to attack the support structures of terrorism. —Andrew Byrnes May 30, 200218

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.19


  • European Union

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 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.”


  • United States

United States Law Code – the law that governs the entire country – contains a definition of terrorism in its requirement that Annual Country reports on Terrorism be submitted by the Secretary of State to Congress every year. (From U.S. Code Title 22, Ch.38, Para. 2656f(d)

(d) Definitions (2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents;

The United States has defined terrorism under the Federal criminal code. 18 U.S.C. §2331[25] defines terrorism 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….”

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.


  • Syria

In relation to the United States attack on Abu Kamal the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem defined terrorism as “Killing civilians in international law means a terrorist aggression.”20


  • United Kingdom

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 cause.

(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.


  • 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 analyze them in a clearer way.21

In his book “Inside Terrorism” Bruce Hoffman wrote in Chapter One: Defining Terrorism that

On one point, at least, everyone agrees: terrorism is a pejorative term. It is a word with intrinsically negative connotations that is generally applied to one’s enemies and opponents, or to those with whom one disagrees and would otherwise prefer to ignore. “What is called terrorism,” Brian Jenkins has written, “thus seems to depend on one’s point of view. Use of the term implies a moral judgment; and if one party can successfully attach the label terrorist to its opponent, then it has indirectly persuaded others to adopt its moral viewpoint.” Hence the decision to call someone or label some organization “terrorist” becomes almost unavoidably subjective, depending largely on whether one sympathizes with or opposes the person/group/cause concerned. If one identifies with the victim of the violence, for example, then the act is terrorism. If, however, one identifies with the perpetrator, the violent act is regarded in a more sympathetic, if not positive (or, at the worst, an ambivalent) light; and it is not terrorism.1

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 organization 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 “defense”, even when that claim is considered dubious by some; any attempt to oppose the established order through military means, however, is often labelled “terrorism”.
  • For example, the US constitution permits a “Right of Revolution”. Given the armaments available to a government, the “Right of Revolution”, if implemented, would be a bloody and possibly futile affair.
  • If we labeled 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”, the term was used by the United States against the Soviet Union during the (Cold War)
    • 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).


Used literature

1.      Hoffman, Bruce “Inside Terrorism” Columbia University Press 1998 ISBN 0-231-11468-0. Page 32. See review in The New York Times Inside Terrorism

2.      Jeffrey Record. Bounding the Global War on Terrorism, December 1, 2003 ISBN 1-58487-146-6. p. 6 (page 12 of the PDF document), citing in footnote 10 Alex P. Schmid, Albert J. Jongman, et al., Political Terrorism: A New Guide to Actors, Authors, Concepts, Data Bases, Theories, and Literature, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1988, pp. 5-6.

3.      Jeffrey Record. Bounding the Global War on Terrorism, December 1, 2003 ISBN 1-58487-146-6. p. 6 (page 12 of the PDF document) citing in footnote 11: Walter Laqueur, The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 6.

4.      Angus Martyn, The Right of Self-Defence under International Law-the Response to the Terrorist Attacks of 11 September, Australian Law and Bills Digest Group, Parliament of Australia Web Site, February 12, 2002

5.      Rupert Ticehurst (references) in hist footnote 1 cites The life and works of Martens are detailed by V. Pustogarov, “Fyodor Fyodorovich Martens (1845-1909) — A Humanist of Modern Times”, International Review of the Red Cross (IRRC), No. 312, May-June 1996, pp. 300-314.

6.      Khan, Ali (Washburn University – School of Law). A Theory of International Terrorism, Connecticut Law Review, Vol. 19, p. 945, 1987

7.      Mark Burgess, A Brief History of Terrorism, Center for Defense Information

8.      Douglas Harper, “Terrorism,” Online Etymology Dictionary. (accessed: August 10, 2007).

9.      Crenshaw, Martha, Terrorism in Context, p. 77.

10.  “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. An early use of this phrase was in The Economist Vol. 273:2 in 1848, and more recently Indian Council of World Affairs India Quarterly, Indian Council of World Affairs [etc.], 1945. p. 122 noted it was cliche.

11.  “Definitions of Terrorism”. United Nations. Archived from the original on 2007-01-29. Retrieved 2007-07-10.


13.  United Nations General Assembly Resolution session 49 (retrieved 2007-08-28)

14.  United Nations General Assembly Resolution session 49 page 4 (retrieved 2007-08-28)

15.  Cassese, A., International Law, Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-19-925939-9, p. 449.

16.  POLITICS: U.N. Member States Struggle to Define Terrorism

17.  See the collection of treaties and other relevant documentation on the United Nations website: “UN Action Against Terrorism”,

18.  Apocalyptic Visions and the Law: The Legacy of September 11 A professorial address by Andrew Byrnes at the ANU Law School for the Faculty’s ‘Inaugural and Valedictory Lecture Series’, May 30, 2002. p. 11

19.  Prof. Dr. Nico Schrijver (Conference Chair) & Dr. Larissa van den Herik (Rapporteur) Counter-terrorism strategies, human rights and international law: meeting the challenges Final Report of the Poelgeest Seminar at the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies of Leiden University, May 31, 2007


21.  Jason Burk. Al Qaeda, ch.2, p.22)


Author: PhD Ahmad Sh. Shahidov
This article is part of now written book named “Encyclopedia of Terrorism”

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