Sociology Index

Terrorism Definition

Terrorist Groups, Sociology of Terrorism

We need a definition of terrorism. Without answering the question of “what is terrorism,” no responsibility can be imposed on countries supporting terrorism, nor can steps be taken to combat terrorist organizations and their allies. Defining terrorism is an operative concern of the first order. Terrorism is no longer a local problem of specific countries but an issue involving a number of international aspects. Terrorist organizations perpetrate attacks in a variety of countries; the victims of attacks may be of different nationalities; the offices, headquarters, and training camps of terrorist organizations also function in various countries and receive direct and indirect assistance from different states.

Terrorist organizations enlist support from different ethnic communities, and secure financial help throughout the world. Terrorism is an international phenomenon, responses to terrorism must also be on an international scale. Developing an effective international strategy requires agreement on what it is we are dealing with, we need a definition of terrorism.

International mobilization against terrorism, such as the international conventions in the G-7 countries cannot lead to results as long as the participants cannot agree on a definition. Without answering the question of “what is terrorism?,” no responsibility can be imposed on countries supporting terrorism, nor can steps be taken to combat terrorist organizations.

Without a definition of terrorism, it is impossible to formulate or enforce international agreements against terrorism. A conspicuous example of the need to define terrorism concerns the extradition of terrorists. Although many countries have signed bilateral and multilateral agreements concerning a variety of crimes, extradition for political offenses is often explicitly excluded, and the background of terrorism is always political. This loophole allows many countries to shirk their obligation to extradite individuals wanted for terrorist activities. It isn’t only countries like Italy and France that have refrained from extraditing terrorists, adducing political motives.

Defining terrorism in the present situation

Academics, politicians, security experts and journalists, all use a variety of definitions of terrorism. Some definitions focus on the terrorist organizations’ mode of operation.. Others emphasize the motivations and characteristics of terrorism, the modus operandi of individual terrorists, etc.

The prevalent definitions of terrorism entail difficulties, both conceptual and syntactical. It is thus not surprising that alternative concepts with more positive connotations—guerrilla movements, underground movements, national liberation movements, commandos, etc.—are often used to describe and characterize the activities of terrorist organizations. Generally these concepts are used without undue attention to the implications, but at times the use of these definitions is tendentious, grounded in a particular political viewpoint. By resorting to such tendentious definitions of terrorism, terrorist organizations and their supporters seek to gloss over the realities of terrorism, thus establishing their activities on more positive and legitimate foundations. Naturally, terms not opposed to the basic values of liberal democracies, such as “revolutionary violence,” “national liberation,” etc., carry fewer negative connotations than the term, “terrorism.”

Definition of Terrorism

Will it ever be possible to arrive at an exhaustive and objective definition of terrorism?

Terrorism is the intentional use of, or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims. This definition is based on three important elements:

According to this definition, an activity that does not involve violence or a threat of violence cannot be defined as terrorism.

The aim of the activity is always political. Ideological or religious aims can be added to the list of political aims. In the absence of  political, ideological or religious aims, the activity in question will not be defined as terrorism. A violent activity against civilians that has no political, ideological or religious aims is, at most, an act of criminal delinquency, a felony, or simply an act of insanity unrelated to terrorism. The advantage of this definition, however, is that it is as short and exhaustive as possible.

According to Duvall and Stohl, motives are entirely irrelevant to the concept of political terrorism. Most analysts fail to recognize this and, hence, tend to discuss certain motives as logical or necessary aspects of terrorism. But they are not. At best, they are empirical regularities associated with terrorism.

Terrorism exploits the relative vulnerability of the civilian “underbelly”, the tremendous anxiety, and the intense media reaction evoked by attacks against civilian targets.