Terrorism: The Problems of
August 1, 2003 Author(s): Mark Burgess
Defining terrorism has
become so polemical and subjective an undertaking as to resemble an art rather
than a science. Texts on the subject
proliferate and no standard work on terrorism can be considered complete
without at least an introductory chapter being devoted to this issue.
Media coverage of terrorist incidents over the years has further
confounded the difficulties of defining terrorism, which is variously described
as the work of, among others, ‘commandos,’ ‘extremists,’ fundamentalists,’ and
‘guerillas.’ As David Rapport cautioned
of this phenomenon almost three decades ago; “In attempting to correct the
abuse of language for political purposes our journalists may succeed in making
language altogether useless.”
The negative connotations associated with the word ‘terrorism’ have
further complicated attempts to arrive at a subjective definition of the term.
Some experts on
terrorism are skeptical as to whether the seemingly interminable attempts to
define terrorism are capable of bearing fruit.
As, one, Walter Laqueur, opines: “Even if
there were an objective, value-free definition of terrorism, covering all its
important aspects and features, it would still be rejected by some for
ideological reasons […]”
This assertion will probably remain true. However, if such a definition is a
destination, the journey towards it can almost be an end in itself. Arriving at a working definition also has
uses other than increasing our understanding of terrorism. For by defining terrorism one can also define
the preferred means of countering it. Defining terrorism also allows terrorists
to be defined (or not), justifying (or not) any action that is being taken
U.S. Definitions of Terrorism
Often, a uniform
definition of terrorism will not even exist across the various concerned
agencies of a given country. Such is the
case with the United States ,
where the range of definitions listed below is currently applied.
Department of Defense
calculated use of unlawful violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or
to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are
generally political, religious, or ideological.
unlawful use of force and 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
[P]remeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated
against noncombatant targets by subnational groups
or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.
Table 1 : Definitions of Terrorism Adopted by Various
definitions are made more equivocal by the rhetoric surrounding the so-called
‘Global War on Terrorism,’ as the current American administration describes the
series of military campaigns and other initiatives that were provoked by the al
Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 .
As with the journalistic tendencies referred to above, such a broad
reading of ‘terrorism’ as this usage engenders risk rendering the term
meaningless. It also lays the government
open to charges that that it is undermining its own counterterrorism efforts
through the use of such wide terminology in compiling the statistics attached
All the American
definitions above feature some element of the three inter-related factors that
most attempts to arrive at a workable definition of terrorism have tended to
revolve around namely, the terrorists’ (or persons being termed
terrorists) motives, identity and methods.
War, according to the
Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s famous
dictum, is “the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of
Much the same has been said of terrorism, a violent phenomenon often
seen as distinguished partly by its practitioners’ political motivations. This view of terrorism as political violence
possibly stems from its roots as a political term applied to the French
Revolutionary tribunals active during that country’s ‘Reign of Terror,’ with
terrorism’s political connotations continuing to feature throughout much of its
As one long-time scholar of the phenomenon puts it: “Terrorism, in the
most widely accepted contemporary usage of the term, is fundamentally and
However, as with many definitional characteristics of terrorism, this
view of it as always being political is not universally accepted. Nor is motivation always considered a factor
in deciding what is and is not terrorism.
This was the position of
the late Eqbal Ahmad, who argued that motivations
“make no difference.”
Jessica Stern agrees, seeing any definition of terrorism as being
unlimited by either “perpetrator or purpose.”
This approach, while not excluding political goals as a terrorist aim,
also allows for other motivations, such as the purely criminal, or even
religious. To Stern it is the
“deliberate evocation of dread is what sets terrorism apart from simple murder
or assault.” 
Such a reading underlay the recent judicial ruling that the chief
suspect in the rash of ‘sniper’ murders that occurred in the Washington, D.C.,
area last year could be charged under Virginia’s new post-Sept. 11, 2001
The question over
whether the snipers should be classified as terrorists, although they clearly
did ‘terrorize’ the D.C. metropolitan area for a time, highlights the dilemma
of broadening the definition of terrorism to include violence that is not
primarily political in intent. Such a
widening has drawbacks. As a brief
survey by one scholar shows, by the 1990s, the word terrorism had been applied
to issues as diverse as: Apartheid;
‘consumer terrorism’ (the poisoning of food products in supermarkets by criminal
extortionists); ‘economic terrorism’ (i.e. ‘aggressive’ currency speculation);
‘narco-terrorism’; obscene phone calls; pornography;
rape; and, state terrorism.
Such a broad interpretation of terrorism risks making the term so
elastic as to deprive it of its meaning.
In addition, the
assumption that the psychological effect of terrorism is uppermost in
terrorists’ minds when they act is also debatable. Often, despite its name, the primary intent
of terrorism appears to be to kill rather than frighten. This has been contended to have been the case
with the 1998 bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie, with Libyan involvement
most likely retaliation for the bombing of that country by the United States in
Certainly, revenge seems to have at least partly provoked the periodic
rounds of ‘tit for tat’ killing that characterized much of Northern Ireland ’s
‘troubles.’ (although, here, as with Lockerbie, political considerations also
played a role, with such killings seeking to consolidate loyalist and
republican terrorists’ self-proclaimed role as protectors of their respective
communities). The Sept. 11 attacks on
the United States also appear to have been at least partly motivated by revenge
(for what the perpetrators viewed as American actions against Muslims), a
desire to kill large numbers of people, and the political aspirations of al Qaeda.
Political motivation is
persuasively argued by Paul R. Pillar to be a prerequisite of terrorism,
although he concedes that criminal activity is not only often undertaken by
terrorists, but can often have political repercussions of its own. As Pillar states:
is fundamentally different from these other forms of violence, however, in what
gives rise to it and in how it must be countered, beyond simple physical
security and police techniques. Terrorists’
concerns are macroconcerns about changing a larger
order; other violent criminals are focused on the microlevel
of pecuniary gain and personal relationships.
‘Political’ in this regard encompasses not just traditional left-right
politics but also what are frequently described as religious motivations or
While terrorism can be
identified as political violence, it is far from the case that all political
violence can therefore be regarded as terrorism. War, for instance, is a form of political
violence, but one which is, generally speaking, differentiated from terrorist
action. This trend is partly connected
to the tendency to label certain acts of political violence terrorism on the
basis of their perpetrator’s identity.
The connection between
terrorism and political goals is related to the perceived illegitimacy of
political violence - especially in the West.
This in turn reflects the legitimacy of the liberal democratic state
as perceived by other liberal democracies.
In such states, democracy is considered to provide an alternative to
violence as an agent of political change, with the state viewed as sole
custodian of the monopoly of legitimate force.
Political violence against the state is therefore more apt to be termed
‘terrorism’ with all the negative connotations the term denotes - than
is political violence on the part of the state.
This is not universally
accepted to be the case however. Some
commentators see terrorism as a tool of states also, viewing, for instance, the
allied strategic bombing campaigns during World War II, and the dropping of two
atomic bombs by the United States against
the same conflict, as examples of state terrorism.
The oppressive measures imposed by totalitarian regimes such as those
which once existed in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Stalinist Russia, as well
as, more recently, the military dictatorships which have previously ruled some
South American countries, could also been debated to use terrorism. So, too, could some of today’s governments
such as that in Zimbabwe ,
or until very recently, the Baathist regime in Iraq . In addition, state-sponsored terrorism has
been practiced by countries like Iran , Iraq ,
Libya Syria, and North Korea -
the latter further muddying the definitional waters by themselves directly
participating in covert acts which could be described as terrorism, such as the
kidnapping of Japanese citizens.
considerations, some, such as Bruce Hoffman, contend that “such usages are
generally termed ‘terror’ in order to distinguish that phenomenon from
‘terrorism,’ which is understood to be violence committed by non-state
Such a state-centric reading is Western in outlook, and would probably
be questioned by those non-state actors who regard themselves as politically
disenfranchised. Moreover, while the
application of the term ‘terrorism’ may bestow illegitimacy on those it is applied
to (or their cause), it can likewise confer legitimacy on the governments
combating it and their methods. Sympathy
for a cause or disapproval for the regime or methods used to counter it can
therefore lead to inconsistency in deciding what is and is not terrorism.
As a consequence of such
reasoning, what might be viewed as terrorism by the West (if it occurs in a
‘Westernized’ or liberal democratic state) may be regarded differently when it
happens in less ‘legitimate’ states, such as are often regarded by the First
World to exist in less politically stable regions of the world. As Adrian Guelke
states, “any doubts about the regime’s legitimacy naturally tend to be
reinforced by signs of political instability, including violence.” An increase in violence (as Guelke further notes) makes the Western media less inclined
to term it terrorism - a trend possibly reinforced by the lessened pressure
they feel to condemn political violence which occurs outside the West.
As this indicates, terrorism resides in the eye of the beholder. Or, as one much-quoted and overly-trite
truism has it: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
Similarly debatable is
the assertion that; “To qualify as terrorism, violence must be perpetrated by
some organizational entity with at least some conspiratorial structure and
identifiable chain of command beyond a single individual acting on his or her own.”
Arguably, a lone operator, if politically motivated (rather than
pursuing economic or egotistical ends as is the case with his criminal or
mentally unbalanced counterparts) and using the methods of terrorists, should
also be called a terrorist. Unless such
an approach is adopted the politically motivated acts of individuals such as
Mir Aimal Kansi (who killed
two CIA employees outside the organization’s headquarters in 1993) and Sirhan Sirhan (who assassinated
Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968) would be classed as criminal rather than terrorist.
If observers are often
divided as to who is and is not a terrorist, this is less true of terrorists
themselves, who uniformly oppose being described thus. Indeed it has been some 60 years since a
terrorist organization the Jewish group known as the Stern Gang (after
its founder Abraham Stern) publicly described itself thus. Not even the Sternists
officially labeled their group terrorist, instead opting to call themselves the
Lohamei Hermut Yisrael (or Fighters for Israel ).
This reluctance to accept the moniker ‘terrorist’ is reflected not only
in the proclamations of many groups but in their adoption of neutral-sounding
names for themselves, or ones which often invoke their purported causes - such
as freedom, liberation, justice, revenge, resistance or self-defense.
This contrasts sharply
with the attitude displayed by the such groups’ victims, who are more inclined
to call their attackers ‘terrorists’ - further demonstrating the term’s
negative connotations. These
connotations, along with the other factors mentioned above, make any attempt to
define terrorism based on the identity of its perpetrators so subjective as to
be unusable. Attempts to carry out such
an identification based on the status of the terrorist’s victims (i.e. whether
they are non-combatants or not) do offer a more useful basis for definition,
however, this is only true insofar as a consensus can be arrived at as to what
constitutes a non-combatant. For
instance, should members of a state’s security forces be considered legitimate
targets even if they are off duty or not in a position to defend themselves?
This latter consideration particularly encroaches on the third factor
that is often considered in defining terrorism - namely the means employed by
Terrorists tend to
justify their methods by insisting these are forced upon them due to a lack of
resources, and renounce attempts to describe their actions as terrorism. Often, as is the case with the names adopted
by such groups, the assertion is made that, rather than terrorists, they are
fighters or soldiers in a cause, albeit ones forced by circumstances to use
differing strategies, tactics, and methods from better-equipped national
armies. This insistence (which ignores
the benefits attached to terrorist methods - unless these are viewed as
serendipitous side-effects) extends to terrorists demanding that they be
treated as prisoners of war and not criminals.
The conviction with which this assertion is often held was demonstrated
by Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoners in the 1980s when 10 of them
died on hunger strikes in protest at the U.K. government’s decision to end
their ‘special category status’ - a move which meant they would now be regarded
at criminals rather than the prisoners of war they wished to be regarded as.
However, war is
regulated by a series of laws (in theory if not always in fact) that prohibit
certain weapons and tactics as well as precluding attacks on certain categories
of targets (most notably non-combatants) and placing restrictions on the
treatment of prisoners. The terrorist
often ignores such laws as are codified in the Geneva Conventions, targeting
non-combatants, operating in civilian clothes, and taking (and often
mistreating or killing) hostages. From
that point of view, anyone using such tactics is waging terrorism rather than
war. One UN report on the topic takes
this further, suggesting that a simplified definition of acts of terrorism
could see these as the “peacetime equivalents of war crimes.”
Such an approach not only offers a way of identifying terrorists via
their methods, but provides a framework for punitive action against those found
guilty of terrorism, offering a potential solution to the controversy this
often entails - as evidenced by the current controversy over the status of the
suspected terrorists currently being held by the U.S. authorities
at Guantanamo Bay .
An emphasis on method
over purported aims also tends to make terrorist acts appear less
legitimate. In the words of one
analyst: “Categories of ends, such as
revolution, coup d’etat, and counter-insurgency, are
far less emotive or derogatory than categories of means, such as assassination,
bombings, and torture, despite the evident interdependence of means and ends.”
Terrorism, as a sort of catch-all for such tactics, is, as seen, a
similarly vitriolic term - perhaps even more so. As such it is unsurprising that those who
hold that that it is the means adopted by terrorists that distinguish them as
such tend themselves to identify with the victims of terrorism. Frequently, the advocates of this approach
have been on the receiving end of the violence they term terrorism. They also often represent, or belong to,
those interests (usually states) which seek to maintain the status quo that the
terrorist often seeks to change.
On first appearance, the
methods of the terrorist appear almost identical to those of the guerilla, with
both bombing civilian areas, carrying out assassinations, and seizing
hostages. Moreover, the same intention
to influence behavior through intimidation is also present in both groups. However, guerillas differ from terrorists in
that they tend to form larger, more heavily-armed organizations that control
territorial zones. While groups will
sometimes conduct both guerilla and terrorist campaigns, often simultaneously
such as is currently the case with al Qaeda for
instance - terrorism and guerilla warfare are not the same thing.
As this illustrates,
while identifying terrorism by the methods used is perhaps the most practical
means of arriving at a workable definition of the term, this is only true if
general agreement can be reached as to how to differentiate terrorist means
from non-terrorist means. Where such
terrorist means co-exist with the political motivation discussed above,
defining terrorism becomes easier. In
addition, while their identity alone is insufficiently subjective a basis to
help identify the perpetrators of political violence as terrorists, the
identity of their victims - namely their status as ‘legitimate’ or
‘illegitimate targets’ - is not. Again,
the use of such a determinant is dependent on agreement being reached as to
what constitutes a non-combatant in such instances.
None of which is to say
that Laqueur’s warning on the impossibility of
formulating a generally agreed upon definition of terrorism is likely to become
any less true any time soon. However, as
argued, this does not necessarily make such a definition or efforts to
arrive at it any less desirable.
 Most of the texts referred to below include
extensive sections which address the issue of defining terrorism, and the
reader is referred to these for a more detailed analysis of the problems this
 David Rapport, ‘The Politics of Atrocity,’ in,
Yonah Alexander, and Seymour Maxwell Finger (eds.), Terrorism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (New
York: John Jay Press, 1977), p. 46. Quoted
in, Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism,
(Columbia University Press: New York, 1988), p. 37.
 Laqueur, Walter, The Age
of Terrorism (Boston; Little, Brown and Company, 1987). pp. 149-150.
 For a fuller discussion of the potential pros
and cons of each of these definitions see, Hoffman, pp. 37-39.
 United States Department of Defense, Office of
Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication
1-02: Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (
Washington , DC : United States
Department of Defense, 12
April 2001 - As amended through 5
June 2003 ), p. 531. Online at: http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/new_pubs/jp1_02.pdf
 Counterterrorism Threat Assessment and Warning
Unit, National Security Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Terrorism in the United States 1999: 30
Years of Terrorism - A Special Retrospective Edition, (Washington, DC:
United States Department of Justice, 1999), p. i. Online at http://www.fbi.gov/publications/terror/terror99.pdf
 Office of the Coordinator for
Counterterrorism, Patterns of Global
Terrorism 2002, US Department of State Publication 11038 ( Washington , DC : State Department,
April 2003), p. 13. Online at: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/20177.pdf
This document further states: “For purposes of this definition, the term
“noncombatant” is interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military
personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed and/or not on duty.”
 See, Alexander Gourevitch,
‘How John Ashcroft’s Inflated Terrorism Statistics Undermine the War on
Terrorism,’ in, The Washington Monthly,
June 2003, which makes just such a claim.
 Carl von Clausewitz,
On War, edited and translated. by
Michael Howard, and Peter Paret, (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 605.
 See, Mark Burgess, A Brief History
of Terrorism, ( Washington DC: Center for Defense Information,
2003) for more on the historical development of terrorism.
 Hoffman, p. 14.
 Eqbal Ahmad,
‘Terrorism: Theirs & Ours,’ in, Russell D. Howard, and Reid L. Sawyer, Terrorism and Counterterrorism:
Understanding the New Security Environment, ( Guilford : McGraw-Hill/ Dushkin, 2003), pp. 46-53, p. 50.
 Stern, Jessica, The Ultimate Terrorists (Harvard University Press, 1999), p.11.
 Adrian Guelke, The Age of Terrorism and the International
Political System, (New York: I. B. Tauris, 1998),
 Guelke, p.5.
 Pillar, Paul R., Terrorism and U.S. Foreign
Policy (Brookings Institution Press, 2001), pp. 13-14.
 Stern, p. 14.
 Hoffman, p. 25.
 Guelke, p. 9.
 Hoffman, pp. 42-43.
 Bruce Hoffman cites Sirhan’s
case as representative of the difficulty of considering such instances of
individuals carrying out such acts alone (albeit with political motivations),
whereas Paul R. Pillar cites the example of Kansi in
arguing that such actions should be considered terrorism. See, Hoffman, p. 42, and Pillar, p. 43. On balance, Pillar’s argument seems the most
 Hoffman, pp. 28-29.
 See, Patterns
of Global Terrorism 2002 for a listing of those groups designated as Foreign
Terrorist Organizations - none of whom describe themselves thus.
 For one definition of ‘non-combatant’ see note
 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Definitions of Terrorism, Online at:
http://www.unodc.org/unodc/terrorism_definitions.html Downloaded, 7/28/03 .
 Guelke, p. 28.
 Clearly this is not universally the case. For instance loyalist terrorist groups in Northern Ireland could be
argued to have begun life with the intent of defending the status quo.