Defining Terrorism: One Man’s Terrorist is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter

Finding a Definition: Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary entry on terrorism. (PHOTO: David Metz).
Finding a Definition: Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary entry on terrorism. (PHOTO: David Metz).

Author: David Metz - Edited by: Giacomo Toffanello

When discussing terrorism, everyone seems to have a clear image of terrorists and what they do. However, devising a generally accepted definition that meets the requirements of use in jurisprudence has proven to be rather difficult. Moreover, the changing face of terror over the centuries and the national interests of states further complicate matters. This article by David Metz, Master student in International Security and Law, seeks to offer an overview of the issues involved in finding a universally accepted legal definition of the term “terrorism” and suggests a way forward.

History of Terrorism: The Changing Face of Terror

Examining the history of terrorism over the centuries shows that it has undergone several developments. The changing nature of terrorism and the concurrent existence of several types of terrorism backed by different ideologies and actors has undoubtedly complicated the endeavour of finding a commonly recognised definition of the term “terrorism”.

At the end of the Eighteenth Century the notion of terrorism first appeared in political discourse. It referred to systematic intimidation and repression employed by the Jacobins in the French Revolution. Terrorism was seen as an instrument of state control. Later on, terrorism also became associated with the actions of non-state actors.[1]

David C. Rapoport, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of California and expert on terrorism, identified four waves of non-state terror that were carried by different ideologies and were distinguished by different uses of violence, each lasting for about 40 years.[2]

An initial “Anarchist Wave” carried by Anarchists and Bolsheviks started in the 1880s. It was characterised by assassinations and the use of dynamite, a modus operandi that often resulted in the death of the assailant. Furthermore, it relied on the quick proliferation of newspapers – thanks to the invention of the rotary press – to spread news about the attacks and cause widespread propaganda effect.

In the 1920s, the second wave of terrorism emerged. This so called “Anti Colonial Wave” saw the arrival of guerrilla-like hit-and-run actions against security forces in places such as Ireland, Cyprus, and Algeria.

The designation “New Left Wave” indicates the third wave, which saw the rise of attacks on foreign embassies, hijackings of commercial airliners, and the kidnaping of dignitaries and businessmen by groups such as the “Brigate Rosse” in Italy, the “Rote Armee Fraktion” in Germany, or the PLO in the Middle East.

Lastly, the “Religious wave” started in 1979 and has yet to end. According to Rapoport, should it follow the pattern of preceding waves, it will last for another five to ten years. Assassinations and hostage taking still occur in the fourth wave. However, suicide bombings became the most prominent and lethal “innovation” of this latest phase of terrorism.

When we look at the history of terrorism, it shows that the ideology behind terrorism and the methods employed change over time. The type of terrorism we face today might be replaced by a new kind of terror in the future. Consequently, a definition that will last the test of time should not focus on particular ideologies and methods and take the variableness of the phenomenon into account.

Defining Terrorism: Taking Stock of the Current Situation

Presently, terrorism is a disputed concept. Governments usually define terrorism as acts carried out only by their opponents. Many governments and the press apply the label “terrorist” to groups that seek to change state policies, intend to attack an existing political system, or try to challenge the status quo.[3]

National laws on terrorism differ greatly. In some countries such as Albania, Colombia, Lebanon and Tunisia terrorism is simply defined as violence intended to terrorise or intimidate people. In Hungary, Latvia, and Mongolia the concept of terrorism entails actions aimed at coercing or intimidating states or international organisations.[4] In Israel a terrorist organisation is defined “as any group [spreading] violence or [the] threat of violence calculated to cause death or injury to a person, irrespective of motive.”[5] Australia, Pakistan, and the UK “define terrorism as violence for a political or other motive, aiming to (a) coerce a government or international organisation, or (b) intimidate a population or civilians.”[6]

While many national and regional definitions exist, the United Nations General Assembly has not approved a clear universal legal definition. Attempts at finding a legal definition in the General Assembly have been ongoing since 1972. The United Nations Security Council has dealt with terrorism in several of its Resolutions but has never been able to find internal consensus on the meaning of the term.[7] The lack of a functional definition has weakened the efficacy of legal regimes created by the United Nations and other forums of the international community aimed at criminalising terrorism and its support. The word “terrorism” does not even appear in many of the United Nations conventions designed to combat specific types of terrorist acts such as skyjacking, assaults on diplomats, hostage taking, etc.[8]

Defining the word would make it possible to structure and control the use of the term, and thus freeing its use from political and ideological abuse. Instead of being an ambiguous and manipulated synonym for “evil” – allowing for all kinds of brutal reactions – a legal definition would enable to restrict the term in known parameters.[9]

The Way Ahead: Finding a Definition Fit for International Law

Facing the lack of a legal definition of terrorism, attempts have been made since the 1980s to reach agreement on an academic consensus definition. Alex Schmid has been working on finding such a definition: over the years he has consulted academics and other professionals on the kind of definition they favour. Twelve of the most commonly accepted definitions were identified in the latest round of inquiries.[10]

Several recurring elements can be identified in these twelve definitions: Terrorist acts generate fear by shocking and brutal violence. The direct victims are not the ultimate targets; rather, the aim of the acts is to achieve a propagandistic and psychological effect. Typically, terrorist actions are characterised by a lack of discrimination or a direct targeting of civilians. Terrorist attacks are usually part of a wider terrorist campaign. Terrorism is perpetrated as a form of state repression or by non-state actors in furtherance of a wide range of causes. The objectives behind terrorism include redress for alleged wrongdoings, revenge, collective punishment, revolution, and liberation: furthermore, ideological, political, national or religious causes and objectives are identified as drivers for terrorism. These elements offer a good starting point for trying to find a legal definition for terrorism. However, finding a suitable definition for international law requires further considerations.

The label of terrorism lends itself to abuse by governments. Peaceful opposition groups can be referred to as terrorists in order to justify violent repression. Therefore, a legal definition should include safeguards against such practice.

International treaty law and custom mainly deal with the actions of states.[11] A substantial body of law exists that protects civilians from indiscriminate use of force by those state actors. Arguably, many of the principles set out by this area of international law can also be found in international customary law. Therefore, it would be sufficient to limit the legal definition of terrorism to acts carried out by non-state entities. Furthermore, including the acts of states in a definition aimed at criminalising terrorism could prove to be a stumbling block in a vote in the General Assembly or when drafting a treaty criminalising terrorism internationally. Many states might be reluctant to approve any measures that could lead to an interference in what they see as purely domestic affairs. Human rights dialogue seems a more appropriate venue for addressing undue state repression. Consequently, while the existence of state perpetrated terror is undisputed it would seem prudent to exclude this phenomenon in a legal definition of terrorism.

Only time will tell if the international community will be able to come to an agreement and find a legal definition of terrorism. Hopefully, the self-interest of states will not hamper the process or make it impossible altogether.


[1] B. Saul, Defining Terrorism in International Law, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, pp.1-2;

[2] D. C. Rapoport, “The four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11”, Anthropoetics, 8 (1), 2002;

[3] V. Held, “Terrorism”, in Ethics and World Politics, ed. Duncan Bell, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010;

[4] B. Saul, p.266;

[5] Ivi, p.267;

[6] Ivi, p.268;

[7] A. P. Schmid, “The Revised Academic Consensus Definition of Terrorism”, Perspectives on Terrorism, 6 (2), 2012, p.158;

[8] V. D. Comras, Flawed Diplomacy – The United Nations & The War on Terrorism, Potomac Books, Dulles, 2010, p.187;

[9] B. Saul,  p.68;

[10] A. P. Schmid, p.158;

[11] A. Kaczorowska, Public International Law: 4th edition, Routledge, London, 2010.



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