definition of terrorism

Written by Raja Mansoor 9:09 pm International Relations, Published Content, Research Papers

The Definition of Terrorism & Its Ambiguity

To date, the concept of terrorism is without a universally accepted definition. This has severe practical repercussions in global politics. The paper analyzes various terrorism studies in order to highlight the definitional issues of terrorism.
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Since its origin, the concept of terrorism has proven to be so problematic that it is still without a universally accepted definition today. Laqueur (1999) – one of the founders of the study on terrorism – remarks that terrorism encompasses so many varieties that it cannot be articulately defined. The dilemma faced by Laqueur has since then not only plagued academics and scholars but also governments themselves. In this paper, I critically analyze different studies on terrorism from the 1980s to the 2000s to highlight the problems faced when defining terrorism.

Literature and Analysis

In his work, Said (1988) states that although terrorism has no clear definition, writers such as Claire Sterling have not refrained from molding it into a form that suits the interests of the West and Israel. Said’s work is highly critical of how America, Israel, and the Western media have propagandized terrorism by linking it as an inherent characteristic of Palestinians and the Muslim population as a whole. He provides a good example of how concepts are not neutral but are politically loaded – and that an idea will be discerned differently by individuals due to their distinct perspectives.

Said uses a definition of terrorism provided by Eqbal Ahmed in the 1986 report published by Middle East Research and Information Project’s (MERIP): “acts of intimidating and injuring unarmed, presumably innocent civilians”. The use of the words “innocent civilians” is very important in the definition, as I will explain later. Said contends that to counter resistance, the U.S and Israel, along with their media, have insidiously embarked on a campaign of disinformation that has turned every Palestinian into a “terrorist” and has legitimized the use of force on them. Said’s work aims not to produce a concrete definition of terrorism, but to highlight how problematized the concept of terrorism is and how, in this case, governments are manipulating the concept to stigmatize communities and to further their personal interests. Nelson Mandela aptly reminds us “Where you stand depends on where you sit”.

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The next study of focus is from Primoratz (1990) where he emphasizes issues with the past definitions of terrorism and then provides his own. Primoratz initially states that terrorism employs violence in an indiscriminate fashion and that it has two targets: the direct and the indirect. The direct target consists of the people that the terrorists hurt, injure, or kill, while the indirect are the people who the terrorists intimidate or scare through their actions on the direct targets. The indirect target is hence more important to the objectives of the terrorists.

By maintaining that the direct targets in terrorism are innocent civilians, the author distinguishes terrorism from guerrilla warfare and war in general where innocent civilians are not purposefully harmed (in theory). Furthermore, he also differentiates between terrorism and political assassination by highlighting that political assassination includes the killing of people involved in policymaking and implementing, while terrorism focuses on innocent civilians. One of the last points his study makes is that terrorism can be political or non-political and that it can be done by states themselves or rebels against states.

Summing up the work, the author reveals his definition of terrorism: “The deliberate use of violence or threat of its use, against innocent people, with the aim of intimidating them, or other people, into a course of action they otherwise would not take” (p.135). This definition, in my opinion, is a sound one as it assists in clarifying the concept of terrorism when compared to other concepts like insurgency, political assassination, and guerrilla warfare.

The definition by Primoratz is also more useful than the one currently being employed by The United States Office of the Federal Register (2010), which is: “Terrorism includes the 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.51). If this definition is applied to a Palestinian fighting against the Israeli army – an army who since 1948 have killed and victimized the Palestinian people – it labels the Palestinian person as a terrorist due to his “…use of force and violence against persons..” The word “persons” is very ambiguous as there is no distinction made whether the person is a combatant or non-combatant. Therefore, although the oppressed Palestinians is targeting the army (a combatant force), under this definition, he will be branded a terrorist and can be treated and tried as such. This also shows how perspectives can alter the labels on a person or group.

Leaving the technicalities of the definition aside, from the Palestinian people’s perspective the individual fighting the army is most likely a hero while the Israelis will portray him as evil incarnated. I am reminded of the old adage here: “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”.

The third study by Weinberg, Pedahzur & Hirsch-Hoefler (2004) sets out to find a cohesive definition for the concept of terrorism. The three authors use a definition produced by Alex Schmid in 1985 and compare this to how the concept is defined by academics in terrorism-related journals in more contemporary times. The Schmid definition is derived from a questionnaire he mailed to different scholars and academics. His respondents produced 109 individual definitions from which he selected 22 frequently occurring elements and used this to form his definition. Weinberg et al., on the other hand, use definitions provided by scholars in 3 distinct terrorism-related journals. The authors produce 73 definitions out of the 55 articles they had scrutinized from the 3 journals and use the most common elements in both their and Schmid’s work to produce a consensus definition.

Elements like “violence and force” and “political” are frequent in both Schmid’s and their work, while others like “psychological effects” and “coercion and extortion” are frequent in Schmid’s and not theirs. The country of origin of the academic is found to be a contributing factor by Weinberg et al. vis-à-vis the differences in the definitions provided by both sets of scholars. Furthermore, the time at which the studies were conducted is also integral to the definitional process – Schmid’s respondents were witnesses to terrorist activities in the 1960s and beyond such as the Irish Republican Army, while Weinberg et al. respondents were witnesses to the more radicalized form of terrorism in the 1990s.

The consensus definition that is concocted by Weinberg et al. after merging the common elements from both studies is: “Terrorism is a politically motivated tactic involving the threat or use of force or violence in which the pursuit of publicity plays a significant role” (p.786). I agree with Weinberg et al when they say this above definition is too generalized. The authors themselves mention the obvious faults with this definition – this includes the surprising omission of the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, which is of utmost importance (as seen in Primoratz’s definition). If this distinction is not made, there is no difference between terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

The authors also remark how their definition of terrorism is strikingly similar to how states and agencies define terrorism, giving the example of the FBI. By admitting this, they insinuate that countries like America and Britain have very vague and abstruse definitions, which are used in a manipulative manner by them. Lastly, a critical fault not mentioned by the authors is that their definition is restrictive as it only mentions political motivations for terrorism. This is not true as terrorism can be extra-political – an example is ISIS and how their “Shia cleansing” is, from their perspectives, a religious duty. There might be a political aspect involved here for ISIS as well but the religious dimension cannot be ignored. Likewise, social and other non-political dimensions exist that can be the basis of a terrorist’s objectives and/or motivations.

The last article by Bigelow (2005) is a very interesting one. This article was printed in a magazine in 2001, after September 11, but my source is a journal that reprinted it in 2005. The author conducts an exercise with an 11th-grade American class to see how they define the concept of terrorism after 9/11 and how they apply their definitions to real historic events or scenarios of violence. By conducting this exercise, the author wanted to see if he could reduce or eliminate the “they are bad-we are good” mentality. The countries in the scenarios are given different names so the answers would remain unbiased. Scenarios of violence included interactions between Palestine and Israel; America and Nicaragua; America and Iraq and others.

The class is divided into groups and are told to come up with their personal definitions of terrorism, after which they have to judge if the actions in the scenarios agree with their definitions or not. The students after doing the exercise become inquisitive as they started questioning why the United States has not given a clear definition of terrorism before going on the “War on Terror”. Some students think that a clear definition is not provided so that America can target as many “terrorists”, while others think that America does not want to be labeled a terrorist country so avoids doing so.

Students also realized how many acts of American violence could be categorized under their definitions of terrorism. This study is indeed a unique way of talking about the concept of terrorism: from the perspective of an 11th-grade class and that too after 9/11, it is quite noteworthy that the students questioned their governments’ actions in this sensitive time. The study highlights, again, how concepts are political, how countries can manipulate concepts to further their gains, and how perspectives change definitions of concepts.


In conclusion, I would reiterate how the concept of terrorism is still without an accepted definition internationally. It seems that scholars are still hard-pressed to find a concrete definition for terrorism and this is probably why some countries and their institutions have used this to their advantage and employed a vague definition for political purposes. Concepts, as stated, are not neutral and a concept like terrorism, where lives are at stake, should be taken very seriously. This paper showed that guerrilla warfare, insurgency, and political assassination could wrongly fall under the umbrella of terrorism if vaguely defined. It is tragic to think that many non-terrorists have been wrongfully jailed or executed due to the generalized definitions employed by states and authorities. Not to undermine the work of the plethora of scholars who have tried to tackle this concept, but it is indeed shocking that the concept, whilst so overused, is so perplexing that the world does not agree on what it really is.


  • Ahmad, E. (1986). Comprehending Terror. Middle East Research and Information Project. https://merip.org/1986/05/comprehending-terror/
  • Bigelow, B. (2005). Whose Terrorism? A classroom activity enlists students in defining terrorism and then applying their definitions to world events. The Radical Teacher, 72, 24-30.
  • Laqueur, W. (1999). New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction. Oxford University Press.
  • Office of the Federal Register. (2010). Code of Federal Regulations. https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2010-title28-vol1/pdf/CFR-2010-title28-vol1-sec0-85.pdf
  • Primoratz, I. (1990). What is Terrorism?. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 7(2), 129-138.
  • Said, E. W. (1988). Identity, Negation and Violence. New Left Review, (171), 46-60.
  • Weinberg, L., Pedahzur, A., & Hirsch-Hoefler, S. (2004). The Challenges of Conceptualizing Terrorism. Terrorism And Political Violence, 16(4), 777-794. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/095465590899768

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