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The term terrorism is largely synonymous with "political violence," and refers to a strategy of using coordinated attacks that typically fall outside the time, manner of conduct, and place commonly understood as representing the bounds of conventional warfare.

"Terrorist attacks" are usually characterized as "indiscriminate," "targeting of civilians," or executed "with disregard" for human life. The term "terrorism" is often used to assert that the political violence of an enemy is immoral, wanton, and unjustified. According to definitions typically employed by states, academics, counter-terrorism experts, and non-governmental organizations, "terrorists" are actors who don't belong to any recognized armed forces, or who don't adhere to their rules, and who are therefore regarded as "rogue actors".

Because of the above pejorative connotations, those accused of being "terrorists" rarely identify themselves as such, and instead typically use terms that reference their ideological or ethnic struggle — separatist, freedom fighter, liberator, militant, insurgent, paramilitary, guerrilla, (from guerra, Spanish for "war"), rebel, jihadi and mujaheddin (both meaning "struggler"), or fedayeen ("prepared for martyrdom").



Main article: Definition of terrorism

Although the term is often used imprecisely, there have been many attempts by various law enforcement agencies and public organizations to develop more precise working definitions of terrorism.

The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention has proposed a short legal definition —that "[an act of terrorism is] the peacetime equivalent of a war crime." A US court found that "the malice associated with terrorist attacks transcends even that of premeditated murder." Flatow v. Iran: Order. CA No. 97-396 (RCL)

More precise definitions of terrorism tend to be relativist, because views toward particular acts of political violence are often only subjective, and rarely show satisfactory objectivity. For example, according to the United States Department of Defense, terrorism is:

"the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat 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."

This definition is problematic because it relies on unclear terms which are left to interpretation —terms such as "unlawful violence," "intended to coerce or intimidate," "the pursuit of goals..." all can easily be applied to violent actions by state actors, though the above definition suggests such can be "lawful."

Like all political ideas, the meaning of the term "terrorism" has evolved in response to circumstances. The words "terrorism" and "terror" originally referred to methods employed by regimes to control their own populations through fear, a tactic seen in totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

The term "terrorism" comes from the French word terrorisme, which is based on the Latin language verbs terrere (to frighten) and deterrere (to frighten from). It dates to 1795 when it was used to describe the actions of the Jacobin Club in their rule of post-Revolutionary France, the so-called "Reign of Terror". Jacobins are rumored to have coined the term "terrorists" to refer to themselves. Acts described as Jacobin Club "terrorism" were mostly cases of arrest or execution of opponents as a means of coercing compliance in the general public.

The current use of the term is broader and relies more on the example of the 19th-century revolutionaries who used the technique of assassination, particularly the anarchists and Narodniks (populists) in Tsarist Russia, whose most notable action was the assassination of Alexander II.

In response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, political leaders from Europe, North America, Asia, and the Middle East have placed the phenomenon of terrorism within the context of a global struggle against systems of government perceived by those accused of using terrorist tactics as harmful to their interests. The European Union includes in its 2004 definition of "terrorism" the aim of "destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country." [1]

Key criteria

Official definitions determine counter-terrorism policy and are often developed to serve it. Most official definitions outline the following key criteria: target, objective, motive, perpetrator, and legitimacy or legality of the act.

  • Target – It is commonly held that the distinctive nature of terrorism lies in its deliberate and specific selection of civilians as direct targets in the absence of a state of war.
This definition would exclude acts of war and attacks on military targets. It would pertain regardless of whether the attackers made an attempt to reduce civilian casualties. For example, the Zionist organization Irgun preceded many of its attacks (notably the 1946 King David Hotel bombing) with warnings to the press, the target, or the authorities of the British Mandate of Palestine. They were nevertheless considered terrorists by the British. ETA and the Provisional IRA are also known for issuing warnings. In contrast, groups such as Hamas, al-Qaeda, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades who use attacks against civilian targets seek to maximize casualties, and therefore never issue warnings.
  • Objective – As the name implies, terrorism is understood as an attempt to provoke fear and intimidation in the main target audience , which may be a government, a whole society, or a group within a society. Terrorist acts are therefore designed and may be deliberately timed to attract wide publicity and cause public shock, outrage, and fear. The intention may be to provoke disproportionate reactions from governments.
  • Motive – Terrorists acts may be intended to achieve political or religious goals, which include the spread of fear and mayhem. The terrorist who acts as a mercenary, or gun-for-hire, may also be acting for personal gain: for example, see Abu Nidal. A gang of bank robbers who kill a bank manager, blow up his vault, and escape with the contents would not be classed as terrorists, but if they were to execute the same assault with the intention of causing a crisis in public confidence in the banking system, followed by a run on the banks, and a subsequent destabilization of the economy, then the gang would be classed as terrorists. This definition excludes organized crime.
  • Perpetrator – Most definitions of terrorism do not include legitimate governments as terrorist actors, unless acting clandestinely and in the absence of a state of war. Acts of war, including war crimes and crimes against humanity are regarded as distinct from terrorism, as are overt government repression of its own civilians, the Holocaust, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, it does not rule out "state-sponsored terrorism", in which a government supports terrorist activity in another state, though this might instead be regarded as low-intensity warfare between sovereign states. Those who disagree with these definitions may use the term "state terror" to describe the actions of official groups such as the Gestapo, the KGB and the Stasi of East Germany against dissidents or ethnic minorities among their own citizens.
  • Legitimacy – Many official state definitions include that the act must be unlawful.


Theories on the causes of terrorism include:

  • sociological explanations, which focus on the position of the perpetrators in society
  • conflict theory which examines their relationship to those in power
  • ideological explanations, which focus on the differences in ideology, and the different goals of the ideologies
  • media theory explanations, which treat terrorist acts as a form of communication.

The existing social order within countries, and the global order of states, include structural compromises and agreements between various groups and interests. Often they arose in resolution of past conflicts. Over time, these arrangements may become less relevant to the current situation. New groups and interests may not be foreseen. Liberal democracy itself is intended to prevent small groups redesigning society according to their norms - but then they have to live in a society which they often reject. Some theories assume that groups resort to terrorism when other avenues for change, including economic campaigns, protest, public appeal, and standard warfare, hold no hope of success. This is related to the criterion of ultima ratio (last resort), in just war theory. In this perspective, terrorist acts are calculated to disrupt the existing order and provoke conflicts, in the expectation that the outcome will be a new order, more favourable to their interests. This is, crudely, the seat-at-the-table theory of terrorism. Applied to anti-terrorism policy, this approach implies policies to create and sustain an alternative, peaceful, avenue of problem resolution, particularly in the case of marginalized and oppressed populations. Ideological theories, on the other hand, often imply that nothing can be 'resolved', because the conflicting ideologies are logically incompatible.


During much of the 20th century, the term terrorism was primarily applied to nationalist movements of various types. Most of them were separatist movements, seeking to create a new independent nation-state on the territory of a larger, existing state. There were also some cases of non-state irredentist violence, seeking to annex territory. Classic counter-terrorist operations were a feature of the decolonization in Africa and the Middle East. Some of these campaigns, such as the Mau Mau and the FLOSY, were well known in the Western media, but unlike Al-Qaeda, their violence was remote and confined to the disputed colony.

However, Irish republican groups did consistently target England, and the Basque ETA often targeted Madrid and other non-Basque parts of Spain. The motives of these groups derive from their nationalist ideology, and an underlying territorial conflict about which state should control what. In this respect, no separate theory of the causes is required, since violence is the standard instrument of geopolitical change. For example, given the competing claims on the former British mandate of Palestine, the chance that the Zionist movement could ever have reached agreement on the peaceful transfer of millions of Jews to the region seems non-existent. Thus, the violence resulting from territorial conflicts is frequently considered inevitable.

Claims of responsibility

Actions defined as terrorism are sometimes followed by statements from the perpetrators. They often issue additional information, and may have representative offices in countries which sympathize with their aims. Several themes recur and can be considered categories:

  • Reference to the ideals of the group, implying that the ideals justify the actions; separatist groups, for instance, often emphasize the name and flag of their future independent state.
  • Reference to historical grievances, usually the oppression of an ethnic or religious group.
  • Retaliation for specific acts, including military campaigns. Islamist groups, for instance repeatedly refer to the occupation of Iraq.
  • There may also be a specific demand related to the above factors; for instance the demand that troops be withdrawn from Iraq.

Frequently, a number of unassociated groups may claim responsibility for the action; this may be considered "free publicity" for the organization's aims. Because of its anonymous nature, it is not uncommon for the reasons for a terrorist action to remain unknown for a considerable period.


Acts of terrorism can be carried out by individuals or groups. According to some definitions, clandestine or semi-clandestine state actors may also carry out terrorist acts outside the framework of a state of war. The most common image of terrorism is that it is carried out by small and secretive cells, highly motivated to serve a particular cause. However, some acts have been committed by individuals acting alone, while others are alleged to have had the backing of established states.

Terrorist groups

Main article: Terrorist groups

Lone wolves

Main article: Lone-wolf terrorism

Law enforcement agencies such as the FBI have identified a pattern of lone-wolf terrorist acts carried out by individuals who appear not to be acting as part of a conventional group, although they may function with the tacit approval of a group, and protect it by operating alone.

Terrorists cited as lone wolves include the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski (1978-1995), Austrian letter-bomber Franz Fuchs (1993-1997), Cave of the Patriarchs gunman Baruch Goldstein (1994), Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (1995), Centennial Olympic park bomber Eric Robert Rudolph (1996), "London Nailbomber" David Copeland (1999), and gunman Buford O. Furrow, Jr. (1999).

State sponsors

Main article: State terrorism. See also False flag operation.

Some states have been accused of sponsoring terrorist actions in foreign countries, as an alternative to carrying them out directly and risking an open declaration of war. State-sponsored terrorism is widely denounced by the international community.

When states do provide funding for groups considered by some to be terrorist, they rarely acknowledge them as such. For example, Iran has been linked to a number of organizations, including Hezbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, but maintains that where funds have been transferred, these have been legitimate. Iran itself has accused the British military, stationed in southern Iraq, of involvement in bombings in Iran; such claims have been denied by the British government.

When proof of state sponsorship of a terrorist act is obtained, the response may include economic sanctions. Sometimes state sponsors are forced to back down by offering incentives. An example is that of Pakistan, which supported the Taliban until it was forced to sever its links after pressure from the U.S. However, India accuses Pakistan of continuing to incite, train, and support terrorist organizations that target India.

Noam Chomsky, senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, says that "the U.S. itself is a leading terrorist state." After President Bush declared a "War on Terrorism," Chomsky stated:

The U.S. is officially committed to what is called “low–intensity warfare.” [...] If you read the definition of low–intensity conflict in army manuals and compare it with official definitions of “terrorism” in army manuals, or the U.S. Code, you find they’re almost the same. [2]


Terrorists often seek to demoralize and paralyze their enemy with fear, using their acts as a form of blackmail to apply pressure on governments to achieve goals the terrorists could not achieve by other means.

Where terrorism occurs in the context of open warfare or insurgency, its perpetrators may shelter behind a section of the local population. Examples include the Intifada on Israeli-occupied territory, and the occupation of Iraq. This population, which is usually ethnically distinct from the counter-terrorist forces, is either sympathetic to their cause, indifferent, or acts under duress.

Terrorist groups may arrange for secondary devices to detonate at a slightly later time in order to kill emergency-response personnel attempting to attend to the dead and wounded. Repeated or suspected use of secondary devices can also delay emergency response out of concern that such devices may exist. Examples include a (failed) cyanide-gas device that was meant to explode shortly after the February 26, 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and a second car bomb that detonated 20 minutes after the December 1, 2001 Ben Yehuda bombing by Hamas in Jerusalem.

In the absence of state funding, terrorists may rely on organized crime to fund their activities. This can include kidnapping, drug trafficking, or robbery. But terrorists have also found many more sources of revenue. Osama bin Laden, for example, invested millions in terrorism that his family made in the construction industry building luxury mansions for Saudi Arabia's oil-millionaires. The diamond industry emerged early in the twenty-first century as an important new source of funding for terrorism, and Islamist terrorist groups in particular have been very effective at procuring funding through a system of charitable contributions.

Guerrilla warfare is sometimes confused with terrorism, in that a relatively small force attempts to achieve large goals by using organized acts of directed violence against a larger force. But in contrast to terrorism, these acts are almost always against military targets, and civilian targets are minimized in an attempt to increase public support. For this reason, guerrilla tactics are generally considered military strategy rather than terrorism, although both terrorism and guerrilla warfare could be considered forms of asymmetric warfare.

Responses to terrorism

Responses to terrorism are broad in scope. They can include re-alignments of the political spectrum and reassessments of fundamental values. The term counter-terrorism has a narrower connotation, implying that it is directed at terrorist actors.

Terrorism and immigration in Europe

Recent developments have seen a divergence in social and political responses to terrorism between the United States and western Europe. The September 11, 2001 attacks were carried out by foreigners who entered the country for that purpose, on behalf of a foreign organization, operating from bases in a remote country. Western European countries, on the other hand, are now confronted with a domestic terrorism based within a domestic religious minority, some recent immigrants, but many native-born citizens.

Much of Europe has not experienced a domestic religious threat since the Wars of Religion. As a result, in Europe, the issues of Islam, immigration, and terrorism have become linked. The Dutch populist Pim Fortuyn was the first to show that the electorate may see Muslim immigrants as a fifth column at war with the country in which they live. Terrorism, according to this view, is a failure of multiculturalism and not simply a security issue. Although Muslims are a relatively small minority in the U.S., in some European cities they are approaching a majority. Aggression against sections of the population regarded as associated with the perpetrators is an increasingly important issue in these communities. Defusing potential backlash is now a standard item of European counter-terrorism policy.

The direction of European responses to terrorism is indicated by new policies, proposed by Tony Blair in August 2005:

  • deportation and exclusion on grounds of fostering hatred, advocating violence to further a person's beliefs or justifying or validating such violence;
  • a criminal offence of condoning or glorifying terrorism;
  • refusal of asylum to anyone with a connection to terrorism;
  • new pre-trial procedures and extending detention pre-charge of terrorist suspects;
  • extended use of control orders for those who are British nationals and who cannot be deported, with imprisonment for any breach of the order;
  • new power to order closure of a place of worship which is used as a "centre for fomenting extremism". [3]


Common targets of terrorists are areas of high population concentration, such as mass transit vehicles (metro, bus, and trains), aircraft, office buildings, and crowded restaurants. Whatever the target of terrorists, there are multiple ways of hardening the targets so as to prevent the terrorists from hitting their mark. Perhaps the single most effective of these is bag-searching for explosives, which is only effective if it is conducted before the search subjects enter an area of high population concentration.

Another method is to place concrete barriers a sufficient distance outside buildings to prevent truck bombing. Aircraft cockpits are kept locked during flights, and have reinforced doors, which only the pilots in the cabin are capable of opening.

Preemptive neutralization

Some countries see pre-emptive attacks as a legitimate strategy. This includes capturing, killing, or disabling suspected terrorists before they can mount an attack. Israel, the United States, and Russia have taken this approach, while western European states are generally more cautious.

In July 2005, Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead by police at Stockwell Tube station in London, because he was misidentified as a suspected suicide bomber, and police feared he had a bomb ready for detonation. The shooting led to public concern and diplomatic protest.

Another major method of pre-emptive neutralization is interrogation of known or suspected terrorists to obtain information about specific plots, targets, the identity of other terrorists, and whether the interrogation subject himself is guilty of terrorist involvement. Sometimes methods are used to increase suggestibility, such as sleep deprivation or drugs. Human rights objections apart, such methods may lead captives to offer false information in an attempt to stop the treatment, or because of confusion brought on by it.

Domestic intelligence and surveillance

Most counter-terrorism strategies involve an increase in standard police and domestic intelligence. The central activities are traditional: interception of communications, and the tracing of persons. New technology has, however, expanded the range of such operations. Domestic intelligence is often directed at specific groups, defined on the basis of origin or religion, which is a source of political controversy. Mass surveillance of an entire population raises objections on civil liberties grounds.

Military intervention

Terrorism has often been used to justify military intervention in countries where terrorists are said to be based. That was the main stated justification for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and one reason for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was also a stated justification for the second Russian invasion of Chechnya.


Although there are earlier related examples, terrorism in the modern sense seems to have emerged around the mid 19th-century.

In the 1st century, Zealots conducted a fierce and unrelenting terror campaign against the Roman occupiers of the eastern Mediterranean. The Zealots enlisted sicarii to strike down rich Jewish collaborators and others who were friendly to the Romans.

In the 11th century, the radical Islamic sect known as the Hash-Ishiim (This word, derived from the word "Hashish," which the Hash-Ishiim reputedly used to drug their victims, translates directly to the word "assassin" in the English language) employed systematic murder for a cause they believed to be righteous. For two centuries, they resisted efforts to suppress their religious beliefs and developed ritualized murder into a fine art taught through generations. Political aims were achieved through the power of intimidation. Similarly, the Christian warriors of the Crusades pursued political aims by means of assaults on Muslim civilian populations.

During the French Revolution (1789 - 1799), the most severe period of the rule of the Committee of Public Safety (1793 - 1795) was labelled "The Terror" (1793 - 1794) and described Jacobin extensive use of death penalty by guillotine. Certainly, this induced fear and outrage not only in the domestic population of France, but also throughout the European aristocracy, and this period is the first known use of the term "terrorism". However, it does not correspond to the modern use of the term state terrorism.

In 1867 the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a revolutionary nationalist group with support from Irish-Americans, carried out attacks in England. These were the first acts of "republican terrorism", which became a recurrent feature of British history, and these Fenians were the precursor of the Irish Republican Army. The ideology of the group was Irish nationalism.

In Russia, by the mid-19th century, the intelligentsia grew impatient with the slow pace of Tsarist reforms, and sought instead to transform peasant discontent into open revolution. Anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin maintained that progress was impossible without destruction. Their objective was nothing less than complete destruction of the state. Anything that contributed to this goal was regarded as moral. With the development of sufficiently powerful, stable, and affordable explosives, the gap closed between the firepower of the state and the means available to dissidents. Organized into secret societies like the People's Will, Russian terrorists launched a campaign of terror against the state that climaxed in 1881 when Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated.

In 1893 the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization was founded in Thessaloniki, now in Greece but then part of the Ottoman Empire. The organisation was driven by Slavic nationalism, and later acquired a reputation for ferocious attacks, including the 1934 assassination of Alexander I of Yugoslavia during a state visit to France. The Fenians/IRA and the IMRO may be considered the prototype of all 'nationalist terrorism', and equally illustrate the expression that "one man's terrorist is another mans freedom fighter". Both groups achieved their goal, an independent Ireland and an independent Macedonia.

Today, modern weapons technology has made it possible for a "super-empowered angry man" (Thomas Friedman) to cause a large amount of destruction by himself or with only a few conspirators. It can be, and has been, conducted by small as well as large organizations.

Some people considered at some point in their lives to be terrorists, or supporters of terrorism, have gone on to become dedicated peace activists (Uri Avnery), respected statesmen (Yitzhak Shamir) or even Nobel Peace Prize laureates (Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat). This illustrates the plasticity of the term.

Global trends

Since 1968, the U.S. State Department has tallied deaths due to terrorism. In 1985, it counted 816 deaths, the highest annual toll until then. The deaths decreased since the late 1980s, then rose to 3,295 in 2001, mainly as a result of the September 11, 2001 attacks. In 2003, more than 1,000 people died as a result of terrorist acts. Many of these deaths resulted from suicide bombings in Chechnya, Iraq, India and Israel. It does not tally victims of state terrorism.

Data from the Terrorism Knowledge Base showed a similar decline since the 1980s, especially in Western Europe. On the other hand, Asia experienced an increase in international terrorist attacks. Other regions experienced less consistent patterns over time. From 1991 to 2003, there was a consistent increase in the number of casualties from international terrorist attacks in Asia, but few other consistent trends in casualties from international terrorist attacks. Three different regions had, in three different years, a few attacks with a large number of casualties. Statistically, the distribution of the severity of terrorist attacks follows a power law, much like that for wars and also natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and forest fires.

Examples of major incidents

For more details on this topic, see [[List of terrorist incidents]].
"International Terrorist Incidents, 2000" by the US Department of State
"International Terrorist Incidents, 2000" by the US Department of State

The following incidents have been described as domestic and international terrorism: the June 1985 double-bombing of Air India jets originating from Canada, the 1993 Mumbai bombings, the Oklahoma City bombing in the USA (April 19, 1995); the Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland (August 15, 1998); the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, and Washington DC, USA; the Munich Massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972; the Bali bombing in October 2002, the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988, attack on Indian Parliament (December 13, 2001), the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in 1996, the March 11, 2004 attacks in Madrid, July 7, 2005 bombings in London and the second Bali bombing in October 2005.

The deadliest events described as terrorism and not known to have been sponsored by a state were the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, in Arlington County, Virginia. So far as is known, the deadliest attack planned but not executed was Operation Bojinka, which aimed to murder Pope John Paul II and blow up 11 airliners. The plot was aborted after an apartment fire in Manila, Philippines on January 5, 1995 exposed the operation to police. The militants who were planning it were just over two weeks away from implementing their plot. Other plots, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, were designed to kill thousands but failed to do so.

A frequent response is to dispute the attribution of terrorism. Often that is accompanied by a counter-charge. The controversy about "eco-terrorism" is a good example. This term was coined in the United States to refer to ecotage actions by environmentalist, for instance the disabling of logging machinery. The response of those who sympathise with the environmentalists has been to describe the timber companies as being the real eco-terrorists, for destroying forests and damaging the ecosystem. In the long term, this type of dispute is thought to polarize the population into factions for and against the move. That in turn is thought to undermine political legitimacy, that is, the willingness of the population to accept government and court decisions, even if they personally disagree with them. A sense of shared values and a minimal respect, probably cannot survive if wide sections of the population believe each other to be terrorists. This may be an argument not to use the word. Very similar arguments apply between the so-called "pro-life" and "pro-choice" factions in the abortion argument.

External links

Recommended reading

The President of Good & Evil by Peter Singer (especially pages 60-66, summarized here)
ISAK by Roslyn Fuller (work of fiction with a thematic emphasis on terrorism and its ambiguous meaning and application)

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