Why is Terrorism Such a Difficult Concept to Define?

Terrorism is becoming an ever more ambiguous term with it being almost impossible to find a clear and universal definition. While it is widely agreed that some core hallmarks of terrorism are violence, intimidation and the pursuit of political goals, there are key arguments throughout academia and politics that make defining terrorism further than this extremely difficult. Issues such as ‘state terror’ along with the famous saying ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ amongst other issues makes the act of defining terror one of the most difficult challenges for statesmen and academics in modern times. What differs between the bombing techniques employed by ‘terrorist’ organisation Hamas and ‘legitimate’ state entity Israel? How can Nelson Mandela go from being labelled a terrorist by the United States and Britain to winning a Nobel Peace Prize? Is terrorism a western construct and is it in fact, as Brian Whitaker outlines, simply ‘violence committed by those we disapprove of’ (Whitaker, 2001)? Various sticking points such as this prevent universal agreement on an objective meaning of the term, creating a great problem when defining what is and what is not a terrorist act. Anthony Richards believes that ‘notwithstanding the formidable challenges that confront such an endeavour’ the reasons for defining terrorism are only increasing in the ‘post 9/11 environment’, making it important to understand where the discrepancies lie now more than ever (Richards, 2013).

Gaining an eclectic view of different definitions when entering into a discussion such as this is key, as current definitions give the clearest view of the current perceptions of terrorism. The Oxford English Dictionary defines terrorism as ‘the unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims’ while Mi5 explains the concept as ‘the use or threat of action designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public, or a section of the public; made for the purposes of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause’ (OED, n.d., Mi5, n.d.). Placing violence at the core of terrorism, Ted Honderich defines terrorism as ‘a use of physical force that injures, damages, violates or destroys people or things, with a political and social intention, and whether or not intended to cause fear to people in general, and raising a question of its moral justification – either illegal violence within a society or violence between states and societies not according to international law, and smaller-scale than war’ (Honderich, 2003). Interestingly, Chomsky feels there are current US government definitions of terrorism that ‘fall well within the range of clarity of other usages that are regarded as unproblematic’ such as ‘the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature… through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear’ (Chomsky, 2012). This is interesting coming from such a believer of US state-terror, but it does support that there must be an acceptance of the definition as it is being actively used. It is possibly a downfall of some looking to define terrorism that they neglect or choose to ignore reality and choose instead only to work on a highly abstract basis. Chomsky’s attention to ‘ordinary usage’ of the term at least allows for a real-world basis of the ways in which the term is used in practice, be that good or bad (Chomsky, 2012).

The first issue confronting the definition of terrorism is what Richards calls the ‘subjective application (or non-application) according to where one’s interests lie’. This ‘vacuum’ created by the lack of an agreed-on definition allows state and non-state entities to ‘define terrorism in ways that serve their own perceived political and strategic interests’, creating a vast over-saturation of definitions each slightly different to the other (Richards, 2013). This reasoning presents somewhat of a paradox in that the constant attempt by multiple parties to define terrorism is one of the primary reasons for its lack of definition. This argument has been active long before 9/11, with Jack Gibbs explaining in 1989 that ‘leaving the definition implicit is the road to obscurantism’ (Gibbs, 1989). With this considered, a universal definition also runs into issues when deciding who or what body decides this definition, primarily due to the varied agendas different individuals and bodies have. The UN, an organisation that theoretically would be best suited to creating such a definition maintains that it has been constrained by the ‘inability of Member States to agree on an anti-terrorism convention including a definition’ which in turn prevents it from ‘exerting its moral authority and from sending an unequivocal message that terrorism is never an acceptable tactic, even for the most defensible of causes’; a statement that is arguably loaded in itself (UN, N.d). David Price would agree, believing this ‘explicit agreement that terrorism shall remain strategically undefined’ is a deliberate tactic employed by the UN and member states in order to suppress minority populations (Price, 2002). This coupled with what Richards describes as the ‘wholesale disregard for any serious endeavour to treat terrorism as an analytical concept’ by both state and majority population creates a situation in which terrorism is perpetually vague in its definition (Richards, 2013).

Emanating from the ‘Reign of Terror’ performed by the post-revolution French government in 1789, the term ‘state terror’ has been related to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and perhaps most applicably the Israel-Palestine conflict (Sluka, 2002).  Perhaps the most important debate around this topic is the distinction between violence employed by the state and terrorist violence, what makes state actions legitimate? Ted Honderich argues that state terrorism does exist, defining it as violence ‘aimed at denying the freedom of a people, usually in order to enlarge or engorge the freedom of the people of the state in question’ (Honderich, 2003). This battle for ‘freedom’ manifests itself most notably in the Israel and Palestine conflict, with Edward Herman highlighting that ‘virtually all definitions of terrorism, if applied on a non-political basis, would find a wide array of Israeli operations and acts of violence straightforward terrorism’ (Herman, 2002). Price’s statement ‘the idiom of power dictates that the violence of the state is legitimised as peace-keeping, while that of the dispossessed becomes terrorism’ comes to encapsulate the frustration felt by writers such as Herman and Honderich while also challenging the popular state-based definition of terrorism. Whilst accepting that ‘systematic terrorizing’ is a strategy of ‘established governments as well as radical movements’, Michael Walzer would argue that ‘randomness is the crucial feature of terrorist activity’, an aspect of terrorism as a concept that arguably does not apply to state violence. His reasoning is based around the belief that terrorism must include the ‘random murder of innocent people’, thereby creating a widespread feeling of fear (Walzer, 2015). Friedland and Merari’s study of the psychological impact of terrorism in Israel supports this claim, finding that ‘terrorism bears primarily on individuals’ perceptions, on the “public mind”’, making it more a form of ‘psychological warfare’ (Friedland & Merari, 1985). As the state claims not to target non-combatants, Walzer would question whether the definition should incorporate actions of the state. A clear challenge to this theory does however come in the form of the left-wing terrorism of Baader Meinhof and the Italian Red Brigades, whose ideological goals were to only target members of ‘”the establishment” such as unionists, politicians, and businessmen’ (Sundquist, 2010). This is also true of the Sunni Islamist ‘Abdullah Azzam Brigades’ whose fighters pledged not to kill civilians in the pursuit of their political goals, even going so far as to apologise for civilian casualties in bombing of Shi’ite-run cultural centre in Beirut (Reuters, 2014 & Curtis, 2004). With all of this considered, it is evident how difficult it is to create a definition for terrorism with such a debate being argued. Again, part of the problem facing such a debate is the number of individuals and bodies keen to offer their views, creating an overwhelming and highly confusing scenario not ideal for making clear, objective judgments.

Gerald Seymour’s now famous quote ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ has since its penning in 1975 fuelled one of the primary issues in defining the concept of terrorism, this being the difference between a legitimate ‘revolutionary’ figure and a terrorist (Seymour, 1975). Honderich’s theory of ‘terrorism for humanity’ defined as terrorism ‘directed to the end of the principle of humanity – reducing wretchedness and other forms of distress’ largely includes terrorist acts that are perceived to be revolutionary (Honderich, 2003). It can be argued that establishments such as Hamas, the ANC and even the Irgun and Stern gang can be categorised in this manner as their end can be perceived to be moral and humanitarian. Gibbs takes a more statutory position on this debate, questioning whether terrorism is necessarily always a crime, stating only the ‘statutes and/or reactions of officials in the political unit where the action was planned or took place (in whole or in part) need identify the action as criminal or illegal’, therefore appreciating the need to understand the views of both the population under attack and the population from which the attackers originate (Gibbs, 1989). This raises the issue of perspective in the debate on the concept of terrorism as the norms held by one population are rarely the same as those held by another. As Honderich explains, terrorism can be directed to ‘the changing of circumstances, such that there will be a general agreement in the future that they were circumstances of moral barbarity’ (Honderich, 2013) Possibly the best example of this is the ANC in South Africa who were largely labelled as terrorists when fighting for independence from their ‘colonial masters’ (Hübschle, 2010). The 1983 Church Street bombing demonstrates their terrorist tendencies but Nelson Mandela, an advocate of ‘sedition and sabotage’ along with his advocacy for peace since the 1950’s, experienced a complete reversal in perception as society as a whole, not Mandela and the ANC, changed (Boehmer, 2006). Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni notes how the world changed from being ‘dominated by the paradigm of war and racism’ to more readily accepting his ideals of ‘peace, reconciliation and racial harmony’ (Ndlovi-Gatsheni, 2014). As Honderich explains, the ‘clear end’ of Mandela and the ANC legitimised their plight and highlighted the ‘moral barbarity’ they faced, thereby transforming them from terrorist to legitimate freedom fighter (Honderich, 2013). Factoring in these differences in culture, race and religion makes perspective a highly significant and problematic sticking point in this debate, leading even more to the argument for a completely objective definition. Beck and Miner believe ‘militant groups are more likely to be listed when they conform to an audience’s expectation of what terrorism is’, clearly demonstrating that terrorism is a social construct and is in trouble of taking on a ‘face’ in the public eye (Beck & Miner, 2013). Chomsky feels the effect of this lack of perspective begets more terror, calling the US the ‘world champion in generating terror’ who ‘helped to spread jihadism from a corner of Afghanistan to a large part of the world’ because of their counter-terrorism strategies (Chomsky, 2014). The ends of an organisation, as demonstrated, are incredibly important in determining whether they are terrorist or revolutionary and therefore legitimate. However, the way in which these ends are perceived is arguably just as important in determining a terrorist organisation, proving the complexity in defining terrorism as a singular entity

Taking the definition of terrorism to an extreme, Jeffrey Sluka outlines the views of Herman and Chomsky who believe ‘the contemporary use of the concept is a political myth actively created by by the Reagan and Thatcher governments in the 1970’s and 1980’s who encouraged the idea of a Soviet-backed international terrorist conspiracy’ (Sluka, 2002). This neo-conservative mind-set, Adam Curtis believes, means ‘Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares’ (Curtis, 2004). Based partly on Plato’s theory of the ‘Noble Lie’, Straussian neo-conservative foreign policy paranoid not only by outside threats but also ‘domestic liberal forces’ looks to fabricate lies that will keep the population from dissenting (George, 2005). Chomsky and Herman believe the ‘Red Scare’ of the 50’s and 60’s have simply transformed into the ‘terrorist scare’ beginning in the 1980’s (Sluka, 2002). This example is not to dismiss all acts of terrorism as myth, it is however an interesting exercise in thought that challenges whether the term terrorism is the best term in which to describe these examples of political violence. Richard English depicts a conversation between himself and Patrick Magee in which the ex-IRA man calls the term terrorist ‘debased currency’ that has been applied especially in the case of America ‘tendentiously or pejoratively, not to explain or clarify but to obscure’. He continues to say terrorism ‘has become a non-explanation designed to perpetuate injustice, repression, and many gross asymmetries of power’ (English, 2010). This further supports points that have already been covered in this essay, with Magee believing terrorism too has the tendency to perpetuate discrimination and fear due to its wide scale misuse and in many cases its over-use. This argument put forward by Chomsky and Herman along with Magee throws up the suggestion that maybe the only way to truly define terrorism effectively is to abandon the term, creating a new term free from the issues the current concept faces. Conversely, a counter-argument could be made that this new term would simply experience the same issues terrorism faces due to the nature of the concept being defined.

Along with the arguments this essay has put forward, it must be highlighted that there are many, many more that further add to the complexity of terrorism. It is truly one of the most, if not the most, multifaceted and contested subjects in politics today and should therefore be treated with much caution. Terrorism is highly ambiguous and damaged due mainly to its rather careless over-use, creating a scenario in which populations are desensitised and yet highly fearful of terrorism at the same time. It could be argued however that this is not the complete fault of the definition but rather the accomplishments of the modern terrorist organisations to induce such fear and paranoia. Since terrorism, like society in general, is constantly evolving with new technologies and platforms it is almost impossible to create a full picture of what it truly is. The internet is an especially problematic aspect of terrorism as security breaches and leaks such as those carried out by Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks have also been branded as terrorism. The constant work produced by academics maintains arguments and narratives around terrorism which at least provides a check on the phenomenon, helping to further the understanding of its ever-evolving meaning both in wider society and in the political arena. Instead of pursuing the ever-more unrealistic goal of creating a conclusive definition of the concept, the more effective and worthwhile task may be to continue doing just this, striving to best understand and accept it as a flawed but very real and active phenomenon.


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