Defining Terrorism

Notwithstanding several efforts since the 1920s, the international community has messed up defining or criminalising the term ‘terrorism’ in international law. Terrorism remains a contested term, with no set definition for the concept or broad agreement among academic experts on its usage. Terrorism must be defined and criminalised as it utterly challenges fundamental human rights, endangers nations and peaceful politics, and may impend international peace and security. A definition would also help to differentiate political from private violence and eliminating it accordingly. It will also help to restrain the scope of UN Security Council resolutions since Sept 11, 2001, attack on the US, which has stimulated nations to follow unilateral and disproportionate counter-terrorism measures. Defining terrorism as a distinct international crime would help recognise and defend strong international community values and interests and stigmatise offenders. Any definition of terrorism must also accommodate reasonable claims to political violence, particularly against oppressive governments.

In articulating any strategy to address the most significant security threat faced by humanity, such as terrorism, it is crucial to define such a threat. The current spate of frenzied attacks in the United States,  Europe, and Asia have underlined the difficulty of defining what constitutes ‘terrorism’ and has led to two key questions: Do these attacks and other forms of extremism qualify as terrorist acts? Second, should the groups who provoke resentment be held accountable for these attacks and branded as terrorists even if they do not directly participate in the violence?

Need of a definition.

Its definition is a foundational and crucial element for dealing with terrorism, and such an element would allow establishing a cooperative, international fight against terrorism. Today, terrorism counts mainly upon the support of other nations. In some cases, this support is a volunteer from the nations, and in other cases, such support coerced. It is evident that terrorism can not be addressed effectively if the close ties between terrorist organisations and the countries that support them are not severed. However, it is impossible to sever those relationships without broad-based, international consensus regarding the definition of terrorism. (Boaz Ganor). Also, it is difficult to understand the various dynamics of the terrorist organisations and their funding without defining it first. Without defining terrorism, it is difficult to assign accountability to the nations that support such acts of terrorism and fight effectively against such terrorist outfits. In the absence of such a definition of terrorism, it is difficult to international conventions or treaties. A fine example of this is the issue of repatriation.

The international community’s reasons for why terrorism needs to be defined by the international community include the need to condemn human rights violations, protect the nation and its constitutional orders, protect rights, differentiate public and private violence, and ensure international peace security.  “It is widely agreed that international terrorism can only be fought by international cooperation” (Schmid,2004).

According to Boaz Ganor, why it is essential to have a shared understanding and definition of ‘terrorism’. ( Terrorism – The Definitional Problem Alex Schmid, 2004)

  • Developing an effective international strategy requires we need a definition of terrorism.
  • Actions against terrorism cannot lead to operational results as long as the contestants disagree on a definition.
  • Lack of definition, it is unfeasible to articulate international agreements against terrorism.
  • Although many countries have signed bilateral and multilateral agreements concerning various crimes, extradition for political offences is often explicitly excluded, and the background of terrorism is always political.
  • The definition of terrorism will be the basis and the operational tool for expanding the international community’s ability to combat terrorism.
  • It will enable legislation and specific punishments against those perpetrating, involved in, or supporting terrorism and will allow the formulation of a codex of laws and international conventions against terrorism, terrorist organisations, states sponsoring terrorism, and financial firms trading with them.
  • At the same time, the definition of terrorism will hamper the attempts of terrorist organisations to obtain public legitimacy and will erode support among those segments of the population willing to assist them.
  • Finally, the operational use of the definition of terrorism could motivate terrorist organisations, due to moral and utilitarian considerations, to shift from terrorist activities to alternate courses (such as guerrilla warfare) in order to attain their aims, thus reducing the scope of international terrorism.

It is broadly settled that international terrorism can only be defeated by global collaboration. In mutual legal assistance, one of the basic principles for judicial cooperation in general and extradition is the principle of dual criminality – an act must be a crime in both countries involved. If states disagree about whether or not an act constitutes terrorism, chances of interstate collaboration are reduced.

Defining terrorism.

Defining terrorism is a task no less stupendous. Various persons have described terrorism, but opinions are still divided over the exact definition of terrorism. Despite many years of debate, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has not been unable to define terrorism. However, a lack of agreement on a definition does not mean that the international community has made no progress in combating terrorism. We can at least say that terrorism is a unique strategy that uses public violence to affect social or political change. However, efforts to understand terrorism thrives in every academic discipline.

The absence of a working definition of terrorism has led to different interpretations, leading to further confusion. Also, individual states have acted differently and violated human rights. The definitional aspect of terrorism would be instrumental for the nations to guide and help them in the decision-making process for effective counter-terrorism strategies.

The term ‘terrorism’ is derived from the Latin words ‘terrere’ and ‘deterre’. The word ‘terrere’ means to tremble, and the term ‘deterre’ implies to frighten. Thus, simply put, terrorism means to harm people into a state of frightened trembling. It is a strategy to achieve stated objectives through the systematic use of violence, thereby undermining the state’s lawful authority. In the past, violence was resorted to when rulers failed to redress the people’s grievances and indulged in infringing on the subjects’ rights. Terrorism has a political prelude, and violence is the means employed by it.

International efforts to eradicate terrorism started years before the formation of the United Nations. Terrorism was of concern to the international community as early as 1937, when the League of Nations prepared a draft convention to prevent terrorism. The draft convention defined terrorism as “All criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public.”

Although this agreement never came into existence and the definition overlooks acts against civilians rather than against the state per se, it helped as a direction for later discussion on terrorism when the United Nations and regional intergovernmental organisations dealt with the subject from both a legal and political viewpoint. Since 1994, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA has condemned terrorist acts using the following political description of terrorism:

“Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.

Ten years later, the Security Council, in its resolution 1566 (2004), referred to terrorism as “criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a Government or an international organisation to do or to abstain from doing any act”. Later that year, the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change described terrorism as any action that is “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organisation to do or to abstain from doing any act” and identified a number of critical elements, with further reference to the definitions contained in the 1999 International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism and Security Council resolution 1566 (2004).

Israeli law is cumbersome in this regard. It defines a “terrorist action” as an action: driven by a political, religious, or ideological motive; carried out to instil in the public fear or anxiety, or of forcing the Israeli government or another government from taking specific actions; or an actual act or a real threat to inflict severe harm. Harm is defined as the impact on a person’s body or liberty; public security or health; property, including religious sites, burial places, and religious paraphernalia; or infrastructure, public systems, or essential services, or the state economy or environment. (Jonathan Schanzer, Israel Studies, Indiana University Press Volume 24, 2019).

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the US further describes terrorism as domestic or international, depending on the origin, base, and objectives of the terrorist organisation. The FBI used the following definitions:

  • Domestic terrorism is the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.
  • International terrorism involves violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violates the U S’s criminal laws or any state or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or any state. These acts appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence a government’s policy by intimidation or coercion, or affect a government’s conduct by assassination or kidnapping. International terrorist acts occur outside the United States or transcend national boundaries regarding how they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to coerce or intimidate, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.

In India, The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2019, amends the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.  This act provides special procedures to deal with terrorist activities, among other things. Who may commit terrorism: Under the Act, the central government may designate an organisation as a terrorist organisation if it: (i) commits or participates in acts of terrorism, (ii) prepares for terrorism, (iii) promotes terrorism, or (iv) is otherwise involved in terrorism. The Bill additionally empowers the government to designate individuals as terrorists on the same grounds.

So it can be said that terrorism is a well thought out strategy in which the terrorists use violence to create fear and terror among the people. These terrorist organisations may or may not have a specific goal, which may be vague.


Terrorism has no human face, and that it is ruthless. Its approach is far from humanitarian. Terrorists can kill many people and destroy any kind/ amount of property just to spread fear and terror. The generosity of means is not their concern.

Terrorism also believes in publicity and seeks to make itself known as widely as possible by committing various acts of terrorism. Also, terrorism is believed to be identified with the attempts made by the terrorists to create terror and fear. Terrorism is no more a local phenomenon but a global crisis, and its destructive potential and lethal reach are enhanced by associations to drugs trafficking, arms and money laundering operations worldwide.

Domestic measures alone cannot deal with terrorism as long as countries continue to provide safe havens for terrorists; therefore, to be effective, the fight against terrorism must be long-term, sustained, and global; it must also tackle the perpetrators of the acts who sponsor them.

Terrorism seeks to disrupt the smooth functioning of democratic societies by demonstrating that their governments are not in a position to provide basic security measures. Through a concerted public information and education programme, public assistance against terrorism should be sought, and people should be made security conscious. New forms of terrorism are being thrown up with every passing generation, and it is challenging to counter this menace.

About the Author
Colonel Balwan Nagial retired from the Indian Army in 2019 after serving for thirty years. Managed administration, security, project mgt throughout his service. He loves writing and contributing in newspapers and magazines in India. He loves Israeli culture.
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