Monday, January 17, 2011

Defining Terrorism: Conceptual Problems and Actual Usages

By Rommel C. Banlaoi

Though terrorism has been a problem of the humanity since the dawn of recorded history, it is regrettable that until now, there has been no clear-cut definition of the concept.[1] It is said that the word terrorism originated after the French Revolution of 1789.  It was first used during the “Reign of Terror” between 1793 and 1794. Yet, there has been no clarity on the meaning of terrorism. 

The US-based Terrorism Research Center laments that terrorism “by nature is difficult to define”.[2]  Even the Scotland-based Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) also underscores the enormous dilemma in coming out with an iron-clad definition of terrorism.[3]  The Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation (CGCC), an independent think-tank founded by members of the United Nations (UN), recognizes the arduousness of defining the term terrorism.[4]  The Council for Asian Terrorism Research (CATR), the largest network of terrorism think-tanks in the Asia Pacific, also admits the difficulty of coming out with a precise definition of terrorism.

As early as 1937, the defunct League of Nations attempted to define 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 groups of persons or the general public.”[5]  But this definition failed to get wider acceptance because of divergent national perspectives on the threat of terrorism.   

In the mid-1980s, scholars listed a total of 109 definitions of terrorism with 22 different definitional characteristics.  But these definitions continue to be debated upon.[6] In the mid-1990s, another scholar counted more than 100 definitions of terrorism but the search for a commonly accepted definition goes on.[7]  In 1999, the United Nations drafted a definition of terrorism but it also failed to reach global consensus because of different domestic considerations among member nations, particularly in the developing world.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the definitional problem of terrorism continues to haunt scholars, experts and policy-makers.  This situation continues to make many counter-terrorism measures not only problematic but also contested. An internet search of the phrase “definition of terrorism” yielded 6,630,000 results for Google while 25,400,000 result for Yahoo as of this writing.  Even the term “terrorism” alone revealed 261,000,000 results for Yahoo while 49,100,000 results for Google. Using Google Book search results in 118,431 publications written on terrorism to date.   One study shows that since 9/11,  there has been a drastic increase in the number of published books with terrorism in their title.[8] This clearly indicates the overwhelming interests of readers and publishers on the topic of terrorism. 

Among the many publications on the topic, the most widely-cited definition of terrorism is the one provided in 1983 by the US Department of State.  It says that the term “terrorism” means “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”[9]  Yet, this definition is being contested because it eschews the state and its apparatuses in the definition considering that here are studies focusing on state terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism.[10] 

There is no doubt, however, that terrorism is presently a highly pejorative term - it is something what “bad guys do.”[11]

Post-9/11 terrorism scholars strongly acknowledge the changing face of terrorism[12] by differentiating new from old terrorism.[13]  But whether old or new terrorism, there has been “no authoritative systematic guide to terrorism, no Clausewitz, not even a Jomini – and perhaps there never will be one simply because there is not one terrorism but a variety of terrorisms and what is true for one does not necessarily apply to others.”[14]  Thus, the worn-out saying, “A one person’s terrorist is the other one’s freedom fighter” still catches scholarly attention. 

But one thing in common among many scholars is the view that terrorism is fundamentally a violent act.[15] Terrorism is a politically motivated form of violence used by both non-state and state players.

Conceptually, acts of terrorism are special kinds of violence compared to military activities or guerilla wars.[16]  Military activities, guerilla wars and terrorist acts are also forms of political violence but they can be distinguished in the following words:

·         Military activity was bound by conventions entailing moral distinctions between belligerents and neutrals, combatants and non-combatants, appropriate and inappropriate targets, legitimate and illegitimate methods;
·         Guerilla war was a special kind of military activity, in which hit-and-disappear tactics to disperse the enemy’s military forces were employed to wear down and gradually defeat the enemy; and,
·         The traditional distinguishing characteristics of the terrorist were his explicit refusal to accept the conventional moral limits that defined military and guerilla action.  Because a terrorist knew that other did think that violence should be limited, he exploited the enemy’s vigorous responses to his outrages.  The terrorist perpetrated atrocities and manipulated reactions to them.[17]

Despite these distinctions, there are still many challenges conceptualizing terrorism[18]  because the term “had appeared in so many forms and under so many different circumstances that a comprehensive definition was impossible.”[19]  The meaning and the usage of the word terrorism have, in fact, changed over time that making a consistent definition has proved increasingly elusive.[20]

[This piece is taken from Rommel C. Banlaoi, Counter-Terrorism Measures in Southeast Asia:  How Effective Are They? (Manila: Yuchengco Center, 2009)].

[1] Gus Martin, Understanding Terrorism:  Challenges, Perspectives and Issues (London and California:  Sage Publications, Inc., 2003), pp. 1-10.
[2] Terrorism Research Center at
[3]Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at
[4] Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation at
[5] Quoted in Carlyle A. Thayer, “Political Terrorism and Militant Islam in Southeast Asia” (Paper delivered at a Forum on Regional Security and Political Developments organized by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at Grand Copthorne Water Front Hotel, Singapore on 24 July 2003), p. 6.
[6] Alex P. Schmid, Albert J. Jongman, et al., Political Terrorism: A New Guide to Actors, Authors, Concepts, Data Bases, Theories, and Literature (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1988), pp. 5-6.
[7] Walter Laqueur, The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 6.
[8] Dipak K. Gupta, “Toward an Integrated Behavioral Framework for Analyzing Terrorism:  Individual  Motivations to Group Dynamics”, Democracy and Security, vol. 1, no. 1 (January-July 2005), p. 5.
[9] See United States Department of States, Patterns of Global Terrorism 2003 (Washington, DC:  US Department of State, 2003), p. xii.
[10] See for example Tal Becker, Terrorism and the State: Rethinking the Rules of State Responsibility (New York:  Hart Publishing, 2006) and Mark Selden, Alvin Y. So, War and State Terrorism: The United States, Japan, and The Asia-Pacific in the Long Twentieth Century (New York:   Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).
[11]Louise Richardson, What Terrorists Want”  Understanding the Terrorist Threat (London:  John Murray Publishers, 2006), p. 19.
[12] Rohan Gunaratna (ed), The Changing Face of Terrorism (Singapore:  Marshall Cavendish International, 2004).
[13]Andrew Tan and Kumar Ramakrishna (eds), The New Terrorism:  Anatomy, Trends and Counter-Strategies Singapore:  Marshall Cavendish International, 2002). Also see Ian O. Lesser, Bruce Hoffman, John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt and Michele Zanimi, Countering the New Terrorism (Santa Monica, California:  RAND, 1999).
[14] Walter Laqueur, No End to War:  Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century (New York and London:  The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2003), p. 8.
[15]Cindy C.Combs, Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, Second Edition (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000), p. 8.
[16] Alex P. Schmidt, “Frameworks for Conceptualizing Terrorism”, Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 16, no. 2 (Summer 2004), p. 203.
[17] Ibid., p. 205.  Also see David Rapoport, “The Politics of Atrocity” in Yonah  Alexander and Seymour Maxwell Finger (eds), Terrorism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives  (New York: John Jay Press, 1977), p. 47.
[18] Leonard Weinberg, Ami Pedahzur and Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler, “The Challenges of Conceptualizing Terrorism”, Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 16, no. 4 (Winter 2004), pp. 777-794.
[19] Ibid, p. 777.  Also see Walter Laquer, Terrorism (Boston: Little Brown, 1977), p. 5.
[20] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 28.

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