Definitions Tactics and Behavior
THE CONTEXT OF TERRORISM
Terrorism beams into
our homes through television screens, it assaults us in newspapers and
magazines, and it sometimes touches our lives in more direct manners.
People do not seem to worry about the definition of terrorism at such
times. They simply feel terror when they see the violence. Sometimes
it seems as though the event itself defines terrorism. For example,
when a plane is destroyed by a bomb, it is frequently called
terrorism, but when military forces shoot down a civilian
aircraft, it can be deemed an unfortunate mistake. The United States
may launch missiles at a suspected terrorist base and claim it is
defending national interests. Yet, it may condemn another country for
doing the same thing in another part of the world. Dual standards and
contradictions lead to confusion any time the term terrorism is
The term terrorism
has spawned heated debate. Instead of agreeing on the definition
of terrorism, social scientists, policymakers, lawyers, and security
specialists often argue about the meaning of the term. H. H. A. Cooper
(1978, 2001), a renowned terrorist expert from the University of Texas
at Dallas, aptly summarizes the problem. There is, Cooper says, “a
problem in the problem definition.” We can agree that terrorism is a
problem, but we cannot agree on what terrorism is.
There are several
reasons for confusion. First, terrorism is difficult to define because
it has a pejorative connotation. (Pejorative means that it is
emotionally charged.) A person is politically and socially degraded
when labeled a terrorist, and the same thing happens when an
organization is called a terrorist group. Routine crimes assume
greater social importance when they are described as terrorism, and
political movements can be hampered when their followers are believed
to be terrorists.
arises when people intertwine the terms terror and
terrorism. The object of military force, for example, is to strike
terror into the heart of the enemy, and systematic terror has been a
basic weapon in conflicts throughout history. Some people argue that
there is no difference between military force and terrorism. Many
members of the antinuclear movement have extended this argument by
claiming that maintaining ready-to-use nuclear weapons is an extension
of terrorism. Others use the same logic when claiming that street
gangs and criminals terrorize neighborhoods. If you think that
anything that creates terror is terrorism, the scope of potential
definitions becomes limitless.
One of the primary
reasons terrorism is difficult to define is that the meaning changes
within social and historical contexts. This is not to suggest that
“one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter,” but it
does suggest the meaning fluctuates. Change in the meaning occurs
because terrorism is not a solid entity. Like crime, it is socially
defined, and the meaning changes with social change.
This chapter examines
some common definitions of terrorism. These definitions are worth
reviewing, but it is more important to understand that definitions of
terrorism are not very helpful. You need to understand the context of
the definition before applying the term. The definition of terrorism
always changes with social and historical circumstances. As a result,
terrorism presents a problem. Akin to the Supreme Court’s definition
of pornography, we do not know how to define terrorism, but we know
what it is when we see it. It seems that H. H. A. Cooper is indeed
correct. We have a problem in the problem definition.
Some Common Contexts
definitions of terrorism, it is helpful to examine the meaning of
terrorism within specific frameworks. It is more helpful to list the
context of terrorism than to memorize a variety of definitions. The
following are some contextual issues to consider.
meaning of terrorism has changed over time. It is almost impossible to
talk about terrorism without discussing the historical context of the
terrorist campaign. This is so important that the second part of the
text is designed to familiarize you with historical developments in
originated from the French Revolution (1789–1795). It was used as a
term to describe the actions of the French government. By 1848, the
meaning of the term changed. It was employed to describe violent
revolutionaries who revolted against governments. By the end of the
1800s and early 1900s, terrorism was used to describe the violent
activities of a number of groups including: labor organizations,
anarchists, nationalist groups revolting against foreign powers, and
ultranationalist political organizations.
After World War II
(1939–1945), the meaning changed again. As people revolted from
European domination of the world, nationalistic groups were deemed to
be terrorist groups. From about 1964 to the early 1980s, the term
terrorism was also applied to violent left-wing groups, as well as
nationalists. In the mid-1980s, the meaning changed again. In the
United States, some of the violent activity of the hate movement was
defined as terrorism. Internationally, terrorism was viewed as
subnational warfare. Terrorists were sponsored by rogue regimes.
As the millennium
changed, the definitions of terrorism also changed. Today terrorism
also refers to large groups who are independent from a state, violent
religious fanatics, and violent groups who terrorize for a particular
cause such as the environment. It is important to realize that any
definition is influenced by the historical context of terrorism.
meaning of terrorism fluctuates around various types of war. In times
of conventional war, armies use commando tactics that look very much
like terrorism. In the American Civil War, the Federal Army unleashed
Major John Anderson to destroy Confederate railroads. The Confederates
captured Anderson and accused him of being a spy, but he remained a
hero in the North. He did not wear a uniform, and he did not fight by
the accepted norm. Armies routinely use such tactics in times of war
and never define their actions as terrorism.
In guerrilla war,
guerrillas use terrorist tactics against their enemies and may
terrorize their supporters into submission. In total war, air forces
may destroy entire cities with fire. The German Air Force (Luftwaffe)
did so at Stalingrad in 1942, and the British and American Air Forces
did the same at Dresden in 1945. Neither side believed it was
practicing terrorism. While it is possible to cite many other examples
and endless contradictions, you should realize that the definition of
terrorism changes with the nature of conflict. The term terrorism
is more likely to be employed to describe violent activity that
explodes during a peaceful period.
Political Power The
definition of terrorism depends on political power. Governments can
increase their power when they label opponents as “terrorists.”
Citizens seem willing to accept more abuses of governmental power when
a counterterrorist campaign is in progress. “Terrorists” do not enjoy
the same humanitarian privileges as “people.” In the public mind,
illegal arrest and sometimes even torture and murder are acceptable
methods for dealing with terrorists. Labeling can have deadly results.
related to the issue of power is the concept of repression. Some
governments routinely use terrorism to keep their citizens in line.
Such repression can sometimes be seen in the political structure of
the country as leaders use secret police forces to maintain power.
Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1953
through terror, and Saddam Hussein rules Iraq by similar methods.
Latin America has witnessed several rulers who maintain power through
repression, many times with help from the United States. Repression
can also develop outside formal political structures. This is called
extrajuridical repression. It refers to repressive groups who
terrorize others into certain forms of behavior. Political repression
is a form of terrorism, but people seldom refer to this form of
violence when defining terrorism.
and television reporters frequently use the term terrorism to
define political violence. However, there is no consistent standard
guiding them in the application of the definition. Many times they
employ the term to attract attention to a story. Terrorism, when
defined by the media, is relatively meaningless.
might think that criminals and terrorists represent two different
types of violent behavior. Some analysts would agree, but confusion
remains. A few years ago, a Presidential Commission on criminal
justice stated that it was necessary to look at the motivation of a
criminal act to determine whether it was a terrorist action (National
Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, 1976).
When a crime is politically motivated, the report says it is
terrorism. The problem with this approach is that a crime is a crime
no matter what motivation lies behind the action. Except in times of
conflict or government repression, all terrorism involves criminal
activity. Even in the United States, the Federal Bureau of
Investigation does not file most political crimes under the heading of
terrorism in its Uniform Crime Reports.
recent years, religion has played a more significant role in the
process of terrorism. This is fully examined in Chapter 4, but it is
important to understand that extreme religious beliefs provide a
context for defining terrorism. Religious violence centers around
three sources (White, 2000). First, some religious groups feel they
must purify the world for a new epoch. This can be defined as
violent eschatology. Second, some groups feel they are chosen and
may destroy other people in the cause of righteousness. This type of
attitude can lead to violent intolerance and religious war. Finally,
other people may become so consumed with a particular cause that they
create a surrogate religion and take violent action to advance their
beliefs. Ecological terrorists serve as an example of this type of
Specific Forms Sometimes
the term terrorism is defined within a specific context. A
detailed look at weapons of mass destruction is presented later in
this book under the heading of technological terrorism. Another
specific form of terrorism refers to computer attacks, viruses, or
destruction of an information infrastructure. This is called
cyberterrorism. Finally, drug organizations frequently use
terrorist tactics, and some terrorist organizations sell drugs to
support their political activities. Some analysts use the term
narcoterrorism to describe this type of violence. Retired FBI
counterterrorist specialist William Dyson (2000, in press) argues
these issues are not separate forms of terrorism. Rather, they are
modes of attack used by political terrorists.
Can you think of
other contextual factors that influence the definition of terrorism?
The list is probably endless. Regardless, it is enough to be aware
that the definition of terrorism changes with political and social
contexts. Terrorist analyst Alex Schmid (1983) says no matter how we
define terrorism, the definition will always fluctuate because the
context of violent activity changes. We cannot define terrorism. With
that weakness in mind, it is time to look at some of the more popular
SOME COMMON DEFINITIONS
The most widely used
definition in criminal justice, military, and security circles is a
rather simple view fostered by Brian Jenkins, a widely known
counterterrorist security specialist, and Walter Laqueur, another
leading authority from Georgetown University. They defined terrorism
separately but arrived at remarkably similar conclusions.
Jenkins offers a
definition he has frequently used while consulting with security
forces. Jenkins (1984) calls terrorism the use or threatened use of
force designed to bring about a political change. In a definition
closely related to that of Jenkins, Laqueur (1987, p. 72) says
terrorism constitutes the illegitimate use of force to achieve a
political objective by targeting innocent people. He adds that
attempts to move beyond the simple definition are fruitless because
the term is so controversial. Volumes can be written on the definition
of terrorism, Laqueur writes in a footnote, but they will not add one
iota to our understanding of the topic. In a later work, Laqueur
(1999, pp. 8–10) promotes a simple definition, only arguing that
meanings and definitions fluctuate with history.
Both Jenkins and
Laqueur freely admit problems with their simple approach. Neither
definition limits the topic, and there is no meaningful way to apply a
simple definition to specific acts of terrorism. Simple definitions
also leave academicians, policymakers, and social scientists
frustrated. In short, simplicity does not solve the problem presented
by Professor Cooper.
intimates, it is necessary to live with the problems and weaknesses of
the simple definition because terrorism will always mean different
things to different people. With this in mind, examine the positions
of Laqueur and Jenkins. From a security perspective, Laqueur’s
conclusion makes sense: terrorism is a form of political or criminal
violence using military tactics to change behavior through fear. This
simple approach does not solve the political problems of definition,
but it allows security personnel to move beyond endless debates.
Anyone charged with counterterrorism is trying to prevent
military-style criminal attacks against innocent people in a noncombat
hardly stop with pragmatic simplicity. Germany, the United Kingdom,
and Spain outlawed terrorism more than a decade ago, and America has
examined the idea of a legal definition (Mullendore & White, 1996).
The beauty of legal definitions is they give governments specific
crimes that can be used to take action against terrorist activities.
Beyond that, they are quite useless because they account for neither
the social nor the political nature of terrorism. More important, they
can be misused. Violence is the result of complex social factors that
range beyond narrow legal limitations and foreign policy restrictions.
Political violence often occurs during the struggle for legitimacy.
For example, American patriots fought the British before the United
States government was recognized.
also contain internal contradictions. Under the legal guidelines of
the United States, for example, some groups can be labeled as
terrorists, while other groups engaged in the same activities may be
described as legitimate revolutionaries. In addition, governments
friendly to the United States in Latin America have committed some of
the worst atrocities in the history of the world in the name of
counterterrorism. Ironically, some Latin American revolutionaries who
oppose our repressive friends espouse the rights expressed in the U.S.
Declaration of Independence and Constitution, yet we refer to them as
terrorists. Legal definitions are frequently shortsighted.
(1983) says terrorism cannot be defined unless the act, target, and
possibility of success are analyzed. Under this approach, freedom
fighters use legitimate military methods to attack legitimate
political targets. Their actions are further legitimized when they
have some possibility of winning the conflict. Terrorists fail to meet
the legitimacy test in one of the three categories: military methods,
military targets, and some chance of victory.
suggests revolutionary violence should not be confused with terrorism.
To Crenshaw, terrorism means socially and politically unacceptable
violence aimed at an innocent target to achieve a psychological
effect. Such analytical distinctions have helped make Crenshaw a
leading authority on terrorism, but two problems remain. Whoever has
the political power to define “legitimacy” has the power to define
terrorism. In addition, the analytical definition has not moved far
from the simple definition.
During the Reagan
administration (1981–1989), it became popular to define terrorism in
terms of national policy. Analysts pointed to terrorist states that
used terrorism to attack American interests. Neil Livingstone
(Livingstone & Arnold, 1986, pp. 1–10) lists five powers that served
as the former Soviet Union’s client states. Former Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (1986, pp. 5–15) called the West to arms
against the terrorist states. If you accept this logic, it solves the
definitional dilemma. Terrorists were shadow warriors from Libya,
Syria, Bulgaria, East Germany, and North Korea under the command of
the former Soviet Union’s Bureau of State Security (KGB).
state-sponsored definition fell on hard times, even before the
collapse of the Communist empire. James Adams (1986) thoroughly
demonstrates that terrorist groups are not and never were controlled
by sponsor states. Michael Stohl (1988, pp. 1–28) sounds another
caveat. Some terrorist states did indeed offer logistical support and
sympathy to terrorist groups, but their overall impact was
insignificant. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the arguments of state
sponsorship dwindled. Although some terrorists hiding in East Europe
were arrested (the East Germans turned over names and addresses of the
Red Army Faction to the new German federal police, for example), the
nature of terrorism shifted in the last part of the twentieth century.
Terrorism is too complex and too significant to be controlled by
definition comes from Edward Herman (1983), who says terrorism should
be defined in terms of state repression. Citing corrupt Latin American
governments, Herman argues that repressive policies have resulted in
more misery for more people than any other form of state-sponsored
terror. In a separate publication, Michael Stohl (1988, pp. 20–28)
sounds a sympathetic note, claiming terrorism is most frequently used
by governments to maintain power. Walter Laqueur (1987, p. 6) says
such conclusions are correct, and one would be foolish to deny that
state repression has caused less suffering than modern terrorism. Yet,
Laqueur argues, governmental repression is a long-term political
problem, separate from modern terrorism. To include it in the
discussion confuses the issue and does little to enhance our
understanding of terrorism.
In an effort to solve
the definitional dilemma, Alex Schmid (1983, pp. 70–111) tries to
synthesize various positions. He concludes there is no true or correct
definition because terrorism is an abstract concept with no real
presence. A single definition cannot possibly account for all the
potential uses of the term. Still, Schmid says, a number of elements
are common to leading definitions, and most definitions have two
characteristics: someone is terrorized, and the meaning of the term is
derived from terrorists’ targets and victims.
Schmid also offers a
conglomerated definition of terrorism. His empirical analysis finds 22
elements common to most definitions, and he develops a definition
containing 13 of those elements. Schmid sees terrorism as a method of
combat in which the victims serve as symbolic targets. Violent actors
are able to produce a chronic state of fear by using violence outside
the realm of normative behavior. This produces an audience beyond the
immediate victim and results in a change of public attitudes and
Some scholars believe
Schmid has solved the definitional dilemma by combining definitions.
Others think he has refined the undefinable. While analysts wrestle
with the problem, most end up doing one of three things. Some follow
the lead of Crenshaw and Thomas Thorton (1964, p. 73) and look for
illegitimate violence instead of political revolution. Others follow
the lead of Schmid, either synthesizing definitions or using those of
others. Finally, some people ignore the problem altogether. They talk
about terrorism and assume everybody knows what they mean.
See Box 1.1 for a
summary of the common definitions of terrorism and Box 1.2 for a list
of some official definitions that are used.