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What is Terrorism?


What is Terrorism?

Since the terrible events of September 11, 2001, with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the subject of terrorism has exploded on the world stage. President George W. Bush has declared a war against terrorism. The vast resources of the United States and other countries have been directed toward ending terrorism in America and around the world. Yet, in spite of these developments, it is clear that countries are not only divided about what to do about terrorism, but even about how to define it.

By its nature, the term "terrorism" is bound up in political controversy. It is a concept with a very negative connotation. Because terrorism implies the killing and maiming of innocent people, no country wants to be accused of supporting terrorism or harboring terrorist groups. At the same time, no country wants what it considers to be a legitimate use of force to be considered terrorism. An old saying goes, "One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter."

Terrorists often justify their acts on ideological or religious grounds arguing that they are responding to a greater wrong or are promoting a greater good. For example, Leon Trotsky, a communist leader during the Russian Revolution, justified the use of terror by the Red Army as a necessary evil to promote the worldwide cause of workers and as a response to the military actions of counterrevolutionaries and Western powers.

For Discussion

  1. Why is it difficult to agree upon a universally accepted definition of terrorism?
  2. What are the different definitions of terrorism contained in the article? Which definition do you favor? Why?
  3. Why does Alex Schmid call a terrorist act the equivalent of a peacetime war crime? Do you agree? Why or why not?
  4. Is it important to arrive at a universal definition of terrorism? Why or why not?

For Further Reading

Terrorism From the National Institute of Justice.

Terrorism: An Introduction From the Council on Foreign Relations.

Definitions of Terrorism Often Vary From the CQ Press.

Ayatulla Shaykh Muhammad 'Ali Taskhiri, "Towards a Definition of Terrorism"

United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, "Definitions of Terrorism"


Divide the class into small groups and do the following: Review the various definitions of terrorism contained in the article and choose the best one. Or, review the article and create your own definition of terrorism. Review the following situations, and determine which, if any, are examples of terrorism.

  1. A radical environmental group burns a vacant hotel that was recently legally built in a wilderness area.
  2. Country X, during a time of war, accidentally kills civilians while conducting bombing raids in Country Z.
  3. Country X hires an organized crime group in Country Z to assassinate civilian leaders of a group opposing the international policies of Country X.
  4. A national separatist group in Country X blows up a railroad station in Country Z to discourage that government from supporting policies of the government in Country X.