What Is Terrorism?

"One manís terrorist is another manís freedom fighter" is an old adage that is of particular interest now. In the weeks since November 11 we have heard US government officials call for a "War on Terrorism". The government is now engaged in diplomatic, intelligence, and military actions to destroy "terrorism" domestically and throughout the world. At no time have we heard a definition of terrorism, so it is difficult to evaluate the propriety of the actions of the government or when success has been achieved.

The Terrorism Research Center has addressed this problem and posts a number of definitions of terrorism on their web site. There are definitions from Brian Jenkins, Walter Laqueur, and James M. Poland. Even the Federal Government has two definitions, one from The Vice-President's Task Force on Terrorism of 1986, and one from the FBI. The Center chooses to use the FBI definition but it is informative to look at them all and find common points of agreement.

If we do look, we see that they agree in four areas. First is that terrorism involves the use or threat of force. Second is that it targets innocent third parties or their property. Third is that the major, or only, purpose is to inspire fear or produce intimidation. Fourth is that the goal is social or political. To achieve the broadest consensus, it is necessary that a definition includes these four points and does not extend beyond them.

Most important is to avoid value judgments about the legitimacy or lawfulness of the actions or the goals of the actions. While this may seem amoral we should remember that we are trying to achieve a definition with the broadest acceptance. We are not trying to label all immoral acts of aggression as "terrorism" unless we merely wish to engage in propaganda. While this may be useful at times, it is not helpful if we wish to evaluate the propriety and effectiveness of our policies or to engage the broadest range of allies.

Let us examine these four points in some more detail. First, the action must be the use or threat of force. It should not matter if an individual, an organization, or even a government perpetrates the action. It is the nature of the action that is important not the source. It is critical to understand that this does not include the use of force in direct self-defense.

Force and threats also do not include statements about the morality or consequences of the actions of others. Good examples of this are statements made by religious fundamentalists that an action is a sin, or a violation of the laws of God, or that the perpetrator is damned to eternal suffering or deserving of punishment. While these may be hurtful or inflammatory, they are expressions of opinion and not direct threats. Finally, withdrawals, or denials, of support especially through boycotts are not included although sanctions by governments could be included if they involve force.

Second, the target of the action must be an innocent third party. This is a troublesome point as innocence involves a value judgment of some sort. If we conclude that all the citizens of a government engaging in objectionable policies are guilty, then no one can ever be considered innocent. This would make terrorism totally dependent on value judgments and useless as an objective term. I propose that anyone not engaged in the direct determination of policy, or carrying it out, be considered innocent. This narrows the definition to include members of government and the military. It would generally exclude all civilians and could easily exclude some members of the government not involved in the objectionable policy.

Does this mean that any action which affects innocents meet this requirement? Few would argue that harming innocents used as human shields, or downing an airliner with its passengers to protect a city, or accidentally harming civilians in a military action would do so. While these actions may be regrettable, to say the least, they would not be considered terrorism. It is necessary, though, to limit these kinds of actions. Most would agree that destroying an entire city of civilians to kill a single soldier is unreasonable. Governments must limit their actions to some kind of proportional response and this same expectation should be made of organizations outside of, or in conflict with, governments. Another expectation is that governments give some kind of notice of their intentions, traditionally in the form of a declaration of war although this has fallen into disuse. This must be extended to extra-governmental organizations and individuals as well.

Third, the major, or only, purpose is to inspire fear or produce intimidation. While most acts of violence do this, an act against a legitimate target is excluded. It is generally accepted that governments should limit their military actions to targets involved in the support of the opposing government. This includes communication, command, and control facilities, airports, government buildings, power plants, bridges, roads, electrical power facilities, and almost all other infrastructures. This provides a "target rich environment" but the purpose of including all these items is to deny their use by the military of the opposition. Civilian casualties should be balanced against the military benefits and essentially civilian or humane targets such as hospitals should be excluded. Again, this must be expected of extra-governmental organizations and individuals.

Fourth, the goal is social or political. This at once expands the definition to include almost any goal but limits it to actions that do not include at least a significant portion of a population. Specifically, actions by an individual against another or even a small group are usually excluded. Actions involving material gain such as extortion are also excluded.

The definitions used by the Vice-Presidentís Task Force and the FBI are of interest. They are very similar, so we will investigate the FBI definition. It states, "Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

It is useful for the FBI to include only "lawful" activities since it is only concerned with domestic law enforcement. It is not useful for our broader definition since we are concerned with international activity as well as domestic. "Lawful" is a very problematic term in international areas. While there is international law concerning treaties, trade, use of the high seas, and so forth, there is no single organization enforcing this law. Further, not all countries agree to all aspects of international law.

Another problem with this term is that all revolutionary activity within a country is "unlawful" in that country. This definition would make every revolutionary or freedom fighter a terrorist. While this would be useful to repressive regimes across the world it would make our definition suspect in the eyes of many. It would also make any support of this revolutionary activity a terrorist act and subject to whatever agreements are made about them. A scenario could easily be envisioned where a US citizen would have to be turned over to a foreign government for supporting revolutionary activity there.

Based on the above discussion, I propose the following definition.

"Terrorism is the use or threatened use of force by any individual, organization, or government, targeted against, or with disregard for, innocent third parties or their property, with the purpose of inspiring fear or intimidation, to achieve social or political goals."

I invite the reader to give some thought to this definition and to apply it to recent events and activities by individuals, extra-governmental organizations, and governments including the US.

©Edwin J. Pole II, October 21, 2001