Terrorism refers to the threat of using violent means on a group of innocent civilians to advance a political or social objective. Terrorism may be carried out by individuals, groups, or sub-national organizations. Terrorists intend to influence and intimidate a large audience by threatening to harm the immediate victims. The critical aspect of terrorism, whether domestic or international, is that every terror attack has a political motive behind it (Hoffman & Claridge, 1998). For instance, the 2004 Madrid train bomb attacks were carried out by the Islamic extremist terrorist group called al-Qaeda as a reaction to the Aznar government’s alignment with the US and its subsequent invasion of Iraq. However, there is no fixed definition of domestic and global terrorism at present. The constantly changing and evolving definitions of domestic and global terrorism, trends, and the upcoming terror instances create hindrances in the systematic study of international terrorism.
Changing Definitions over Time
Although there are multiple definitions of terrorism, their scope is defined by the particular circumstances pertaining to one specific terror attack. This happens because ‘terrorism’ is politically and emotionally charged.
The word ‘terrorism’ was first derived from the French word ‘terrorisme’ and the Latin word ‘terrere.’ The English dictionary first incorporated the word in 1798 and defined it as the ‘systematic use of terror as a policy.’ Scholar Myra Williamson says that during the Reign of Terror in Rome, terrorism meant a regime or system used for governance by a revolutionary state fighting against the enemies of the people. This definition has entirely transformed as of now. Terrorism is directly a result of the actions perpetrated by the ‘non-state and subnational entities’ against the state (Williamson, 2016, p. 37).
The League of Nations defined terrorism in the 1930s as criminal acts directed against a State, creating fear among the general public. In 1997, the International Convention for Suppression of Terrorist Bombings defined terrorist bombings in the following way – “intentional detonation acts and discharging of lethal devices that can cause death, bodily injury, or economic loss of a property.” This definition excluded the activities of the state armed forces and self-determination movements. The United Nations also has different definitions of terrorism corresponding to its diverse organs. In 2002, the UN General Assembly defined terrorist crimes in its Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism in a manner somewhat correlating with the definition of the International Convention for Suppression of Terrorist Bombings. This is still on the negotiating table. The UN Terrorist Financing Convention also defines terrorism as the direct/indirect provision or collection of funds for the intentional use of causing death and bodily injury to civilians.
The reason behind Variations in Definitions
There is no consensus over any one definition of terrorism. Academic researchers’ definition is simple and direct. Any activity having a political objective and targeting innocent people is terrorism. Legal professionals define it in more ambiguous ways without considering psychological and social causes for easy prosecution. Law enforcement agencies also focus more on actions and criminality rather than motivation and reason behind terrorism. Governmental organizations and political parties define it in ways that justify direct military action against it instead of counter-terrorist measures. Of course, the definition of terrorism as denoted by various terrorist groups is entirely different from the mainstream understanding. Terms such as freedom fighters, insurgents, and guerrilla warriors better suit them since they genuinely believe that their actions serve a fair and just cause.
Changing definitions of domestic and global terrorism are attributed to individual intentions and circumstance-centric details. Since terrorism is motivated by political, social, religious, and even ideological beliefs, one may define it according to one’s own goal of terrorism.
Universal Definition of Terrorism
The United Nation’s definition is the most widely accepted and enumerated definition of terrorism. The UN believes that having one universal definition would help to fight against it more efficiently. However, having only one predetermined definition presents a visibly narrower scope than what is needed to counter it now. It may so happen that a precise understanding of terrorism may exclude certain aspects that ultimately become a liability in future terror attack cases. The leading cause of such a varied array of definitions is the high level of uncertainty among political organizations worldwide. The continually evolving nature of world politics presents a constant threat of terrorism. There is no guarantee of how terror attacks may turn out shortly.
As mentioned before, the political and emotional charge associated with terrorism also has a crucial role in the absence of a concrete definition. The major controversy is about determining what the legitimate use of violence is and what is not. For instance, violence initiated by the state is seldom considered as terrorism. Hence, the shifting nature of violence is the foremost cause of a varied definition of terrorism.
Possibility of a Universal Definition
Although a single definition of terrorism would be ideal for dealing with criminal offenses and enacting State authority, it is currently neither possible nor favorable. According to Resolution 1373 of the Security Council in September 2001, one should not define terrorism solely to reach a quick conclusion. It highlights the redundancy of a single definition. Terrorism will only be used as a means of convenience, having no absolute judicial base. If we do develop a universal definition of terrorism, it shall be ‘instrumental and incantatory, yet inefficient because there shall be no correlation between the intent behind wanting a definition and the content of that definition. Terrorism continues to be a multi-faceted phenomenon (Sorel, 2003, pp. 365-371).
As mentioned before, having a universal definition makes eliminating it more pragmatic and systematized. The law enforcement agencies can easily distinguish between acts of violence based on the rule of law. Governmental organizations and political groups can also prevent any unsolicited abuse of laws regarding terrorism. Simultaneously, a universal definition is undesirable because we cannot afford to have a strict regimentation of terrorism in this uncertain political scenario.
Impact of 9/11
September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers of New York, USA, were the most gruesome terror attacks recorded. Transnational terrorism immediately gained center stage, and Islamic extremism became an inseparable aspect of global terrorism. The focus of defining terrorism quickly shifted from nationalist and separatist ideologies to fundamentalist and religious worldview. Six countries with ongoing civil strife, namely Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen, became crucial for defining terrorism (Smith and Zeigler, 2017, pp. 1-2). Hence, the basis of terrorism solely became communal.
In total, the constant shift in the definition of domestic and global terrorism among various public agencies, private entities, and global organizations such as the United Nations is a new reality. The 9/11 attacks also have a profound impact on the shift in the understanding of terrorism. One universal definition is perhaps not feasible at present because of the ambiguous nature of terrorist activities. The world can gain a more holistic view of terrorism through further political developments, which can help us advance towards a universal definition of the same.
Hoffman, B., & Claridge, D. (1998). The RAND‐St Andrews chronology of international terrorism and noteworthy domestic incidents, 1996*. Journal Terrorism and Political Violence, 10 (2), 135-180. CSU Online Library.
Sorel, J. M. (2003). Some questions about the definition of terrorism and the fight against its financing. European Journal of International Law, 14(2), 365-378. CSU Online Library.
Smith, M., & Zeigler, S. M. (2017). Terrorism before and after 9/11–a more dangerous world?. Research & Politics, 4(4), 2053168017739757. CSU Online Library.
Williamson, M. (2016). Terrorism, war, and international law: the legality of the use of force against Afghanistan in 2001. Routledge. CSU Online Library.