Constructions of Terrorism: A Definition

October 1, 2015
Constructions of Terrorism: A Definition
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

As part of the research project “Constructions of Terrorism” being undertaken by TRENDS Research and Advisory, and the Orfale Center for Global and International Studies, this article addresses the task of defining “terrorism.”  I will begin by advancing why it is important to undertake the task of carefully defining terrorism, then review why it is so difficult a task, and conclude by offering some elements that are essential to a good definition.

Defining terrorism is necessary

The project of defining “terrorism” is criticized as being either pointless or unnecessary.  Some have suggested that the act of defining terrorism is pointless because it is inherently subjective: after all, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” as the popular dictum goes.  Not all instances of random or sudden violence are equally condemned, “we applaud the act and admire the actor when terror is directed against regimes as hideous and oppressive as Nazi Germany.”[1]  One critic of academic efforts at producing a definition said of a book on the topic, it is “a book on an unidentified subject, so that the author can include whatever he sees fit.”[2]  Others have said that it is unnecessary because the tactics used by contemporary terrorists (e.g. murder, destruction of property, kidnapping) are already illegal; defining terrorism is an unnecessary step toward defeating terrorists.[3]  So why bother?

First, there is an emotional, psychological need to make sense of such “senseless violence.”  This emotional response to terror is much like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s, definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.”[4]  We rightly condemn the slaughter and mutilation of innocent people, and have little difficulty in identifying the innocence of the victims and the guilt of the perpetrators, but we fail to fully understand what we’ve seen.  Secondly, as analysts and policy makers who struggle with preserving security and opposing terrorist violence, it is critically important to have a precise definition of what it is we are studying.  Schmid and Jongman argue at the outset of their 700 page effort to define terrorism, that, “even a ‘minimum of theory’ requires some consensus about what to theorize about.”  Failing to do so “easily leads to double standards which produce bad science and also, arguably, bad policies.”[5]  Therefore, as people who claim to think seriously about the issue, we are in part obligated to the victims of and witnesses to terrorism to property categorize that form of violence with more authority than, “we know it when we see it.”  We are also obliged by the standards of scientific enquiry to ensure we are working with a coherent, fully formed concept.

Defining terrorism is difficult

Even so, such a definition evades even the most thorough and painstaking searches for one.  This is partly attributable to the fact that a very diverse set of disciplines and entities have an interest in the issue.  Governments have an interest to exclude their own activity from the definition.  Military organizations are interested in definitions that protect their personnel and provide room for maneuver.  Some definitions will emphasize psychology, others focus on symbolic communication.  Perhaps the most often cited definition comes from Schmid and Jongman (1988), who when distilling down 109 separate definitions of terrorism identified twenty-two conceptually distinct “word categories” in the definitions they studied.  Not surprisingly, most definitions contained more than one of these elements and most included the concepts: violence, political, and fear (as a result).  Other common elements were 1.) the audience to violence, not the victims of the violence itself, are the real “targets” of terrorism, 2.) terrorism is planned and organized human behavior, rather than random or “irrational” behavior and 3.) terrorism breaches expected rules and lies beyond humanitarian constraint.  Schmid and Jongman’s own definition contained 115 words in five sentences.  They admitted that the length of this definition had obvious drawbacks: being easy to criticize and being too long to be very useful.

It may be helpful to distinguish the actor from the intent of the act itself.  The intent of the violent act itself can differentiate it from other forms of violence.  “The intentions behind the act, where some target is both intentionally and instrumentally used as a means of affecting some political change by way of fear and intimidation.”[6]  Michael Walzer concluded that the pain and suffering endured by the victims of terrorist violence was not an end in itself, but rather was intended as a means to some other political end.[7]  This shifts the focus away from who is committing the offense, or the specific crime, to why the crime was committed.  Intention is the essence of terrorism, not who commits or suffers its violence.  Terrorism blurs the distinctions between who is and who isn’t a legitimate target of violence.

If this is true, attacks on police or military are not excluded from the definition of terrorism.  Targeting in conventional and guerilla warfare intends to destroy or degrade one’s opponent’s capabilities.  However, since terrorism uses violence instrumentally, police officers and military personnel targeted with the intent of intimidating or coercing others can also be the victims of terrorist violence.  We are used to thinking of these people as “combatants,” defined by their right to the legitimate use of force, and the consequent right of other combatants to target them.  Terrorism is traditionally thought of as targeting “innocent” victims, or “non-combatants.”  Indeed, we condemn terrorists because they refuse to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, which violates our basic understanding of justice in warfighting.  Thus, terrorism forces us to reconsider these important categories.[8]

States and non-state actors alike can employ terrorism for their own purposes.[9]  Fire-bombing Germany and Japan in the Second World War, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of non-combatants being killed, was intended to sap the citizens of those countries of their resolve to continue to fight.  So, the Allies in the Second World War were terrorists, strictly speaking, yet we rarely hear them condemned as such.  How can the goodness of their cause be reconciled with the way in which they pursued it to final victory?  The principle of “proportionality” in the Just War Tradition tells us that evil can be done in the service of good, so long as the evil committed does not exceed the evil being overcome.  The morality of a cause advanced can be considered separately from the means employed.  Ending a world war that cost millions of lives that was begun by territorial aggression by Germany and Japan, a war during which they committed gross violations of human rights on a massive scale, may be considered a moral end.  However, when Daesh detonates a bomb in a crowded marketplace or mosque to advance its dark and distorted vision for the world, we rightly conclude that theirs’ is not a moral end and therefore that act of terrorism is an immoral affront to civilization.  Thus terrorism could be considered along two dimensions, moral and practical.  Terrorism may get results, but not all causes are equal.

To the audience of terrorist violence, what is important is the psychological effect of such violence.  Even in places where terrorism is common, people are still statistically more likely to be killed in a traffic accident.  Yet, worry about terrorism is pervasive while worry about riding in motor vehicles is not.  Though most people’s experience with terrorist violence is mediated, the way such violence is presented can be particularly vivid and psychologically damaging.  Psychiatrist Jerrold Post explains, “Terrorism is a vicious species of psychological warfare, waged through the media,” it is “violence as communication.”[10]  When Spaniards went to the polls on March 14, 2004, what they had in mind was how easily it could have been them, or someone close to them, killed by an al-Qa’ida bomb aboard a commuter train as happened in Madrid three days earlier.  The trauma of witnessing that remote event, and seeing themselves in the victims, caused them to acquiesce to the central demands of the terrorists that killed 191 people and wounded 2,000 more: they elected a new government, one that promised to end Spain’s participation in the Iraq war.  Where terrorist violence is common, it has the effect of degrading the faith people have in their government to accomplish its most basic function: protect people from harm.  As a response, declaring “war” on terrorism has been criticized as essentially unwinnable, that vanquishing a psychological response to violence is fundamentally impossible.[11]

At its core, terrorism is political.  Terror can be used to extract specific political concessions, to incite a response, to intimidate and harass, or demonstrate resolve.[12]  Terrorist groups wish to remake political reality using violence.  On June 17, 2015 when Dylann Roof walked in to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine people at prayer, his intent was the same as the same as the Daesh suicide bomber who killed over 100 Iraqis celebrating Eid al-Fitr in Baghdad one month later.  Their intent was to coerce survivors to do their bidding; in former, to begin a race-war in the United States, in the latter, to advance a sectarian civil-war in Iraq.  We know that what prompts some groups to use violence to shape social and political reality can vary considerably and may be particular to the time and place in which the violence arises.

One might infer from suggesting that there could be a “root-cause,” for terrorism might also mean that there could be a “justification” for terrorist violence, as if to condone the practice itself.  “Some people are clearly uncomfortable with the idea of root causes because it disturbs the ‘moral clarity’ that they believe is necessary to confront terrorism…they wish to deny that any form of terrorism could be associated with a legitimate political cause.”[13]  In spite of this risk, most agree that the best counter-terror measures include aggressive enforcement, kinetic “kill-capture” operations, and investigating the social, political, economic conditions in which terrorist violence grows.  We know that terror groups are not monoliths, and that there can be multiple factions and a range of commitment to core principles.[14]  Terrorism is essentially political and the political forces behind terrorism can vary across and within groups that choose to use violence.  Definitions of terrorism in aid of creating effective counter-measures must account for this diversity.

Conclusion: A problem well stated is a problem half solved

Defining terrorism is a difficult but vitally necessary task if we wish to effectively confront it.   Terrorism is violence that evokes a visceral, psychological response in order to coerce compliance.  It is the indirect application of force such that the pain and suffering of its victims is intended as a means to some other end; the victims have done nothing to be targeted and can do nothing on their own to avoid violence.  States and non-state groups can engage in terrorism.  It is purposive, organized behavior with a rational objective, though its methods shock and appall.  Studying terrorism is to root around in some of the darkest recesses of human behavior.  This begins with understanding the multiple constructions of terrorism.  By studying how we have constructed the concept in all its various incarnations, we may then form more effective means to limit the destruction attended by terrorist violence and to better protect our societies.

This contribution is part of the “Constructions of Terrorism” Project being undertaken by TRENDS Research and Advisory, and the Orfale Center for Global and International Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA. 
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[1]. Louch, Alfred.  (1982).  “Terrorism: The Immorality of Belief,” in Rapoport & Alexander, eds. The Rationalization of Terrorism, Frederick, MD: Aletheia Books.

[2]. Quoted in Schmid, Alex P. & Albert J. Jongman.  (1988).  Political Terrorism: A New Guide to Actors, Authors, Concepts, Data Bases, Theories and Literature, Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing Company.

[3]. Ganor, Boaz.  (2015).  Global Alert: The Rationality of Modern Islamist Terrorism and the Challenge to the Liberal Democratic World.  New York: Columbia University Press.  Pg. 6

[4]. Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 US 184 (1964)

[5]. Schmid & Jongman (1988) pp. 1-3

[6]. Sinclair, Samuel Justin & Daniel Antonius.  (2012). The Psychology of Terrorism Fears. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[7]. Walzer, Michael.  1977. Just and Unjust Wars, A moral argument with historical illustrations.  New York: Basic Books, The Perseus Book Group

[8]. See Ganor (2015) for a proposed re-definition of these traditional categories.

[9]. Mitchell, Christopher, Michael Stohl, David Carleton, & George Lopez.  (1986). “State Terrorism: Issues of Concept and Measurement” in M. Stohl and G. Lopez, Government Violence and Repression. Westwood, CT: Greenwood, pp. 1-25.

[10]. Post, Jerrold.  (2007). The Mind of the Terrorist: The psychology of terrorism from the IRA to al-Qaeda.  New York: Palgrave Macmillian, p. 245.

[11]. Post, Jerrold.  (2007)

[12]. Pape, Robert. (2003). “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political Science Review, 97(3):343-361.

[13]. Newman, Edward.  2006.  “Exploring the ‘Root Causes’ of Terrorism.”  Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 29:749-772, p. 751.

[14]. For two excellent illustrations of this, see Hansen, Stig Jarle (2013).  Al-Shabab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012, London: Hurst & Company and Agbiboa, Daniel E. (2014). “Peace at Daggers Drawn?  Boko Haram and the State of Emergency in Nigeria,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 37:41-67.  For additional information on variance of commitment to core principles, please see recently released report “Victims, perpetrators, assets: The narrative of Islamic State defectors” by The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence found at: