Home Intelligence The Challenge of Defining Terrorism Around the World

The Challenge of Defining Terrorism Around the World

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*Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a series of articles focused on terrorism*

By Dr. James Hess, Faculty Director and Associate Professor of Intelligence Studies at American Military University

Those familiar with the study of terrorism know that there is not a universally accepted definition. However, there are many similarities in most accepted definitions. For example, the United Nations and the United States have similar definitions of terrorism, but differ when it comes to what persons or groups are considered terrorists.

The United Nations has defined terrorism as:

Any action, in addition to actions already specified by the existing conventions on aspects of terrorism, the Geneva Conventions and Security Council resolution 1566 (2004), that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.

What’s interesting is that some member states have argued that this definition needs to include any state’s armed forces that are used against citizens of that state. The rationale is that the armed forces are substantially stronger than a revolting citizens’ capacity. The United Nations has rejected this argument and maintains the definition needs a clear and “normative framework.”

The United States officially defines terrorism as:

Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

Definition of terrorism

Overall, the definitions of terrorism from the U.N. and U.S. code are not significantly different, but one point does stand out. The U.N. is silent on terrorism from within a nation-state, while the U.S. code is very specific to mention that either “subnational groups” or “clandestine” actors could be defined as terrorists.

Bruce Hoffman, director of security studies at Georgetown University, discusses the definition of terrorism in his book, Defining Terrorism. Hoffman argues that terrorism is:

The deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in pursuit of political change.

Interestingly, Hoffman does not attempt to discuss the specific identity of would-be terrorists. In Defining Terrorism, Hoffman explains that the reason terrorism has been difficult to define and the perpetrators difficult to identify is based on what has been considered terrorism and the usage of naming conventions.

One could argue that modern terrorism has roots in the French Revolution, or the assassination of Czar Alexander II. While these examples are commonly accepted as a part of the history of modern terrorism, they are examples of internal revolt against totalitarian regimes. As to how terrorist groups identify themselves, it would be difficult to find an organization that self-identifies as a terrorist group. Therefore, the actions committed through the disposition of how the organization (or individual) is operating have become central to the definition of terrorism.

While these definitions focus on differing points, they do have similarities. Overall, the action of violence, with the intent of controlling or intimidating and for the purpose of changing a government or forcing a response, are the commonalities when it comes to defining terrorism. These commonalities provide my definition of what constitutes terrorism, and that definition translates to the ideology of the organization (or individual).

Restated, my definition of terrorism is:

Terrorism consists of the action of violence with the intent of controlling or intimidating for the purpose of changing a government or forcing a response, without regard to the individual or group.

James Hess_croppedAbout the Author: Dr. James Hess has more than 20 years of intelligence experience. He served in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan in various positions and levels of responsibility. In 1998, he served as the Task Force Pershing S2 ISO the SFOR mission; In 1999 he served as the targeting officer as well as ran the Task Force Hawk IPW cell; In 2003-4, he served as an Analysis and Control Element (ACE) Chief during OIF 1 & 2, served as the committee OIC of the U.S. Army’s intelligence analyst course, taught at the U.S. Army MI Captain’s Career Course, served as an Observer/Control at the Joint Readiness Training Center, and served as the Fusion OIC while deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan in support of OEF. He has also taught at The United States Military Academy at West Point. His interests are intelligence and terrorism studies, and he has published a book and several articles pertaining to applying critical thinking skills to intelligence analysis.

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