Defining Terrorism

Dr. Kshitij Prabha, Associate Fellow, IDSA


Terrorism is a global phenomenon which is easy to recognise but difficult to define. Scholars all over the world describe it according to their socio-economic and political conditions. Those affected by social and economic problems conceptualise terrorism as conflict in society between the haves and the have nots, whereas those experiencing use of terror tactics to gain political mileage consider it as a political phenomenon. Apparently the word 'terrorism' is interpreted to suit different interests.

There are innumerable definitions of terrorism and every definition though it appears correct in its own perspective, lacks some important aspects of terrorism. In other words these definitions do not represent all the components of terrorism. However, if these definitions are analysed in totality, an acceptable definition could be evolved. Multiple interpretations not merely complicate definition of terrorism, but also encourages its perpetrator to escape in the name of economic deprivation and freedom fighting. As a matter of fact, terrorism continues to pervade the political system because there is no acceptable definition; and hence no punitive action against the perpetrator is possible either by the government or by the international organisations.

Scholars all over the world are entangled in the labyrinth of terminology and have expressed different views. Amongst them all, the most widely acceptable definition is the one offered by Yonah Alexander. He defines terrorism as: 'the use of violence against random civilian targets in order to intimidate or to create generalised pervasive fear for the purpose of achieving political goals.'1 This definition is precise and is often quoted by scholars, but it lacks an important aspect of terrorism i.e. international linkage . Terrorists cannot inflict terror without the funds and infrastructure facilities that they receive from international connections.

Somewhat similar is the elaborate definition given by Alex P. Schmid who analysed innumerable definitions before arriving at the following conclusion:

'Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by clandestine individual groups or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby—in contrast to assassination—the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human targets of violence are generally chosen randomly or selectively from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat and violence based communication processes between terrorists' victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target, turning it into a targeting of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion or propaganda is primarily sought.'2 This definition goes into detail of the phenomenon of terrorism, but remains more focussed on targets and objectives than its basic nature.

Similarly, Brian Jenkins writes that the threat of violence, individual acts of violence or a campaign of violence designed primarily to instill fear is terrorism.3 This definition of terrorism is close to the concept of terrorism, but ignores two significant aspects e.g. training and international support. These two aspects are highlighted in the definition of Christopher Dobson and Martha Crenshaw. The necessity of training is expressed by Dobson who writes that 'use of explosive devices used by the terrorists needs appropriate training',4 the need for international assistance is expressed in the definition of Martha Crenshaw. She opines that terrorism is a means to accomplish certain political objectives with international support.5

There is yet another group of scholars who define terrorism in historical perspective, for instance Michael Walzer believes that "random terror for political achievement emerged as strategy of revolutionary struggle after the World War II."6

Likewise some scholars define terrorism in the light of violence and coercion by state agencies.Walter Laquer, for instance, defines acts of violence and repression as carried out by the government against their own people as terrorism.7 In the same vein, Neil Livingston says that the state is the main perpetrator of terrorism today.8 Corroborating the same idea, scholars like Jay Mallin defines terrorism as a substitute for overt warfare . To put it in his own words' when diplomats fail soldiers take over, when soldiers fail terrorists take over.'9 His opinion of terrorism as a substitute for war or as a consequence of failed diplomacy is relevant. But to state that terrorism is a fall-out of military failure is far from the reality. Often we experience inability of police, not the soldiers, in countering terrorism .As a matter of fact when diplomats, political leaders and police fail soldiers take over to curb terrorism .

UN Definition of Terrorism

The UN General Assembly Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on International Terrorism (28th session/A/9028,1973) was an important document in the history of terrorism. Recalling the 1972 resolution entitled 'Measures to prevent international terrorism which endangers or takes innocent human lives or jeopardises fundamental freedoms, and study of the underlying causes of those forms of terrorism and acts of violence which lie in misery, frustration, grievance and despair, and which cause some people to sacrifice human lives, including their own, in an attempt to effect radical changes` the Ad Hoc Committee established three sub-committees to examine definition, causes and prevention of terrorism. Seven draft proposals were submitted by different nations to the sub-committee on the definition of terrorism. While the Non-Aligned Group (consisting of Algeria, Congo, Democratic Yemen, Guinea, India, Syria, Tunisia, Tanzania, Yemen,Yugoslavia, Zaire, and Zambia) submitted collective proposals, France, Greece, Haiti, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela made separate presentations on the definition of terrorism. The Non-Aligned Group defined terrorism as acts of violence committed by a group of individuals which endanger human lives and jeopardise fundamental freedoms the effects of which are not confined to one state. This should not, however, affect the inalienable right to self-determination under colonial and racist regimes. The French proposal described international terrorism as a heinous act of barbarism committed in foreign territory. Greece distinguished terrorism from freedom fighting and defined it as criminal acts of violence….with the aim to put pressure on any dispute or for personal satisfaction. Haiti included political aspirations in the definition and Iran added violence against freedom movement also as acts of international terrorism. Nigeria and Venezuela too held similar views. Apparently the house was divided. Therefore no resolution on the definition of terrorism could be adopted. The matter remained suspended until 1987 when the Secretary General convened an international conference to define terrorism and differentiate it from freedom fighting. This conference was successful in the sense that members agreed to identify terrorism with crime and accordingly a future plan of action was proposed. Taking note of the Secretary Generals` report of the conference the UN General Assembly condemned all acts of terrorism except those fighting for the right to self-determination against foreign and racist regimes as `criminal` (Resolution adopted on the reports of the Sixth Committee,General Assembly, 94th Meeting, Dated December 7, 1987, Report: A/42/832) An overwhelmimg majority adopted this resolution. However, remarkably the US and Israel voted against the resolution while Honduras abstained. Thus after fifteen years of deliberations and counter-deliberations, finally the UN came to the conclusion that all acts of terrorism are criminal.

However, the question arises: is it a correct definition of terrorism? Can we describe a terrorist as a criminal? The answer to these questions lies in self-contradiction. If terrorism is analysed as a concept, this definition is not correct. The link between crime and terrorism could be established, but to identify the two as one would be misleading. Criminals do not have political purpose unless they are converted to terrorism. Normally their aim is to acquire wealth . They are more concerned about the economy of the state and the individuals rather than the political situation; whereas politics is the main consideration of terrorists.

However, if it has to be analysed from the point of view of prevention, then this definition can serve the purpose. Perhaps it is the simplest way to cope with terrorism. This could be one of the effective measures to prevent international terrorism without getting into the details of causes and their political affiliation. 'Identify them with their acts of violence and treat them as criminal' sounds quite good. But is it viable? If prevention is the objective for defining terrorism as criminal, then the UN should have immediately adopted a resolution on compulsory extradition treaty among nations for exchange of criminals (terrorist) operating from different parts of the world. The UN has not taken any measure in this direction though this issue has been raised time and again. Until extradition is made compulsory and criminals are tried according to the law of the nation they belong to, this definition is unlikely to prevent international terrorism. Hence even this definition has no relevance.

Obviously there is a long list of definitions given by different scholars at different points of time in different situations.Undoubtedly all these definitions lead towards conceptualisation of terrorism and have certain common features. However, none of these definitions presents terrorism in its totality. Each scholar has offered his own perspective on terrorism. None of them adopted the terrorists' perspective and put them together to evolve a functional definition of terrorism. The present study is an attempt to do the same on the basis of David Easton's system theory. Easton's system theory is adopted not merely because the phenomenon of terrorism has a direct effect on the socio-economic and political system but also because it (terrorism) emanates from within the same system. (In order to arrive at a functional definition of terrorism a pragmatic approach to the problem would be more relevant.) A definition devoid of the socio-economic and political issues involved in terrorism holds good only for academic purpose not for practical implications. In order to arrive at a functional definition of terrorism a pragmatic approach to the problem would be more relevant. Therefore in this context, terrorism is broadly defined from two perspectives:

Political Perspective (P) : Group Action (GA), International Linkage (IL)

Means Perspective (M) : Violence (V), Training (T)

In this model, the definition of terrorism is analysed from the above mentioned two perspectives i.e. terrorism as a political phenomenon described as P, and as a means described as M to achieve political goals.In the subsequent phase, the model explains that P demands coordination and cooperation to form a cohesive political group and thereby needs GA to implement the plan and GA in turn leads to IL.

From the political perspective point of view , terrorism is defined as a political rather than a criminal or psychological phenomenon in the light of the fact that terrorists do not believe in personal gain or accumulation of wealth. Their sole objective is to acquire political power be it in the form of autonomy or creation of an independent state.

In the Means perspective, terrorism is defined as a means in pursuit of realisation of a political mission. While explaining the means, the model emphasises the necessity of violence in terrorism.Violence employed by terrorists is of specific type i.e. tactical by nature. Violence conveying a message to government is terrorism. Killing and arson devoid of publicity do not fit into the definition of terrorism. Furthermore, the tools of violence terrorists use demands professional training. A layman cannot operate sophisticated weapons and missiles used by terrorists. This aspect also needs attention while defining terrorism. The following paragraphs present a detailed analysis of both the perspectives on definition of terrorism.

Terrorism as a Political Phenomenon

Violence and intimidation could be effective means to achieve multiple objectives.It could be used for personal benefits, redress of social and economic grievances or to gain political mileage. However, not all acts of violence are terrorism. Only those incidents of violence could be defined as terrorism which have political implications. Individual acts of violence are more of a psychological nature than political. Socio-economic or psychological aspects are causal factors for the growth of terrorism, and not the basic nature of the phenomenon. Both the nature and purpose of terrorism is political. Its political identity could be understood better by analysing various dimensions of the problem such as objective, methodology and the organisational structure. The ultimate goal of terrorists is to acquire political power. Social and economic problems are not primary to them, though these issues are vital for the rise of terrorism. These are not priorities because they believe that once the political power comes under their domain, social and economic reforms would follow by themselves. Thus, their sole aim is to capture power.10 Their desperation inspires them to target political leaders and institutions to malign the credibility of a government.

Another important political dimension to terrorism is its organisational structure. Terrorist groups are organised more as a political party than a criminal gang. Initially they emerge as a political unit aspiring for political recognition. However when they fail to make a dent in active politics through political means, their agenda shifts from politics to tactical violence . All India Sikh Students Federation (AISF) in Punjab and All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) in Jammu and Kashmir could be cited as examples of the same situation. The AISF came into existence as an organised group of Sikh students in Punjab. But with the passage of time, it emerged as one of the active terrorist groups in Punjab. Similar is the case of APHC in Kashmir. It came into being as a political party to contest against the National Conference in J and K . But failed to participate in the political process partly because it is funded by Pakistan and partly because leaders involved in APHC are not sure as to which path to follow—violence or politics of negotiation. They are a bit confused because Pakistan will not like a peaceful solution to the Kashmir problem and India will not accept any organisation playing the Pakistani tune in the internal politics of the country. A number of them including the main leaders are arrested for fomenting trouble in J and K. Though the APHC is not a banned organisation, its activities are under observation. Be it AISF or APHC, when these groups fail to gain recognition from the government and the people, they adopt a violent course of action to destabilise an established government11 more so in a democratic society. In the name of civil rights guaranteed to citizens in democracy, terrorists indulge in violence and create mass unrest and fear.Wilkinson rightly defines such acts of violence as political terrorism.12

Subsequently, the definition model highlights GA as an essential element in terrorism.The kind of violence terrorists inflict cannot have an impact without collective manoeuvering. They operate in a network structure and are inter-dependent on one another to execute the plan of subversion. The need for collaboration in operations is so high in terrorist organisations that at times they hire services of other groups from across their national boundary.13 For instance, Pak-sponsored terrorism in India involves different terrorist groups operating in Punjab, J and K, Assam in India as well as mercenaries from Afghanistan, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. The theory of individualism and isolation has no relevance in terrorism. 'Bigger the network, more the mileage' is the key to terrorist operations. Individual acts of terror without political purpose is not terrorism, but manifestation of crime or mental sickness. Such individuals could best be defined as psychopaths not as terrorists. Mohamed Ali Agca of Turkey, the man who shot at Pope John Paul II in Rome had no political motive. The investigating agency in Italy tried to establish his link with the Turkey based terrorist group, 'Grey Wolf,'14 however, could not get any evidence of his political connection. Throughout the judicial trial, he denied having any connection with the 'Grey Wolf" or the right wing Nationalist Action Party (NAP) of Turkey. He claimed to be representing his own idea of terrorism. He was sentenced to death. The Pope himself had direct interaction with him after conviction and requested the court to reduce his punishment from death to life imprisonment. He realised that it was a case of mental sickness, rather than a deliberate act of terrorism.

The political perspective on terrorism would remain incomplete without a focus on international linkage. Interaction among terrorist groups is an essential feature of terrorism. Terrorist operations demand heavy expenditure on weapons and training facilities, which are unlikely to come from sources within the national boundary. The risk of being exposed to police and intelligence agencies is very high if the operation remains confined to domestic frontiers. The possibility of being caught by the law enforcement agencies keeps them crossing the border off and on. Therefore, most of the terrorist groups not merely have foreign source of funding, but maintain cross border training camps and sanctuaries.

The history of terrorism is replete with illustrations of transnational terrorism. The Red Faction Army (RAF) of (then) West Germany popularly known as Baader Meinhoff, and JKLF could pose as threats to civilised society because of their international linkage. Baader and Meinhof, the two important leaders of RAF had a rendezvous in Jordan to train Palestinian militants15 and used them in their own pursuit to destabilise the government of West Germany. In the same way, the Kashmiri militants received military and financial assistance from Mujahideens from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Similarly the UK based IRA had operation units in the US as well.16 The former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher had authentic information that the IRA was receiving funds from Libyan mercenaries. This issue was one of the important factors that inspired Thatcher to approve the US attack on Libya in 1986.17

The case of multiple RDX explosions in Mumbai in 1993 also refers to international contact and collusion. Tiger Memon , the smuggler turned terrorist, has established political contacts across the border and is trying to convert his ill-gotten money into politico-religious outlets. Son of a police inspector, he began his criminal career in Mumbai. Thereafter he moved to Dubai from where he established links with the Pakistani intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The net result of this collaboration was the serial bombing in Mumbai. After this incident, India pursued the UAE government for an extradition treaty between the two countries. This compelled Tiger Memon, the main accused, to shift his base from Dubai to Karachi where he lives under protection and constant vigilance of the Pakistan government.

Maintaining the same tradition, highjackers of the Indian Airlines IC 814 successfully utilised their political contacts in Afghanistan to get the hardcore Pakistani terrorists, Azhar Masood and two others released. The good offices of Taliban government was engaged to bargain with India at the Qandhar international airport in Afghanistan. Throughout the eight day drama beginning December 24-31, 1999, the highjackers bargained with India through the Taliban government of Afghanistan with whom India does not have diplomatic relations. It was a difficult situation for Delhi to get out of this crisis without involving the Taliban government.

These incidents are enough indication that political collaboration in the international network of terrorist groups is vital to the success of terrorism. Without such contacts and cooperation terrorism would remain a bare philosophy and would have no impact on society or the government. Hence, the apolitical definition of terrorism has no relevance to the global problem of terrorism. Terrorism is the study of conflict in politics within and beyond the national frontiers and it needs to be defined politically.

Terrorism as Means to an End

The second essential aspect in the definition of terrorism is to analyse it as a means to an end rather than an end by itself. History offers evidence that terrorists invariably aim to achieve certain socio-economic or political goals. Terror tactics have always been used as means to an end.18 Means theory is so relevant in the politics of violence that even an individual perpetrator addresses his grievances through terror tactics. Martha Crenshaw substantiates this idea by defining terrorism as a means to a political end.19 Furthermore, it is the type of means employed that defines a group as terrorist or otherwise.

It is worth mentioning that political parties too resort to violence at times. A clear distinction between violence by a political party and a terrorist group is necessary while defining terrorism. Often students of terrorism confuse both as being one and the same. The differences between the two could be easily explored; for instance, violence by an established political party is normally haphazard and of low intensity. It happens only in the wake of protest rallies and demonstrations. These are more in the form of anomie than planned violence like that of terrorism. Violence by political parties does not create mass unrest for a long period of time. It can create chaos, confusion and halt the government machinery for a day or two but cannot pose a serious threat to society .

Terrorism, on the other hand, adopts a well-planned tactic to indulge in violence, arson and subversion. Every phase of violence is chalked out by terrorists according to socio-economic and political conditions of the target area. An environment of unrest and fear is created through conspiracy and propaganda before terrorists resort to violence. Such issues are totally missing from violence by political parties.

As a corollary to this and as explained in the model, it is also important to note that violence, being a precondition to terrorism, needs proper planning for execution of subversive plans, which largely depends on training imparted to the terrorists. Without training in the use of weapons, tactical application of violence is not possible. This aspect is also significant in defining terrorism. Terrorists are trained in weaponry, communication systems and post-violence follow up actions in training camps abroad. It is an important aspect of terrorism, because the era we live in is not that of daggers and knives, but of machine guns, bazookas, missiles, transister bombs, letter bombs, cyanide and RDX. These are highly sophisticated weapons and ammunition , which require proper training to operate.20 Lack of skill might prove fatal and self destructive.

These descriptions apparently lead to the conclusion that terrorism is not just a kind of violence expressed on the spur of the moment, but an organised instrument to achieve political objectives. It has its own identity, comprising various issues as mentioned above. Therefore, on the basis of all the definitions given by scholars all over the world and the real issues involved in terrorism , terrorism could be defined here as an act or threat of an act of tactical violence by a group of trained individuals, having international linkage, to achieve political objective. This group could be sponsored by non -state or state agencies. This definition precisely covers all the aspects of terrorism.



1. Yonah Alexander, International Terrorism: National, Regional and Global Perspectives (New York: Praeger Publisher, 1976), Journal of International Affairs, p. XIV.

2. Alex Schmid and Jongman, J. Albert, Political Terrorism, (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1988) p. 28.

3. Brian Jenkins, "International Terrorism: Trends and Potentialities", Journal of International Affairs, vol. 32, no. 1, Spring/Summer, 1978, pp. 115-123.

4. Christopher Dobson and Ronald Payne, The Weapons of Terror, (London: MacMillan Press, 1979), p. 67.

5. Martha Crenshaw, "Theories of Terrorism", The Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 10, no. 4, (December 1987), p. 13.

6. Michael Walzer, Political Principles (New York: Basic Books Inc. 1980), pp. 201-203.

7. Walter Lacquer, The Age of Terror, (London: Wiedenfield and Nilcolson, 1987), Passim.

8. Neil Livingston, The War Against Terrorism (Massachusetts: D.C. Health and Co. 1982), p. 11.

9. Jay Mallin, "Terrorism as a Military Weapon", Air University Review, vol. XXVIII, no. 2 (January/February 1977), pp. 54-64.

10. Lester A Sobel, Political Terrorism, vol. 2, (New York: Facts on file, 1978), pp. 2-3.

11. Paul Wilkinson, Terrorism and Liberal State (London: MacMillan Press Ltd., 1977), Passim.

12. Paul Walkins, Political Terrorism (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1974).

13. Dobson and Payne, n. 4, p. 63.

14. Sadhan Mukherjee, Terrorism and Antonov Case (Delhi: Navyug Press, 1985), pp. 13-18.

15. Donna M. Sehlagheck, International Terrorism: An Introduction to Concepts and Actors (Massachusetts: D.C. Healths Co., 1988), p. 61.

16. Raymond R. Corrado, "Ethnic and Student Terrorism in Western Europe", in Michael Stohl's The Politics of Terrorism, (New York: Marcel Dekker Inc., 1979), p. 198.

17. David Carlton and Carlo Shaerif, International Terrorism and World Security (London: Croom Helm, 1974), p. 38.

18. Martha Crenshaw, "Theories of Terrorism: Instrumental Organisational Approach, Journal of Strategic Studies, Op.cit., p. 13.

19. Dobson and Payne, n. 4, p. 67.

20. Jenny Teichman, "How to define Terrorism", Philosophy: The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, vol. 64, no. 250, (October, 1989), p. 511.