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Definition of Terrorism
Publication date: 2002-07-14

The Word 'Terrorism' Defined Non-Politically

The Importance of Definitions   -----   to top

Now that the Government of the United States of America have decided to rule the world under the slogan of “War on Terror”, the word “terrorism” has become subject of heated arguments in the same way as the word “God” was subject of heated arguments at the time of the religious wars of the past1. But in such arguments the parties often mean different thing by the same word, and for that reason the argument cannot be resolved.

Had the argument at the time of the Crusades really been about God, then it would have been necessary to examine the parties' definitions and to see which one is correct. But the meaning of the word “God” did not matter at the time of the medieval Crusades, because religion was used as an excuse for wars of looting and conquest of lands.

But those waging the present “War on Terror” assure us that the purpose of “War on Terror” is not looting and conquests, but the defence of the Civilized World against “terrorism”. And, if their assurances are true, then we need to understand what the word “terrorism” means. Because, without clear understanding of “terrorism”, “War on Terror” will fail to achieve its stated purpose, and will come to be seen by the future generations as an orgy of destruction, cruelty and slaughter, motivated by vanity, ignorance, prejudice and greed, as the Crusades of the past.

What is Terrorism?   -----   to top


Terrorism is destruction of people or property by people not acting on behalf of an established government for the purpose of redressing a real or imaginary injustice attributed to an established government and aimed directly or indirectly at an established government.

Not all cases of destruction of people or property are terrorism. The important definitive characteristics of terrorism are:

  1. the act of destruction is performed by a person or group of persons not acting on behalf of an established government ,

  2. the act of destruction is performed to redress a real or imaginary injustice, and

  3. the act is aimed directly or indirectly at an established government, who is seen as the cause of the injustice.

Without these characteristics an act of destruction of people or property is not terrorism. It is either an accident, or an act of war, or a matter of internal policy, or an ordinary common law crime (murder, arson, etc).

Legality and Illegality of Terrorism   -----   to top

Most official definitions of terrorism also contain the word “unlawful” or “criminal” as part of the definition. This is because the purpose of such definitions is to make the activity defined as “terrorism” a crime in the country where it is being defined. Lawfulness or criminality, however, are not part of the activity itself, but depend on whether such activity is considered lawful or unlawful in a particular country.

Morality and Immorality of Terrorism   -----   to top

An act of terrorism. in itself, is neither moral, nor immoral — no act in itself ever is. Morality of an act is determined by the intentions of its perpetrators and by the circumstances under which it takes place. ‘Killing’ is a morally neutral act, it is the intention of the killer and the circumstances under which the act takes place, that make it a crime of ‘murder’ subject to a heavy punishment, an ‘unfortunate accident’, or an ‘act of valour’ rewarded by a medal.

Terrorism, Wars and Matters of Internal Policy   -----   to top

In the course of wars or matters of internal policy involving destruction of people and property there are inevitable innocent victims. But established governments, while regretting this fact, justify it on the grounds of military or political necessity. These justifications are asserted by the governments themselves, and, up to now, there were no independent, impartial and objective super‐national courts, where such justifications could be put to test of factual validity, logical consistency, and conformity to the fundamental principle of justice — equality under the law.

As the only difference between terrorism and war is the fact of the perpetrator being or not being an established government, it is possible for terrorists to become established governments.

From Terrorism to Government   -----   to top

If the terrorists' objective is to establish a national state or to expel a foreign (colonial or similar) power occupying their country, and they succeed, they become not terrorists, but an established government.

The last century saw numerous examples of this phenomenon. Terrorists of the former British colonies became members of established governments of independent countries of Africa and Asia.

Indeed there are few established governments in the world today, which at some time in history were not established by acts of destruction of people and property aimed at the then established governments. The American Civil War, the French Revolution, the Communist Revolution in Russia, the Chinese Revolution all began as acts of violence and destruction of people and property on a massive scale (including innocent victims) with the objective of overthrowing the then established governments.

Why Terrorists Kill Innocent People?   -----   to top

While established governments see terrorist activity as terrorism, terrorists themselves see it as war — war against an enemy, an oppressor, war for freedom, justice, etc. Indeed, they see themselves as rightful governments fighting for their lawful rights. And, as established governments, they pursue their wars by destroying people and property.

The means of destruction in the hands of terrorists are, however, much less powerful and versatile than those in the hands of established governments. And this dictates the targets, which terrorists choose to hit.

Terrorists bomb offices and shopping centers, not because they want to kill innocent people, but because they want to hit enemy targets. The fact that shops and offices contain people who have nothing to do with whatever cause the terrorists might be fighting is overshadowed by the triumph of inflicting damage upon the enemy. This triumph is not different from the triumph of the British and American people, when they heard that the Allied Forces started bombing Berlin at the end of the Second World War — they did not think at the time of the deaths of innocent German women and children dying in burning ruins — they thought of the victory over the enemy.

The Authority of Terrorist Leaders   -----   to top

There are, however, substantial differences between wars waged by established governments and wars waged by terrorists. Established governments have substantial control over the territory and people they administer. They can start a war, they can stop a war. Terrorist wars are not started by terrorist leaders, nor can they be stopped by terrorist leaders. Terrorist wars are not the result of decisions by leaders, they are the result of feeling by groups of people, united by national, religious or similar ties, of injustice (real or imaginary), which generate hatred towards the oppressors and desire to liberate themselves from the oppressors or to redress the injustice.

Sooner or later the more determined and capable members of such groups join together to fight for the common cause, and natural leaders emerge to lead the fight. These leaders have control over their followers only as long as they continue the fight. They can only stop after the feeling of injustice motivating the fight disappears. If they try to stop the fight without having achieved the results, they lose their authority as leaders and are replaced by others prepared to fight on. Terrorism disappears by itself, once its causes (the injustice) are removed.

Can Terrorists Ever Win?   -----   to top

Since terrorists fight an “enemy” whose material power is incomparably superior to their own, one can ask the question: “Can terrorists ever win?”. Can blowing up a building or killing a few thousand people ever defeat the might of an empire or a “super‐power”?

If “victory” is understood in a military sense of “winning a battle”, then the answer is: “Terrorists can never win!”. But terrorists do not fight to “win a battle”, they “fight for a cause”, and their role in that fight is to start a process, which will lead to what they see as “victory”. Most revolutions and wars of liberation (independence) were preceded by some terrorist acts, which were met with violent repressions, then followed mass protests, uprisings, wars of independence, or civil wars. And it is the whole sequence of events lasting decades and involving many different people acting in many different ways that leads to the victory of the terrorist's cause. The “non‐violent victory” of Mahatma Gandhi in 1947 was preceded by the “terrorism” of Shaheed Bhagat Singh (hanged in 1931).

Failures to Stop Terrorism   -----   to top

Whenever an established government is confronted with terrorism they try to stop it (1) by imprisoning or killing terrorist leaders, (2) by bribing or appeasing terrorist leaders, or in extreme cases (3) by killing every male belonging to the group on behalf of which the terrorists operate (genocide).

It has been proved by the history of mankind, and it logically follows from the nature of terrorism, that it is impossible to stop terrorism by killing or imprisoning terrorist leaders. As long as the cause of terrorism (the feeling of injustice) remains, new terrorist leaders appear and replace those killed or imprisoned. The very fact of killing or imprisoning terrorist leaders increases the feeling of injustice and hatred that feeds terrorism and arouses desire for revenge. The killed terrorist leaders become symbols, martyrs, saints and role models for their followers. Occasional terrorist incidents become regular and increasingly frequent part of daily life, until they reach the proportions of a full scale civil war.

It has been proved by the history of mankind, and it logically follows from the nature of terrorism, that it is impossible to stop terrorism by bribing or appeasing terrorist leaders. As long as the cause of terrorism (the feeling of injustice) remains, the bribed or appeased leaders will lose the support of their followers and will be replaced by new leaders. The very fact of bribery or appeasement increases the feeling of disdain towards the established government and the resolve to continue the struggle.

Theoretically genocide appears to be an effective way to eradicate terrorism: kill every terrorist and all the people on whose behalf terrorists fight their war, and terrorism will disappear. In practice such solution could be extremely difficult or even impossible to implement.

How to Stop Terrorism   -----   to top

The only practically workable way to eradicate terrorism is to remove its cause — the (justified or unjustified) feeling of injustice.

If the feeling of injustice is unjustified it can be removed by exposing the myth.

If the feeling of injustice is justified then the only way to remove it is to redress that injustice by restitution or, if restitution is impossible, compensation. If the injustice consists in occupation of territory, then the feeling of injustice is removed by cessation of the occupation.

How to Prevent Terrorism   -----   to top

Because the cause of terrorism are (justified or unjustified) feelings of injustice,terrorism can be prevented and made redundant by providing an effective system of redressing injustice by peaceful means.

This can be achieved by establishment of a supranational court of law, which will have authority to compel governments to redress injustice, or damage caused by them in the same way as national courts of law compel private individuals to redress injustice caused by them.

Notes:   -----   to top

1) At the time of the Crusades both the Christians and the Muslims fought each other in the name of God.

The Christian God was an old man with a white beard sitting on top of a cloud in the company of his wife, the Blessed Virgin Mary, his son, baby Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, a man with wings. At the same time their God was all the three (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit) united in a single Holy Trinity. Such pictures of the Holy Trinity can still be seen on the walls and ceilings of Christian churches. And sometimes they called Jesus himself “God”, as in “Jesus is God …3”.

By contrast the Qur'an defines “God”, as whatever created the Universe. God has no image and no shape. God is present everywhere at the same time and at all times. And certainly God is not a man or a human‐shaped being. Jesus is also mentioned in the Qur'an, but he is neither God, nor the Son of God, he is a man and a prophet, that is, a person having the rare ability to lead people towards honest life by preaching to them the truth revealed to him by God. Contrary to a wide‐spread among Christians belief, Muhammad is neither God, nor a Son of God. He is just another prophet, in the same way as Moses, Jesus and all the other prophets of the Bible,an ordinary man with a gift to lead the people towards honest life by preaching to them the truth revealed to him by God.

It is clear, that while both the parties were fighting in the name of God, they meant bythis word different things.

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2) A web search engine search for the phrase “definition of terrorism” made at the time of writing this article revealed about 15,200 results.

This does not mean that there are 15,200 definitions of the word “terrorism”, but there are quite a few around.

I looked at some of them, and found they can be divided into two main groups: those aiming to provide a practical legal definition for the purpose of law enforcement or justification of a military action by a government, and those having purpose to condemn some actions as “terrorism” and justify other similar actions as something else, e.g. “liberation struggle”. In such cases the classification usually depends on the side from which the action is viewed: “we” are always “non‐terrorists” and “good”, “they” are always “terrorists” and “bad”.

While these approaches to the definition of terrorism might be suitable for their intended purpose, they are not suitable for the purpose of understanding the phenomenon. So we had to provide our own definition.

The test of correctness of a definition is that it is sufficiently general to include all the relevant cases, and sufficiently specific to exclude everything which is not the object defined.

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3) General Hymn 170, The Book of Common Prayer (Church of England).

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