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Information, Discussion Topics, and Activities that help answer the question “What Is Terrorism?”


Social Studies  


9, 10, 11, 12  

Title – What is Terrorism?
By – Andrew Costly
Primary Subject – Social Studies
Secondary Subjects –
Grade Level – 9-12
America Responds to Terrorism
by Constitutional Rights Foundation ( )
What is Terrorism?

Since the terrible events of September 11, 2001, with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the subject of terrorism has exploded on the world stage. President George W. Bush has declared a war against terrorism. The vast resources of the United States and other countries have been directed toward ending terrorism in America and around the world. Yet, in spite of these developments, it is clear that countries are not only divided about what to do about terrorism, but even about how to define it.

By its nature, the term “terrorism” is bound up in political controversy. It is a concept with a very negative connotation. Because terrorism implies the killing and maiming of innocent people, no country wants to be accused of supporting terrorism or harboring terrorist groups. At the same time, no country wants what it considers to be a legitimate use of force to be considered terrorism. An old saying goes, “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.”

Today, there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. Countries define the term according to their own beliefs and to support their own national interests. International bodies, when they craft a definition, do so in the interests of their member states. Academics striving to define terrorism are also subject to their own political points of view.

European countries and the United States tend to define terrorism narrowly, making sure that it only applies to acts of non-governmental organizations. For example, Title 22 of the U.S. Code defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence” against “noncombatant targets by subnational groups” usually with the goal to influence an audience.

The U.S. Department of Defense uses a definition that highlights another element of the Western concept of terrorism. Terrorism is “the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” In other words, terrorism is violence designed to advance some cause by getting a government to change its policies or political behavior.

Contrast these definitions with one produced by Iranian religious scholar, Ayatulla Taskhiri in a paper delivered at a 1987 international terrorism conference called by the Organization of the Islamic Conference. After a review of Islamic sources concerning terrorism, Taskhiri defined it as follows: “Terrorism is an act carried out to achieve an inhuman and corrupt objective and involving threat to security of any kind, and in violation of the rights acknowledged by religion and mankind.”

This is a much broader definition of terrorism. Under this definition, nation states themselves could be guilty of terrorism. Any inhuman or corrupt objective coupled with an act that threatens security and rights regardless of the motivation could be considered terrorism. Later in his paper, Taskhiri accuses the United States of being the “mother of international terrorism” by oppressing peoples, strengthening dictatorships, and supporting the occupation of territories and savage attacks on civilian areas.

The United States would likely reject this definition and Taskhiri’s charges and could point out that many states under this definition would also be chargeable with terrorism. Nevertheless, the definition points out the wide gulf in perceptions about what is terrorism and who is guilty of it.

Consider some additional definitions of terrorism.

“All criminal acts directed against a State intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or persons in the general public.” (League of Nations, 1937)

“Act of terrorism = Peacetime Equivalent of War Crime.” (Alex P. Schmid of United Nations Office for the Prevention of International Terrorism. He is the author of many books on terrorism, including Terrorism and the Media, 1992.)

“Terrorism is the premeditated, deliberate, systematic murder, mayhem, and threatening of the innocent to create fear and intimidation in order to gain a political or tactical advantage, usually to influence an audience.” (James M. Poland, professor of criminal justice at California State University, Sacramento. He has written extensively on terrorism and hostage crisis intervention.)
While there is no universal definition of terrorism, various experts point out that there are common elements to most terrorist acts.

Acts of terrorism usually are committed by groups who do not possess the political power to change policies they view as intolerable. Middle Eastern terrorism intensified in the 1970s in response to defeats of Arab nations in wars with Israel over the Palestine issue. Convinced that further wars were futile, a number of countries, including Egypt, sought peace with Israel. This enraged groups within those countries dedicated to the defeat of Israel, who then turned to terrorism.

Terrorists choose targets and actions to maximize the psychological effect on a society or government. Their goal is to create a situation in which a government will change its policies to avoid further bloodshed or disruption. For these reasons, terrorists often choose methods of mass destruction, such as bombings, and target transportation or crowded places to increase anxiety and fear.

Terrorists plan their acts to get as much media exposure as possible. Media coverage magnifies the terrorist act by spreading fear among a mass audience and giving attention to the terrorist cause. The attacks on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics assured a worldwide television audience, as did crashing planes into the World Trade Center.

Terrorists often justify their acts on ideological or religious grounds arguing that they are responding to a greater wrong or are promoting a greater good. For example, Leon Trotsky, a communist leader during the Russian Revolution, justified the use of terror by the Red Army as a necessary evil to promote the worldwide cause of workers and as a response to the military actions of counterrevolutionaries and Western powers.

For Discussion

Why is it difficult to agree upon a universally accepted definition of terrorism?

What are the different definitions of terrorism contained in the article? Which definition do you favor? Why?

Why does Alex Schmid call a terrorist act the equivalent of a peacetime war crime? Do you agree? Why or why not?

Is it important to arrive at a universal definition of terrorism? Why or why not?

For Further Reading

The Terrorism Research Center, “The Basics of Terrorism: Part 1”

Ayatulla Shaykh Muhammad ‘Ali Taskhiri, “Towards a Definition of Terrorism”

United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, “Definitions of Terrorism”


Divide the class into small groups and do the following: Review the various definitions of terrorism contained in the article and choose the best one. Or, review the article and create your own definition of terrorism. Review the following situations, and determine which, if any, are examples of terrorism.

A radical environmental group burns a vacant hotel that was recently legally built in a wilderness area.

Country X, during a time of war, accidentally kills civilians while conducting bombing raids in Country Z.

Country X hires an organized crime group in Country Z to assassinate civilian leaders of a group opposing the international policies of Country X.

A national separatist group in Country X blows up a railroad station in Country Z to discourage that government from supporting policies of the government in Country X.

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