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Over the last two decades, the concept of ‘terrorism’ has been a predominant feature of news bulletins and political debates worldwide. Indeed, since U.S. President George W. Bush declared the “War on Terror” in 2001, the main focus of governments and security services worldwide has been combating the threat posed by “international terrorism”. However, for all the political willpower to address the issue, there remains a glaring lack of consensus as to what the concept of “terrorism” actually means.


Since the advent of the Second World War, the international community has made efforts to characterize and label aspects and elements of modern warfare so as to permit/allow strategists and legislators worldwide to address specific phenomena of human conflict. This categorization has produced a variety of terms and relevant legislation, including the offences prosecutable by the International Criminal Court, such as War Crimes, Crimes Against Humanity, Genocide (and arguably Aggression*), or the regulations for the treatment of Prisoners-Of-War and civilian detainees under the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

Yet despite the existence of unilateral agreements and definitions for these concepts, the past two decades have been shaped by a U.S. foreign policy initiative targeting the global threat posed by “terrorism”, whilst the various institutions which form the American security apparatus (FBI, CIA, NSA, Homeland Security…) each have their own specific definition of “terrorism”. This lack of consensus within a single national security apparatus and the challenges this brings reflects the wider issue of ‘undefined terrorism’ and how this has had a global impact on counter-terrorism strategies.


There is an on-going debate in the academic community as to whether it is necessary that we define the concept of terrorism within strict terms.

• The argument in support of a universal definition, first echoed by Kurt Waldheim after the attacks at the Munich Olympics in 1972, highlights the difficulty in formulating an effective response to any threat which has no strict legal definition. Others such as Cooper (1978) argue that the lack of a ‘universal’ definition of terrorism is dangerous as it allows state governments and security services to modify/create/portray a select political narrative that works in their favour (the ‘useful insult’ argument).

• The counter-argument is that the continued debate as to how ‘terrorism’ should be defined is itself detracting from wider efforts to combat terrorist entities. This was echoed by Walter Laqueur (2004), who argued that “the search for a scientific, all-comprehensive definition is a futile enterprise”, and Edward Said (2004), who noted that “the use of the word terrorism is usually unfocused ... it’s highly selective ... I think it is best to drop it”.

At GLOSPi, our goal is to provide novel insights and constructive commentary on defence and security concerns, therefore, it is imperative that we define the context in which we believe we are discussing “Terrorism”. The definition which most accurately depicts the practice of “Terrorism” as we see it was presented by Anthony Richards in “Conceptualizing Terrorism” (2014). Richards argues that:

Terrorism is the use of violence or the threat of violence with the primary purpose of generating a psychological impact beyond the immediate victims or object of attack for a political motive”.

We believe this definition is the most accurate to date as it encompasses all activity by both independent and state actors which possesses the two key dimensions:

⁃ Political motive: In order to differentiate acts of terrorism from other forms of conflict and violent activity, the motivation for committing the act must be construed as a derivation from a wider socio-political ideology or movement.

⁃ Multiple degrees of impact: Richards argues that the defining element of ‘terrorism’ is “the intent to generate a wider psychological impact beyond the immediate victims”. (A.R. 2014)

This definition is both comprehensive and flexible enough to allow an objective characterization of political activity as ‘terrorist’ activity. As a means of providing some context, we invite you to consider some other existing definitions of terrorism:


• International Terrorism is perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations.

• Domestic Terrorism is perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.


• The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against individuals or property in an attempt to coerce or intimidate governments or societies to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives (Per AAP-06 NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions, 2014 Ed.)


Per the Terrorism Act 2000:

• In this Act "terrorism" means the use or threat of action where: (a) the action falls within subsection (2), (b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government (including international government organisations) or to intimidate the public or a section of the public and (c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

• Action falls within this subsection if it:

(a) involves serious violence against a person,

(b) involves serious damage to property,

(c) endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action,

(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public or

(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.