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Defining Terrorism


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Defining terrorism is a very difficult task to do. It is so difficult to define that even the U.S. government cannot agree on one single definition “No one definition of terrorism has gained universal acceptance “(State Department, 2000). According to the National Institute of Justice “The search of a universal, precise definition of terrorism has been challenging for researches and practitioners alike” (GOV, 2013). Richard Betts, Director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University states “There has never been any consensus definition of terrorism” (Libaw, 2012). Brian Jenkins states that “the problem with defining terrorism is compounded by the fact that terrorism has recently become a fad word used promiscuously and often applied to a variety of acts of violence which are not strictly terrorism by definition” (Jenkins, 1980, p. 1).
Bruce Hoffman, in his Inside Terrorism, states: “We may define terrorism as the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change. It is meant to instill fear within, and thereby intimidate, a wider ‘target audience.” (Hoffman, 2006). Several U.S. governmental agencies use different definitions of terrorism for example the U.S. Department of Defense (1990) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of, or threatened use, of force or violence against individuals or property to coerce and intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious, or ideological goals” (U.S. Department of Defense, 1990). The State Departments definition holds that only sub national groups not states can commit acts of terrorism.
The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives” (Hoffman, 2006, p. 31). The FBI’s definition has the following 3 elements. First terrorist activities are illegal and involve the use of force, second the actions intend to intimidate or coerce and third the actions are committed in support of political or social objectives.
According to Wayne McCormack and Jeffrey Breinholt in their article “Defining Terrorism: Perfection as Enemy of the Possible” they state several agencies are competing in order to look for the perfect definition of terrorism and each one is seeking the perfect definition on which they could compromise (McCormack & Breinholt, 2007). McCormack and Breiholt also state that the conceptual problem of defining terrorism and the difficulty in getting a single definition is:
“Driven in part by the goal, which is to label some action beyond the pale of what is permitted to civilization. We sometimes say, infelicitously, that the definition depends on the purpose for which we are using the word. Where the label conclusively defines the prohibition, battles over the definition are bound to be pitched” (McCormack & Breinholt, 2007).
Several politicians, scholars, security experts and journalist use different types of definitions and those definitions focus on the terrorist group’s mode or operation and others emphasize on the motivations and characteristics of individual terrorist groups (Ganor, 2002). Not having a set definition of terrorism, “it is impossible to formulate or enforce international agreements against terrorism” (Ganor, 2002). According to Ganor 2002, there seven major problems in attempting to define terrorism: 1. The boundary between terrorism and other forms of political violence 2. Whether government terrorism and resistance terrorism are part of the same phenomenon 3. Separating terrorism from simple criminal acts from open war between consenting groups and from acts that clearly arise out of mental illness. 4. Is terrorism a subcategory of coercion, violence, power or influence. 5. Can terrorism be legitimate 6. The relationship between guerrilla warfare and terrorism 7. The relationship between crime and terrorism
I personally believe that the best definition is the State Department’s definition because it defines terrorism as a premeditated, politically motivated catalyst for attacks on noncombatant targets by sub national groups or clandestine agents” I think this definition is short but to the point. I would make some changes by adding to the definition causing intimidation and fear to civilians in order to influence political change or religious, political or ideological beliefs.

Works Cited
Ganor, B. (2002, January 1). Defining Terrorism - Is One Man’s Terrorist Another Man’s Freedom Fighter? Police Practice and Research, 3(4).
GOV, U. (2013, January 09). Office of Justice Programs . Retrieved from National Institute of Justice :
Hoffman, B. (2006). Inside Terrorism .
Jenkins, B. M. (1980, November ). The Study of Terrorism: Definitional Problems. The Rand Corporation, 1.
Jenkis, B. M. (1980). The Study of Terrorism: Definitional Problems . The Rand Corporation .
Libaw, O. (2012, October 11). How do you Define Terrorism. abc News. Retrieved January 09, 2013, from
McCormack, W., & Breinholt, J. (2007, January 17). Defining Terrorism: Perfection as Enemy of the Possible. International Assessmment and Strategy Center, 1.

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