Terrorism does not have a universally accepted definition. As such, it has become a lithe and easily manipulated term in the western political lexicon. The definition of terrorism should be the logical starting point for combating it, however, the term’s amorphous nature instead causes confusion, creates obstacles and duplicates efforts.
In the United States, terrorism has different definitions depending on where one looks or who one asks. The Code of Federal Regulations defines terrorism as “…the unlawful use of force and 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.” (28 C.F.R 0.85).
The FBI defines terrorism a little differently, as “activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.” [18 U.S.C. § 2331(5)]]. This definition is further divided into terrorist incidents and terrorist prevention. (“Terrorism,” www.fbi.gov).
The Department of Defense says that terrorism is “[t]he calculated use of unlawful 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 its 2002 publication Patterns of Global Terrorism, the U.S. Department of State offers yet another definition. “The term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. ” It is of note that this definition technically comes from Title 22, Section 2656f(d) of the United States Code.
While these definitions are all different they do seem to contain three common elements: methods, motives and identity. (Burgess, 2003). In terms of Homeland Security, it is certainly important to have as close to a clear-cut definition as possible. Absent an operationally-useful definition, lines become blurred between what constitutes offensive, counter-terrorism measures and what falls under the umbrella of defending homeland security.
Because this word is much bandied-about, it becomes easy to see why it causes confusion. Further complicating matters is the fact that terrorism is dualistic; that is to say that it carries both political and social connotations. Within the United States own set of statutes and regulations, the term carries more than one definition. Other nations have their own definitions. If there is to be an effective, multi-national effort to mitigate or eradicate terrorism, an international definition of terrorism might be a logical place to start.
It has been noted that an acceptable definition of terrorism has yet to be agreed upon, yet is not unattainable. (Ganor). Certainly, there is no shortage of proposed definitions. According to Ganor, a possible definition would be “a form of violent struggle in which violence is deliberately used against civilians in order to achieve political goals (nationalistic, socioeconomic, ideological, religious, etc.).” (Ganor, 2005, 17). Whether his definition is the solution or not, one thing is clear; that in order to be effective in a global initiative to thwart terror, the international community needs to start by agreeing on how it is to be defined.
Burgess, Mark. (August, 2003). Terrorism: The Problems of Definition. Center for Defense Information. http://www.cdi.org/friendlyversion/printversion.cfm?documentID=1564.
Ganor, Boaz. (2005). The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers,), p. 17.
Ganor, Boaz. “Is One Man’s Terrorist Another Man’s Freedom Fighter?” International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.
Morgan, Matthew. (Spring, 2004). “The Origins of the New Terrorism.” Parameters, pp. 29-43.
Patterns of Global Terrorism (2002). Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism. US Department of State Publication 11038 ( Washington , DC : State Department, April 2003), p. 13. Online at: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/20177.pdf
“Terrorism.” U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved from http://www.fbi.gov/publications/terror/terror2000_2001.htm.
United States Department of Defense, Office of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 1-02: Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms ( Washington , DC : United States Department of Defense, 12 April 2001 – As amended through 5 June 2003 ), p. 531. Online at: http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/new_pubs/jp1_02.pdf.