History / International Relations

A Decade Since 9/11: What Have We Learnt About Terrorism?

The root of the word terrorism originates from the Latin verb terrere, ‘to frighten’, and became part of the phrase terror cimbricus, which was used by ancient Romans in 105BC to describe the panic that ensued as they prepared for an attack by a fierce warrior tribe. Years later, in 1792, the Jacobins came to power in France marking the beginning of the Reign of Terror, led by Robespierre. Most recently, the attacks of 11 September 2001, have changed the perception of terrorism permanently, associating it widely with religious fanaticism. Here we see three different occurrences of ‘terrorism’ throughout history, and all are completely divergent and inconsistent. It is not only the recent acts of terrorism in New York, London and Madrid that have plunged the Western world into obsession over the concept, but a long and turbulent history has contributed to confusion and incompetence regarding a definition of the notion of terrorism. Although there are most likely infinite obstacles that prevent the world from agreeing on what terrorism is, I have chosen the three that appear here, as they encompass a large array of issues, all contribute to the idea that a ‘one size fits all approach’ is futile, and are the most problematic and rigid of obstacles concerning the definition of terrorism.

First and foremost, it is necessary to clarify the term ‘define’. Not to be confused with describe, summarise or elucidate, to define is to state the exact nature, scope, or meaning of something. The other terms are less specific, and it is for this reason that scholars, politicians and leading world figures are eager to define terrorism. Einstein is quoted as having once said he would spend ‘fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution’, when asked how he would go about saving the world in an hour. The act of defining is obviously a difficult one, but in a world where new words are incessantly being added to dictionaries, it cannot be the problem of defining that is the preventative factor. Andrew Silke comments on writers’ constant reference to the with the lack of an internationally-agreed definition from the UN, saying, ‘the constant retreat to such discussion is a reflection of the seriousness of the problem it represents’, elucidating that it must be the nature of terrorism which causes it to be undefinable, the idea of which shall be elaborated upon.


The Futility of Defining Terrorism

The fact that terrorism has been so difficult to define, does not mean that definitions do not exist. The US Department of Defence, State Department and FBI all have their own versions. However, the general consensus is that the universal definition of terrorism, as it stands, holds little practical use, outside of serving as a broad summary of the phenomenon’. George Fletcher argues, ‘The standard definitions of terrorism are all off the point’, and a common trait of these definitions is that they are either too narrow, too broad or too complex. This problem is evident in Schmid and Jongman’s famous review of terrorism, where they record 109 different definitions, many of which are far too complex to applied in research as a result of their attempt to increase definitional specificity.

Christopher Joyner encapsulates the difficulties of defining terrorism quite nicely in comparing it to a much more simple, yet also indefinable concept: ‘In a real sense, terrorism is like pornography: You know it when you see it, but it is impossible to come up with a universally agreed upon definition.’ Joyner’s point is based on the very nature of terrorism. As broad, fickle, varying and infrequent, the concept of terrorism might be so difficult to define, as it is simply only recognisable once it has occurred.

The Changing Meaning of Terrorism

One of the myths concerning terrorism is the belief that it is a new concept. Although one cannot prove how long it has been around, and some argue that it has existed for 200 years whereas others claim that it dates back as far as 1st century A.D. The murder of Julius Caesar and the question of whether tyrannicide was permissible preoccupied theologians and philosophers, writers and artists for the next two millennia. As a result of its long existence, the meaning and perception of terrorism are constantly changing. Terrorism has only recently reflected negative connotations, and there was a time when it was considered permissible, even an achievement. Majority of opinion was that terrorism was permissible in certain conditions, e.g. to overthrow a tyrant, who left his victims no other way out of oppression. Walter Laqueur maintains that contemporary terrorism differs in some respects from the terrorism witnessed before and during the 19th century. Traditional terrorism had a “code of honour” meaning that it targeted prominent leaders but refrained from killing the wife and children of the target, but today, indiscriminate terrorism has become the rule. Boris Savinkov (head of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries pre-WWI) had no hesitation in giving his autobiography the title: Memoirs of a Terrorist. Another example is that, during the Reign of Terror in France, Robespierre referred to terror as ‘an emanation of virtue’ and claimed that it ‘is nothing but justice, prompt, severe and inflexible’ but the term soon gained negative connotations after the decline of Jacobin power. Conversely,terrorists today cloak themselves in the language and imagery of liberation, military structure, self-defence, or righteous vengeance and prefer to be called freedom fighters, guerrillas, militants, insurgents, rebels, revolutionaries – anything but a terrorist.

It is terrorism’s turbulent history that makes it so hard to define this phenomenon. If people’s opinion regarding terrorism is constantly changing, it is hard to allocate a fixed definition. Part of the problem also is that terrorism has been misunderstood as a concept. The study of terrorism began in the 1970s, but was (mis)perceived as a monopoly of extreme left-wing groups. E.g. Italian Red Brigades or the German Red Army. However, in the 1980s terrorism emerged as predominantly from the extreme right. The most deadly terrorist act before 9/11 was the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, which was carried out by right-wing extremist sectarians. And now, terrorism is (incorrectly) associated with religious extremism, the two becoming virtually synoymous, something which should be avoided because terrorism preceded militant Islamism by a very long time.

Different Perspectives mean Different Definitions

The bold statement, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ epitomises the idea that perspective plays a large role in defining terrorism. Perspective has changed over the years concerning terrorism, but at any moment in time there are always going to be conflicting opinions on the subject. David Whittaker notes, ‘terrorism has a different meaning for those in authority who are responsible for peace, order and security, for those onlookers who are television viewers, radio listeners ad readers, for those who are victims or their relatives, and for the terrorists themselves’. To the Western world, terrorism denotes negative connotations, particularly after the events of 9/11, but as its very own existence indicates, terrorism is not universally castigated. Victims of terrorism of their relatives are going to be particularly against terrorism, onlookers may not get the full story or understand the concept at all, governments are usually against terrorism especially if it poses a threat to their state security, (although David Miliband was once criticised for his soft approach concerning terrorism: ‘Yes, there are circumstances in which it is justifiable, and yes, there are circumstances in which it is effective’), and terrorists are obviously under the impression that what they do is not wrong. The very reason terrorism exists is because the individuals responsible for undertaking terrorist attacks believe that they are morally justified, and are fighting for a good cause. Although terrorist acts have been widely viewed as immoral, terrorists themselves have a sense of being deeply moral, and actually operate under moral constraints. Just as war has been justified through the doctrine of Just War, terrorists justify their acts of violence. As has been mentioned previously, traditional terrorism has a “code of honour”, and one could even argue that it still does, but whether this code is shared universally is highly unlikely.

Not One, but Many Terrorisms

The words ‘there is not one, but many terrorisms’ in Laqueur’s work, The New Terrorism, highlight the fact that there cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to terrorism, and is probably why Schmid and Jongman’s definition of the concept was so extensive. A study by Transnational Terrorism, Security, and the Rule of Law (TTSRL) indicates that ‘The question of whether the plural character of terrorist violence…deprives the concept of any common denominator and thus effectively prevents a definition from being formulated is indeed a relevant one.’ Tore Bjørgo agrees on the relevance of this question, maintaining that the many failed attempts to find one common definition of terrorism have been frustrated by the fact that the label ‘terrorism’ is used to cover a wide range of rather different phenomena. Schmid and Jongman highlight 10 different typologies of terrorism: actor-based, victim-based, cause-based, environment-based, means-based, political-orientation-based, motivation-based, demand-based, purpose-based and target-based. Some might even say that there is even religion-based terrorism, especially after the attacks of 11 September 2001. Quite differently, David Brown separates the typologies of terrorism into nationalist/separatist, left and right wing, and religious. Not only are the typologies of terrorism diverse, but everyone has conflicting ideas concerning what the different varieties of terrorism are.

The large scope of terrorism has not been disregarded by those attempting to define the greater concept, but has had an effect on the quality and precision of the definition. Those definitions too broad have attempted to encompass all categories of terrorism, whereas those too narrow have ignored advice such as that of Adam Roberts, who explains that ‘Any attempt at definition has to avoid being excessively influenced by one particular manifestation of terrorism.’. It is clearly evident that the complexity of terrorism is what makes it so hard to define. With no general consensus on what different types of terrorism there are, it is going to prove impossible to churn out an all-encompassing universally-agreed upon and legal definition.


It seems very unlikely that a definition for the concept of terrorism as a whole will be reached. The closest the world will ever get to a definition is definitions of the varieties of terrorism, very broad summaries that describe terrorism more than they define it, or a list of detrminants that establish what can be named terrorism, and what cannot. As long as terrorists exist and continue to act out, there will be no definition, as terrorism is constantly changing through the course of history. The number of varieties of terrorism will increase, broad summaries will expand and the list of determinants will get ever longer. The future of a definition appears very doubtful because the obstacles aforementioned are rigid, and unbeatable.


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