Terrorism Redefined

Courtesy of Small Wars Journal, Published Sat, 07/09/2022 – 12:08pm

By Kevin Chapla

Walter Laqueur declared an objective definition of terrorism to be impossible. The concept had appeared too often, in too many forms, within too great a variety of contexts that attempting a definition would be futile. Laqueur, resigned to defeat in his pursuit of a reasonable definition, concluded that we will know it when we see it.[1] Despite the ubiquity and prevalence of terrorism in the international security environment, a commonly accepted definition has proven elusive.

If history is any indication, terrorism will remain a feature of the future security environment for years to come. Properly defining this real and prominent threat to security in the future is vital to developing solutions and effectively mitigating its effects. Boaz Ganor makes a simple, yet compelling case, asserting that without an objective definition, “no coordinated fight against international terrorism can ever really get anywhere.”[2] However, not just any definition will suffice. An overly ambiguous definition might empower a state security apparatus to abuse the moral leeway granted by such a definition and highjack a movement in pursuit of broader efforts to gain power against rival state or nonstate actors. At the other extreme, an excessively narrow definition could prove useless if an actor can never realistically apply it to a practical situation. This paper will attempt to strike the right balance of practicality and precision by proposing a definition of terrorism as a specific tactic of violence used across the spectrum of human conflict.

The Nature of Terrorism

Terrorism as a method of employing organized violence enables extraordinary adaptability and flexibility. This level of adaptability is omnipresent across scores of historical and political contexts within which armed groups have embraced terrorism to achieve political effects. From the Russian Narodnaya Volya to the Provisional Irish Republican Army, armed political groups using terrorism as their showcase tactic of violence unceasingly adapted their tactics and shifted their narratives in response to governmental inputs and sociopolitical circumstances. Categorizing groups or tactics as terrorist in nature can have profound effects on mobilizing resources from a counterterrorism standpoint, and as such, many armed groups have adapted to reframe their behavior as positive to avoid this adverse connotation among their constituencies. Groups using terrorism as a defining feature may redesign their narrative and messaging strategies to describe their struggles as freedom fighting or wars of liberation. To accommodate this variation in perception, Laqueur notes that, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”[3]

As a result, terrorism has evolved over time, and thus its meaning has changed dramatically. From its origins in the French Revolution as a tool of state repression, the term terrorism has been transformed with changing political contexts. Understanding the term’s evolution within the framework of David C. Rapoport’s four waves, terrorism’s definition changed with the onset of a corresponding new wave.[4] From a tool of leftist revolutionary movements to grievous attacks on innocent lives as a religious imperative, the scope of what constitutes a terrorist act has only expanded since its emergence during the French Revolution.[5]

A Proposed Definition of Terrorism

To strike the right balance of scope, utility, and simplicity, Allison Jaggar identifies conservatism, consistency, precision, and impartiality as vital characteristics of a good definition.[6] However, even if a definition possesses the traits of a good definition according to Jaggar, a useful definition must have utility when applied in practical circumstances. The definition proposed here combines the components of fear and coercion in Bruce Hoffman’s definition with Jaggar’s that remains agnostic of the type of actor carrying out the violence.[7] The proposed definition, in addition to retaining the features described above, will in simple terms answer the “5W” questions that make it useful in the practice of security: who, what, when, where, and why. Addressing the purpose, targets, manner of the methods, agents perpetrating, and the use of fear and psychological impact is essential to arriving at a definition.

Terrorism is the use of extreme violence or threat of violence with the deliberate intent of obtaining power and influence over a target group of people in ways that serve political ends. Terrorism may be conducted by any type of group, whether a state or nonstate entity, across the continuum of human conflict. The physical target of terrorism’s violence is innocent people, but the fear, intimidation, and psychological effects are normally directed towards a third party to influence or force a specific type of behavior favorable to the perpetrator of the violence.

Defining Terrorism by Distinction

This proposed definition owes to Jaggar the distinction of terrorism as a tactic employed as opposed to a specific type of conflict.[8] This important, yet subtle distinction requires a brief assessment of our definition within the context of various conflict types that may include terrorist acts. Because the proposed definition does not preclude state actors from carrying out terrorism, it is important to note that across the conflict continuum, any actor throughout any type of conflict can carry out a terrorist attack. The decision to use terrorism as a tactic to achieve political goals in any conflict ranging from guerilla warfare to low intensity conflict to an insurgency will permanently change the character of that conflict. The definition advocated for here argues that terrorism is simply a potential (albeit extreme) tactical feature of modern human conflict.

Perception of a conflict drives whether the use of lethal and violent force is deemed legitimate. Limiting terrorism’s definition to a description of a specific type of violence ensures we can accurately identify it across all types of conflicts – whether the conflict in question is open warfare between recognized states, insurgency, or low intensity conflict does not matter. The tactics-based definition of terrorism proposed here divorces terrorism from the ambiguities of legitimacy, enabling an honest assessment of whether tactics being used in any conflict are terrorist tactics – irrespective of whether the perpetrator is a state or a nonstate actor. A group executing such methods of violence as assassination, suicide bombing, or hostage taking is not necessarily meeting the definition for terrorism written here. The threshold of terrorism is reached when such acts include deliberate targeting of civilians and are designed to use intimidation and fear in pursuit of political objectives.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The decision to not limit the definition to nonstate actors has enormous practical implications. According to the definition stated here, violence carried out by a recognized state actor that deliberately targets and kills civilians and innocent people could indeed be categorized as both a terrorist act and a war crime. For a hypothetical example, if Bashar al-Assad’s forces employ indirect fires against rebel combatants who are using a functioning hospital as cover and concealment, civilian deaths and destruction resulting from Syrian government forces’ actions could be labeled war crimes but not terrorism only if the innocent civilian deaths were a result of operational neglect or failure to properly protect noncombatants. In contrast, a variation of that same situation could be categorized as both a war crime and terrorism if 1) the targeting of civilians was deliberate and 2) this deliberate targeting of civilians was in direct service to inciting fear or psychological effects on the rebels and their constituent support. This view of terrorism is unquestionably divergent from the prevailing internationally recognized understanding of terrorism. The importance of the distinction made here is that understanding terrorism as a tactic and feature of human conflict acknowledges that state actors can also be perpetrators of terrorism. This accommodation in the definition ensures that states and governments can be held accountable for carrying out acts of terrorism that might otherwise be categorized as war crimes. A war crime generally requires the declaration of a state of conflict and carries with it a sense of legitimacy and morality that do not exist within the idea of terrorism.

This definition does little to address the moral aspect of terrorism. Human conflict is more complex than a cycle of violent acts and pragmatic reactions, and this definition does not shed any light or provide any insight into how practitioners and policymakers should consider these uniquely human dimensions into their decision-making process. Morality and adherence to a set of values are often leveraged by state actors to justify the use of lethal force in support of security objectives, and a refined version of the definition proposed here might include aspects that account for morality in defining what is and what is not terrorism.

Another weakness of this definition is the inability to objectively determine whether fear or psychological effects are intended – determining the intent of any type of attack during human conflict is immensely difficult. Although this definition was deliberately designed to avoid confronting perception and morality, it is unreasonable to carry out a truly objective examination of a terrorist attack’s purpose and whether there were psychological or fear-based effects intended. Perceptions and biases based on group history, behavior, race, and culture will always pervade an individual’s assessment.  We are human, after all. 

Policy Implications of a Definition of Terrorism

The policy implications of a good definition cannot be overstated. For example, the Department of State’s 2002 definition, while a valiant effort during an emotionally charged time, was too broad and left the door open to classify far too many things as terrorist attacks or terrorist threats because of the immense scope of who could be considered a “noncombatant.”[9] A more specific and restrained definition of noncombatant in the case of the Department of State would have restricted U.S. counterterrorism strategy in the early years after September 11th into a more coherent, less ambitious, and more feasible plan. Across the U.S. government, research suggests there are more than twenty different definitions of terrorism, each specifically tailored to an agency’s mission.[10] These disparities and ambiguities made it very difficult to develop a comprehensible, whole of government counterterrorism strategy. With relation to the definition proposed here, its utility from a counterterrorism standpoint depends entirely on the definition of “innocent people.” This is the critical feature of the definition and relies on the counterterrorism entity to impose its values and perceptions onto a given conflict to determine who is innocent and who is not.


Words have meaning, definitions are important, and “where you stand depends on where you sit.”[11] Definitions reflect a group’s culture and approach to problems and crises. Developing an accurate definition of a perceived threat is the first and perhaps most important step to creating solutions. As already discussed through Hoffman’s changing nature of terrorism and Rapoport’s four waves of terrorism, definitions are never static and remain dynamic. As such, the definition of terrorism will continue to evolve as political constructs evolve, technology disrupts the status quo, and perceptions of influential groups change. 

[1] Walter Laqueur, The Age of Terrorism, 1st American ed (Boston: Little, Brown, 1987).

[2] Boaz Ganor, “Defining Terrorism: Is One Man’s Terrorist Another Man’s Freedom Fighter?,” Police Practice and Research 3, no. 4 (January 2002): 287–304, https://doi.org/10.1080/1561426022000032060.

[3] David C. Rapoport, “Terrorism. By Walter Laqueur. (Boston: Little, Brown 1977),” American Political Science Review 73, no. 1 (March 1979): 293–94, https://doi.org/10.2307/1954825.

[4] David C. Rapoport, “The Four Waves of Terrorism” in Audrey Kurth Cronin, James M. Ludes, and Georgetown University, eds., Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy (Washington, D.C: Georgetown University Press, 2004).

[5] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, Third Edition, Columbia Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

[6] Alison M. Jaggar, “What Is Terrorism, Why Is It Wrong, and Could It Ever Be Morally Permissible?,” Journal of Social Philosophy 36, no. 2 (May 2005): 202–17, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9833.2005.00267.x.

[7] Hoffman, Inside Terrorism.

[8] Jaggar, “What Is Terrorism, Why Is It Wrong, and Could It Ever Be Morally Permissible?”

[9] United States Department of State, “Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001” (Washington, D.C, 2001).

[10] Alex P. Schmid, ed., The Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research (London: Routledge, 2011), 44.

[11] Rufus E. Miles, “The Origin and Meaning of Miles’ Law,” Public Administration Review 38, no. 5 (September 1978): 399, https://doi.org/10.2307/975497, 399.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Chapla

Major Kevin Chapla is a U.S. Army Middle East and North Africa Foreign Area Officer with deployment and service experience in Africa and Asia. Kevin previously served in the U.S. Army’s Civil Affairs and Aviation branches and is currently an M.A. student at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. Kevin can be found on Twitter at @Kevin_Chapla.

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