There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, it prompts much controversy internationally and whether we will ever reach an acceptable definition is subject to ongoing debate.
The expression has been surrounded by discussion since it was first used in 1789, in the wake of the French revolution. During this time governments in Paris imposed their radical new order on the people of France, this led to the creation of the word ‘terrorism’ meaning ‘system or rule of terror’ (Roberts, 2002). The meaning of terrorism has transformed over time, impacted by factors such as new technologies, new ideologies and ever-evolving potential for new techniques and methods in a globalised world, enabling different types of actors. This essay will explain why it is unlikely that there will ever be an entirely acceptable definition of terrorism, by examining current definitions of terrorism, the issues with them and highlighting the difficulties behind attempting to define it.The prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 defines Terrorism as “the use of violence for political ends, and includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public in fear”, however, this definition is fairly broad in terms of actions and intention and excludes the notion of violence for religious ends or other non-political ideology.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s definition is more inclusive, writing that the violence used is serious and intended to intimidate not only the public but government bodies. It also states that violence carried out may promote not only political ends but also social and ideological objectives (Home Office, 2007). However, this definition is arguably not comprehensive either as it is vague on what constitutes violence, for example, this may not cover situations such as cyberterrorism, the disruptions of important electronic systems such as air traffic control or emergency services computer/communications equipment. Essentially there are many different definitions attempting to summarise terrorism, but throughout history they have changed and are continuing to evolve over time due to various factors.Though as mentioned, terrorism as a concept has been around since the end of the 1700s, many academics argue that the events of 9/11 in the mid-1990s changed the face of terrorism.
This brought about the concept of ‘new terrorism’ which adopts new characteristics involving different actions, methods, motivations, aims and actors. This modern type of terrorism has become extremely prominent and remains a central issue globally (Spencer, 2006), Kegley (2003) writes that the popularization of terrorism has actually accelerated its growth as a political issue. The notability of this new form of terrorism makes the question of whether it’s possible to pin down an accepted definition of the concept more relevant than ever, given its potential for quick and often radical change over time. Many academics and governing bodies argue that it is necessary to seek a definition for terrorism, the Subcommittee on Terrorism of the United States House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence states that “practically every agency in the U.S government with a counterterrorism mission uses a different definition of terrorism”. The United Nations High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Changes are one of many bodies that regard this as an issue. They wrote that “lack of agreement on a clear and well-known definition undermines the normative and moral stance against terrorism and has stained the United Nations Image” (Schmid, 2004).
One of the problems behind effectively defining terrorism is the difficulty in distinguishing it from other similar acts such as guerrilla warfare, violent crime and mass murder. Weinberg, Pedahzur and Hirsch-Hoefler (2010) write that terrorism as a concept suffers from ‘border’ and ‘membership’ problems. Essentially this means there is overlap between terrorism and other acts which makes it difficult to differentiate it as a concept on its own, for example there can be confusion about where terrorism stops and other forms of political violence begin, e.g. guerrilla warfare or urban guerrilla warfare. Though there are efforts to define terrorism and guerrilla warfare separately, as for example, guerrilla warfare is often defined as violence between forces rather than forces against non-combatants, this is not always the case and the result of this overlap means that acts such as attacks or assassinations could be considered terrorist actions in some instances but not in others, making counter-terrorism efforts strenuous.
Another similar example is the ‘lone wolf vs terrorist’ concept, the lone wolf expression was first developed by right-wing extremists in the U.S, individuals from this background were often highly publicised as being western, white, American, Christian or all of the above. When they committed acts of violence for their cause, often political, they were depicted as ‘lone wolves’, portrayed and viewed by the media and the public as eccentric oddities rather than as a primary threat, as people outside these characteristics were seen, most notably Muslims. This attributed the violence of terrorism to a single group, giving the general public an entity to blame and suggesting that the threat would end when counterterrorism eliminated specific threats, e.g. al-Qaeda or Islamic State.
(Burke, 2017) In the same way as differentiating terrorism from acts such as guerrilla warfare, distinguishing between terrorists and ‘lone wolves’ poses problems for any definition of terrorism, as they tend to overlap overwhelmingly in methods and motivations creating a barrier for academics to define terrorism as a concept of its own.The constant evolution of terrorism is another factor that makes it hard to define, as demonstrated in the differences between ‘old terrorism’ and ‘new terrorism’. For example, new terrorism is often viewed as being increasingly characterised by religion, radical Islam being one of the most publicised, whereas old terrorism was mostly secular in its motivations. Gurr and Cole in Spencer (2006) found that only two out of sixty-four international terrorist organisations in 1980 were classified as religious, in 1995 this had already escalated to twenty-five out of fifty-eight. Another attribute of new terrorism is the expanding willingness of terrorists to use unrestrained indiscriminate violence.
Laqueur in Spencer (2006) wrote that old terrorism was aimed at clearly defined political targets, while new terrorism intends simply to destroy society and cause as many casualties as possible. Enders and Sandler (2012) state that new terrorists are far more willing to engage in high-risk and complicated acts, in comparison, plans made by old terrorists often involved caution, escape plans etc. In addition to this, new terrorism has less of a formal hierarchical organisational structure than old terrorism. Many academics agree that the concept of amateur terrorists and terrorists that have not entirely dropped out of society are facilitated by the development of new technology in communication, in the form of advancements in mobile phone technology, the internet etc.
These advancements mean that terrorists can be more flexible, adapting to different situations with ease and can to some extent operate self-sufficiently, with no need for strict leadership as such (Spencer, 2006). In terms of weapons and methods, there is far more availability for weapons of mass destruction in the era of new terrorism, while old terrorism was generally characterised by the use of anti-aircraft missiles, plastic explosives, rocket-propelled grenades etc, all small arms. Forces within new terrorism are also often better trained in war/violence than old terrorists.
This is demonstrated for example, in training camps and centers used by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and various other countries (Nia, 2010). It is clear that globalisation and development in technology is enabling the expansion of terrorism internationally. It is unlikely that we will ever reach an acceptable definition of terrorism simply because the capabilities, motivations, methods, actors and targets are constantly changing and evolving the concept.Another difficulty facing academics in attempting to define terrorism is that terrorism is a contested concept, it can be argued that it is a relative term and depends on perspective.
The word terrorism provokes emotion, it is often used to condemn an enemy, rally members around a cause, or to silence or shape policy or debate, giving a certain group a perceived higher moral standing. Schmid (2004) argues that the word terrorist became “the mantra of our time” and that it has similar negative connotations as the word communist once did. He writes that “like that word, it tends to divide the world simplistically into those who are assigned the stigma and those who believe themselves above it”.
The problem with differentiating between for example, terrorism and freedom-fighting, is that it raises the issue of which forms of violence should be recognised as legitimate and which should not. Additionally, assuming that there can be an objective definition of terrorism is a flawed idea as it “presumes the labels we use can be detached from their historical or cultural contexts” (Jackson, 2011). This makes it near impossible to develop a universally accepted definition of terrorism when how we view acts of terrorism depends on perspective. Some academics argue that seeking to define terrorism is not actually useful or necessary in eliminating it as a threat. As the enemies change, the definition of terrorism changes, i.
e., violence directed against western states such as the U.S and their allies is often deemed terrorism while violence carried out by or with the support of western states can be portrayed as defence, war or even counterterrorism (Collins and Glover, 2002). The way terrorism presents itself to one country is fundamentally different from how it presents itself to another country, or the international community as a whole. This again raises the issue of perspectives demonstrated in the differences in culture, not only showing that it is extremely difficult to acquire an accepted definition of terrorism, but rendering a universally accepted definition potentially useless (Ramsay, 2015).Laqueur in Schmid (2004) warned that “terrorism is dangerous ground for simplificateurs and generalisateurs”. I would argue that the current political climate, given terrorism’s prominence globally, desperately needs an accepted definition of terrorism.
While a definition would not solve the underlying problem, Alexander in Schmid (2004) found that a lack of definition is perceived widely as the highest factors likely to encourage future terrorism. However, I think that the past, current and future definitions of terrorism are/will be too simplistic and narrow to accommodate the changing nature of the concept. With problems as discussed such as troubles in distinguishing it from other types of violence, the relativity of the term itself, the wide ever-changing range of actors, motivations, targets and methods in a globalised world, the capabilities of terrorism are constantly evolving and developing, which in turn is keeping academics and governing bodies from securing a definition and in my opinion, will continue to do so making us unable to form an accepted definition of terrorism. BibliographyBurke, J. (2017). The myth of the ‘lone wolf’ terrorist. The Guardian, online p.1.
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