If you have been following the podcast series at the End of History regarding the History of Terrorism then you know one of the objectives in the series is to find a real working definition for terrorism. During the Cold War it was said “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Today this reality holds just as true and perhaps more concerning as the threats of terrorism gain greater prominence around the globe. The terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” are fairly subjective and charged with both political and emotional punch.


What is Terrorism?


The US State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations designates many organizations who have never posed a threat to American targets as terrorists. The Palestinian organization Hamas would be only one of several organizations included on this list who have never targeted Americans. Meanwhile, the influential listing does not include many non-state actor organizations who have violently oppressed people in different parts of the world and whose victims would certainly recognize as a terrorist organization. The Cambodian organization Khmer Rouge fits this criteria.

what is terrorism

In 2000 al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack on the USS Cole, an American military vessel in Yemen’s Aden harbor. This attack on a military target was a definite tragedy but was it terrorism as reported by the popular media?


American drone attacks which frequently hit innocent civilians are not considered terrorism in the popular media.


When civilians are consistently victimized by surprise military attacks, why do we not consider this terrorism? If a military target is hit by a surprise attack from militant sympathizers within a foreign nation’s borders, why do we classify this as terrorism?

what is terrorism

Some commentators have tried to bridge this gap by defining terrorism as something that has no clear military objective except to provoke fear and chaos. This definition seems effective enough when western cities confront the aftermath of an radicalized lunatic who has used a vehicle to deliberately kill masses of innocent civilians in a crowded street. It must also fit the Afghan father who witnesses his daughter’s wedding bombed by American drones where “terrorists” were mistakenly believed to be present. The mistakes and collateral damage of America’s “surgical strikes” are no less terroristic in nature than the chaos and fear established by the madman killing concert goers in London.


We cannot discount the reality of terrorism that increasingly exists in the world today; however, due to the fact there is no coherent and universal definition for the term, much of what we regard as terrorism today is founded upon politics. The political power brokers and pundits have the influence to ascribe the term “terrorism” to their selected tragedies while those without the political power are victims of “tragedies” rather than “terrorism.”


Political Weapons


Unfortunately, this political reality has been weaponized in recent decades to provide not only propaganda cover but also legitimate power and influence. The Patriot Act under President George W. Bush was allowed and enforced largely through the deliberate manipulation of the public’s fear of terrorism. American values and civil liberties were upended in the name of “fighting terrorism.” This was a fight we apparently did not win as the breadth of terrorist activity around the world has only increased since the first part of the 21st century even while American values have been completely transformed.

What is Terrorism

This political power tactic did not end under President Obama but intensified as the American surveillance state grew to unprecedented dimensions. In order to fight and stop “terrorism” the United States government needed to access our email, phone calls and internet activity without a clarified justification. The manhunt following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing demonstrated an American society that was under constant video surveillance and where local municipalities had immediate access to tanks and training in the order of martial law.


Today the word “terrorism” is empowering an American war machine around the world that Congress has never authorized. When President Trump wants to push immigration strategies, he uses the word “terrorism.” Increasingly when American leaders want to generate action and support for their causes and ideas, the language of “fighting terrorism” is used to justify it. This is the fastest way to generate unqualified and untested support for specific political aims. No one wants to be a supporter of terrorism. Everyone wants to defeat terrorism. Therefore, we must support this and oppose that.


Globalizing the Weapon


This is not only an American practice however. Recent weeks have included significant stories from around the world where unreasonable activities and the dramatic upheavals of civil liberties are being justified through the use of “fighting terrorism” terminology.


In Mexico a surveillance software known as Pegasus was utilized to target and track potential terrorists. According to the New York Times, Pegasus was built by an Israeli arms dealer and sold exclusively to governments:


Pegasus infiltrates smartphones to monitor every detail of a person’s cellular life — calls, texts, email, contacts and calendars. It can even use the microphone and camera on phones for surveillance, turning a target’s smartphone into a personal bug.

what is terrorism

The problem is that Mexico’s government has apparently also used the tool to track human rights lawyers, reporters and even American citizens.


This incident pales in comparison to Saudi Arabia’s recent move against its small neighboring country Qatar. The Saudis, along with Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic ties with Qatar on June 5. In addition, the Saudis established a blockade along the only land border for the small nation, triggering fears of a national food crisis for the wealthy but geographically vulnerable Qatar.


The motive for this sudden and dramatic move? The Saudis and their co-sponsors of the initiative explained that Qatar was a supporter of Islamic extremism and terrorism.

what is terrorism

The hypocritical standard barely concealed in this crisis is that few nations have been more influential and deliberate in their support of Islamic extremism and terrorism than Saudi Arabia. The Islamic sect of Wahhabism is part of the foundations of the Saudi state as well as Salafism which has fueled the rise of groups from al-Qaeda to ISIS. Recall that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks were from Saudi Arabia. The oil rich Saudi religious establishment has funded the spread of radical and extremist Islamic ideology throughout the world for decades.


The real cause for Saudi agitation toward Qatar was the nation’s cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran. Also, recent leaks demonstrate the Saudi government’s frustration with the Qatar government’s support of al-Jazeera, the media and news organization based in Qatar that has supported Islamic and Arabic moderation along with modern liberalism.


The Saudis and the Mexican government have proven they have learned the tricks of great power politics and statecraft. Among those tricks is using the war on terror to justify drives for power and securing self interests.


More Than Semantics


The use of “terrorism” terminology and accusation has already demonstrated the risk it holds for civil liberties. The almost complete lack of accountability and governance in the implementation of this instrument for power and manipulation represents even greater concern for the future however. The fight against terrorism itself has taken on ideological components so that we seldom question why and how our leaders have come to designate targeted parties as terrorists and our own activities as part of the fight against terrorism.

what is terrorism
Infographic from the Southern Poverty Law Center tracking right wing extremist groups.


what is terrorism
Left wing extremism and violence is on the rise in 2017, confirming extremism is a symptom on both the left and right.

As the political landscape becomes more heated and polarized not only in the United States but throughout the western democratic world, how long will it take for proponents of specific perspectives upon the ideological spectrum to cast their opponents as extremists and potential terrorists? How long will it be before the weaponized use of the language of terrorism is used to challenge and subdue those who hold values and beliefs different than the popular majority?

If you enjoyed this podcast episode check out the complete series on the History of Terrorism.

anarchists guy fawkes gunpowder plot reign of terror white terrorism in the south
The History of Terrorism series tells the story of how terrorism developed from the ancient world to ISIS.



Additional Recommended Reading

Is It Time to Stop Using the Word Terrorist?

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JB Shreve is the author of "How the World Ends: Understanding the Growing Chaos." He has been the host of the End of History podcast since 2012. He has degrees in International Relations and Middle East Studies. His other books include the Intelligence Brief Series. Regular posts and updates from JB Shreve are available at www.theendofhistory.net