What Is Terrorism?

JB Shreve
January 10, 2019 21 mins to read
Reading Time: 16 minutes
  • Since 2001 the United States has spent more than $2 trillion in the war on terror.
  • The war on terror has included the longest war in American history where we still have no end in sight (Afghanistan).
  • The second front, Iraq, lasted almost as long as the Vietnam War which defined American culture in the 1960s and 70s.
  • The Iraq War ended in the destruction of the country and set the stage for the rise of ISIS.
  • The poorly defined American war against ISIS has been ongoing at varying levels of engagement since 2014.
  • This spring as American high schoolers graduate they will be the first generation of Americans who have never known a year of their life that was not full of war.


The history of the modern United States is now intricately linked to the history of terrorism and that trend is not expected to shift in the near future.


In addition to these investments of time and money, there is the toll in lives, both American and civilians of other countries, who have been lost in the course of the war on terror.

  • The victims of the September 2001 terrorist attacks totaled 2,996.
  • In a perverse twist of logic, the deaths resulting from the US war on terror have far surpassed that.
  • More than 4,400 Americans were killed in the Iraq War.
  • Currently, more than 2,300 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan.
  • If we also take into consideration the number of Iraqi and Afghan civilians whose deaths were brought about by the war on terror taking place in their homelands the death counts reach beyond the half million mark.


president bush and the war on terrorism“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there.  It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” President George W. Bush, 2001


What is this fighting for? Who are we fighting? What constitutes a victory?


These were the types of questions policymakers and leaders suggested our government should have asked after the dismal culmination of the Vietnam Conflict. The answer to these questions regarding the War on Terror is even murkier.


If you are enjoying this post you might enjoy my podcast series on the History of Terrorism.

anarchists guy fawkes gunpowder plot reign of terror white terrorism in the south
The History of Terrorism podcast series tells the story of how terrorism developed from the ancient world to ISIS.
History of Terrorism Part 1 – The Zealots
History of Terrorism Part 2 – The Assassins
History of Terrorism Part 3 – Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot
History of Terrorism Part 4 – The Reign of Terror
History of Terrorism Part 5 – Secret Societies
History of Terrorism Part 6 – White Terrorism in the South
History of Terrorism Bonus Episode – American Terrorists, Nat Turner and John Brown
History of Terrorism Part 7 – The Anarchists
History of Terrorism Part 8 – Russian Terrorism
History of Terrorism Part 9 – Irish Terrorism


Official Definition of Terrorism

definition of terrorism
There is no clear and agreed upon definition of terrorism in the world today.

Currently, there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. The many definitions which exist contradict one another and even worse are flexible to shifting policies and priorities. The lack of definition given to this sinister enemy has not prevented countless wars and violent state-sponsored attacks throughout the world in the name of the war on terror.

The United Nations ability to develop a comprehensive strategy has been constrained by the inability of Member States to agree on an anti -terrorism convention including a definition of terrorism. This prevents the United Nations from exerting its moral authority and from sending an unequivocal message that terrorism is never an acceptable tactic, even for the most defensible of causes. The United Nations



Webster’s definition of terrorism: “A systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.”


Vladimir Putin and the Russian military allied with the Assad regime in Syria to counter uprisings and resistance fighters they labeled as “terrorists” in the Syrian Civil War. In fact, many of the activities and atrocities perpetrated by some of these organizations would indeed fit the popular understanding of what terrorism is. Similarly, the methods employed by Putin and Assad also meat those definitions. In early 2018 Russia was identified playing a key role in the bombing of Syrian hospitals in an effort to push back the “terrorists” opposing Assad.

what is terrorism

Hospitals and their inhabitants do not represent a military threat to a government. By deliberately bombing the innocent and infirmed Russia and Syria were seeking to employ a systematic use of terror to coerce the population of Syrian opposition to Assad’s regime.


Long after the bombing of these hospitals was complete Putin explained Russia must remain in Syria to defeat terrorists.  The fight against terrorism continues and while many condemn the actions of Putin and Assad, their application of the word terrorist to their targets has provided at least some cover and justification for their attacks.


The Oxford Dictionary definition of terrorism: “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”


In 2015 Dylan Roof walked into a black church in South Carolina and murdered 9 people. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Prior to these murders witnesses say he told them he planned to commit the murders in order to “start a race war.” He posted an online manifesto documenting his racist and political motives. There is no doubt that Roof’s motives and actions were full of hate and racist political ideology. Why were they not also considered terrorism? Even if the government lacked the means to convict Roof on the grounds of terrorism why did few in the media or the public at large perceive of these murders in the same light as other terroristic activity?

what is terrorism
Dylan Roof was driven by ideology to commit murder – but this tragedy is not usually understood as terrorism.

The FBI’s definitions of terrorism are even more confusing. The FBI allows for two definitions, domestic and international terrorism, and neither definition sheds light upon what terrorism actually is.


  • International terrorism: Perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored).

  • Domestic terrorism: Perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.


These FBI definitions of terrorism skip over what is actually “perpetrated” and then classified as terrorism and focuses more upon where the perpetrator originates from.


According to this definition, we cannot identify a difference between ISIS attacks in Iraq and Russian aggression in Ukraine. It is not clear what international terrorism is according to the FBI except that it is international.

Similarly, according to the domestic terrorism definition, there is no action specified that qualifies itself as domestic terrorism. The Klux Klux Klan burning of crosses and a Women’s March on Washington wearing p***y hats might both fit into the FBI definition of domestic terrorism. Both groups espouse an ideology considered extremist by their opponents. Both groups are focused upon political, religious, social, and racial issues according to their members.


Protesters in the Women’s March in Los Angeles, California on January 21, 2017. An estimated crowd of 750,000 people marched to protest President Donald Trump. This was one of hundreds of similar marches held around the world one day after Trump’s inauguration. (Photo by Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto) *** Please Use Credit from Credit Field ***(Sipa via AP Images)



The biggest flaw of the FBI definition of terrorism is that it mentions nothing about violence in its effort to define terrorism. This suggests the definition is deliberately vague.

The FTO List


The US State Department maintains a list for Foreign Terrorist Organizations that is uniquely influential in at least defining who is a terrorist, if not what qualifies them as being a terrorist. The FTO list is a very powerful and influential tool that is used throughout the different branches of the American government to enforce policy and enact laws for and against other governments and entities. Dealings with or supporting a member of the FTO list can result in serious repercussions for an American citizen, organization or international ally.  The effectiveness and influence of the FTO list are not doubted but its justice and fairness should be.


There are many members of the FTO list who have never posed a threat to American citizens or interests. Their inclusion upon the list is more about the US government’s endorsement of the political policies America’s allies rather than an indictment or alert against specific threats to US interests.

For example, several members of the FTO list include Palestinian organizations who have never directly or deliberately attacked US citizens or targets. Their inclusion on the list supports Israeli policy and retaliation against these organizations in world forums such as the United Nations.

what is terrorism
The Afghanistan Taliban are not considered a terrorist organization on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list of the US State Department. FILE PHOTO: Taliban walk as they celebrate ceasefire in Ghanikhel district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan June 16, 2018.REUTERS/Parwiz

On the other hand, groups like the Taliban are excluded from the FTO list. The US government has opted to see this organization who frequently carries out suicide bombings against American and Afghani targets as an insurgency rather than a terrorist organization.

(What is the difference between an insurgent and a terrorist? Who knows? We would first need to define what is terrorism.)


The Definition of Terrorism and the Exemption of Mental Illness


In early 2018 a Canadian man went on a killing spree in Toronto, killing 10 people before he was stopped and captured by police officers. It was soon revealed that the killer was part of a group known as Incel, meaning involuntarily celibate. Incel is a self-proclaimed reactionary group against a womanized culture that has rejected them in favor of others. An entire ideology exists around this strange movement and central to that ideology is the need to punish women for rejecting them.

incel and what is terrorism

Incel is uniquely weird. It has a specific ideology and has at least twice been associated with violent attacks meant to bring terror to its victims and society at large. The killer in the 2018 attacks forecasted his murders and explained on a Facebook post before attacking “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” He also identified himself as a private in the infantry of this rebellion. Incel is not included in the FTO list. It is not seen as a significant threat to the US government or its people or to our Canadian allies. Its attacks are frequently not recognized as terrorism in the mainstream media.


If anything, members of Incel, specifically those given to violence, are seen as a concern for the danger posed by mental illness rather than terrorism. Many other violent attacks and their attackers are frequently exempted from the label of terrorist on the basis of mental illness. Is this accurate though? Are the attacks by Incel members more a sign of mental illness than deliberately driving a truck into a throng of people? Can we not easily recognize how the self-destructive and hateful actions of the 9/11 hijackers or Timothy McVeigh surely have at least partial elements of mental illness included to them?

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Is the Definition of Terrorism Just About Terror?


Todd Gitlin, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School who has written on the topic of terrorism and the media defines terrorism as “a violent act in order to strike terror in the hearts of a population toward a political end.” This definition of terrorism seems to better capture a lot of what terrorism is better than many of the more official definitions of terrorism. But although Gitlin’s definition is more intuitive to what we perceive as terrorism, consider what is excluded from the list of terror attacks under this definition:

  • The 2017 Las Vegas shooting that resulted in the deaths of 59 people had no clear political motive or objective. It was clearly a violent act designed to strike terror in the hearts of the population but according to this definition it was not terrorism.
  • The October 2000 al Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole resulted in the deaths of 17 American sailors. This was clearly political and clearly violent but because it was on a military target on the other side of the world it cannot be said to have been an act that struck terror in the hearts of the American people. It was therefore not a terror attack, even though the US government and popular media frequently perceive it as such on the basis of al Qaeda’s involvement.

Is the Definition of Terrorism About Attacks on Civilians?

A popular definition of terrorism similar to the one above includes the addition of a focus upon civilian targets.


By this definition, terrorism is a violent act upon noncombatants or civilians designed to strike terror in the hearts of a population toward a political end.” This definition of terrorism is better aligned with our intuition of what terrorism is. Terrorism breaks the rules of war and targets those who are not involved in the fight.

If this is an accurate definition of terrorism however then we have to consider what must also be included as terrorism which frequently is not considered terrorism.

are the mexico drug wars terrorism
Are the Mexican drug wars terrorism?

Homicides related to the drug wars in Mexico have been a frequent feature of the violence there. Civilians have paid a costly toll in Mexico’s drug wars. Since 2007, civilian death’s in Mexico have been more than two times higher than what was recorded in Afghanistan in the same period. This death count includes frequent brutal executions designed specifically to intimidate and manipulate the Mexican public. Although the violence of the drug war is seldom considered as terrorism this clearly meets the standard of the popular and public intuition for what terrorism is.


Beginning with President Obama, the US began using drone warfare far more extensively in the war on terror. This method of warfare provided a means of violence and attack against America’s enemies while keeping American soldiers safely out of harm’s way.

US drones and terrorism
Are US drone attacks acts of terror?

Drone warfare also allowed for higher levels of error and inaccuracy in the attacks. Alongside the rising successful target hits among the identified terrorists in Afghanistan, Yemen and other places, was a rising list of civilians accidentally killed in the attacks. They were either collateral damage and guilty by association with terrorist enemy targets or American drones simply struck the wrong target.


In several instances, these targets were mass gatherings such as weddings in Afghanistan. For the victims, these events and the loss of their loved ones met the definition of terrorism. They were civilian, the attacks had a political end in mind and they struck terror in the hearts of the local population. By this logic, America was committing terrorist acts in the war on terror. These civilian death counts have continued to soar under President Trump.

Critics to this assertion that the US has operated in state terrorism note that a key differentiation between the collateral damage of civilians in an act of war and in an act of terrorism is based upon the legality of an action. According to this argument, the definition of terrorism must also include the phrase an unlawful act of violence upon noncombatants or civilians designed to strike terror in the hearts of a population toward a political end.”


By this definition, war is an unsavory reality and there will always be civilian victims. The rule of law and order and the sanctioning of war by internationally recognized organizations do not prevent these tragedies but they do distinguish between the collateral damage of war and acts of terror. In other words, it is not a good thing – but it is not the same thing as terrorism.


The major flaw in this argument is that these exemptions from the classification of terrorist and terrorist activity are based primarily on legitimacy and power. Terrorist activity becomes the term which the powerful assign to the less powerful.


In this scenario, almost any violent activity by a Palestinian, Iranian, Syrian, European or other insurgent group or minority is classified as terrorism while the same activity perpetrated by the state or officially recognized power is deemed as lawful and non-terroristic.


This is where the concept of one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist comes from. In the eyes of the 18th-century British parliament, George Washington and John Adams would have been considered terrorists.


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Significance of the Word “Terrorist


When the term terrorist is applied to an enemy the rules and mechanisms available to a state and political power immediately shift.


At the most extreme end of the spectrum, when the term terrorism is applied to an enemy a measure of legitimacy and justification for war follows. This is the pathway which the United States used in Iraq and Afghanistan and continues to use in theaters of warfare that are sometimes far beyond what has been authorized by either Congress or the United Nations. From Yemen to Somalia, North Africa to Central Africa, the United States has engaged in a level of warfare against terrorist targets that in many instances supersedes standards of legitimacy that became unnecessary after September 11, 2001.

war on terror

The fight against terrorism must go on and the old rules of international law and legitimacy have become subordinated to the new priorities of the fight against terrorism.


This is the same tactic that has been used by Russia in Syria, as well as by their local ally Bashar Assad. In China, the crackdown and oppression against the Uighurs where as many as 1 million are currently being imprisoned in concentration camps has been justified by Chinese authorities as a crackdown against terrorist activity. Increasingly throughout the world’s states and their leaders are using the fight against terrorism to punish various forms of threat to their own rule and power.


Using the term terrorism brings immediate justification for most state powers to employ military strength when confronting enemies and insurgents to their power. It does not have to be a military power, however. The word terrorism is also grounds for suspension of civil liberties. This was legitimized and popularized through the US Patriot Act after 9/11 and has since spread throughout the world.

Consider the following examples in which American civil liberties have been suspended or violated on the grounds of strong suspicion of terrorism:


  • US citizens have been killed by drone strikes. These targets were taken out without due process of law guaranteed to American citizens under the Constitution and without trial. These were not issues of collateral damage but of specific targeting of suspected American citizen terrorist targets operating on foreign soil.
  • On the grounds of fighting terrorism, the CIA set up black sites where suspected terrorists were tortured. These operations were outside the rules of law and warfare which the United States claims to adhere to.
  • In the name of protecting America from terrorism the US government spies on its own citizens. Data has been, and continues to be, collected on millions of American citizens and people from around the world. This surveillance is done legally even while standing as a unique violation of basic civil liberties.
  • Prisoners have been held without trial and without a verdict in places like Guantanamo Bay. Their classification as “enemy combatants” has excluded them from the civil liberties and rights guaranteed to prisoners of war. At least 9 of these prisoners died at Guantanamo. Each of these prisoners is suspected terrorists but they have not been proven to be so by the justice mechanisms of the US constitutions for US prisoners or the Geneva Convention for prisoners of war.

definition of terrorism

The point of these observations regarding the suspension of civil liberties on the grounds of suspected terrorism is not a moral judgment of right or wrong. It is also not to cast a shadow on the American government. These activities and dissolution of civil liberties took place under both Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington D.C. They took place throughout the world. And they took place with the knowledge and implied consent of the American people.


The point being made here is not whether this was right or wrong but that this occurred simply because we are more opposed to terrorism than we are protective of civil liberties.


And remember, we do not even agree on what terrorism actually is. This has given governments and leaders during this period of history an enormous amount of power and flexibility in exchange for what might be a false sense of security.

What Is Terrorism?


These patterns which we currently uphold toward terrorism have been seen in American and world history before. Wars, extrajudicial government actions, the suspension and usurping of civil liberties, the violation of basic democratic values, all in the name of a vague but rogue enemy to the state and the people have occurred many times throughout history.

definition of terrorism

When we look at the Red Scares in the first half of the 20th century we find the same patterns and habits and vagueness of who the enemy was at play in the paranoid fight against communism. In the 19th century, the great menace which stood in the place of today’s terrorist was the anarchist. The fear of almost every statesman and leader was an anarchist uprising. Accordingly, any potential danger or threat to their power was attributed to the anarchist menace, no matter if this was true or not.


We can learn from this history to better understand what is taking shape today.


Terrorism is a genuine threat to our modern society today. The nature of that threat, however, is frequently misunderstood. We need strong borders. We need strong security. We need a robust foreign policy. But we also need to understand who the enemy is and what the enemy looks like.


Terrorism has been used to justify everything from the Iraq War (which ended up giving rise to ISIS terrorism, not stopping terrorism) to President Trump’s immigration policies. The threat of terrorism touches everything from your personal security and privacy levels that are being infringed upon as you read this to the time it takes you to get through security at the airport. Every national political race considers and discusses terrorism. American foreign policy frequently centers around terrorism.


The threat of terrorism is a consuming and pervading influence in our daily life in the 21st century – yet consider these realities.



The imbalance in this picture should be obvious. The threat of terrorism is a reality we must live with today. But perhaps before we hand over the key to our paradigms of security along with our civil liberties and judgments of right and wrong foreign policy, we should at least be able to answer this simple question: What is terrorism?

Terrorism is a political term. This is the key to understanding why its definition so easily flexes and shifts from one generation and circumstance to the next. It is used to move policy and policy is used to support and secure power. This does not mean that terrorism should not be resisted and fought. It does mean that the next time we hear about the war on terror or are roused to support a policy in order to fight against terrorism we might consider: Is this really terrorism, or is this simply the movement of the people to support policy?


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