We hear the word “terrorism” a lot, despite that fact that it is a term that is notoriously hard to explain. There is no international consensus on the definition, legally or academically for the term “terrorist”.
In fact, the U.S. government has more than 20 definitions for terrorism.
The UN formed its own Ad Hoc Committee to draft an official explanation of the term, and that took 10 years.
So, what exactly constitutes terrorism?
A mix of those definitions results in something like this;
Terrorism is violence, or the threat of violence, against non-combatants or civilians, usually motivated by political, religious or ideological beliefs.
Outside of that broad definition, it might be better to explain terrorism by talking about what is NOT.
1. Organized Crime is Not TerrorismTerrorism is not organized crime. There are a few key differences.
- One is motivation. Terrorism is usually politically or socially motivated. Organized crime is profit motivated.
- Secondly, people in organized crime do not usually seek media attention, something terrorists do.
- Third, organized crime doesn’t usually desire government recognition, unlike most terrorist groups.
Insane Person Can't Act TerrorismTerrorism is not violence carried out by one mentally ill person. This can be confusing, because when it comes to violent acts, it’s not immediately apparent who is sane and who is insane.
For example, Man Haron Monis took hostages in an Australian cafe in December 2014. He claimed that it was an official attack on Australia by the Islamic State. However, after the siege ended, many people, like Australia’s Prime Minister, agreed that he was mentally ill at the time and thus should not be considered a terrorist.
Monis was killed in the siege and his true intentions and affiliations remain unknown. Research shows that 40% of “lone wolf” attacks are perpetrated by mentally ill individuals.
Government to Another Nation is Not Terrorism but WARTerrorism is not violence perpetrated by a government against another nation. If a nation commits an act of violence, it’s usually referred to as an “act of war” or, under certain circumstances, an act of “self-defense”.
There are some exceptions to this rule. If a nation indirectly commits an act of terrorism by funding a terrorist organization or covertly organizing the terrorist act, that is still considered by some, like the United States, to be a terrorist action.
Government to Its People; Not TerrorismTerrorism is also not an act of violence by a government against its own people. Nations like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia had a history of terrorizing their own civilians, but those were generally considered to be acts of oppression or repression and not terrorism.