Introduction to the Problems of the Terrorism Definition
There is “no internationally agreed upon definition of terrorism. The plurality of terrorism definitions reflects the disagreement that exists over the politically sensitive issues of the “purposes of terrorist aims, actors, and activities… [and is] symptomatic of larger ideological arguments over who the ‘bad guys’ are” (Sabia 2000:228). In potential terrorism cases, one country may identify an act as terrorism, while another country might label it “resistance” (Marx 1997:33). Gary Marx cites an example in which a Pakistani religious party requested that American rock stars be tried as terrorists, because, they argued, “Michael Jackson and Madonna are the torch bearers of American society [and] their cultural and social values… are destroying humanity” (Marx 1997:33). Differences in definitions of terrorism across nations also shape differences in their systems of legislation, so that national laws and international conventions may often differ, making enforcement at an international level difficult. Thus, although a United Nations General Assembly Resolution of 1983 unconditionally condemned as criminal “all acts, methods and practices of terrorism,” the only instrument of enforcement adopted by 1988 was the more restricted International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (Gregory 2000:102).” (1)
Controversy in Defining Terrorism
The difficulty in defining “terrorism” is in agreeing on a basis for determining when the use of violence (directed at whom, by whom, for what ends) is legitimate; therefore, the modern definition of terrorism is inherently controversial. The use of violence for the achievement of political ends is common to state and non-state groups. The majority of definitions in use has been written by agencies directly associated with government, and is systematically biased to exclude governments from the definition. The contemporary label of “terrorist” is highly pejorative– it denotes a lack of legitimacy and morality. As a practical matter, so-called acts of “terrorism” or terrorism are often a tactic committed by the actors as part of a larger military or geo-political agenda.
In the United Nations
The UN General Assembly Resolution 49/60 (adopted on December 9, 1994), titled “Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism,” contains a provision describing terrorism as the “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.”
The UN Member States still have no agreed-upon definition of terrorism, and this fact has been a major obstacle to meaningful international countermeasures. Terminology consensus would be necessary for a single comprehensive convention on terrorism, which some countries favor inplace of the present 12 piecemeal conventions and protocols. Cynics have often commented that one state’s “terrorist” is another state’s “freedom fighter”.
The Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism was adopted by the Council of Arab Ministers of the Interior and the Council of Arab Ministers of Justice in Cairo, Egypt in 1998. Terrorism was defined in the convention as: “Any act or threat of violence, whatever its motives or purposes, that occurs in the advancement of an individual or collective criminal agenda and seeking to sow panic among people, causing fear by harming them, or placing their lives, liberty or security in danger, or seeking to cause damage to the environment or to public or private installations or property or to occupying or seizing them, or seeking to jeopardize national resources.”
The UN Security Council Resolution 1566 (2004) gives the following definition: “criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.”
A United Nations panel, on March 17, 2005, described terrorism as any act “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.”
In the European Union
The European Union defines terrorism for legal/official purposes in Art.1 of the Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism (2002). This provides that terrorist offences are certain criminal offences set out in a list comprised largely of serious offences against persons and property which: given their nature or context, may seriously damage a country or an international organization where committed with the aim of: seriously intimidating a population; or unduly compelling a Government or international organization to perform or abstain from performing any act; or seriously destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organization.
In the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act 2000 defines terrorism to include an act “designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system” . An act of violence is not even necessary under this definition.
In the United States
The United States has defined terrorism under the Federal Criminal Code. Title 18 of the United States Code defines terrorism and lists the crimes associated with terrorism. In Section 2331 of Chapter 113(B), defines terrorism as: “…activities that involve violent… or life-threatening acts… that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State and… appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and…(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States…”
Under the U.S. Patriot Act of 2001, terrorist activities include:
- threatening, conspiring or attempting to hijack airplanes, boats, buses or other vehicles.
- threatening, conspiring or attempting to commit acts of violence on any “protected” persons, such as government officials
- any crime committed with “the use of any weapon or dangerous device,” when the intent of the crime is determined to be the endangerment of public safety or substantial property damage rather than for “mere personal monetary gain
The FBI definition of terrorism is provided here: The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.
The U.S. Army Manual definition of terrorism is the “calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear. It is intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies … [to attain] political, religious, or ideological goals.” U.S. Army Field Manual No. FM 3-0, Chapter 9, 37 (14 June 2001).
The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms defines terrorism as the “calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”
State terrorism has been defined as acts of terrorism conducted by governments or terrorism carried out directly by, or encouraged and funded by, an established government of a state (country) or terrorism practiced by a government against its own people or in support of international terrorism. “State terrorism” is as controversial a concept as that of terrorism itself. Terrorism is often, though not always, defined in terms of four characteristics: (1) the threat or use of violence; (2) a political objective; the desire to change the status quo; (3) the intention to spread fear by committing spectacular public acts; (4) the intentional targeting of civilians. This last element–targeting innocent civilians-is problematic when one tries to distinguish state terrorism from other forms of state violence.
Democratic regimes may foster state terrorism of populations outside their borders or perceived as alien; but they do not terrorize their own populations because a regime that is truly based on the violent suppression of most citizens (not simply some) would cease to be democratic. Dictatorships terrorize their own populations; democracies do not; but they can engage in state sponsored terrorism in other countries.
Declaring war and sending the military to fight other militaries is not terrorism, nor is the use of violence to punish criminals who have been convicted of violent crimes, but many would argue that democracies are also capable of terrorism. Israel has for many years been characterized by critics, especially in the Arab world, United Nations Resolutions, and human rights organizations, as perpetrating terrorism against the population of the territories it has occupied since 1967.
Critics also accuse the United States of terrorism for backing not only the Israeli occupation, but other repressive regimes willing to terrorize their own citizens to maintain power. Palestinian militants call Israel terrorist, Kurdish militants call Turkey terrorist, Tamil militants call Indonesia terrorist; and, of course, the nation-states call the militants who oppose their regimes “terrorists” . Like “beauty” , “terrorism” is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. Hence, the difficulty in defining Terrorism.
Australia: (section 100.1, Part 5.3 of the Australian Criminal Code)
Senior AFP member means:
(a) the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police; or
(b) a Deputy Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police; or
(c) an AFP member of, or above, the rank of Superintendent.
Superior court means:
(a) the High Court; or
(b) the Federal Court of Australia; or
(c) the Family Court of Australia or of a State; or
(d) the Supreme Court of a State or Territory; or
(e) the District Court (or equivalent) of a State or Territory.
Terrorist act means an action or threat of action where:
(a) the action falls within subsection (2) and does not fall within subsection (3); and
(b) the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause; and
(c) the action is done or the threat is made with the intention of:
(i) coercing, or influencing by intimidation, the government of the Commonwealth or a State, Territory or foreign country, or of part of a State, Territory or foreign country; or
(ii) intimidating the public or a section of the public.
tracking device means any electronic device capable of being used to determine or monitor the location of a person or an object or the status of an object.
(2) Action falls within this subsection if it:
(a) causes serious harm that is physical harm to a person; or
(b) causes serious damage to property; or
(c) causes a person’s death; or
(d) endangers a person’s life, other than the life of the person taking the action; or
(e) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public; or
(f) seriously interferes with, seriously disrupts, or destroys, an electronic system including, but not limited to:
(i) an information system; or
(ii) a telecommunications system; or
(iii) a financial system; or
(iv) a system used for the delivery of essential government services; or
(v) a system used for, or by, an essential public utility; or
(vi) a system used for, or by, a transport system.
(3) Action falls within this subsection if it:
(a) is advocacy, protest, dissent or industrial action; and
(b) is not intended:
(i) to cause serious harm that is physical harm to a person; or
(ii) to cause a person’s death; or
(iii) to endanger the life of a person, other than the person taking the action; or (iv) to create a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public.
(4) In this Division:
(a) a reference to any person or property is a reference to any person or property wherever situated, within or outside Australia; and
(b) a reference to the public includes a reference to the public of a country other than Australia.
United Kingdom: (section 1, Part of the Terrorism Act 2000). Terrorism: interpretation
(1)In this Act “terrorism” means the use or threat of action where—
(a)the action falls within subsection (2),
(b)the use or threat is designed to influence the government [F1or an international governmental organisation] or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and
(c)the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious [F2, racial] or ideological cause.
(2)Action falls within this subsection if it—
(a)involves serious violence against a person,
(b)involves serious damage to property,
(c)endangers a person’s life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d)creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
(e)is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.
(3)The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.
(4)In this section—
(a)“action” includes action outside the United Kingdom,
(b)a reference to any person or to property is a reference to any person, or to property, wherever situated,
(c)a reference to the public includes a reference to the public of a country other than the United Kingdom, and
(d)“the government” means the government of the United Kingdom, of a Part of the United Kingdom or of a country other than the United Kingdom.
(5) In this Act a reference to action taken for the purposes of terrorism includes a reference to action taken for the benefit of a proscribed organisation.
2.—(1) The following shall cease to have effect—
(a) the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989, and
(b) the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1996.
(2) Schedule 1 (which preserves certain provisions of the 1996 Act, in some cases with amendment, for a transitional period) shall have effect.
Canada: (section 83,01(1) of the Canadian Criminal Code): Terrorism Interpretation. Definitions
83.01 (1) The following definitions apply in this Part.
Canadian means a Canadian citizen, a permanent resident
within the meaning of subsection 2(1) of the Immigration
and Refugee Protection Act or a body corporate
incorporated and continued under the laws of Canada or
a province. (Canadien)
Entity means a person, group, trust, partnership or fund
or an unincorporated association or organization. (entite)
listed entity means an entity on a list established by the
Governor in Council under section 83.05. (entite inscrite)
Terrorist activity means
(a) an act or omission that is committed in or outside
Canada and that, if committed in Canada, is one of the
(i) the offences referred to in subsection 7(2) that
implement the Convention for the Suppression of
Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft, signed at The Hague
on December 16, 1970,
(ii) the offences referred to in subsection 7(2) that
implement the Convention for the Suppression of
Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation,
signed at Montreal on September 23, 1971,
(iii) the offences referred to in subsection 7(3) that
implement the Convention on the Prevention and
Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected
Persons, including Diplomatic Agents,
adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations
on December 14, 1973,
(iv) the offences referred to in subsection 7(3.1)
that implement the International Convention
against the Taking of Hostages, adopted by the
General Assembly of the United Nations on December
(v) the offences referred to in subsection 7(2.21)
that implement the Convention on the Physical
Protection of Nuclear Material, done at Vienna and
New York on March 3, 1980, as amended by the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection
of Nuclear Material, done at Vienna on July
8, 2005 and the International Convention for the
Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, done at
New York on September 14, 2005,
(vi) the offences referred to in subsection 7(2) that
implement the Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful
Acts of Violence at Airports Serving International
Civil Aviation, supplementary to the Convention
for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts
against the Safety of Civil Aviation, signed at Montreal
on February 24, 1988,
(vii) the offences referred to in subsection 7(2.1)
that implement the Convention for the Suppression
of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime
Navigation, done at Rome on March 10, 1988,
(viii) the offences referred to in subsection 7(2.1) or
(2.2) that implement the Protocol for the Suppression
of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Fixed
Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf, done
at Rome on March 10, 1988,
(ix) the offences referred to in subsection 7(3.72)
that implement the International Convention for
the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, adopted by
the General Assembly of the United Nations on December
15, 1997, and
(x) the offences referred to in subsection 7(3.73)
that implement the International Convention for
the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism,
adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations
on December 9, 1999, or
(b) an act or omission, in or outside Canada,
(i) that is committed
(A) in whole or in part for a political, religious or
ideological purpose, objective or cause, and
(B) in whole or in part with the intention of intimidating
the public, or a segment of the public,
with regard to its security, including its economic
security, or compelling a person, a government
or a domestic or an international organization
to do or to refrain from doing any act,
whether the public or the person, government or
organization is inside or outside Canada, and
(ii) that intentionally
(A) causes death or serious bodily harm to a
person by the use of violence, (B) endangers a person’s life,
(C) causes a serious risk to the health or safety
of the public or any segment of the public,
(D) causes substantial property damage,
whether to public or private property, if causing
such damage is likely to result in the conduct or
harm referred to in any of clauses (A) to (C), or
(E) causes serious interference with or serious
disruption of an essential service, facility or system,
whether public or private, other than as a
result of advocacy, protest, dissent or stoppage
of work that is not intended to result in the conduct
or harm referred to in any of clauses (A) to (C),
and includes a conspiracy, attempt or threat to commit
any such act or omission, or being an accessory after the
fact or counselling in relation to any such act or omission,
but, for greater certainty, does not include an act or
omission that is committed during an armed conflict and
that, at the time and in the place of its commission, is in
accordance with customary international law or conventional
international law applicable to the conflict, or the
activities undertaken by military forces of a state in the
exercise of their official duties, to the extent that those
activities are governed by other rules of international
law. (activite terroriste)
terrorist group means
(a) an entity that has as one of its purposes or activities
facilitating or carrying out any terrorist activity, or
(b) a listed entity,
and includes an association of such entities. (groupe terroriste)
For greater certainty Interprétation
(1.1) For greater certainty, the expression of a political,
religious or ideological thought, belief or opinion does
not come within paragraph (b) of the definition terrorist
activity in subsection (1) unless it constitutes an act or
omission that satisfies the criteria of that paragraph.
For greater certainty
(1.2) For greater certainty, a suicide bombing is an act
that comes within paragraph (a) or (b) of the definition
terrorist activity in subsection (1) if it satisfies the criteria
of that paragraph.
(2) For the purposes of this Part, facilitation shall be
construed in accordance with subsection 83.19(2).
2001, c. 41, ss. 4, 126; 2010, c. 19, s. 1; 2013, c. 13, s. 6.
- Deflem, Mathieu, and Lindsay C. Maybin. 2005. “Interpol and the Policing of International Terrorism: Developments and Dynamics since September 11.” Pp. 175-191 in Terrorism: Research, Readings, & Realities, edited by Lynne L. Snowden and Brad Whitsel. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
- United States Drug Enforcement Administration
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- Bureau of Customs and Border Protection
- Office of National Drug Control Policy
- USA Patriot Act
- International Police Cooperation