The “war on terror” — a phrase we have all become familiar with in politics and the media over recent years. But what is the definition of terrorism?
People have been trying to decide on a terrorism definition since 1793 when France’s revolutionary government decided to destroy its enemies through mass execution by the guillotine. Now known as the “Reign of Terror”, the bloodiest phase of the French Revolution saw one of the first instances of state-sponsored terrorism.
However, during the 19th century, terrorist activity targeting political figures then began to emerge in countries like Russia — sparking debate about how to define “terrorism” when it describes attacks against the state, not by it.
Since then, government agencies and organisations across the world have created more than 260 definitions of “terrorism”. However, these definitions are usually complex and controversial, and “terrorism” has become a charged term which is often used to abuse or denounce opposing groups and views.
The inherent problem with defining terrorism is that opinions on what constitutes terrorism can vary significantly from one group to another, depending on their views, ideology and experiences.
Those labelled as “terrorists” rarely identify themselves as such. Instead, they use terms such as “militant”, “guerrilla”, “rebel”, “jihadi” or “freedom fighter”. But one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.
Nelson Mandela is a classic example of this paradox. Mandela spent 27 years in jail for terror activities and was on terrorist watch lists until 2008. Yet the former president of the African National Congress is remembered around the world as a symbol of peace and freedom for the part he played in dismantling apartheid in South Africa.
The Irish political party Sinn Féin also has a controversial history. The party has been associated with the Provisional IRA — with some of its key representatives serving as members and even leaders of the republican paramilitary group.
At the time of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, American media outlets tended to describe the IRA as “activists” and “guerrillas”. However, after conducting an armed campaign including bombings and mortar attacks against the British army, it was designated a terrorist organisation in the UK. Nevertheless, Sinn Féin won the largest share of first-preference votes at the 2020 Irish general election.
What’s more, despite what many people might think, the first bomb explosion in 20th century Ireland was not the work of the IRA, but the suffragettes. In their fight to achieve votes for women, the suffragettes did not aim to kill and were never charged with terrorism as no such offence existed at the time. As such, most people today would not classify them as terrorists.
However, after detonating a bomb at a crowded cinema, some members of the group were charged with “causing an explosion of a nature likely to endanger life” — precisely the type of charge terrorists today might face.
Types of terrorism
The Terrorism Act 2000 was the first of a number of related acts passed by the UK Government, although the history of modern terrorism goes back much further than that. But when did terrorism start?
When looking at the history of terrorism, experts often refer to four major waves of global terrorism: the anarchist, the anti-colonial, the new left and the religious.
Lasting from 1880 to 1920, the anarchist wave saw the emergence of modern terrorism. Anarchism and nationalism were the most prominent ideologies during this period, and the development of powerful, affordable explosives saw these movements become widely influential.
Founded in Russia in 1878, Narodnaya Volya was one of the first revolutionary anarchist groups to make widespread use of dynamite, which enabled them to strike directly and with discrimination. In 1881, the group assassinated Russia’s Tsar Alexander II in an attempt to spark a popular revolt against the Russian Tsardom.
The anti-colonial wave followed shortly after and lasted almost 40 years. Revolutionary nationalism continued to motivate political terrorism; however, much of it was now directed against western colonial powers instead. After World War II, in particular, largely successful anti-colonial campaigns were launched against the collapsing European empires.
In the 1960s, the new left wave arose. The terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” gained mainstream popularity during this period as a result of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the fight for Basque independence in Spain and the Palestine liberation movement in the Middle East.
Political terrorism has been a key theme across these previous phases. However, in recent decades, we have seen a new religious wave start to emerge.
Since 1980, there has been a rise in terrorist activity motivated by religion and an increasing use of suicide attacks. These types of attack were typified by the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.
September 11 is frequently regarded as the catalyst that sparked the war on terror as we now know it. Many of the other terrorist attacks from the past decade have been linked to Islamic extremism, too. As such, when we think of terrorism today, we often think of Islamic terrorism and enemies such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Isis.
However, if this current wave of religious terrorism follows the history of its predecessors, it will disappear by 2025, and a new one may then surface.
Over the past few years, we have seen a growing number of “lone-wolf” terrorist attacks. Although individuals may be influenced or motivated by the ideology and beliefs of an external group, these types of attacks are categorised by violent acts committed alone outside of any command structure.
Many of these have been linked to white supremacy and alt-right extremism. For example, the Christchurch mosque shootings, which killed 51 people, were carried out by a man described as a white supremacist influenced by the alt-right movement.
An inclusive definition
The global terror threat level is substantial, meaning an attack is highly likely. To effectively tackle the imminent terrorism threat, the definition of the term needs to be inclusive and carefully considered.
When it comes to labelling an act as terrorism, it’s important not to make presumptions based on the perpetrator’s social, cultural or national background. It’s also vital to consider what the different methods and motives might be for future attacks.
The Terrorism Act 2006 currently defines “terrorism” as “an action or threat designed to influence the government or intimidate the public. Its purpose is to advance a political, religious or ideological cause.”
Furthermore, the definition states terrorism is a violent action that endangers a person’s life, other than the person committing the action; involves serious violence against a person; causes severe damage to property; creates a substantial risk to the public’s health and safety; interferes with or seriously disrupts an electronic system. This definition offers a comprehensive and inclusive overview of all the different aspects of terrorism.
It is also worth noting the difference between terrorism and extremism. Although the two are often closely connected, they are not the same. In the UK, extremism is the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values — including democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law and respect and tolerance for different faiths and beliefs. However, it’s important to remember that not all extremist groups will commit terrorist or violent acts.
Viewing the definition of “terrorism” from all angles grants a clearer picture of what it involves and, crucially, how to tackle it.