Sociology Index

Terrorism Definition

Sociology of Terrorism

Terrorism is the intentional use of, or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims. According to this definition, an activity that does not involve violence or a threat of violence cannot be defined as terrorism. We need a definition of terrorism. Without answering the questions of “What is Terrorism? and Who is a Terrorist?” no responsibility can be imposed on countries supporting terrorism. Without defining terrorism no steps be taken to combat terrorist organizations and their allies. Defining terrorism is an operative concern of the first order. Terrorism is no longer a local problem of specific countries but an issue involving a number of international aspects. Terrorism is an international phenomenon, responses to terrorism must also be on an international scale. We need a definition of terrorism.

International mobilization against terrorism, such as the international conventions in the G-7 countries cannot lead to results as long as the participants cannot agree on a terrorism definition. Will it ever be possible to arrive at an exhaustive and objective definition of terrorism? Without answering the question of “what is terrorism?,” no responsibility can be imposed on countries supporting terrorism, nor can steps be taken to combat terrorist organizations.

Defining terrorism in the present situation

Academics, politicians, security experts and journalists, all use a variety of definitions of terrorism. Some definitions focus on the terrorist organizations’ mode of operation. Others emphasize the motivations and characteristics of terrorism, the modus operandi of individual terrorists, etc.

The prevalent definitions of terrorism entail difficulties, both conceptual and syntactical. It is thus not surprising that alternative concepts with more positive connotations—guerrilla movements, underground movements, national liberation movements, commandos, etc., are often used to describe and characterize the activities of terrorist organizations.

Definitions of Terrorism

Like “democracy,” “power,” “class,” “revolution” and so many other “essentially contested concepts,” there is no commonly accepted definition of “terrorism.” And yet explanation requires a clear analytic definition or demarcation of the phenomenon to be explained, even if, empirically, terrorism is not always easily distinguished from cognate phenomena. “Leaving the definition implicit is the road to obscurantism.” (Gibbs 1989:329).

Martha Crenshaw suggests that “Terrorism is the resort of an elite when conditions are not revolutionary… terrorism is most likely to occur precisely where mass passivity and elite dissatisfaction coincide.” (1981:384) For these reasons, Rubenstein (1987) calls terrorists “alchemists of revolution.”

Disaffected elites, according to Crenshaw, turn to terrorism because it is easier and cheaper than strategies based on mass mobilization, especially when government repression makes mass mobilization difficult if not impossible. “In situations where paths to the legal expression of opposition are blocked, but where the regime’s repression is inefficient, revolutionary terrorism is doubly likely, as permissive and direct causes coincide.” (Crenshaw 1981:384).

“The observation that terrorism is a weapon of the weak,” Crenshaw concludes, “is hackneyed but apt. At least when initially adopted, terrorism is the strategy of a minority that by its own judgment lacks other means. When the group perceives its options as limited, terrorism is attractive because it is a relatively inexpensive and simple alternative, and because its potential reward is high.” (1981:387). 

Revolutionary groups will presumably employ categorical terrorism, moreover, because it is generally even cheaper than selective terrorism (Kalyvas 2004).

Definition of revolutionary terrorism also has the advantage of demarcating a widely recognized political strategy that has been employed by revolutionary groups with some frequency, especially since the 1960s – a strategy clearly distinct from, albeit sharing family resemblances with, such violent oppositional strategies as coups d’état, conventional and guerrilla warfare (directed at a state’s armed forces), and economic sabotage. Indeed, at least since the 1960s, terrorism has become part of the “repertoire of contention” (Tilly 1995), which is culturally available to virtually all insurgent groups around the globe, whatever their political goals may be.

Bruce Hoffman defines terrorism as “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.” – Bruce Hoffman (1998:43).

Charles Tilly defines terrorism as “asymmetrical deployment of threats and violence against enemies using means that fall outside the forms of political struggle routinely operating within some current regime.” – Charles Tilly (2004:5).

Caleb Carr defines terrorism as “the contemporary name given to, and the modern permutation of, warfare deliberately waged against civilians with the purpose of destroying their will to support either leaders or policies that the agents of such violence find objectionable.” – Caleb Carr (2003:6).

Martha Crenshaw defines terrorism as “the premeditated use or threat of symbolic, low-level violence by conspiratorial organizations.” – Martha Crenshaw (1981:379).

Austin T. Turk defines terrorism as “organized political violence, lethal or nonlethal, designed to deter opposition by maximizing fear, specifically by random targeting of people or sites.” – Austin T. Turk (1982:122).

Boaz Ganor defines terrorism as “the intentional use of or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims.” – Boaz Ganor (1998).

U.S. State Departmen defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” – U.S. State Department.

“Pure terrorism is self-help by organized civilians who covertly inflict mass violence on other civilians.” – Donald Black (2004:16).

Albert J. Bergesen and Omar Lizardo define terrorism as “the use of violence by nonstate groups against noncombatants for symbolic purposes, that is, to influence or somehow affect another audience for some political, social, or religious purpose.” – Albert J. Bergesen and Omar Lizardo (2004:50).