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Terrorism in One Lesson

It is important to have a clear notion of what terrorism is. This is the first step in fighting it.
Monday 13 April 2015

Dr. Kamal Yazigi

Those who support terrorism and try to cover up its crimes would have us believe that terrorism cannot be defined objectively, that it is only a term of abuse, an accusation that we throw at political opponents because we dislike the cause they stand for. According to this view, there are no terrorists, it’s all a matter of perspective. As the famous cliché goes: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.

This is obviously a smokescreen designed to confuse the issue and preempt a definition of terrorism.

Unlike the apologists of terrorism, we maintain that terrorism can be defined with precision.

Terrorism is the use of violence against civilians intentionally to create a climate of fear as a way to achieve a political goal.

I will now comment on each element of that definition to make it more explicit.


The word was coined during the French Revolution to describe the terror used by the revolutionaries in power against their opponents. In the ill-famed Reign of Terror (1793-1794), the Committee of Public Safety led by Robespierre carried out mass executions by guillotine or imprisoned all those who were suspected of being enemies of the Revolution.

Thus, in its original sense, terrorism refers to violence by a state against its domestic enemies. However, since the late 19th century and to this day, anti-government organizations have engaged in terrorism so extensively that the term has come to be applied more commonly to violence directed against the state. When we mention “terrorism” today, there comes most readily to mind the image of clandestine groups plotting against the government.

Terrorism used by governments is called state terrorism. Oppressive regimes use terrorism against their citizens to intimidate the opposition by means of abductions, torture, and murder. From a statistical point of view, governments were the major perpetrators of politically motivated murder in the 20th century. Outstanding examples are Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

Some countries use terrorism against foreign states as a substitute for conventional war. They provide money, training, and weapons to terrorists whose activities serve their aims. They may also plan and carry out terrorist operations themselves.

At the other end, terrorism is sometimes the recourse of groups too insignificant to challenge the government politically, and too weak to mount an open assault. A direct confrontation would end in defeat for the terrorists. Terrorism is used to achieve political goals when direct military victory is not possible. Terrorism is indeed the strategy of the weak.

… is the use of violence

Violent acts committed by terrorists have included assassinations of government officials, airplane hijackings, hostage takings, bombings, and, lately, suicide bombings.

Bombings are a tactic of choice. They make up about half of all terrorist acts. Terrorists prefer bombs for a number of reasons. A bomb can be planted ahead of time allowing the terrorists to be out of the area when it explodes. The possibility of detonating a bomb by remote control adds further to its attractiveness. There is also the dramatic effect: the blast is highly audible, and the spectacle afterwards is sufficiently eloquent to receive media coverage.

… against civilians

This is the key point. The deliberate targeting of civilians is the distinctive mark that identifies terrorism. Over the years, mankind has tried to make war less brutal by placing limits on acceptable conduct in times of war. The law of war, as it is called, requires, among other things, that there be a distinction between combatants and civilians. A line must be drawn. On one side, there are the combatants. They are members of the armed forces. They wear uniforms and carry weapons. On the other side, there are the noncombatants, by far the more numerous, civilians, women and children. They are are not members of the armed forces. Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Civilians must be spared—unless they take a direct part in the hostilities. This distinction is sacrosanct. If it is infringed, that is a violation of one of the basic principles of the law of war, and that is the essence of terrorism.

When confronted with the accusation of terrorism, terrorists often defend themselves by invoking the alleged justice of their cause. Or they blame their enemies, claiming that their actions are a response to a situation that has wronged them which is the root cause of those actions. But that is irrelevant. What makes terrorism is not the identity of its perpetrators or the cause they profess, but the nature of their actions. Terrorism has nothing to do with the cause itself, and whether it is rightful or not; it concerns the means used to advance that cause. It does not depend on what you fight for; it depends on how you fight for it. You may have the loftiest cause, yet use reprehensible means to promote it. Anyone who targets civilians is a terrorist, regardless of his cause. If you deliberately kill civilians in order to reach your goals, whatever they are, you are a terrorist. It is as simple as that.

… intentionally

Take, for example, an air strike during a war. The target is the enemy headquarters. The warplanes reach the target and drop their bombs, but they miss. Instead, they hit a hospital nearby. This is a tragedy, of course, but this is not terrorism. That is the accidental killing of civilians which is, unfortunately, part of the grim reality of war. What distinguishes terrorism is that it does not kill civilians accidentally; it deliberately kills them. It actively seeks them out as targets.

… to create a climate of fear

In terms of physical damage, terrorism is rather negligible. Physical destruction as such is not the goal. The intention is to create shock and fear. Terrorism may be limited in its physical destructiveness, but it is high in psychological impact. As Raymond Aron rightly points out, the psychological effects of terrorism “are out of proportion with its purely physical result”.

Terrorist acts would be useless if no one knows about them. To generate fear, terrorists need publicity. To maintain the publicity, and avoid familiarity and routine, terrorists seek more unusual actions that capture and hold public attention. They must engage in increasingly violent and dramatic attacks. Targets are carefully selected for their shock value.

… as a way to achieve a political goal

Terrorism is not an outburst of anger. Nor is it the mere satisfaction of hatreds towards a country or a government. It has a political objective.

Terrorism alone is unlikely to topple any government; that is not its purpose anyway. Terrorist acts are intended to create a climate of fear as a way to compel a change of policy. Terrorists hope that the terror their acts generate will induce the population to put pressure on the government to take an action or refrain from it. Terrorism is used to force a government to change its policies. The message is: change your policy and we will stop our terrorism, maintain your policy and you will experience more terrorism.

At a minimum, the terrorists seek to discredit a hated political authority by showing it weak and helpless against terrorist attacks. People lose their sense of security and their confidence in the existing government.

Concluding Remark

What gives rise to terrorism, and what makes it legitimate in the eyes of its practitioners, is ideological intoxication, namely the belief that they are acting on behalf of a higher purpose which gives them permission to throw away ethical norms and respect for human life.

* Professor of Philosophy, Political Science & International Relations

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