No definition of terrorism has gained universal acceptance.


Source: FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. "Terrorism Issue." Federal Bureau of Investigation. Washington, DC: FBI, Terrorist Research and Analytical Center, 1987.


(Preface) Terrorism is 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 FBI describes terrorism as either domestic or international, depending on the origin, base, or activities of the organization. Domestic terrorism involves groups or individuals who are based and operate entirely in the United States and are directed at elements of our Government or population.  International terrorism is described as terrorist activity committed by groups or individuals who are foreign-based and/or directed by countries or groups outside the United States or whose activities transcend national boundaries.



Source: Patterns of Global Terrorism, U.S. State Department, pp IV-V.


Title 22, USC, Section 256f(d)


"The term terrorism means premeditated, politically motivated violence against non-combatant targets by subnational or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience" ... for purposed of this definition, the term non-combatant is

interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed and/or not on duty ...definition has been employed for statistical purposes by U.S. State department since 1983.


The term international terrorism means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country.


Terrorist group means any group practicing, or that has significant sub-groups that practice international terrorism.


Terrorist acts are part of a larger phenomenon of politically inspired violence (war, insurgency), and at times the line between the two can be difficult to draw.



Source: International Terrorism in the 1980's, Edward F. Mickolus, et al. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1989.


(IX)... Quite simply terrorism is the premeditated "threaten or actual use of force or violence to attain a political goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation." 


In any definition of terrorism, emphasis must be placed on the political goals.  Terrorists often unleash their violence and threats at a target who is not directly involved in the political decision-making process that the terrorists seek to influence (i.e. Palestinian actions in Rome and Vienna airports).


(X) International or transnational terrorism concerns terrorist activities involving terrorists or government participants from two or more nations.  Incidents originating in one country and terminating in another are transnational in character, as are incidents involving the demands made of a nation other than the one where the incident occurs.  Any terrorist incident that includes the government, citizens, or institutions of two or more countries is considered international...


(XII) The working definition of international/transnational terrorism ... is the use, or threat of use of anxiety-inducing, extra normal violence for political purposes by an individual or group, whether acting for or in opposition to established government authority, when such action is intended to influence the attitudes and behavior of a target group wider that the immediate victims (.)and when, through the nationality or foreign ties of its perpetrators, through its location, through the nature of its institutional or human victims, or through the mechanics of its resolution, its ramifications transcend national boundaries.  For definition of terrorism place a period after "immediate victims."


Excluded from definitions:

- Acts of a purely criminal nature with no political motivation.

- Incidents that relate to declared wars or major military interventions by governments or guerrilla attacks on military targets conducted as internationally recognized acts of belligerency ... however if guerrilla attacks are against civilians or military dependents in an attempt to create atmosphere of fear or foster political objective, it would then be within definition.

- Official government-sanctioned military acts in response to terrorist attacks.

- Unintended acts (i.e. foreign reporter killed in crossfire)

- All peaceful protests that remain so.


- Threats that are not credible.


Source: Alchemists of Revolution: Terrorism in the Modern World. Richard E. Rubenstein. New York: Basic Books, 1987.


(XVI) Terrorism is politically motivated violence engaged in by small groups claiming to represent the masses ... it is not just a crime ... and although political is not really warfare ... it is a kind of crime that aspires to become warfare.  Its goal is to link a small vanguard of militants to the resigned, timid or corrupted masses ... to awaken ... to lead to power.


Source: Terrorism: Theory and Practice. Yonah Alexander, ed. et al. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1979.


(4) We define terrorism as the threatened or actual use of force or violence to attain a political goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation ... excluded are both civil disorders and military confrontations.  Political in this definition connotes the entire rank-in-file of social, economic, religious, ethnic and governmental factors impacting on a body politic, stressing the notions of power and influence ... ideal definition is one on which both the adherents and abhorrers of terrorism could agree.


Source: International Terrorism. William L. Waugh, Jr. Salisbury, North Carolina: Documentary Publications, 1982.


(27) There are several aspects of terrorism that are consensually supported ... these aspects can be summed up in this definition: Terrorism is political, goal oriented action, involving the use of threat of extraordinary violence, performed for psychological rather than material effect, and the victims of which are symbolic rather than instrumental.


Source: Public Report of the Vice President's Task Force on Combatting Terrorism. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986.


(1) Terrorism is a phenomenon which is easier to describe than define.  Terrorism is the unlawful use or threat of violence against persons or property to further political or social objectives.  It is generally intended to intimidate or coerce a government, individuals or groups to modify their behavior or policies.



Methods of the terrorist ... may include hostage-taking, aircraft piracy or sabotage, assassination, threats, hoaxes, indiscriminate bombings or shootings. Yet most victims of terrorism seldom have a role in either causing or affecting the terrorists’ grievances.


Source: Political Terrorism: Theory, Tactics and Counter-measures.  Grant Wardlaw. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press: 1982.  (Author was a research criminologist at Australian Institute of Criminology).


(3) ...'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter' ... a phrase which encapsulates the difficulty facing those who wish to delimit the boundaries of terrorism either for purposes of international action or academic research ... without a basic definition it is not possible to say whether the phenomenon we call terrorism is a threat at all, whether it is a phenomenon of a different nature to its predecessors, and whether there can be a theory on terrorism.


(4) A major stumbling block to study of terrorism ... at base terrorism is a morale question, which in turn make it difficult to define.


Source: On Terror. Ralph H. Devine and Robert J. Rafalko.


(40) Terrorism is violence directed, as a matter of political strategy; against innocent persons ... the first feature of our definition is silence: it includes no requirement that the terrorist not be an agent of the state.


(41) We define an "act of violence" as the intentional use of considerable and destroying force against persons ... a borderline case is the intentional infliction of emotional distress ... we have distinguished "endangering" from "putting in danger": the terror that is central to the terrorist strategy sometimes also constitutes an act of violence.


It is the element of political strategy that distinguishes terrorism from both warfare and ordinary crime.... By violence as a political strategy we mean violence that is not merely designed to accomplish political ends, but that it plays and essential role in the intended sequence of events.  Terrorists typically attempt to wield political power by placing those upon whom they wield it in a state of constant fear, or else to call attention to themselves, or to their grievances.... In the context of civil war, the distinction between terrorism and crime or military violence will inevitably be fuzzy.


Source: Terrorism: How the West Can Win.  Benjamin Netanyahu. New York: Fararar, Straus, Giroux, 1986.



(7) In trying to understand international terrorism, we must first recognize that it is not a sporadic phenomenon born of social misery and frustration.  It is rooted in political ambitions and designs of expansionist states and the groups that serve them.  Without the support of such states, international terrorism would be impossible. Compared to these governmental forces, the individual terrorists shrink into insignificance, whatever their motives.


(9) Terrorism is the deliberate and systematic murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends.... Terrorism is not a aberration, but a methodical campaign of repeated outrages.


(10) Terrorists habitually describe themselves as guerrillas, but they are the opposite ... guerrillas wage war on regular soldiers, not on civilians.... This is terrorism's most pernicious effect: it blurs the distinction between combatants and noncombatants, the central tenant of the laws of war ... without this distinction the concept of war crimes loses any meaning.  For it makes everything permissible .... Here the terrorist parts company with humanity.  He declares a total war on the society he attacks, for to him everything is a target.


(11) Having defined all of society as his field of combat, the terrorist demands that his activity, which would ordinarily be viewed as gangsterism, be treated with the respect given to legitimate warfare.... This explains the terrorists’ military trappings, communiqués instead of statements and that convicted terrorists are considered to be prisoners of war.


Because of his choice of targets and demands for legitimacy, the terrorist breaks down the pivotal distinctions that define the moral limits of war ... takes us back to an era before rule of law and therein lies its danger to civilization.... Today's terrorism radically differs from earlier forms in its frequency and extent of its violence; it now attacks the territory and nationals of nearly all the democracies.


Source: Statements About Terrorism. Brian M. Jenkins. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. "International Terrorism". Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1982.



(12) The word "terrorism" has no precise or widely accepted definition.  The problem of definition is compounded by the fact that "terrorism" has become a fad word, use promiscuously and often applied to various acts of violence that are not strictly terrorism.  The term is generally pejorative.... Thus, what terrorism is seems to depend on one's point of view.  Use of the term implies moral judgment; if a party can successfully attach the label terrorist to its opponent, then it has indirectly persuaded others to adopt its moral viewpoint.


The difficulty in defining terrorism has led to the cliché that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, implying that there can be no objective definition of terrorism, not universal standards of conduct in peace or war.  I reject that.


Most civilized nations have identified modes of conflict that are criminal - homicide, kidnapping, threats to life, the willful destruction of property, and so on.  Laws against such criminal acts may be violated in war, but even in war there are rules that outlaw the use of certain weapons and tactics.


The rules of war grant civilian noncombatants at least theoretical immunity from deliberate attack; they prohibit actions against those held captive; they recognize neutral territory.  But terrorists recognize no neutral territory, no noncombatants, and no bystanders.  They seize, threaten, and often murder hostages.  One man's terrorist is everyone terrorist.


Terrorism is best defined by the quality of the acts, not by the identity of the perpetrator or the nature of their cause.  All terrorist acts are crimes.  Many would also be violations of the rules of war, if a state of war existed.  All involve violence or the threat of violence, usually directed against civilian targets.  The motives of most terrorists are political, and terrorist actions are generally carried out in a way that will achieve maximum publicity.  The perpetrators are usually members of an organized group, and unlike criminals, they often claim credit for their acts.  Finally, a terrorist act is intended to produce effects beyond the immediate physical damage it causes.


(12) Governments may also be also be terrorist, and it makes little difference to the victim whether he is kidnapped and murdered by a gang of anti-government extremists or by gunmen employed by the secret police.  Government terror tends to be primarily internal, however, and most incidents of international terrorism are carried out by nongovernmental groups, although they may have direct or indirect state support.


International terrorism  comprises those incidents that have clear international consequences: incidents in which terrorists go abroad to strike their targets, select victims or targets because of their connections to a foreign state (diplomats, executives of foreign corporations), attack airlines on international flights, or force airlines to fly to another country.