Emily Hill’s definition of ‘terrorism’

“The illegitimate use of premeditated force or violence, with the intention to cause harm to, or fear amongst, non-combatants, in pursuit of political, religious and/or ideological change, conducted by a person, persons, group or state.”

By Emily Hill (2016)

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon[1]; on the contrary, it is a term with a complex, global history of diverse applications. Nevertheless, despite the frequent, and often open, use of the concept, a universal definition has not been agreed upon. Laqueur concurs, “A comprehensive definition of terrorism… does not exist nor will it be found in the foreseeable future”[2]. However, in agreement with Gibbs, “leaving the definition implicit is the road to obscurantism”[3]. Consequently, if one is to make a judgment on an act which could be construed as ‘terrorism’ an attempted definition must be in place to justify this claim. Thus, the definition put forward for contention is:

The illegitimate use of premeditated force or violence, with the intention to cause harm to, or fear amongst, non-combatants, in pursuit of political, religious and/or ideological change, conducted by a person, persons, group or state.

This essay will aim to justify the key components within this definition as well as outline and critically analyse its strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, it will incorporate relevant examples to further evaluate and apply this term’s explanation.

The political sphere comprises of an abundance of essentially contested terminology, each of which provokes thought and generates controversial, differing opinions. One of these terms is ‘terrorism’. A variety of actors have attempted to define the term, but have been unsuccessful. As Gearty states, “Terrorism is a subject rife with moral certainty but shrouded in terminological confusion”[4]. He effectively suggests that many are quick to label an act or individual ‘terrorist’ based on their moral compass, despite there being no universal definition to follow. Therefore, it is still essential to attempt to define the term in order to categorise what classifies as ‘terrorism’. Thus, an amalgamation of different definitions influenced my choice to incorporate certain components. These interpretations included the British Government, the U.S. Department of Defense, the FBI and the U.S. State Department. However, this is a weakness in itself. Arguably, my definition has been, somewhat, subconsciously predisposed to westernised perspectives. This poses the question: is the whole premise of defining ‘terrorism’ a product of one’s environment? This is just one of an array of difficulties when it comes to expressing and applying this controversial term to real world scenarios. Nevertheless, despite this particular limitation, the choice of wording within my definition is still justified and will be explored in more depth throughout.

When analysing the definition chronologically, the first phrase that needs justification and explanation would be the ‘illegitimate use of premediated force or violence’. Firstly, my definition incorporates the idea of ‘illegitimacy’. The inclusion of ‘illegitimate’ aims to distinguish acts of violence from ‘sanctioned’ warfare. It also allows the legitimacy of an actor’s behaviour to be questioned, even if they are a state. If their violent actions are deemed ‘illegitimate’, this may be a form of ‘terrorism’ and can be assessed against the definition as a whole. However, the definition does not list specific examples of what constitutes as an ‘illegitimate’ or ‘legitimate’ act. Consequently, leaving this portion open to interpretation and debate. A controversial example of what could be argued as ‘illegitimate’ violence is the Invasion of Iraq in 2003 by a number of world powers. These included the driving forces of the offensive, the United States and Britain, whose ‘formal’ goal was to depose and ‘disarm’ Saddam Hussein’s regime during the ‘War on Terror’. Albeit, a number of actors have been critical of these motivations. Nonetheless, the United Nations did not authorise this invasion and consequently, this is an ‘illegitimate’ application of violence against a number of non-combatants. Thus, under this component and my definition as a whole, it would be classified as terrorism. Understandably, this is a controversial judgment, one of which would undoubtedly spark debate, but it is also an argument that corresponds to this definition. Therefore, even though there are weaknesses to this component, it is justified because the legitimacy of an actors’ conduct should be questioned. Furthermore, it also attempts to limit the level of ambiguity surrounding ‘authorised’ warfare which further narrows this definitions focus.

Furthermore, the ‘premeditated’ clause is also significant. This indicates “there must be an intent and prior decision to commit an act”[5]. This has been included in this definition to avoid labelling sporadic and spontaneous acts of violence or political violence as terrorism. This narrows the definition’s focus and, to a degree, prevents far-reaching real world applications. An example of this would be the labelling of certain protests and riots, such as the Anti-Fee Riots in 2010, as terrorism, which under this definition would be an incorrect classification. The Student Riots were an instance of politically motivated protest turning violent rather than dissident terrorism. The violent acts were committed by a small number of individuals who capitalised on the demonstration; thus, were arguably not a product of calculated planning but rather an opportunity crime. This is an important distinction to make; Pillar supports this claim and states, “Terrorism is not a matter of momentary rage or impulse”[6]. Likewise, Raymond’s analysis of ‘terrorist’ actions further supports both the definition and this example. He argues:

Political terrorism is not senseless violence; it springs from a premeditated, coldly calculated strategy of extortion[7].

This is true, terrorism is premeditated and calculated; whether it be a group structure like Al Qaeda or a lone wolf assault such as Anders Behring Breivik’s Norway Attacks, there is always an element of advanced planning. Consequently, premeditation is a key component when defining ‘terrorism’.

The use of force and violence to cause harm or fear are also concepts that need exploring. These features could comprise of a range of acts. This definition is in agreement with Combs who maintains that “violence is destructive, but the destruction need not necessarily take lives; it may instead disrupt lives without destroying them”[8]. The violent disruption she discusses is ultimately in line with the element of fear, as well as harm, which are significant parts of this definition. These have been included to cover the aspects of physical injury and/or mental damage experienced by non-combatants. Similarly, property has not been included in my definition because ‘fear’ and ‘harm’ cannot be installed in inanimate objects. Ultimately, the term ‘fear’ is very important; as Raymond demonstrates, “the psychological impact of an attack can exceed the physical damage”[9]. For example, even though 9/11 involved extensive tangible damage, McCauley outlines the psychological repercussions:

The events of 9/11… made Americans less willing to fly. In early 2002, air travel and hotel bookings were still significantly below the levels recorded in the months before the attacks[10].

However, the only issue with ‘fear’ is that it is an emotion, which is difficult to scientifically analyse, quantify and compare. Nevertheless, even if individuals have not been directly involved in the attack, ‘fear’ is a long term, anticipated outcome of violence or force. Therefore, this is why it has been included in the definition.

Furthermore, this portion of the definition is broad and, somewhat, weak; obviously force and violence must be applied with ‘illegitimate’ and ‘premeditated’ but similar issues arise in the fact specific ‘violent’ or ‘forceful’ actions, that may constitute as terrorism, have not been outlined. Townshend demonstrates, “there is no specifically ‘terrorist’ action that is not already a crime under ordinary law”[11]. Thus, it depends on one’s own perspective which of these crimes, in the right conditions, can constitute as ‘terrorism’. However, the definition’s breadth can also be a strength as well as a weakness; by not limiting what actions could constitute as ‘terrorist’, it allows for new developments in tactics to be considered, which would not be the case if specific acts were listed. Therefore, despite this segment appearing broad, it allows for a comprehensive analysis of acts that have the potential to be ‘terrorism’.

The inclusion of ‘non-combatants’ is another key component of this definition. Primarily, the concept has to be deciphered. This definition was influenced by the U.S. State Department’s interpretation of a ‘non-combatant’:

The term noncombatant is interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed and/or not on duty… attacks on military installations or on armed military personnel when a state of military hostilities does not exist at the site[12].

It is important to outline this sub-clause, as this definition deems that an act of violence can affect those outside of traditional ‘civilian’ life; including politicians, police officers and certain military personnel. An example of ‘terrorism’ under this clause would be the murder of Lee Rigby who was a member of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, but off duty at the time of the attack. Nevertheless, non-combatant is an essentially contested topic in itself and has many definitions of its own, not just the one outlined above. Thus, revealing another weakness. However, it is stronger than using ‘civilians’ or ‘innocents’. ‘Civilians’ is too narrow and has the potential to disregard acts such as the 9/11 Pentagon Attack which had a large number of military fatalities. This example would be classified as terrorism under this definition’s interpretation of ‘non-combatants’ because military hostilities did not exist at the site[13]. Also using ‘innocents’ is very controversial; the ‘terrorist’ may not see those individuals as innocent, and consequently, it would be a product of perspective. Albeit, a broad explanation, the choice of ‘non-combatant’ is warranted as it aims to avoid narrowing the scope of victimhood.

The penultimate section of the definition includes the ‘pursuit of political, religious and/or ideological change’. In accordance with Primoratz, “Terrorism is intimidation with a purpose”[14] and in this definition the purpose is change. A number of definitions only include the term ‘political’, but this is a limitation; all these features have been included to demonstrate the diverse and complex types of change a ‘terrorist’ is in pursuit of in the modern era. Gregg supports this use of terminology; she states, “it considers goals that may not be strictly political, such as changing the social and religious order of a state or region”[15]. Furthering this argument, ideas can often transcend between these boundaries. A historical instance of this would be Narodynaya Volya who pursued political and ideological change in Russia. They wished to overthrow the Tsarist regime and install a form of socialist ideology. Nonetheless, there are also modern examples including ISIS, who intertwine all three aspects in their forced and violent pursuit of a ‘caliphate’ state governed by Islamic Law[16]. Thus, we cannot assume goals are purely political. Therefore, by including all of these aspects, instead of only the pursuit for political change, my definition encompasses a number of singular or combined goals that can be assessed against the rest of the definition.

The final aspect that needs assessing is ‘who’ can actually conduct ‘terrorism’. The definition incorporates a broad range of actors including ‘a person, persons, group or state’. It is important to include ‘person’ and ‘persons’ because of the changing nature of ‘terrorism’[17]. This is supported by Michael, who states:

There is a noticeable trend indicating the increasing frequency of lone wolf attacks by individuals and small cells with little or no connections to formal organizations[18].

This encompasses acts such as the Norway Attacks and the Bastille Day Attack in 2016. Additionally, a ‘group’, in this context, consists of individuals who share a collective identity utilising illegitimate violence in the pursuit of change. For example, Aum Shinrikyõ’s cult identity or Islamist Group Boko Haram. Finally, one of the most controversial parts of this definition lies with the inclusion of the ‘state’. Arguably, there have been a number of instances where direct state action and sponsorship fit the criteria of this definition; these include the illegitimate invasion of Iraq and the Cambodian Genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime. Both of these would be classed as ‘terrorism’ under my definition. Thus, if the definition only incorporated non-state actors it would be weakened significantly. On the other hand, a limitation of this section is that the term could be applied too broadly. ‘Terrorism’ is a pejorative label and applying it to another human being is contentious. However, it should be broad, rather than allow the state or another actor to be exempt when their actions clearly match the definition’s criteria. Therefore, this point warrants a wide-ranging use of actors within the definition.

Overall, it is inevitable that any definition of ‘terrorism’ will spark debate; however, to use it but avoid defining it would be a fallacy in itself. Consequently, this definition has encompassed a number of key components intrinsic to identifying acts of ‘terrorism’. Although it appears somewhat weak, ambiguous and controversial in some areas, the choices are ultimately justified when in comparison to alternative terms. Likewise, it takes into consideration potential new developments, over-lapping goals and both the physical and mental ramifications of such events. Arguably, it is broad, but a narrower definition could produce inappropriate verdicts on events that morally, should not be exempt. Therefore, even though ‘terrorism’ is incredibly difficult to define, this definition has been calculated in its wording and provides adequate justification for the components needed to classify an act as ‘terrorism’.


BBC News, BBC, “What is ‘Islamic State’?”, accessed October 24, 2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29052144.

Combs, Cynthia C. Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, Seventh Edition. Philadelphia, U.S.: Taylor & Francis, 2012.

Gearty, Conor. “Introduction” in Terrorism, edited by Conor Gearty. Aldershot, UK: Dartmouth Publishing, 1996.

Gibbs, Jack P. “Conceptualization of terrorism” in Terrorism Studies: A Reader edited by John Horgan and Kurt Braddock, 63-75. London: Taylor & Francis, 2009.

Gregg, Heather S. “Defining and Distinguishing Secular and Religious Terrorism”, Perspectives on Terrorism, vol. 8, no. 2 (2014): 36-51.

Laqueur, Walter. Terrorism. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.

Martin, Gus. Understanding Terrorism: Challenges, Perspectives and Issues, Third Edition. California, U.S.: Sage Publications, 2009.

McCauley, Clark. “Psychological Issues in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism” in Psychology of Terrorism edited by Bruce Bongar, Lisa M. Brown, Larry E. Beutler, James N. Breckenridge and Philip G. Zimbardo. 13-31. New York, US: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Michael, George. Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance. Tennessee, US: Vanderbilt University Press, 2012.

Pillar, Paul R. Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy. Washington DC, US: Brookings Institution, 2003

Primoratz, Igor. “What Is Terrorism?” in Terrorism: The Philosophical Issues edited by Igor Primoratz, 15-29. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2004.

Raymond, Gregory A. “The Evolving Strategies of Political Terrorism” in The New Global Terrorism: Characteristics, Causes, Controls edited by Charles W. Kegley, Jr., 71-83. New Jersey, US: Pearson Education, 2003.

Sharma, D. P. The New Terrorism Islamist International. New Delhi, India: APH Publishing Corporation, 2005.

Townshend, Charles. Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

US Department of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, Patterns of Global Terrorism, publication 11124 April 2004. Washington DC: US Department of State, 2003.


[1] D. P. Sharma, The New Terrorism Islamist International (New Delhi, India: APH Publishing Corporation, 2005), 23.

[2] Walter Laqueur, Terrorism (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977), 5.

[3] Jack P. Gibbs, “Conceptualization of terrorism” in Terrorism Studies: A Reader ed. John Horgan and Kurt Braddock (London: Taylor & Francis, 2009), 63.

[4] Conor Gearty, “Introduction” in Terrorism, ed. Conor Gearty (Aldershot, UK: Dartmouth Publishing, 1996), xi.

[5] Paul R. Pillar, Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (Washington DC, US: Brookings Institution, 2003), 13.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gregory A. Raymond, “The Evolving Strategies of Political Terrorism” in The New Global Terrorism: Characteristics, Causes, Controls ed. Charles W. Kegley, Jr. (New Jersey, US: Pearson Education, 2003), 72.

[8] Cynthia C. Combs, Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, Seventh Edition, (Philadelphia, US: Taylor & Francis, 2012), 6.

[9] Gregory A. Raymond, “The Evolving Strategies of Political Terrorism” in The New Global Terrorism: Characteristics, Causes, Controls ed. Charles W. Kegley, Jr. (New Jersey, US: Pearson Education, 2003), 72.

[10] Clark McCauley, “Psychological Issus in Understanding Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism” in Psychology of Terrorism ed. Bruce Bongar and others. (New York, US: Oxford University Press, 2006), 23.

[11] Charles Townshend, Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 3.

[12] US Department of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, Patterns of Global Terrorism, publication 11124 April 2004 (Washington DC: US Department of State, 2003), xii.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Igor Primoratz, “What Is Terrorism?” in Terrorism: The Philosophical Issues ed. Igor Primoratz (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2004), 16.

[15] Heather S. Gregg, “Defining and Distinguishing Secular and Religious Terrorism”, Perspectives on Terrorism, vol. 8, no. 2 (2014): 37.

[16] “What is ‘Islamic State’?”, BBC News, BBC, accessed October 24, 2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29052144.

[17] George Michael, Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance (Tennessee, US: Vanderbilt University Press, 2012), 1.

[18] Ibid.


One thought on “Emily Hill’s definition of ‘terrorism’

  1. This is a very good essay which demonstrates very good knowledge and understanding of the key underlying controversies, with very good use of examples. It is also very well researched, very well structured, and very well referenced.

    At the same time, though the author often put her finger on the core controversies, the essay could often develop a little more the issue of why it is appropriate for this or that type of example of be labelled ‘terrorism’ – e.g. why should religious attacks get the label, why should almost any ‘illegitimate’ political violence be labelled ‘terrorism’, and so on. The essay often comes close to discussing this and in some case does so to some extent (on state terrorism for instance), but often this is a line of critical discussion that the essay stop short of.

    The other main issue is language, or rather punctuation. Let’s be clear: the essay is well written. Nonetheless, sometimes the punctuation interrupts the rhythm, flow and clarity of your discussion.

    That said, this remains a very good discussion which demonstrates very good insight and mastery of the topic, and a good critical reading of a range of texts.


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