Malte Jütting’s definition of ‘terrorism’

“An act of violence or threatened violence perpetrated by non-state actors, which targets randomly chosen or symbolic non-combatant victims in order to create a climate of extreme fear in a wider audience for political, social or religious motives.”

By Malte Jütting (2016)

Although we are confronted with the term “terrorism” almost every day, it is not always obvious what “this ‘it’ to which we attribute so much influence today” (Combs 2013, 2) really describes and, maybe even more important during times in which media and politicians are using this term so often, what it does not. However, not only the media pools various acts and different concepts with the help of this term, but governments or public and private agencies are doing the same (Martin 2013, 35). In recent decades, scholars “have proposed and analysed dozens of definitional constructs” (Martin 2013, 35) but were not able to establish “a coherent definition of terrorism” (Innes and Levi 2012, 661). As a matter of fact, Teichman has already stated over 25 years ago that “the term is notoriously difficult to define” (Teichman 1989, 505) – so what about 2016 with all the new phenomena labelled as terrorism as, for example, cyber-terrorism? As different authors have discussed, defining the term terrorism is especially challenging due to its politicisation, social construction and implicit value judgements (Combs 2013, 2; Innes and Levi 2012, 661; Whittaker 2012, 10). In other terms, the same act of violence would be described and classified very differently among different audiences due to the observers’ various perspectives, attitudes and values (Teichman 1989, 507). Hence, a comparatively neutral and broad definition developed by the renowned scholar Bruce Hoffman should serve as a starting point for this essay:

“The deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of change.” (Hoffman 2006 as cited in Whittaker 2012, 10)

The strength of the broad definition presented by Bruce Hoffman can be perceived as its weakness at the same time. Applying this definition, many conventional wars, guerrilla and civil wars, genocides or insurgencies as well as counter-insurgencies could be labelled as terrorism. The catch-all approach used in this definition hampers the differentiation between various acts of political violence, which is necessary in order to operationalize and analyse terrorism properly (Young 2016, 1). This essay’s aim is not to reinvent the wheel and come up with a new ground-breaking definition of terrorism, but rather to rethink the criteria and assumptions behind established definitions in order to obtain a revised definition, which enables a higher analytic precision, at the end of the essay. The criteria, which are going to be examined, are derived from current literature and address the following topics: legality, motives, actors, victims, audience and methods.

According to Hoffman´s definition, terrorism can be described as an act of “violence” or the “threat of violence”, which is widely shared among scholars (Combs 2013, 6; Gibbs 2011, 64; Phillips 2015, 227). However, it remains open to discuss whether these acts of violence should be framed as illegal within the wording of the definition of terrorism (Gibbs 2011, 64). There is no question about the observation that acts of terrorism usually “violate the norms regulating disputes, protest and dissent” (Wilkinson 2011, 4) in a given society. But as the word ‘illegal’ is somehow value-laden, the inclusion of the term as a key component of the definition would give more descriptive power to the perception of an act by government officials rather than to the nature of the act in itself (Gibbs 2011, 65). Furthermore, the analysis of the concept of legality has to be embedded in a given political and historical context as statutes and laws may change over time. Hence, it would be more difficult for academic research to analyse various acts of terrorism from a longitudinal perspective. Moreover, the word ‘illegal’ can be used as a gateway for a regime to label members of the opposition as terrorists and criminals or to impose different standards on different groups and organisations. Examples for the latter can be found looking at the wave of left-wing terrorism in Latin-American countries such as Argentina, El Salvador or Guatemala. While left-wing groups had been labelled as ‘illegal’ and therefore ‘terrorist’, right-wing organisations were supported by governments and armies (Sprinzak 2011, 196). Against this backdrop, an academic definition of terrorism, which can be used for research purposes, should not rely on political or judicial attributions such as ‘illegal’, but rather be based on the nature of the act in itself. Hence, the term ‘illegal’ will be excluded from the definition, which will be developed in the course of this essay.

The motives of the perpetrators play a role in many definitions of terrorism and Hoffman takes them into account by using the wording “in the pursuit of change”. Nevertheless, this phrase seems to remain relatively vague compared to other authors, who focus on political aims as a key element of the definition (Innes and Levi 2012, 662; Martin 2013, 37; Phillips 2015, 227). However, the restriction to the term ‘political’ leads to a definition of terrorism which is too narrow, since it excludes several acts and organisations from being viewed as terrorist. In this regard, Cynthia Combs (2013, 6) does not only refer to political, but to social motives as well. Additionally, religious motives should explicitly be included in the definition of terrorism due to the observation that “religious elements have always been important in modern terror” (Rapoport 2011, 51). For instance, this would allow us to include the acts of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Aum Shinrikyo and other well-known groups, which should definitely be defined as terrorist, but for which religious motives appear to be more important than pure political goals. Due to the fact that acts of terrorism can have a great influence on economics and the observation that terrorist organisations regularly strive for control over natural resources or are involved in drug trafficking (Combs 2013, 113-120; 125-126), it can be discussed whether economic motives should be covered by the definition as well. On the other side, an economic motive appears more to be a means to an end (e.g. financing of other activities) than to be a key reason in itself. Therefore, the exclusion of economic motives in the definition could be a possible approach in order to establish an analytical differentiation between terrorism and organised crime. Furthermore, all acts which do not strike for a particular goal will be excluded from the definition as well. Since research shows that most terrorists are not “pathological and psychotic individuals” (Innes and Levi 2012, 664), the definition should not cover acts of amok and other criminal mass-murdering, in which the other motives do not play any role. In contrast, the act can be described as terrorist if the key motive is one of the motives included in the definition, even if the perpetrator is mentally-ill.

In contrast to the definition presented by Bruce Hoffman, the nature of the perpetrators is the starting point for many academic and political discussions about the definition of terrorism. According to Gus Martin (2013, 35), especially the role of the state is one of the main challenges. While Martin defines terrorism along the criterion of “subnational actors” (Martin 2013, 37), Hoffman choses a different approach. On the one hand, it can be argued that states have been considered as the perpetrators in initial definitions (Teichman 1989, 508) and that the acts of terrorism perpetrated by various regimes throughout history have, due to their monopolistic control of military and police forces, reached dimensions which non-state actors can hardly achieve (Wilkinson 2011, 6; 17). On the other hand, the inclusion of states in the definition of terrorism, as it would be possible in Hoffman´s one, could overstretch the concept and lead to a further vagueness, which would not allow a precise empirical analysis of the phenomenon anymore. A definition of the term covering states raises more questions than it can answer. For instance, it brings up the question of how terrorism could be differentiated from concepts like genocide, war crime or crimes against humanity. If states are included in the definition, the regime of Nazi-Germany could be definitely described as terrorist. However, it is debatable whether a comparison of the crimes committed by this regime to the acts perpetrated by Irgun or the ANC is appropriate and empirically meaningful. Although both can be considered as forms of extreme political violence and none of these acts should be relativized, a distinction between the two categories would not only lead to a better understanding of terrorism, but also of other types of political violence. It should be emphasised that the aim of this distinction is not to “morally separate” (Innes and Levi 2012, 663) or even legitimise the cruel misbehaviour of states. In fact, there are legal concepts in international humanitarian law which are more suitable and can therefore be applied in such cases.

Similar to the exclusion of the perpetrators, Bruce Hoffman does not mention any victims in his definition of terrorism. Although Philipps (2015, 227) claims that victims do not necessarily have to be mentioned in order to characterise terrorism, it would be expedient to not only include the perpetrators in the definition, but also the opposing party involved. Following the argumentation of various authors (Combs 2013, 6; Martin 2013, 37; Teichman 1989, 513), it should be made explicit that acts of terrorism usually target non-combatants, who are either civilians or passive military forces. By applying this criterion, terrorist organisations should analytically be separated from groups engaged in guerrilla or civil war. The choice of victims can encompass randomly chosen as well as well-selected symbolic targets (Teichman 1989, 510; Wilkinson 2011, 4). Whereby the first describes many of today´s bombings committed by, for example, ISIS or Al-Qaeda, the second refers to the attacks of organisations such as the Red Army Faction or the Red Brigades.

Of even greater importance than immediate victims for a definition of terrorism is the wider audience, which is addressed through the act, as Hoffman underlines by using the phrase “creation and exploitation of fear”. In this regard, a very striking wording is also presented by Cynthia Combs, who defines terrorism “as a synthesis of war and theatre […] played before an audience in the hope of creating a mood of fear” (Combs 2013, 5). Far-reaching psychological effects leading to a spread of fear, which terrorists want to create, therefore seem to be inherent in the character of terrorism (Martin 2013, 37; Phillips 2015, 227; Wilkinson 2011, 4). This “desire to communicate an intimidatory message beyond the immediate victims” (Innes and Levi 2012, 662) is often expressed in the claims of responsibility made by the various organisations. Examples throughout history range from the statements made by Irgun after the King David hotel bombing via pictures of their hostages published by the Red Army Faction to the elaborate media campaigns using modern communication technologies by ISIS.

Although Bruce Hoffman does not apply this criterion, this essay reflects on the question whether terrorism can be characterised by the use of specific methods or tactics. For instance, Gus Martin defines terrorism by the use of “unconventional methods” (Martin 2013, 37). Common perceptions of terrorism are closely linked to the images of asymmetry, limited weaponry (compared to regular military forces) and self-built bombs. Some authors even propose that terrorism can be regarded as an act of “self-help by relatively weak minority positions” (Innes and Levi 2012, 663). But is terrorism necessarily based on low budgets and do the methods have to differ “from conventional military operations in a war, a civil war, or so-called guerrilla warfare” (Gibbs 2011, 64) in each and every case? This criterion, which was considered to be more significant in previous times, has to be revised for three reasons. First of all, terrorism is not about small budgets and limited weaponry anymore. For example, ISIS could base the financing of their operations on the incomes of conquered oil fields and had access to advanced weaponry out of the stocks of the Iraqi army (Simon and Fromson 2015, 10; 41). Second, “the possibility of terrorists using nuclear, chemical or bacteriological weapons cannot be discounted” (Wilkinson 2011, 17) as the case of Aum Shinrikyo in Japan has shown. Third, the clear differentiation between (guerrilla or civil) warfare and terrorism seems to blur (Gibbs 2011, 65). The long-lasting distinction from guerrilla or insurgent groups based on the criterion of territorial control (Phillips 2015, 231; Whittaker 2012, 8) does not hold true anymore as ISIS exercises control over a particular territory and its population. On these grounds, a specific description of methods should not be a definitional characteristic of the term.

Based on the different characteristics, which have been included or excluded in the course of this essay, the term terrorism should be defined as follows:

An act of violence or threatened violence perpetrated by non-state actors, which targets randomly chosen or symbolic non-combatant victims in order to create a climate of extreme fear in a wider audience for political, social or religious motives.

In contrast to Hoffman´s definition, which is cited at the beginning of the essay, this revised definition of terrorism strives for providing clear criteria, which enable a distinction between cases of terrorism and other acts of political violence. Nevertheless, the necessity of “operationalizing the phenomenon once a definition is established” (Young 2016, 1) remains an open topic for further research.


Combs, Cynthia C. (2013): Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. Boston: Pearson.

Gibbs, Jack P. (2011): “Conceptualization of Terrorism.” In: Horgan, John/Braddock, Kurt (eds.): Terrorism Studies: A Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, 63–75.

Innes, Martin/Levi, Michael (2012): “Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism.” In: Maguire, Mike/Morgan, Rod/Reiner, Robert (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Criminology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 660–685.

Martin, Gus (2013): Understanding Terrorism: Challenges, Perspectives and Issues. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Phillips, Brian J. (2015): “What is a Terrorist Group? Conceptual Issues and Empirical Implications.” In: Terrorism and Political Violence 27 (2): 225–242.

Rapoport, David C. (2011): “The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism.” In: Horgan, John/Braddock, Kurt (eds.): Terrorism Studies: A Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, 41–60.

Simon, Steven/Fromson, James (2015): “ISIS: The Dubious Paradise of Apocalypse Now.” In: Survival. Global Politics and Strategy 57 (3): 7–56.

Sprinzak, Ehud (2011): “Right-Wing Terrorism in a Comparative Perspective: The Case of Split Delegitimization.” In: Horgan, John/Braddock, Kurt (eds.): Terrorism Studies: A Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, 187–205.

Teichman, Jenny (1989): “How to Define Terrorism.” In: Philosophy 64 (250): 505–517.

Whittaker, David J. (2012): The Terrorism Reader. Abingdon: Routledge.

Wilkinson, Paul (2011): Terrorism versus Democracy: The Liberal State Response. Abingdon: Routledge.

Young, Joseph K. (2016): “Measuring Terrorism.” In: Terrorism and Political Violence. Retrieved from URL: 09546553.2016.1228630?needAccess=true (October 20, 2016).


One thought on “Malte Jütting’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 (apart from one minor omission in the bibliography).

    One of the aspects that could arguably be improved a little is language. To be clear: this is essay is very well written already, but sometimes the flow of the argument could be improved ever so slightly with perhaps a slightly different choice of words, or a slightly smoother rhythm of flow and counter-flow.

    In terms of content, the essay does cover pretty must all controversial clauses, but perhaps could have also reflected a little on the question of premeditation. Perhaps a little more could have also been offered in terms of discussing what a broad definition achieves: what impact it has, why labelling a broad variety of acts ‘terrorism’ is helpful, etc.

    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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