Natali Dimitrova’s definition of ‘terrorism’

“The use of violence for political aims against civilian targets by non-state actors.”

By Natali Dimitrova (2016)

It is difficult to hold an informed and productive discussion on the subject of terrorism without defining the term first. A mere skim over academic literature and official documents quickly reveals that no commonly accepted definition exists. Following a survey of leading academics in the field, Schmidt and Jongman (1988) list over a hundred formulations, with Schmid concluding that he himself “cannot offer a true or correct definition of terrorism” (Schmidt and Jongman, 1988, p.Xiii). A powerful illustration of the problem is the fact that, following 15 years of negotiation, the United Nations has been similarly unable to reach consensus over how to characterise ‘terrorism’ (Badey, 1998, p.90). This definitional impasse has lead authors like Fletcher and Waldon to question whether such an endeavour is even worthwhile. Echoing the infamous sentiment of Justice Steward regarding pornography, they assert that, in relation to terrorism, “we know it when we see it” (Fletcher, 2004, p.2; Waldron, 2004, p.6). This essay will reject such reasoning and posit that it is not only possible, but essential, to attempt to coin a neutral and practical definition of ‘terrorism’. The first part of this paper will contrast ‘terrorism’ with common criminality and characterise the former as ultimately entailing a political aim. The following section will draw a distinction between terrorism and other forms of political violence, such as guerilla warfare. Next, provisions related to the victims of terrorist activity will be discussed, siding with usage of the term ‘civilian,’ rather than ‘innocent’ or ‘noncombatant.’ Finally, this paper will contend that ‘non-state actors,’ rather than States themselves, should be identified as the perpetrators of ‘terrorism.’ ‘Terrorism’ will then be defined as ‘the use of violence for political aims against civilian targets by non-state actors’.

It is important to, first of all, distinguish terrorism from mere criminality. Although both can constitute similar acts, such as kidnappings, bank robberies or armed attacks, criminal activity is merely an outcome, rather than the chief objective, for terrorists. As put by Badey (1998, 95): “The criminal’s primary motive may be greed, while the terrorist’s is the pursuit of a political agenda.” This statement should be unpacked further. As terrorists are fundamentally unable to directly influence States, they resort to indirect instrumentalism by targeting third parties (Schinkel, 2009, p.181). In this sense, terrorist acts are ultimately a means to a political end (see Crenshaw, p.13; Pranha, 2008, p.130). Significantly, it is the kind of means utilised which are the defining characteristic of terrorism, namely violence (Garrison, 2004, p.259; Prabha 2008, p. 133). Although ‘terrorism’ necessarily involves this, not all types of violence constitute ‘terrorism,’ per se (Best and Nocella, 2004, p.4). For example, this essay argues that violence to property should be excluded from the definition, as such actions are already sufficiently covered under other terms (i.e. ‘sabbotage,’ ‘vandalism’ and others) and have sufficient penalties attached to them. Authors like Best and Nocella (2004, p.9) similarly contend such actions “do not merit being upgraded… to terrorism.” A distinction should also be made between ‘terrorism’ and other types of political violence. As the label is unavoidably politically and emotionally charged, many terrorist organisations have sought to dissociate with such classifications and have instead chosen to identify themselves with ambiguous terms such as ‘guerilla movements’ (Ganor 2002, p.291). This is done in an effort to legitimise their actions by framing them in terms of ‘revolutionary violence’ and ‘national liberation’ (Ganor 2002, p.291). This has resulted in the promulgation of the popular cliche ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. The following statement of Salah Khalef (Abu Iyad), a leading figure of Fatah and Black September and one of the men responsible for the death of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics in Munich, exemplifies this point:

By nature, and even on ideological grounds, I am firmly opposed to political murder and, more generally, to terrorism. Nevertheless, unlike many others, I do not confuse revolutionary violence with terrorism, or operations that constitute political acts with others that do not (Iyad, 1983, p.146).

It is important to disentangle these concepts, as arriving at a consistent definition of ‘terrorism’ is also a prerequisite to addressing related questions of morality, such as the legitimacy of guerrilla and terrorist acts as a form of modern warfare. In distinguishing between the two, this paper sides with Ganor (2002) and Wilkinson (1994), who extend the principles outlined in the Geneva and Hague Conventions, which distinguish between the harming of civilians and the harming of military personnel (United Nations, 1949). Ganor (2002, p.288), for example, defines ‘guerilla warfare’ as “the deliberate use of violence against military and security personnel in order to attain political, ideological and religious goals.” The author then characterises ‘terrorism,’ as “the deliberate use or the threat to use violence against civilians in order to attain political, ideological and religious aims” (Ganor, 2002, p.288). This formulation, therefore, makes a conscious distinction between means and goals. The potential objective of both groups may be the same, however, the two entities are differentiated by the means used to achieve these aims. The former will target military subjects, while the latter will purposefully go after civilians. Such framing prevents anyone who intentionally targets civilians from hiding behind the cloak of ‘freedom fighter,’ even if the grievances they are fighting to redress may be deemed legitimate. Making this formal distinction and attaching different penalties to perpetrators of these activities has practical value, as it has the potential to shift the cost-benefit analysis of terrorist organisations and their donors. At present, there is little incentive to pursue one strategy over another, as the punishment associated with either activity is very much the same. Disentangling these concepts and assigning a harsher penalty to violence perpetrated against civilians (by including ‘violence targeting civilians’ as a provision in the definition of ‘terrorism’) could, theoretically, act as a future deterrent.

As noted by Coady (2004, p.3): “There are two central philosophical questions about terrorism ‘what is it?’ and ‘what, if anything, is wrong with it?’” In his paper, Meisels (2009, p.333) similarly endeavours to resolve the first question, “because of the importance of the second.” These are, therefore, conceptually different issues and any proposed definition of ‘terrorism’ should only deal with the former but not the latter – it should be value-free. A major problem in existing formulations, however, is the fact the wording put forward inevitably reflects an inherent bias, if not an outright attempt, to manipulate the meaning in such a way as to protect the interests and forward the agenda of the authors. Some formulations, for example, include a clause stipulating that terrorist acts harm the ‘innocent,’ rather than the ‘civilians.’ For example, Benjamin Netanyahu’s book Terrorism: How the West Can Win defines terrorism as “‘the deliberate and systematic murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends’’ (ibid. 1986, p.9). This paper rejects such formulations and views the term ‘innocent’ as both subjective and unhelpful in the search for a coherent definition, as it rests on a person’s individual viewpoint as to who is ‘innocent’. Such wording makes an emotional appeal intended to elicit sympathy for the victims and highlight the brutality of terrorism (Ganon, 2002, p.293). As such, it conflates the two questions previously mentioned and should be avoided. Substituting the term ‘civilian’ with ‘noncombatant’ is equally problematic. As noncombatants can include both military and civilian targets, this muddles rather than clarifies what ‘terrorism’ stands for. A striking illustration of this is an exchange between Ned Walker, Assistant to the Undersecretary for Middle East Affairs at the US State Department, and the Hon. Lee Hamilton, chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, which took place in the context of talks between the PLO and the United States. When cornered to agree that the State Department’s definition of terrorism (defined as a politically motivated attack on “noncombatants”) would exclude attacks on military units in Israel, Walker hesitates and concedes that individual circumstances would have to be taken into consideration. In the end, he simply avoids the definitional line of questioning altogether, saying it would “not be productive to get into a description of the various terms and conditions under which we are going to define an act by the PLO as terrorism” (Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1989, p.66). This essay, therefore, argues that the victim clause included in the definition of ‘terrorism’ should refer to ‘civilians,’ rather than ‘noncombatants,’ ‘innocents’ or other vague phrasing.

Finally, some scholars do not differentiate between violence perpetrated by state and non-state actors, in relation to the conceptualization of ‘terrorism’ (see Wellman, 1979; Wardlaw, 1982; Schmid and Jongman, 1988). Others choose to include States as possible perpetrators in their formulations (see Laquer, 1987). Famously, Noam Chomsky accuses the US of being “a leading terrorist state” (Best and Nocella, 2004, p.6). This essay will define terrorism as an act of ‘non-state agents,’ siding with authors like Gibbs (1989), Enders and Sandler (2002), Hess (2003) and Black (2004). This is done for two reasons. Firstly, transgressions of this type on behalf of countries, rather than organisations, has already been addressed by international legislation (e.g., United Nations, 1949). As summarised by Ganor (2002, p.289):

The term ‘terrorism’ is superfluous when describing the actions of sovereign states – not because states are on a higher moral level, but because, according to the international conventions, any deliberative attack upon civilians in wartime by regular military forces is already defined as a war crime. Should such an attack be carried out during peace-time, the act is defined by convention as ‘crime against humanity. In both cases, such acts are already covered by international law, and provisions exist for dealing with the perpetrators.

Additionally, the resolution of the definitional impasse is not a mere exercise in philosophical reasoning. On the contrary, it has very real consequences for policy-making and counter-terrorism initiatives. Without a commonly accepted definition, systematically combating terrorism through international cooperation is not possible. States are not likely to agree to wording that could potentially implicate them as ‘terrorists’ (Meisels 2009: p.334) and, for practical purposes, it would be prudent to exclude such provisions from a definition which aspires to be universally agreed upon. Terrorism will, therefore, be defined as ‘the use of violence for political aims against civilian targets by non-state actors.’


This essay has argued that ‘terrorism’ is essentially performed as means to a political end. It has contrasted ‘terrorism’ with criminality and other types of politically motivated violence and contended that referring to victims of such acts as ‘noncombatant’ or ‘innocents’ is both loaded and unhelpful. A practical justification as to why only non-state actors should be included as potential perpetrators of ‘terrorism’ is also provided. The definition championed throughout this paper, thus, stands on four pillars – the nature of the activity (i.e. utilising violence); the pursuit of a political aim; the category of victim targeted (i.e. civilians) and the category of perpetrator (i.e. non-state actors). ‘Terrorism’ is therefore defined as ‘the use of violence for political aims against civilian targets by non-state actors.’
















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One thought on “Natali Dimitrova’s definition of ‘terrorism’

  1. This is a very good essay which demonstrates very good knowledge and understanding of the key underlying controversies, and very good critical thinking. It is also very well researched, very well structured, and well referenced (apart from a few minor hiccups in the bibliography).

    At the same time, the essay could evoke more examples to explore the boundaries and implications of your chosen definition. There could also perhaps be some discussion of premeditation and of domestic state repression as ‘terrorism’. And it could discuss the role of fear further.

    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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