Definitions of Terrorism

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This page consists of an extract from David Miller's book, Don't Mention the War: Northern Ireland, Propaganda and the Media (London: Pluto Press, 1994, p. 4-7) and is reproduced by permission of the author.

Definitions of terrorism

For Western governments, 'terrorism' is an illegitimate form of violence which is a dangerous threat to liberal democracies. There is another 'alternative' view which emphasises the rhetorical and ideological functions of the term terrorism. In this view Western governments and counterinsurgency writers label only their enemies as terrorists and ignore their own 'terrorist' actions and those of their allies or friends.

Almost all writers are agreed that 'terrorism' is the 'systematic' use of 'murder' or other physical violence for political ends. In particular, there is substantial agreement that 'terrorist' violence is either 'indiscriminate' or mostly targets civilians or both (e.g. Gearty 1991; Thackrah 1987; Wilkinson 1978; 1990; Wright 1991). Were we to use the killing of civilians as a criterion and apply it literally to the Northern Ireland conflict, we would be unable to label the IRA unequivocally as 'terrorist' since a minority (37.4%) of victims of the IRA between 1969 and June 1989 were civilians. On the other hand, the Army and the police in Northern Ireland would be categorised as 'terrorists' since a majority of the people they have killed were civilians (54.4%) (Irish Information Partnership 1990). Of course, the 'security forces' would claim that they do not kill civilians deliberately, but then so would the IRA. Indeed the IRA routinely apologises when it does kill civilians 'by mistake'.

The degree of discrimination in targets is not, however, a reliable guide to the organisations described as 'terrorist' in the writings of 'counterinsurgency' theorists. Writers such as Wilkinson do not apply their definitions with any rigour. The IRA are referred to as 'terrorist' not according to their targets, but whatever they do. Counterinsurgency theorists have already made up their minds about the groups they think of as 'terrorist'. They then manage to define 'terrorism' so that it fits with their own preconceptions. For example, Paul Wilkinson writes that:

Terrorism can be briefly defined as coercive intimidation or more fully as the systematic use of murder, injury, and destruction or threat of same to create a climate of terror, to publicise a cause, and to coerce a wider target into submitting to its aims (Wilkinson 1990:27).

In principle this could fit any form of political violence, including state violence. So could the definition written into British Law in the Prevention of Terrorism Act:

'Terrorism' means the use of violence for political ends and includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public or any section of the public in fear (cited in Walker 1992:7).

But in practice it is only the violence of non-state groups, or non-western states, to which these definitions refer. Even writers from a civil liberties perspective such as Conor Gearty are vulnerable to polemical uses of the term.

Gearty's concern is to narrow the definition to make it less partisan, as well as to tease out the subtleties of meaning in writing on 'terrorism'. This leads him to set out a definition of 'pure' or 'core' terrorism which he regards as sufficient for the task:

Acts of violence which we consider unambiguously terrorist have certain characteristics in common. They uniformly involve the deliberate infliction or... the threatened infliction of severe physical violence; killing and maiming are the trademark of the true terrorists. Such acts are not in themselves rare in contemporary society. Despotic government may do the same, but, unlike the practitioner of subversive terror, they have the authority of the state to enforce and legitimate their actions (Gearty 1991:8)

Unfortunately even this is not immune from polemical implications. When his definition does not work, Gearty manipulates it to distinguish groups of which he apparently approves (the African National Congress are referred to as a 'genuine' liberation movement (1991: 98)), from those of which he disapproves. This is especially clear in the case of Northern Ireland where, in order to call the IRA 'terrorists', he redefines 'pure' terrorism from the 'deliberate infliction' (1991:8) of indiscriminate violence, to violence which is 'for all practical purposes indiscriminate in its effect' (1991:126) . It should also be noted that his definition explicitly leaves state violence out, making it a good deal more partisan than that given by either Wilkinson or the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The problem which this points up is, though, common to counterinsurgency theory as well. Despotic governments are excluded because 'they have the authority of the state to legitimate their actions'. But the legitimacy of even 'democratic' states such as the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland' (to give it its full title) is not definitively established. The legitimacy of British rule of the 'six counties' of Northern Ireland is precisely the point of contention between the IRA and the British government. It is hardly neutral to accept the claim of one side to be the legitimate rulers and define 'terrorism' so that it fits only the actions of the other side.

The most fundamental problem with trying to define 'terrorism' is that it is contested. Noam Chomsky illustrates this by citing St Augustine:

St. Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great. 'How dare you molest the sea?' asked Alexander. 'How dare you molest the whole world?' the pirate replied. 'Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief; you, doing it with a great navy, are called an emperor' (Chomsky 1991:9).

Were a non-partisan definition possible, then it would either be ignored by those who have the power to define it in world politics, or a new term of abuse would be found. But as things stand 'terrorism' is pejorative and is only used to describe violence of which the user disapproves. In contemporary debate the usage of the term can mainly be explained 'in terms of Western interests and policy, not by the actions and plans of the "terrorists"'(Herman and O'Sullivan 1991:39). If 'terrorism' consists of either 'strategic' or 'indiscriminate' attacks in which the victims are civilian, then why are the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima, Vietnam and the Greenpeace ship 'Rainbow Warrior' by the French Secret Service, not defined as 'terrorist'? And why was the carpet bombing of civilians in Iraq during the Gulf War not terrorism? Why are the killings on Bloody Sunday in Derry 1972 when 13 civilians were shot dead by the Paratroop Regiment, or the killing of civilians, John Downes by plastic bullet in 1984, taxi driver, Ken Stronge in 1988 and the more than 300 other civilians killed by the British Army and RUC not described as 'terrorism'? Because, as George argues, the term '"terrorism" has been virtually appropriated to signify atrocities targeting the West' (George 1991b:1).

The labelling of one organisation or action as 'terrorist' is intimately related to questions of power and influence. The attempt to label an opponent as 'terrorist' is not a question of more and more exactly delineating the actions which qualify as terrorist from those which don't. Defining opponents as 'terrorists' represents an active pursuit of legitimacy. Such legitimation strategies are central to the operation of all governments, whether they are dictatorships or liberal-democracies.



  • Chomsky, Noam (1991) Pirates and Emperors: International Terrorism in the Real World, Montreal: Black Rose Books.
  • Gearty, Conor (1991) Terror, London:Faber
  • George, Alexander (ed) (1991) Western State Terrorism, Cambridge:Polity.
  • Herman, Edward, and O'Sullivan, Gerry (1991) '"Terrorism" as Ideology and Cultural Industry' in George, Western State Terrorism, Cambridge: Polity.
  • Irish Information Partnership (1990) Irish Information Agenda, 6th Edition, London: Irish Information Partnership.
  • Tharckrah, R. (1987) 'Terrorism a definitional problem', in Wilkinson, Paul and Stewart, Alasdair (eds) (1987) Contemporary Research on Terrorism. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.
  • Wilkinson, Paul (1977) Terrorism and the Liberal State, London:Macmillan.
  • Wilkinson, Paul (1990) 'Terrorism and Propaganda' in Y. Alexander R. and Latter (eds) Terrorism and the Media: Dilemmas for Government, Journalists and the Public, Washington: Brassey's
  • Wright, Joanne (1991) Terrorist Propaganda: The Red Army Faction and the Provisional IRA, 1968-86, London: Macmillan.