What is Terrorism?

Posted: July 13th, 2021

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What is Terrorism?

The term “terrorism” does not have a single definition or explanation. Terrorism can be defined as the use of violence for political purposes, which is not recognized by leaders of political units that are legitimate. Terrorism is a political tactic rather than an ideology since it is used to create fear in a perceived adversary or opponent (Primoratz, 1990). A terrorist is an individual or group that uses violence and force in pursuit of extreme ideological, religious, or political goals (Golder & George, 2004). Terrorism may be domestic or be perpetrated by international actors. While states cannot commit terrorism by definition, there exists state-sponsored terrorism, where a state finds individuals to commit terror and provides all the necessary resources for a terrorist act, as well as state-endorsed terrorism, where a state provides refuge to terrorists and does not interfere with their actions. There also exists unofficial state terrorism where the state organizes clandestine terror acts and then disavows them when state agents are caught.

The definition of terrorism depends on an individual’s point of view. When one identifies with the victim of the force and violence, they look at the act as terrorism. When one does not identify with the victims of the violence or force, then the act is not considered terrorism. While the defining characteristic of terrorism is mostly viewed as the violent act, the motivations behind the act have to be considered when addressing terrorism (Sánchez-Cuenca & De la Calle, 2009). When the focus is only on the violent act, there is no way of differentiating violence perpetrated by states and that perpetrated by non-state actors. Terrorism may be the use of violence against people or states in pursuit of a political goal, or the threatened use of such violence. Terrorism can be differentiated from other acts of violence based on three major factors: terrorism is usually a political act that is perpetrated for purposes of achieving a political goal; terrorism is perpetrated by non-state actors, and it is designed to provoke fear in a much wider audience than the immediate victims.

Terrorism is considered a form of political violence since it is perpetrated by state or non-state actors for political goals or purposes. Any form of violence that is perpetrated by a government or by people with the aim of achieving certain political goals is referred to as political violence. Terrorism fits this description as it is violence used by individuals, states, or groups against a group of people or against other states. Terrorism is often politically-motivated violence and force by non-state actors against other non-state actors or against the state. Political violence usually takes a form of warfare and violence where neither side of the warfare can directly attack the other, as a result of power imbalances between non-state and state actors. As a result, political violence materializes in the form of terrorism and guerilla warfare, where civilians or targets that are non-combatant are attacked.

Political violence often takes the form of terrorism since it is mostly perpetrated by non-state actors against the state or other non-state actors to achieve objectives that are political (Sánchez-Cuenca & De la Calle, 2009). Many people or groups of people believe that political systems and governments cannot respond to their needs and demands without being forced to. It is for this reason that groups of non-state actors use violence to achieve their political objectives. In addition, some state actors and governments believe that violence is necessary for the purposes of intimidating citizens into acquiescence. State actors may also use terrorism or political violence to defend their state from invasion or to coerce other governments into fulfilling their political objectives. Terrorism becomes political violence when it is intentional, perpetrated against civilians or states, for political reasons or objectives (Sánchez-Cuenca & De la Calle, 2009). To understand political violence, it is important to consider the various factors involved and not just the act of violence.

The consideration of factors such as the motivations behind political violence, the sources of the violence, and the target of the violence provides a better understanding of political violence. Motivations behind political violence are the political motives and goals that push state or non-state actors to orchestrate violence acts (Tucker, 2001). The sources of political violence could be government actors, rebels, ethnic groups, militias, political organizations, or civilians. Rebel groups, organized political groups, and militias are regarded as politically violent actors that use violence for purposes of political authority and political agenda, including access to state resources, government control, or territorial control.

In conclusion, terrorism can be defined as the use of violence or threats by non-state actors against groups of people or non-combatant groups in pursuit of political objectives or goals. Terrorism is a form of political violence since it is riven by political reasons and goals. It can be differentiated from other forms of violence by three main factors: political motive, non-state actors, and the design to provoke fear in a wider audience rather than the immediate victims. It is important that the source, target, and reasons behind political violence are understood to effectively deal with violence.


Golder, B., & George, W. (2004). What is Terrorism-Problems of Legal Definition. UNSWLJ, 27, 270.

Primoratz, I. (1990). What is terrorism?. Journal of applied philosophy, 7(2), 129-138.

Sánchez-Cuenca, I., & De la Calle, L. (2009). Domestic terrorism: The hidden side of political violence. Annual Review of Political Science, 12, 31-49.

Tucker, D. (2001). What is new about the new terrorism and how dangerous is it?. Terrorism and Political Violence, 13(3), 1-14.

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