Defining Terrorism

Le 19 septembre 1989, le vol UTA 772 DC10 de la compagnie française UTA explose en vol, au dessus du désert du Ténéré © Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères

The diversity of terrorist organizations and contexts in which they operate (ideological, social, organizational, etc.) make it difficult to put forward a stable definition. That is especially true given the shifting nature of terrorism and the fact that most terrorist organizations, rightfully or wrongfully, reject this label, preferring instead to refer to themselves as combatants, revolutionaries, or jihadists. It is also worth noting that acts of terrorism are not the only methods used by such organizations; they also resort to economic, political, and military tactics. Finally, since the nineteenth century, the fact that there is no universal legal definition for terrorism has led to the instrumentalized use of the term, at times by non-democratic regimes to justify suppressing their opponents. That has generated some skepticism around the term.

Disagreement between member nations of the United Nations explains why it has not put out a legal definition of terrorismsee. The Council of the European Unionsee provides a definition that is free of particular motivations: an intention to seriously intimidate a population; unduly compel a government to perform or abstain from performing any act; seriously destabilize or destroy fundamental political, constitutional, economic, or social structures of a country or international organization. In French law, the law of September 9, 1986see “on the fight against terrorism and attacks on state security” is the first to define terrorism: “an individual or collective enterprise whose objective is to gravely disrupt public order through intimidation and terror”.

Terrorism is also a point of debate among scholars. Some determining features can however be discerned:

  • The use or threat of extreme, intentional, and disproportionate violence that leads to the destruction of life, infrastructure, or information;
  • The intention to intimidate or destabilize a system (state, society, human or political group), to destroy it or force it to act against its will;
  • Often an organization (cell, movement, network, etc.) with a stated ideology, even if the act itself is often undertaken by a single individual;
  • A performative dimension that seeks to capture public attention;
  • Political, religious, or social objectives;
  • A rejection of national and international laws in the name of another form of legitimacy.

An act of terrorism is therefore the deliberate use of disproportionate violence and asymmetrical tactics by actors presenting themselves at times as underdogs. An act of terrorism is set into motion by what are generally organized and clandestine entities whose aim is to elicit collective terror. Targets are proxies in a mission to undermine a legal order; intimidate or compel a government, regime, or nation to give in to demands; and obtain a political and ideological objective that perpetrators deem legitimate.