International and Domestic Definitions of Terrorism

While definitions exist, consensus is elusive

Illustration of terrorists throwing bomb
Malte Mueller / Getty Images

There is no official definition of terrorism agreed on throughout the world, and definitions tend to rely heavily on who is doing the defining and for what purpose. Some definitions focus on terrorist tactics to define the term, while others focus on the actor. Yet others look at the context and ask if it is military or not.

We will probably never arrive at a perfect definition to which we can all agree, although it does have characteristics to which we all point, like violence or its threat. Indeed, the only defining quality of terrorism may be the fact that it invites argument, since the label "terrorism" or "terrorist" arises when there is disagreement over whether an act of violence is justified (and those who justify it label themselves "revolutionaries" or "freedom fighters," etc.). So, in one sense, it may be fair to say that terrorism is exactly violence (or the threat of violence) in context where there will be disagreement over the use of that violence.

But this doesn't mean that no one has tried to define terrorism! In order to prosecute terrorist acts, or distinguish them from war and other violence that is condoned, national and international institutions, as well as others, have sought to define the term. Here are some of the most frequently cited definitions.

League of Nations Convention Definition of Terrorism, 1937

Ethnic separatist violence in the 1930s provoked the League of Nations, formed after World War I to encourage world stability and peace, to define terrorism for the first time, as:

All criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public.

Terrorism Defined through Multilateral Conventions

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has collated the 12 universal conventions (international agreements) and protocols against terrorism signed since 1963. Although many states have not signed them, all seek to create consensus that certain acts count as terrorism (for example, hijacking a plane), in order to create the means to prosecute them in signatory countries.

U.S. Department of Defense Definition of Terrorism

The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms defines terrorism as:

The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.

Definition of Terrorism under U.S. Law

United States Law Code – the law that governs the entire country – contains a definition of terrorism embedded in its requirement that Annual Country reports on Terrorism be submitted by the Secretary of State to Congress every year. (From U.S. Code Title 22, Ch.38, Para. 2656f(d)

(d) Definitions
As used in this section—
(1) the term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than 1 country;
(2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents;
(3) the term “terrorist group” means any group, or which has significant subgroups which practice, international terrorism;
(4) the terms “territory” and “territory of the country” mean the land, waters, and airspace of the country; and
(5) the terms “terrorist sanctuary” and “sanctuary” mean an area in the territory of the country—
(A) that is used by a terrorist or terrorist organization—
(i) to carry out terrorist activities, including training, fundraising, financing, and recruitment; or
(ii) as a transit point; and
(B) the government of which expressly consents to, or with knowledge, allows, tolerates, or disregards such use of its territory and is not subject to a determination under—
(i) section 2405(j)(1)(A) of the Appendix to title 50;
(ii) section 2371 (a) of this title; or
(iii) section 2780 (d) of this title.

FBI Definition of Terrorism

The FBI defines terrorism as:

The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Definition from the Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism

The Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorismwas adopted by the Council of Arab Ministers of the Interior and the Council of Arab Ministers of Justice in Cairo, Egypt in 1998. Terrorism was defined in the convention as:

Any act or threat of violence, whatever its motives or purposes, that occurs in the advancement of an individual or collective criminal agenda and seeking to sow panic among people, causing fear by harming them, or placing their lives, liberty or security in danger, or seeking to cause damage to the environment or to public or private installations or property or to occupying or seizing them, or seeking to jeopardize a national resources.

Interactive Series on Definitions of Terrorism from Christian Science Monitor

The Christian Science Monitor has created a very good interactive downloadable series called Perspectives on Terrorism: Defning the Line that explores definitions of terrorism. (Note, the full version requires a flash plug in and a minimum screen resolution of 800 x 600).

It can be accessed at: Perspectives on Terrorism.

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Your Citation
Zalman, Amy, Ph.D. "International and Domestic Definitions of Terrorism." ThoughtCo, May. 9, 2018, Zalman, Amy, Ph.D. (2018, May 9). International and Domestic Definitions of Terrorism. Retrieved from Zalman, Amy, Ph.D. "International and Domestic Definitions of Terrorism." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 27, 2018).