Combating Terrorism


Dr. Ali S. Awadh Asseri

(Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon)



      It was specific state practice in late eighteenth century Europe deliberately aimed at intimidating citizens and to prevent anarchy and maintain order that introduced the word ‘terrorism’. To be more precise, the term entered Western vocabulary during the French Revolution , derived from Jacobin rule under Maximilien Robespierre during 1793-94, known as the ‘Reign of Terror”. Over time, however, ‘terrorism’ came to essentially associated with militant activities of private groups and organizations. This is the presumption in almost all of the current attempts by states, or state institutions, especially Western, to define terrorism. For instance, the US Department of Defence defines terrorism as ‘the calculated use of violence or the threat of 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’[1] The British government defines terrorism as ‘the use of threat, for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, or ideological course of action, of serious violence against any person or property’. According to the German government, terrorism is ‘the enduringly conducted struggle for political goals, which are intended to be achieved by means of assaults on the life and property of other persons, especially by means of severe crime’.[2]

       Scholarly definitions of terrorism also abound: For instance, Bruce Hoffman defines terrorism as ‘the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence, or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change’.[3] Alex P. Schmid offers a more comprehensive definition. According to him, terrorism is:

An-anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violence action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby- in contrast to assassination- the direct targets of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as a message generators. Threat – and violence – based communication processes between terrorist (organization), (imperiled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience[s]), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, deoending on whether intimidating, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought.[4]

     However, no government or academic attempt so far to define terrorism has achieved international consensus. The same has been the case with international organizations, which have mostly tried to identify some acts of militancy perpetrated by individuals or groups a ‘terrorist’. For instance, the League of Nations Convention of 1937 had defined terrorism 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’.[5]  Thomas Mockaitis says:

The United Nations has struggled for years to agree on a common definition of terrorism. Two issues consistently block consensus: inclusion of acts of terror by states and the insistence by some members that any definition must distinguish between the acts of terrorists and those whom they consider ‘freedom fighters’. Many also express the justifiable concern that efforts to combat terrorism may erode human rights that the organization has consistently fought to uphold. Faced with this seemingly insurmountable impasse, the organization continues to expand the legal framework for combating terrorism.[6]  

     A United Nations General Assembly Resolution of 1999 pertaining to measures for eliminating international terrorism offered the following to define the acts of ‘terror’: all ‘criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are, in any circumstance, unjustifiable, whatever the consideration of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them’.[7] Currently, twelve international conventions define and outlaw specific terrorist acts ranging from hijacking to bombing.[8] The UN Security Council Resolution 1377, while elaborating upon such acts, described international terrorism as ‘one of the most serious threats to international peace and security in the twenty-first century’ and ‘a challenge to all states and all humanity’.[9] Useful as this approach may be in combating terrorism. It does not offer much guidance in understanding terrorism or its root cause.

       All of these attempts to, theoretically and conceptually, define terrorism by academics, state entities or organizations representing state-governments are problematic. As argued before, state and organizational definitions presume that terrorism can only be committed by either individuals or group of people. What is implicit in this assumption is that the use of violence by ‘sub-national groups’ is illegal. In the state’s view, only the state has the right to use force, meaning the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. However, those who differ with such rationale wonder whether all use of violence by non-state actors is equally unjustifiable. Some definitions of terrorism, such as the ones offered by international organizations, avoid a reference to the perpetrators of terrorism, fearing that if they do so, then the word ‘state’ would also have to be mentioned. The definitions offered by the US, British or German governments are equally problematic, since they fail to distinguish between terrorism and other forms of politically motivated violence such as war and guerilla warfare.

     In fact, a closer look at the current definitions of terrorism reveals that almost all of them tend to ‘classify an act as terrorism based on three broad criteria: target, weapon and perpetrator’. Virtually all experts and officials agree that indiscriminate attacks on civilians constitute terrorism. They also consider use of certain weapons deemed illegitimate by the international community as terrorism. Finally, most experts and officials assess the legitimacy, goals, and objectives of the perpetrators in deciding whether or not to declare their actions ‘terrorism’. Unfortunately, each criterion and any combination of the three again present a serious problem: terrorists do deliberately attack civilians but so did all belligerents in the Second World War. Strategic bombing is aimed specifically at breaking enemy morale by destroying heavily populated cities and killing their inhabitants.[10] The recent ‘Shock and Awe’ policy during the Iraq War was, likewise, aimed at terrorizing the supporters of the former Baathist regime of Saddam Hussain. Similarly, quite often, the sort of weapons that terrorist organizations use, even including chemical agents, are employed by states engaged in warfare.


[1] Department of Defence Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02 (Washington DC: DOD, 2002). P. 443

[2] Alex Schmid, 'The Response Problem as a Difination Problem,’ in Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 4, No. 4 (1992), pp. 8-9.

[3] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

[4] Alex Schmid, et al., Political Terrorism (New Jersey: Transaction, 1988). P. 28.

[5] Amy Zalman, ‘Defination of terrorism’ Available from Terrorism_2.hrm, accessed on 10 May 2008.

[6] Thomas R. Mockaitis, The 'New' Terrorism: Myth and Reality (Westport, Conn.: Pentagon Press, 2007), p. 2.

[7]  Adopted by the UN General Assembly on 17 December 1999, 54/126/1999

[8]  Leslie Palti, ‘Combating Terrorism while Protecting Human Right,’ UN Chronicle, Vol. XLI (4 November 2004).

[9]  Adopted by the UN Security Council at its 4413th meeting on 12 November 2001. S/RES/1377/2001.

[10] Mockaitis, op.cit.,p.1