Terrorism: What it Means, Who Perpetrates it, and What Can be Done about it

Terrorism is back. The mass media fixate on "Terrorism," most recently in Boston and London.  Western popular awareness of terrorism largely dates to the events on September 11, 2001 in the U.S.  But what does "terrorism" mean," who are "terrorists," and what can be done about the problem?

What is Terrorism?

Terrorism is a vexing term. Today, there is little consensus on who is a “terrorist” or on what is an act of “terrorism.” It is notable that even the United Nations  has been unable to agree on defining terrorism, despite decades of debating the issue.

The term terrorism derives originally from the French Revolution, when it was initially used approvingly in 1793–1794 by newly installed defenders of the revolutionary regime to denote the “reign of terror”  they believed was needed to safeguard the new state against its enemies, alleged “counter-revolutionaries” both domestic and foreign. In 1800, therefore, terrorism was political violence deployed by agents of a government against its internal and external foes and the people who supported them.

Two centuries later, the term terrorism has been inverted. Today, for most Westerners, terrorism usually denotes political violence, intimidation, and psychological warfare deployed by sub-national groups mainly against civilian noncombatants. In other words, TFA: Terrorism From Above, or state-conducted and/or supported political violence, intimidation, and psychological warfare—has largely been excluded from most official and popular conceptions of terrorism. Instead, Westerners tend to identify “terrorism” exclusively with TFB: Terrorism From Below, or political violence, intimidation, and psychological warfare conducted by non-state actors.

This is a shift of profound importance, for it permits states and the mass media to legitimize the violence, intimidation, and coercion of state-sanctioned “counterterrorist” operations, ostensibly conducted in defense of freedom and national security.. The current “Global War on Terrorism” (or "Global Contingency Operations" under the Obama administration) is the quintessential example of this transformation.

Despite disagreements regarding the nature and perpetrators of “terrorism,” I propose the following definition:

Terrorism is a premeditated, usually politically motivated, use, or threatened use, of violence, in order to induce a state of terror in its immediate victims, usually for the purpose of influencing another, less reachable audience, such as a government. Such victims may include civilian noncombatants but are not limited to them.

Note that under this definition, both nation-states—which commit “terrorism from above” (TFA)—and sub-national entities (individuals and groups alike) — which engage in “terrorism from below” (TFB) — may commit acts of terrorism. This conceptualization distinguishes my understanding of terrorism from the “official” one of the U.S. government and also demarcates political terrorism from criminal terrorism.

Who are Terrorists?

In considering who “is” a “terrorist,” it is important to dispel some popular misconceptions. Recent research challenges some long-accepted notions — for example, that terrorists are pathological, driven by religious fanaticism, and/or spurred by poverty. According to a study published in Science, “It’s now well established that many terrorists are well-educated and seemingly rational." Moreover, today's “terrorist” may become tomorrow’s chief of state and Nobel Peace Prize winner — if successful in gaining state power.

For example, the late Yasser Arafat, longtime head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was denounced (in the West and in Israel) as a terrorist; among Palestinians, he is widely regarded as a hero. Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the antiapartheid resistance movement in South Africa used violence to promote their political ends. When asked if he and his African National Congress (ANC) were terrorists, Mandela replied, “Of course . . . ”. Mandela later won the Nobel Peace Prize, as did Arafat.

Countering Terrorism

Counterterrorism comprises the practices, tactics, techniques, and strategies that governments, militaries, police departments, and corporations adopt to attack real and perceived terrorist threats and/or acts.  Counterterrorism includes both the detection of potential acts and the response to “terrorist” events.

There are many costs, both economic and human, of countering terrorism by conducting a “war” against terrorism. Torture; “extraordinary rendition” (abduction of others in foreign countries without due process and their deportation to countries where they are likely to be tortured); the use of detention camps and jails in which human rights are typically denied, such as Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib; violations of civil liberties; unlawful surveillance; the “targeted assassinations” of real and suspected “terrorists;" and much else have been conducted by the U.S. and its partners in the name of  apprehending terrorists. For the "Global War on Terror" (GWOT), the U.S. alone has spent about $2 trillion, funds that could have been devoted to the “wars” against cancer and poverty. And while it is unclear how many civilians have died since 9/11, researchers at Brown University found that between 12,000 and 14,000 noncombatants perished in Afghanistan and at least 120,000 have died in Iraq.

Globally, officially-designated terrorist attacks have dramatically increased since the commencement of the GWOT, despite the killings of numerous suspected terrorist leaders and the apparent absence of successful major terrorist attacks on the American homeland since 9/11 (the recent attack in Boston resulted in comparatively few casualties).  According to the report by the National Counterterrorism Center, in 2010 over 11,500 U.S. government-designated terrorist attacks occurred in 72 countries, resulting in approximately 50,000 victims, including almost 13,200 deaths. More than 75% of the world’s terrorist attacks and deaths took place in South Asia and the Near East. The  vast majority of European attacks occurred in Russia.  The fewest incidents were reported in the Western Hemisphere. Sunni extremists committed almost 60% of all worldwide terrorist attacks. These attacks caused approximately70% of terrorism-related deaths. Almost 99.9% of the victims of global terrorist attacks were not Americans; most were Muslims.

A peace-oriented perspective condemns not only terrorist attacks but also any violent response to them. But the best response to such terrible events is often maddeningly unclear and should not be made precipitously.  How does one “counter” terrorism without resorting to terror?


Antiterrorism includes those measures taken to protect society from terrorism by focusing on nonmilitary preventive actions.  It is part of the “human security paradigm,” which  aims to address the enduring underlying inequalities and injustices (both real and perceived) that fuel terrorist activity.

Antiterrorism is a multilateral strategy that advocates ethical, legally-sanctioned methods for establishing effective communication and just relations between adversaries, resolving conflicts peacefully, and bringing terrorists to justice. Antiterrorism is a less violent, even a nonviolent, alternative to counterterrorism. This may include negotiations with members or representatives of antistate terrorist groups.

Consistent with this approach, such international organizations as the United Nations and the International Court of Justice might to be empowered to bring to justice the perpetrators of such crimes against humanity as acts of mass terrorism. Implied in such an approach is that “terrorism” should evoke a response involving international police activity and that “terrorists” should be brought to justice like other alleged lawbreakers.

Since occupation is probably the principal political reason for terrorist attacks against occupying powers and their citizens locally and globally, the United States, Great Britain and Israel might seriously consider dramatically altering their strategic policies. Moreover, Western nations could make more sustained efforts better to integrate Islamic and other immigrants, particularly disaffected young men, and also to wean themselves gradually from dependence on Middle East oil. If successful, the West would be more insulated from its current perceived need to intervene in Arab and other Muslim states.

Good-faith negotiations between the Western powers and militant Islamists — possibly through back channels conducted by such  third parties as the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the UN— should also be attempted. Such negotiations may or may not result in a reduction of terrorist attacks and counterterrorist operations. But the alternative—an open-ended global conflict with the potential to escalate to the use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction — would likely be so destructive as to warrant that all nonviolent efforts should be made to end the “War on Terror."  To end terrorism means, among other things, to change the political reality and the mentality that give rise to it.

An End to Terrorism?

Terrorism is simultaneously one of the oldest and one of the most recent incarnations of political violence. Whether employed from above or from below, it has existed for millennia. Accordingly, it is wishful thinking to believe that terrorism can be ended overnight or even, perhaps, within our lifetimes.

It is not, however, wishful thinking to believe that we must begin now to struggle forcefully, but if possible nonviolently, against all forms of political violence, no matter the origin, position, or creed of its perpetrators. Ending terrorism would entail, among other things, changing the political reality and mentality that engender it. Although we may not see the end of terrorism in the foreseeable future, perhaps by confronting political mass murder with reason and understanding — rather than with violence in kind—while we still live we may see the beginning of the end of terrorism.


Written by Dr. Charles P. Webel who teaches numerous courses, including "Terrorism," at UNYP. He received his doctorate in Philosophy, Political and Social Thought from the University of California at Berkeley, where he was recently Visiting Professor in Peace and Conflict Studies. Dr. Webel is also a research graduate of the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California and has recently lectured at Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford Universities. A prolific author, Dr. Webel has recently published the books Terror, Terrorism, and the Human Condition; The Ethics and Efficacy of the Global War on Terrorism (with J. Arnaldi); Peace Studies: Reader (with J. Johansen); and Peace and Conflict Studies (with D. Barash), and has co-authored recent articles in The Journal of International Relations Research and Peace Review. His next book is The Politics of Rationality: Reason through Occidental History.

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