What is terrorism?

The murder of a British soldier was terrorism. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, viewed as a whole, are not. The Western coalition may have used acts of terror in specific incidents in those wars, however.

The brutal murder of a British soldier in broad daylight in London a few weeks ago has sent shock waves through the United Kingdom and the world. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, was quick to call the sickening attack a "terrorist incident," while the Times (London) called it "the first terrorist murder in mainland Britain since 2005." At the same time, a writer for the Guardian (also London) questioned whether this could be called an act of terrorism or not and, if it was, how we could then not call the Western coalition's actions in Iraq and Afghanistan terrorism.

It's a fair question, though a reading of the Guardian article is likely to make many people angry (I found his quoting of Michael Moore particularly unfortunate). The reason for that is that the term terrorism has negative connotations in itself. The assumption is that it is an unacceptable form of violence (as opposed to the more "honorable" form of meeting your enemy on the battlefield or defending yourself in your own home, for example). Defining terrorism is extremely difficult. Trust me. If you don't want to, I suggest you read Richard English's Terrorism: How to Respond or Smith and Neumann's The Strategy of Terrorism: How It Works and Why It Fails.

I'll sum up a difficult topic with the best answer I can muster (though one that is not immune to further debate, as I agree with English that coming up with a perfect definition of terrorism probably isn't possible). Terrorism is the use or threat of violence against mainly symbolic targets for political ends (this is a paraphrase of Smith and Neumann's definition). Notice the absence of a definition of targets as "civilian." This is because of the difficulty of defining who is a civilian and the questionable logic behind that restriction. (Why wouldn't a politically-motivated attack on a bunch of unsuspecting soldiers at a base in America be considered terrorism, for example? Is a terrorist attack with mixed victims only terrorism for those among them who are civilians? There are many more issues as well.) A further issue is that it contributes to the normative connotation terrorism brings with it (i.e. it is wrong), which will ALWAYS be subjective, making terrorism impossible to define. If terrorism is always considered "wrong" or "illegitimate," the tendency will be for the side that disliked the attack to call it terrorism and for the side supporting the attack to view it as something else more "honorable."

All violence is scary, which is why I left out the "causing terror" part of the definition, which is still important (after all, it forms the root of the word!). The most important aspect left is the target type. When is a target "mostly symbolic"? When striking it serves little or no "strategic" purpose. The WTC attack is a good example: the US could not be brought down by that one attack, and there would have been better targets for strategic purposes (power stations, airports, military bases, arms contractors, etc.). The main point for the Twin Towers was their powerful symbolism.

So how about the London attack?
  • It was certainly an act of violence
  • It was for political reasons (the perpetrators were quoted as saying " The only reason we've done this is because Muslims are dying by British soldiers every day. ... You people will never be safe, remove your Government, they don't care about you."
  • The target was not strategically significant, but was highly symbolic: a British soldier wearing a "Help for Heroes" shirt.
Put together, these points mean that we are very justified in labeling this a terrorist attack using a strategic definition.

How about the Guardian author's other question: Are the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan terrorism? Viewed as a whole, they are not. They are military operations in which targets are selected primarily for their strategic value in weakening the other side. Because terrorism is a tactic, however, that means that individual acts can be terrorism even if it cannot be said that the entire war in Iraq or Afghanistan is. The author mentions "Shock and Awe," the attack on Baghdad during the Second Iraq War. This was indeed meant to impress the Iraqi public and encourage them to help overthrow their leaders. It was a form of propaganda (often cited as an important secondary aspect of terrorism). Nevertheless, the operation's targets were not, I believe, primarily symbolic, so while there are some grounds for labeling this some sort of act of terror, I do not believe, on balance, that this was the case. Other incidents during the war, however, may very well fall under a label of terrorism by this definition. Each attack would have to be evaluated on its own.


  1. The catch, however, is that the normative (moralizing) aspect has now been removed from the definition. Targeting civilians is immoral, but terrorism doesn't necessarily involve targeting civilians. A terrorist attack might be better than the alternative if it scares the other side into submission without requiring half of them to be killed, for example. It remains up to us to decide whether any given tactic or strategy is "moral."


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