One important definitions of terrorism is provided by the FBI. According to this definition, it is possible to understand terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population or an segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives (Halibozek, 5). Following from this definition, it is possible to locate two key elements about an act that may enable it to be constituted as terrorism. First of all, it must be an act of violence of some kind or another, and, secondly, it must be being conducted in order to force either a government or a significant amount of people to behave in a certain way. It is possible to use this definition, therefore, to further understand terrorism as a form of illegitimate politics, one in which political aims are pursued through illegitimate means. According to such a definition, therefore, it would be incorrect to argue that random acts of violence could constitute terrorism, as such actions would lack the political dimension that an act of terrorism requires.
Another definition of terrorism, given by the Department of State and Defence states that terrorism should be understood as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against a non-combatant target, usually to influence an audience” (Halibozek, 5). While this definition is similar to the previous one, it is important to note that it places a focus on non-combatant targets and that a notion of “coercion” has been replaced with the idea of “influence.” Likewise, this definition also replaces a specific government or population that would be the target of both the attack and of the politics, with a more abstract notion of an “audience.” One important effect of this change is, arguably, that an act can be considered as terroristic even when the political aims of the group concerned are separate from the target that they are attacking. Such a definition therefore relates closely to the global reach of the contemporary media, something that means that almost anyone in the world could be the intended “audience” for a terrorist attack. This fact would, theoretically at least, mean that attacks in remote countries and locations could be interpreted as being directed against countries to which they do not necessarily bear a geographical or political relationship.
One final definition of terrorism that given by the U.S. State Department which states that terrorism should be understood as a “calculated use of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies in pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological” (Halibozek, 5). Again, while this definition shares elements of the other two, it also differs in important ways. The first of these differences involves an emphasis on fear, something that is missing from the previous two definitions. This emphasis is significant, as it enables one to conceive of a situation in which the concept of terrorism could be applied to an event even before it has taken place, provided that the threat of it is present and this threat is intended to produce political leverage. Such an understanding of terrorism enables individuals to be labelled as terrorists even in situations in which they have not carried out mass actions, but in which whatever they have done can be understood according to a desire to provoke fear within either a population or a government. Alongside this, it is also possible to note that the definition allows for an act to count as terroristic even in a situation in which there is no clear political, ideological or religious aim motivating it. In this sense, this final definition appears to place a stronger emphasis on the fact that terrorist actions are conducted with the explicit purpose of provoking fear than it does on the fact that they are carried out with a particular purpose in mind.
In conclusion, it is possible to combine these three definitions into an understanding of terrorism as “an act of illegitimate violence carried out with the intention of provoking fear and / or coercing a government or population into enacting specific political goals.” This final definition seeks to incorporate the distinctions between the previous three definitions, while at the same time ensuring that any definition of terrorism remains focused on its inherently violent quality, the fact that this violence must be considered to be illegitimate and that, finally, that the act must be pursued in order to provoke a specific reaction.
Halibozek, Edward. The Corporate Security Professional’s Handbook on Terrorism. New York: Butterword-Heinemann, 2007.