How Do You Define Terrorism?

    Antonia Ward

    Security, Middle East

    Investigative personnel work at the scene of a cafe shooting in Oesterbro, in Copenhagen, February 15, 2015. Danish police shot and killed the man in Copenhagen on Sunday they believe was responsible for two deadly attacks at an event promoting freedom of speech and on a synagogue. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke (DENMARK - Tags: CRIME LAW TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

    Terrorism remains a contested term, with no set definition for the concept or broad agreement among academic experts on its usage. 

    Terrorism remains a contested term, with no set definition for the concept or broad agreement among academic experts on its usage. Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University has defined terrorism as “violence – or equally important, the threat of violence – used and directed in pursuit of, or in service of, a political aim”. Similarly, Louise Richardson of Oxford University believes terrorism is “deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes.” Under these definitions, if there is no political aim, it is simply a crime and, if there is no violence, it is not terrorism.

    The recent spate of extremist attacks in the United States and Europe have highlighted the difficulty of defining what constitutes “terrorism” and has led to two key questions. First, do these attacks and other forms of extremism constitute terrorist acts? Second, should the groups who incite hatred be held responsible for these attacks and labelled as terrorists even if they don’t directly participate in the violence?

    An important distinction is that violent attacks often come from individuals who are inspired by, but not directly a part of, like-minded ideological groups. Therefore, aligning extremist hate groups with the definition of terrorism is more tenuous and difficult compared to the more obvious cases of ISIS, Al-Qaeda and others whose acts of violence are often directly coordinated, commanded and encouraged by their central leadership. In the case of ISIS, this was evident in its acquisition of territory in Iraq and Syria through violent means, its targeting of Shi’a Muslims, Yazidis and Christians in the process, and its direct command of fighters in Iraq and Syria.

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