Terrorism means different things to different people. As such, it has no universal definition, and what terrorism looks like is routinely disputed.

This definitional debate points to terrorism being a matter of perception. That is, where one person sees a terrorist another sees a freedom fighter, patriot or even a victim.


Political violence is a term that covers terrorism, insurgency, guerrilla warfare, rioting and civil war. Each differs in character and objective. Some, such as insurgency, are usually designed to destroy the existing government or redraw geographical boundaries. Different forms of political violence can co-exist simultaneously.

Terrorism treated as political violence shows that bombs and bullets serve a political purpose. Death and destruction are a robust political lever. Terrorism, when effectively applied, can sway a government into political concessions.

Of terrorism, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) refer to Violent Extremism and Radicalisation Leading to Terrorism (VERLT). The OSCE has linked terrorism to the conditions that cause it.


Another essential ingredient in terrorism is ideology. In violating basic values of right and wrong, fundamental ideology justifies having done so. Ideology excuses violence and places the blame on others, usually State actors.

Terrorist organisations use ideology to name ‘legitimate targets’ and to justify attacks against them. Ideology convinces terrorists and their supporters that what they are doing is necessary (could not be achieved by peaceful means) and not their fault (the government forced them into taking up arms). In this context, ideology is often a warped interpretation of a religious or historical text that grossly misrepresents how it is commonly understood.

Ideology is a prism through which terrorists interpret government actions and extends to indoctrination to formalise a person’s recruitment into a terrorist organisation. The norm is to target the vulnerable. To fill the ranks with people from the most impoverished areas who feel marginalised.

Significantly, ideology keeps longstanding hatreds and prejudices fresh through new political, economic or social grievances – real or perceived. Attaching ‘them or us’ thinking to a current complaint usually involves reaching back centuries to keep ancient hurts and myths alive.

In law, the UK’s Terrorism Act (2000) tightly defines terrorism.

  1. In this Act “terrorism” means the use or threat of action where –
    1. the action falls within subsection (2),
    2. the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public,
    3. the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause

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  1. Action falls within this subsection if it –
    1. involves serious violence against a person,
    2. involves serious damage to property,
    3. endangers a person’s life, other than that of the person committing the action,
    4. creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
    5. is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.
  1. The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.


Beyond acts of violence and the threat of such, is propaganda. Terrorism cannot survive without rhetoric. It needs a good media strategy – in short, words matter.

Terrorist organisations have to label who the ‘enemy’ is and explain why in simple

slogans that resonate with their base and a distant audience. ‘Fake News’ and various social media platforms make it easier than ever for a terrorist organisation to get its message out. Lies can be dressed up and have travelled around the world twice before the truth is heard.

A terrorist organisation is invariably a non-state actor. It sees itself waging war but does not consider itself bound by the laws of war, such as the Geneva Conventions on prisoners’ treatment and not targeting civilians.

It is easier to commit a terrorist act than to prevent it just as it is easier to transmit simplistic bursts of deceit than it is to get out a truth weighted by lengthy explanation.

Terrorism relies on the state making mistakes. Often, a state overreacts to a terrorist attack or introduces repressive security measures. Both responses play into the hands of the leaders of a terrorist organisation. A terrorist campaign takes people to direct and manage, for whom a government can be their most effective recruiting tool.


Terrorist organisations, brutal and deceitful as they are, enjoy support within the local communities they claim to represent. Internationally, terrorist organisations profit from passive support across the globe sympathetic to the organisation’s aim – getting

rid of the existing government, attacking a traditional ‘enemy’ or creating new land

borders. Some nation-states also lend support, which is particularly helpful to the terrorist organisation if they are a neighbouring state.

A sympathetic neighbouring state may see an organisation committing legitimate acts of political protest rather than terrorism. Or put another way, will not see the murder of a police officer in a different jurisdiction across the border as a crime.

Passive support tends to extend into active support – supplying finance and munitions – alongside news reports that polish-up the terrorist organisation’s propaganda.

Knowing that terrorism is a complex phenomenon is the first step in understanding it. And only by understanding terro

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