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Here’s What It Really Means To Call Something ‘Terrorism’

A security expert walks us through the true meaning of terrorism — and tells us whether or not it’s getting worse.

New York City police officer at the site of an explosion in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, New York.

Why is terrorism so hard to identify? As a professor of criminology and program director of a homeland security master’s program, I study how terrorism and political violence has evolved throughout modern history.


Because terrorism is so sensationalized by the media and oversimplified by authorities, it’s important to demystify common misconceptions. Only then can we understand why individuals carry out political violence — and put today’s acts of terrorism into a historical context.

What is terrorism?

Terrorism is not an ideology like communism or capitalism. Rather, terrorism is a tactic — a strategy used to achieve a specific end.

Terrorism is often used in asymmetric power struggles; in other words, when a weaker person or group is fighting against a powerful nation or state. The violence is aimed at creating fear in the targeted population and often provokes prompt and violent responses from the state. Terrorism followed by violent crackdowns can become a cycle that is difficult to disrupt.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Terrorism is not an ideology like communism or capitalism. Rather, terrorism is a tactic.[/quote]

Recently, terrorist groups have begun using the internet and the media to spread fear and impact public opinion with their political or social message. ISIS has been prolific in using the internet to recruit followers.

States also use terrorism tactics. For instance, states can sponsor terrorist groups in other countries to support foreign policies or safeguard their own national interest. Iran is known for supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel. The United States supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt against the communist government of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.

What do terrorists want?

Terrorists are not all after the same thing, though they often justify their bloody acts on the basis of perceived social, economic, and political unfairness. Or they take inspiration from religious beliefs or spiritual principles. Many forms of terrorism were inspired by warfare between races, struggles between the rich or the poor, or battles between political outcasts and elites.

Some are ethnically based separatist movements, such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The former cartel of Medellín is considered to be narco-terrorists because they combine terrorist tactics with drug trafficking. Movements led by the extreme left, such as The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), are examples of terrorism inspired by a socioeconomic doctrine — in this case, a belief in communism.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Terrorism is not worse than before the 9/11 era. The opposite is true.[/quote]

Many terrorist groups are inspired by a specific interpretation of religious or prophetic scriptures. ISIS and al-Qaida are two related groups that justify their violent action as a crusade against non-believers.

How different terrorist groups act is informed by what they are trying to achieve. Some adopt a reactionary perspective aimed at stopping or resisting social, economic, and political changes. Examples include ISIS, al-Qaida, and the Army of God — a Christian anti-abortion group based in the United States.

Others adopt a revolutionary doctrine and want to provoke social, economic, and political changes. Examples include the former Red Army Faction in Germany, the IRA, and Basque separatists in Spain. Strategically, most terrorist groups have territorial claims or want to control financial resources, such as oil fields, to support their struggle.

Where is terrorism coming from?

Terrorism is not new. Rather, it has a long history.

In a seminal report, “The Four Waves of Terrorism,” David Rapoport of UCLA demonstrates how terrorism evolved from the end of the industrial revolution to today:

“The anarchist wave lasted from 1880 to 1920. During this period, terrorists were seen as liberators against Tsar Regime in Russia.”

The anti-colonial wave took place from 1920 to 1960, when World War II led to the breakup of the colonial system after the debt of Western countries provoked a power struggle in colonial countries. The National Liberation Front in Algeria and the IRA were iconic groups in this wave.

The new left wing lasted from 1960 to 1980 and emerged from the anti-war movement in Vietnam and the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The global expansion of the new left terror movement was supported by the former USSR during the Cold War era.

The religious wave, from 1980 to the present, emerged from the Iranian Revolution and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, and grew as a movement of resistance against Western influences. This modern wave of terrorism is not limited to jihadists. It also includes violence perpetrated by Christian extremists such as The Lord’s Resistance Army operating in central Africa as well as fringe cults such as Aum Shinrikyo, which gassed the Tokyo Metro system with neurotoxic gas in 1995.

Is terrorism worse today than before?

Terrorism is no more frequent today than it was a few decades ago.

According to the Global Terrorism Database, Western Europe has been experiencing relatively low terrorist activity during the period from 2000 to 2016 compared to the period from 1970 to 1995.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Terrorism as a tactic does not work well.[/quote]

In the United States, terrorist attacks were in sharp decline between 1970 and 2011, decreasing from approximately from 475 to fewer than 20 incidents per year. Worldwide, terrorism is highly concentrated in a handful of countries.

Terrorist attacks in 2014 were mainly concentrated in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria, according to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index. These countries saw 78% of deaths and 57% of all attacks in the world. Conversely, since 2000, only 3% of deaths caused by terrorist attacks took place in Western countries, including Australia, Canada, member countries of the European Union, and the United States.

In the United States alone, the number of deaths represents 2.2% of the worldwide terrorist death toll. The violence committed in Western countries by organized terrorist groups such as al-Qaida or ISIS represents approximately 30% while the so-called “lone wolves” account for 70% of the attacks.

Overall, a historical review of terrorism activity in Western countries shows that terrorism is no worse than prior to the 9/11 era. The opposite is true.

As we watch unfolding terror attacks perpetrated by ISIS in Western countries, one must keep in mind that death by terrorism is extremely low compared to homicide. For instance, approximately 13,472 murders occurred in the United States during 2014, but the 24 private U.S. citizens' deaths worldwide by terrorism in 2014 received a great deal more media attention.

American University professor Audrey Kurth Cronin believes that terrorism as a tactic does not work well. Since 1968, she has studied 457 worldwide terrorist groups. These groups lasted an average of eight years. None of the terrorist organizations that Cronin has studied have been able to conquer a state, and 94% have not been able to achieve even one of their strategic goals.

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