Armed Hostilities

Terrorism: Definition, History, Countermeasures

  1. Introduction
  2. Current Definitions
  3. Historical Overview
  4. Motivations
  5. Combating Terrorism
  6. References


Terrorism has been of social life since the early history of humankind. Nevertheless, the concept of terrorism gained new meaning after the mass-destruction attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. The terrorist attack was carefully planned and resulted in thousands of deaths of civilian people.

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Terrorism is a war in essence; however, unlike war, the enemy is not always known or can be punished for the crimes. Terrorism is an act carried out by a group of people with the aim to impose fear, bring destruction, and kill. The 21st-century terrorism is characterized by radical ideologies, and it is possible to suggest that contemporary terrorism embeds the ideological tension between the Western and Eastern cultures.

The last ten years were marked with an increased number of terrorist attacks. Moreover, the destructive consequences of the terrorist attacks gained the national scope. Ironically, while the global society agrees on the statement that terrorism is wrong and should stop, some of the countries use terrorism as their state policy.

Such countries as Iran, Syria, Libya, Palestine, and Cuba support terrorists with direction and hosting. Cordesman (2002) argues that some states allow terrorists to operate on their land. The changing terrorist threat makes it more dangerous and difficult to counter despite the international cooperation and unity in efforts to combat terrorism.

Current Definitions

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States of America defines terrorism as “based on the currently most probable threats rather than examine the full range of possible asymmetric threats and consider how they may evolve over time” (Cordesman 2002, p.12).

This definition suggests that terrorism leads to three specific shortcomings: 1) the belief that the terrorist threat comes from illegal or illegitimate groups of people driven by extreme political and ideological motives; 2) the ignorance of the risks associated with the use of more sophisticated weapons and 3) definition of terrorism as an attack produces moderate casualties. Thus, the traditional definition of terrorism is limited to the attacks by small organizations, while it does not take into account that attacks can be planned and organized by strong, non-state, international actors.

In addition to the definition provided by the CIA, there are several alternative definitions of terrorism. For example, the State Department relies on the following definition: “premeditated, politically motivated violence against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience” (Cordesman 2002, p.12).

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The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of violence, committed by a group of two or more individuals against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (Cordesman 2002, p.12).

This definition includes bombings, assaults, hijackings, kidnapping, and arson committed by individuals and groups of people.

FEMA, on the other side, refers to the following definition of terrorism “the use of force or violence against persons or property in violation of the criminal laws of the United States for purposes of intimidation, coercion, or ransom.

Terrorists often use threats to create fear among the public, to try to convince citizens that their government is powerless to prevent terrorism, and to get immediate publicity for their causes” (Cordesman 2002, pp.12-13).

While there are many official definitions of terrorism, the changing tactics of terrorists require a more sophisticated approach to define terrorism as the threat of or actual violence against humankind.

Historical Overview

In the period of 1955-1998, there were approximately 2,700 terrorist incidents in the United States of America (Nunn 2007, p. 90). Therefore, the average annual rate is 63 incidents. The research done by Nunn (2007) did not reveal any tendency in these incidents in terms of geographical location.

All 48 states (except Hawaii and Alaska) are highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. However, in 11 states, there were no fatal results of terrorist activities. It is important to add that such organizations as the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front are also terrorists due to their spread of eco-terrorism.

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On a global scale, in the late 1980s, the number of terrorist attacks reached the point of 600 incidents annually (Morgan 2004, p. 29).

In the mid-1990s, the number of terrorist attacks slightly decreased. Nevertheless, the new wave of terrorism at the beginning of the 21st century revealed that it was naïve to think that terrorist attacks will become less destructive and less frequent. In fact, terrorist attacks have become more destructive and culturally-driven.


In order to explore the meaning of terrorism in the 21st century, it is vital to address the motives of the terrorists. According to the National Commission on Terrorism, “fanaticism rather than political interests are more often the motivation now, and that terrorists are more unrestrained than ever before in their methods” (Morgan 2004, p. 29).

Morgan (2004) refers to the cultural motivation of terrorism as non-traditional because it is opposed to political terrorism in terms of targeting the whole nation rather than the government. While previously most terrorist attacks were carried out with the aim to alienate people from supporting the decision of the government, contemporary terrorism is focused on the conventional goals of religious movements as well as seeking destruction as the end.

The apocalyptic perspectives and methods applied by today’s terrorists make it increasingly challenging to combat terrorism. As Morgan (2004) points out, “Today’s terrorists don’t want a seat at the table, they want to destroy the table and everyone sitting at it” (p. 30).

While it is believed that mass-bombings and destruction have always been part of terrorists’ plans, it would be unreasonable to deny that contemporary terrorism serves international objectives – to end the domination of the Western democratic countries and to impose Islam as the only global religion.

The culture of terrorism is rooted in Islamic radicalism; however, radical interpretation of Islam is not the only factor motivating terrorists. Morgan (2004) suggested that

Numerous cults, whose emergence in many cases has been synchronized with the turn of the new millennium, have also posed an increasing threat. Finally, the American religious right has been active with escalating and destructive objectives, although law enforcement presence has restrained these groups (p. 30)

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In addition to religious aspects of terrorists’ motivation, the political aims should also be mentioned. Religiously motivated terrorist groups strive to achieve a greater result than the terror and fear. Politically-Driven terrorism, on the other side, includes nationalism, anarchism, and Marxism.

Contemporary terrorism is both political and religious, even though religious motivation is the strongest. As Morgan (2004) concluded, “For religious terrorists, indiscriminate violence may not be only morally justified, but constitute a righteous and necessary advancement of their religious cause” (p. 31). The same conclusion was reached by Ranstorp (1996) five years before the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001.

Ironically, terrorist groups do not have the same resources as the American government does, while the terrorist groups are most successful in carrying out their plans. Their success suggests that the United States needs to reconsider the definition as well as the scope of terrorism.

The revival of religious terrorism has the most devastating impact on the security and safety of global populating. Targeting all Western-type countries, religious terrorists aim to bring the greatest destruction and the greatest number of deaths to civilian people. The religious terrorist groups are the most dangerous because their attacks rest on the strong ideological commitment to their aims (Ranstorp 1996, p. 41).

Combating Terrorism

Despite the international cooperation in combating terrorism, there is little evidence to support the statement that terrorism is declining. The war in Iraq did not bring the desired results. While from an official perspective, modern Iraq is almost democratic; however, from a religious perspective, it will never become such.

Jackson (2002) highlights that one of the reasons why initiates to combat terrorism fail is inadequate understanding of nature, the extent of terrorism’s reach, and its power to threaten the global population.

In addition, it is not reasonable to assume that terrorists target only the most developed democratic countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. In particular, terrorists’ activities are part of daily life for thousands of people in Algeria, unstable developing country (Jackson 2002).

Jackson (2002) points out that it is a myth to believe that terrorism can be defeated.

The reality is that terrorism can never be completely eliminated or suppressed by any society, much less a democratic one. It is far more helpful to view it as a problem somewhat akin to organized crime. While a range of law enforcement agencies attempt to suppress and curtail it, no one entertains the unrealistic expectation that organized crime can ever be completely eliminated (Jackson 2002, p. 6)

While the acceptance of this reality requires courage and admittance of the failure, the realization of the undefeatable nature of terrorism may improve the effectiveness of counter-terrorism programs.

However, it does not mean that terrorism should be accepted as normal or legitimate. The attack on September 11, 2002, has encouraged the international community to reconsider the global perspectives on terrorism.

As a result, prominent politicians, leaders of international organizations, and non-profit units have developed a number of strategies to deal with terrorism. While the strategies are diverse, they share a vision that the only path to global security is through international law rather than military intervention. The set of specific international laws has been already ratified by most of the developed countries. These international laws include:

Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, the International Convention for the Suppression of Financing Terrorism, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production, and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and Their Destruction, and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (Cohn 2002, p. 33)

Even though international terrorism cannot be fully eliminated, international cooperation in combating terrorism is the fundamental requirement for the successful prevention of terrorist attacks.

It is a well-established fact that terrorism has many supporters. On one side, there are countries with corrupted governments that offer hosting and other support to terrorist groups.

From the other side, there are groups of people who share with the terrorists the belief that the domination and intervention of the developed countries, mostly the United States of America, into foreign affairs have reached the unacceptable limit. It should be accepted that there are many reasons why people support terrorism. Even though the number of supporters is low, their assistance helps terrorists carry out their destructive plans.

In conclusion, the success of the counter-terrorism campaigns depends on the adequate understanding of the essence of terrorism in the 21st century. In light of the lack of the global definition of terrorism, the anti-terrorism programs are weak.

The failure to combat terrorism reveals that the international community does not have a proper understanding of the motivations that guide and inspire terrorists. The contemporary terrorism is characterized by the extreme cultural clash between the Western and Eastern worlds.

The consideration of the ideological and cultural motivations of terrorists will increase the effectiveness of the counter-terrorism efforts on the global level.

While only a decade ago, the majority of the terrorist attacks serves as a tool to express the disagreement with policies or the government, today’s terrorism has the aim of destroying the superiority of the Western ideology. Terrorism is the crime against humankind as it results in thousands of deaths of innocent people.


Cohn, M 2002, ‘Understanding, Responding to and Preventing Terrorism’, Arab Studies Quarterly, pp. 25-39

Cordesman, A 2002, Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Defending the U.S. Homeland, Praeger, Westport

Jackson, R 2002, ‘The Discourses of Terrorism: Myths and Misconceptions Richard Jackson Discusses the Nature of Terror and Questions the Likelihood of Success in the Present United States-Led War on It’, New Zealand International Review, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 2-9

Morgan, M 2004, ‘The Origins of the New Terrorism’, Parameters, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 29-37

Nunn, S 2007, ‘Incidents of Terrorism in the United States, 1997-2005, Geographical Review, vol. 97, no. 1, pp. 89-93

Ranstorp, M 1996, ‘Terrorism in the Name of Religion’, Journal of International Affairs, vol. 50, no. 1, pp. 41-49

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