Defining Terrorism

When it comes to defining the term “terrorism”, experts, scholars and policy makers all face major problems as it is an immensely complex phenomenon. For instance, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a group that has been fighting for Palestinian state; utilized violent means in its early years to achieve its goals and was deemed a “terrorist organization” by the Western world. However, for countries sympathetic with the cause, PLO is actually a group of “Freedom Fighters”. So who is right and who is wrong? Both have their justifications as well, so it is extremely difficult to define. According to most definitions “terrorism is an act of violence which results in the loss of innocent lives” Under this definition criminal gangs widely operating throughout the world, should also be declared “terrorists” as well. So what prevents them from being categorized as “terrorist groups”? Extreme care therefore needs to be taken before tagging an individual or a group as a terrorist. A “terrorist group” may not always use violence to achieve its goals and objectives. Different individuals, organizations and states have come up with different definitions of terrorism and terrorist groups, according to their understanding and interests.

Different Definitions of Terrorism

• The UN General Assembly Resolution 49/60 (adopted on December 9, 1994), titled "Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism," contains a provision describing terrorism: “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.”

• The Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism was adopted by the Council of Arab Ministers of the Interior and the Council of Arab Ministers of Justice in Cairo, Egypt in 1998. Terrorism was defined in the convention as: “Any act or threat of violence, whatever its motives or purposes, that occurs in the advancement of an individual or collective criminal agenda and seeking to sow panic among people, causing fear by harming them, or placing their lives, liberty or security in danger, or seeking to cause damage to the environment or to public or private installations or property or to occupying or seizing them, or seeking to jeopardize national resources.”

• UN Security Council Resolution 1566 (2004) gives a definition: “Criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.”

• Crenshaw and Jenkins define a terrorist organization as a group of at least 10 participants who over the period of at least one year have participated in or campaigned for terrorist actions. Organizations such as al-Qaida, Hamas, and the Irish Republican Army are examples.

• The term “terrorist group” means any group that practices, or has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism. Groups which carry out: “Any activity which is unlawful under the laws of the place where it is committed (or which, if it had been committed in the United States, would be unlawful under the laws of the United States or any State),” and which includes, among other things, the “threat, attempt, or conspiracy” to carry out “assassination[s]” and “threat, attempt, or conspiracy” to use any “explosive, firearm, or other weapon or dangerous device… with intent to endanger, directly or indirectly, the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage to property.” There are additional requirements in the statute that the entity be “foreign” and that the activity “threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States.”

• Roger Scruton defines extremism, in the Dictionary Of Political Thought (Hill & Wang, New York, 1982) as, "A vague term, which can mean: 1. Taking a political idea to its limits, regardless of 'unfortunate' repercussions, impracticalities, arguments and feelings to the contrary, and with the intention not only to confront, but also to eliminate opposition. 2. Intolerance towards all views other than one's own. 3. Adoption of means to political ends which show disregard for the life, liberty, and human rights of others."

• According to Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty code of 1996, terrorism is “An activity that involves a violent act or an act dangerous to human life, property, or infrastructure, and appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of government by mass destruction, assassination, kidnapping, or hostage-taking.”

• Terrorism is destruction of people or property by people not acting on behalf of an established government for the purpose of redressing a real or imaginary injustice attributed to an established government and aimed directly or indirectly at an established government. Not all cases of destruction of people or property are terrorism. The important definitive characteristics of terrorism are: Ø The act of destruction is performed by a person or group of persons not acting on behalf of an established government , Ø The act of destruction is performed to redress a real or imaginary injustice, and Ø The act is aimed directly or indirectly at an established government, who is seen as the cause of the injustice.

• The criteria for listing a terrorist organization revolve around the concept of a ‘terrorist act’. ‘Terrorist act’ is defined as an action OR THREAT of action where the action: Ø causes serious harm that is physical harm to a person; Ø causes serious damage to property; Ø causes a person’s death; Ø endangers a person’s life, other than the life of the person taking the action; Ø creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public; or Ø Seriously interferes with, seriously disrupts, or destroys, an electronic system.

The Grey Organizations

On the basis of these definitions, certain organizations are titled as “Terrorist Organizations”. They are blacklisted and their names are mentioned on the official websites of most of the countries. Google it and you can find all the information about these organizations. These organizations can also be called “Black Organizations” as there is no ambiguity about them. Interestingly, there are certain types of organizations or individuals that go completely unchecked because they do not come under the definitions of terrorism. These groups or individuals are not officially declared as terrorists however their activities are questionable and maybe malicious as well. They may not be directly linked to any terrorist organization as well but have a heinous agenda or in some cases might be supporting the terrorist groups as well. While defining the criteria for the shortlisted militant organizations, such grey organizations were also kept in mind.