What is terrorism? And who are terrorists?

In order to understand terrorism, it is necessary to know “what is terrorism? And who are terrorists?” For this reason, I am going to use this first post of series about terrorism to give the public ideas of what terrorism is and who terrorists are by defining terrorism and terrorists. First of all, the paper will explore the difficulties of defining the term “terrorism”, and give some definitions of terrorism, then who are considered as terrorists. Finally, it will discuss types of terrorists.

One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Some Palestinians suffering under Israeli oppression view Osama bin Laden or members of such groups as Hizballah, Hamas, and al-Qaeda to be freedom fighters, martyrs, revolutionaries, and guerillas; however, Israel and the United States regard them as terrorists (Marsella,2004). According to Taylor (1988, p 3) we all righteously condemn it—except where we ourselves or friends of ours are engaging in it. Then we ignore it, or gloss over it, or attach to it tags like “liberation” or “defense of the free world” or national honor to make it seem like something other than what it is.” It may be hard for someone to judge other people, if there are engagements or relationship between them. Furthermore, an act of violence that is generally regarded in the United States as an act of terrorism may not be viewed so in another country. Thus, there are many problems involving to define the term “terrorism”. Miller and File noted four problems associated with efforts to define terrorism today: (a) There have been historical changes in the definition, (b) media and states have been inconsistent in their use of the term, (c) there are multiple definitions across agencies even within a single country such as the United States, and (d) there is international disagreement on the definition of the term (2001, p. 13). They observed that all contemporary “terrorist” organizations “liken themselves to armies or instruments of liberation or defense” (Miller & File, 2001, p. 13). It is difficult to have exactly definition of terrorism; however, it generally can describe terrorism as:

Unable to achieve their unrealistic goals by conventional means, international terrorists attempt to send an ideological or religious message by terrorizing the general public. Through the choice of their targets, which are often symbolic or representative of the targeted nation, terrorists attempt to create a high-profile impact on the public of their targeted enemy or enemies with their act of violence. In doing so, they hope to demonstrate various points, such as that the targeted governments cannot protect their own citizens, or that by assassinating a specific victim they can teach the general public a lesson about espousing viewpoints or policies antithetical to their own. Carr (2002, p 6) defined terrorism as “the contemporary name given to, and the modern permutation of, warfare deliberately waged against civilizations with the purpose of destroying their will to support either their leaders or policies that the agents of such violence find objectionable” The U.S. Department of State defines terrorism as it is defined in Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f (d): It is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience”. In order to find an answer for the question what terrorism is is a difficult task, so then who are considered as terrorists? Is everyone in terrorist organizations are called terrorists? “Terrorists” do not necessarily refer to everyone in terrorist organization. For example, estimates suggest that Al-Qaeda consists of approximately several thousand members. Among those members, they must have someone in charge of accountants, cooks, fund-raisers, logistics specialists, medical doctors. Those people may not be considered as terrorists, they just play a passive support role. The term “terrorist” may better suit with the leader(s) of terrorist groups and the activists or operators who personally carry out a group’s terrorism strategy.

Above, the paper has just given general ideas about terrorism. Now, it will continue with types of terrorism. Hacker (1976) divided terrorists into three types according to motivation: the crazy, the criminal and the crusading. These terrorists are called crazy because the emotionally disturbed are driven by reasons of their own that often do not make sense to anybody else. Criminal terrorists want nothing different from most other people want, but they are willing to resort to socially disapproved methods in order to achieve their goals. Crusading terrorists are idealistically inspired. They seek, not personal gain, but prestige and power for a collective goal; they believe that they act in the service of higher cause (Hacker, 1976).

Above, the paper tried to give the public a general knowledge about what terrorism is, and who terrorists are. Besides, it also discussed types of terrorists. Those ideas are the basic knowledge for one to understand terrorism. Next post, it will be express the reason why people enter and stay in terrorism.


Carr, Caleb. (2002). The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians, Why It Has Always Failed and Why It Will Fail Again. New York: Random House.

Fathali,M. Moghaddam and Anthony, J. Marsella.(2004) Understanding terrorism: psychosocial roots, consequences, and interventions. American Psychological Association. Washington, DC.

Hacker, Frederick J.(1976). Crusaders, Criminals, Crazies: Terror and Terrorism in Our Time. New York: W.W. Norton.

Miller, Marc, and Jason File. (2001). Terrorism Factbook: Our Nation At War. Bollix Books.

Taylor, M. (1988). The Terrorist. London: Brasseyy’s

United States. Department of State. Patterns of Global Terrorism, 1998. Washington, D.C.: 1999

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