Defining Terrorism

Andy Grudko, Pretoria. September 23, 2017

Most people recognise ‘terrorism’ when they see it on TV or, hopefully not, in real life. But it can be difficult to get agreement on defining “terrorism”.

The greatest difficulty is agreeing on a basis for determining when the use of violence is legitimate; as is often quoted by those trying to defend terrorism, “One man’s Terrorist is another man’s Liberator’.

The use of violence or the threat of violence by both state and non-state groups for political ends is common and usually the victor tries to rewrite history. In former times the victor would burn history books and rewrite them. Luckily this is not so easy in the internet age and is why governments want to control and censor it and why the often shadowy would-be politicians behind terrorists try to do the same.

In a conventional war ‘Guerrilla’, ‘Underground’, ‘Resistance’ or covert military tactics are often used to describe acts that the other side might describe as terrorism. During the Apartheid government’s ‘Bush Wars’ the SADF referred to all of the enemy as ‘Terrs” as part of their psychological motivation directed at both SA’s troops and it’s tax payers. This was facilitated by the atrocities carried out against civilians by a few of those resistance enemies or criminals and the acts exploited by the geo-political psy-ops units of SA intelligence such as Stratcom, the secret propaganda apparatus of the apartheid era police’s Security Branch.

Many of the definitions in use have been written by agencies associated with government, and so are not independent. The modern use of the word “terrorist” is based on a lack of legitimacy and morality. It is worth noting that SA’s Past President Nelson Mandela and current Deputy President Cyril Ramaphsosa were on the US State Department Terrorist Watch List until 2008.

To further complicate matters in finding a Universal Definition is that at his Presidential Inauguration in 1994, Nelson Mandela’s honoured guests included the Heads Of State of some so-called ‘Terror States’. Such leaders as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro were present or officially represented (Until his death, Mandela remained loyal to those who had extended a hand of friendship when the African National Congress was itself a demonised organisation).

SA law does not define terrorism per se but rather breaks it down into a complicated sequence of events called:

‘Terrorist activity’, with reference to this section and sections 2, 3 and 17 (2), means-

(a) any act committed in or outside the Republic, which-

(i) involves the systematic, repeated or arbitrary use of violence by any means

or method;

(ii) involves the systematic, repeated or arbitrary release into the environment

or any part of it or distributing or exposing the public or any part of it to-

(aa) any dangerous, hazardous, radioactive or harmful substance or


(bb) any toxic chemical; or

(cc) any microbial or other biological agent or toxin;

(iii) endangers the life, or violates the physical integrity or physical freedom of, or

causes serious bodily injury to or the death of, any person, or any number of


(iv) causes serious risk to the health or safety of the public or any segment of the public;

(v) causes the destruction of or substantial damage to any property, natural

resource, or the environmental or cultural heritage, whether public or


(vi) is designed or calculated to cause serious interference with or serious

disruption of an essential service, facility or system, or the delivery of any

such service, facility or system, whether public or private, including, but not

limited to-

(aa) a system used for, or by, an electronic system, including an information


(bb) a telecommunication service or system;

(cc) a banking or financial service or financial system;

(dd) a system used for the delivery of essential government services;

(ee) a system used for, or by, an essential public utility or transport


(ff) an essential infrastructure facility; or

(gg) any essential emergency services, such as police, medical or civil defence services;

(vii) causes any major economic loss or extensive destabilisation of an economic system or substantial devastation of the national economy of a country; or (viii) creates a serious public emergency situation or a general insurrection in the Republic,whether the harm contemplated in paragraphs (a) (i) to (vii) is or may be suffered in or outside the Republic, and whether the activity referred to in subparagraphs

(ii) to (viii) was committed by way of any means or method; and

(b) which is intended, or by its nature and context, can reasonably be regarded as being intended, in whole or in part, directly or indirectly, to-

(i) threaten the unity and territorial integrity of the Republic;

(ii) intimidate, or to induce or cause feelings of insecurity within, the public, or a segment of the public, with regard to its security, including its economic

security, or to induce, cause or spread feelings of terror, fear or panic in a civilian population; or

(iii) unduly compel, intimidate, force, coerce, induce or cause a person, a government, the general public or a segment of the public, or a domestic or an international organisation or body or intergovernmental organisation or body, to do or to abstain or refrain from doing any act, or to adopt or abandon a particular standpoint, or to act in accordance with certain principles, whether the public or the person, government, body, or organisation or institution referred to in subparagraphs (ii) or (iii), as the case may be, is inside or outside the Republic; and

(c) which is committed, directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, for the purpose of the advancement of an individual or collective political, religious, ideological or philosophical motive, objective, cause or undertaking;

Other organisations and countries have taken other approaches:

United Nations

The UN General Assembly Resolution 49/60 (adopted on December 9, 1994), titled “Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism,” has this rather fuzzy, long sentence in it’s conventions and protocols. to describe but not define 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.”

UN Security Council Resolution 1566 (2004) provides the 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”.

In 2005 the UN panel described terrorism as any act “Intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.”

Despite growing world terrorism, at the time of writing the politically correct UN Member States still have no consensus on the definition of terrorism. This is a major obstacle to formulating. Agreement would be necessary for a single policy on terrorism. Governments which have recently used terrorism to seize power are blocking the resolutions of more progressive States.

The Arab League

In the 1998 Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism , terrorism was defined 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”.

European Union

The EU defines terrorism in Art.1 of the Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism (2002). Under it terrorist offences are detailed as criminal offences set out in a list of serious offences against persons and property:

“Which, given their nature or context, may seriously damage a country or an international organization where committed with the aim of: seriously intimidating a population; or unduly compelling a Government or international organization to perform or abstain from performing any act; or seriously destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organization”.

United Kingdom

Soon to leave the EU, the United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act 2000 legalistically ‘interprets’ terrorism as:

(1)In this Act “terrorism” means the use or threat of action where—

(a)the action falls within subsection (2),

(b)the use or threat is designed to influence the government [F1or an international governmental organisation] or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and

(c)the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious [F2, racial] or ideological cause.

(2)Action falls within this subsection if it—

(a)involves serious violence against a person,

(b)involves serious damage to property,

(c)endangers a person’s life, other than that of the person committing the action,

(d)creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or

(e)is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

This may have to be updated due to ‘Brexit’.

Interestingly the Act specifically includes an act “…designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system”, so violence is not even necessary under this definition.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, as the victims of the greatest act of terrorism of the 21th Century, thus far, America has it’s own array of definitions.

The United States Code of Federal Regulations defines terrorism as “The unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”

Title 18 of the United States Code defines terrorism and lists the crimes associated with terrorism. Section 2331 of Chapter 113(B) defines thus:

“…activities that involve violent… or life-threatening acts… that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State and… appear to be intended;

(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;

(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

The US Patriot Act of 2001 states that terrorist activities include;

Threatening, conspiring or attempting to hijack airplanes, boats, buses or other vehicles. Threatening, conspiring or attempting to commit acts of violence on any “protected” persons, such as government officials…any crime committed with “the use of any weapon or dangerous device,” when the intent of the crime is determined to be the endangerment of public safety or substantial property damage rather than for ‘mere personal monetary gain’.

The FBI definition of terrorism is: ”The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”.

The U.S. Army Field Manual No. FM 3-0, Chapter 9, 37 defines terrorism as the “calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear. It is intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies … [to attain] political, religious, or ideological goals” U.S. Army Field Manual No. FM 3-0, Chapter 9, 3

The US Department of Defence Dictionary of Military Terms defines terrorism as: ”The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological”.

State Terrorism

State terrorism can be defined as acts of terrorism conducted by governments or terrorism carried out directly by, or encouraged and funded by, an established government of a State (country) or terrorism practiced by a government against its own people or in support of international terrorism.

The intentional targeting of one’s own civilian subjects or citizens is a challenge when observers try to distinguish state terrorism from other forms of state violence.

Democratic Governments sometimes support state terrorism of populations outside their borders if that supports their own political goals, but they do not terrorise their own populations for fear of international isolation. However, dictatorships frequently oppress and terrorize their own populations.

If, as experts predict, South Africa starts to move from being a neutral conduit for terrorism to a victim, will our State Security Guardians adopt a more Conservative definition and take action in line with international standards or will we move towards the Nigerian situation?  It is this author’s opinion that this will require a difficult paradigm shift in government which the present Government will not face until the worst happens.

Visits: 262


Director of SATAC. Director of Grudko Associates. SASA, IPA, ACFE, AFIO, WAD (Governor for Africa).

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