Terrorism

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The word terrorism does not have a commonly agreed or legally adopted unique definition because defining its scope is politically complex, and its selective use is often the subject of controversy in and outside legal domestic and international arenas. 

The United States Congress tends to make distinctions between domestic terrorism and international terrorism. These distinctions are usually based on where the act occurs. For example, 18 U.S. Code § 2331 defines “international terrorism” as activities that: 

A) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State; 

(B) 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; and 

(C) occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum…”

That same part of the US Code separately defines “domestic terrorism” as activities that:  

(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; 

(B) 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; and 

(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States…”

It should be noted that other portions of the US Code contain slightly different definitions for the same and similar terms.  For example, Congress has separately defined “international terrorism" at:

  • 10 U.S. Code § 361 - Prohibition on providing financial assistance to terrorist countries
  • 34 U.S. Code § 20106 - Compensation to victims of international terrorism
  • 22 U.S. Code § 2656f - Annual country reports on terrorism
  • 22 U.S. Code § 2656g - Report on terrorist assets in United States6g
  • 50 U.S. Code § 1861 - Access to certain business records for foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations
  • 50 US Code § 1821 - Definitions 
  • 50 US Code § 1841 - Definitions
  • 50 US Code § 1801 - Definitions

Congress has also defined several related terms such as:

The following are some relevant examples of those definitions from various major international organizations:

  • Declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism (1994) from the General Assembly of the United Nations: “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…”
  • Resolution 1566 (2004) adopted by the Security Council of the United Nations: “…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, which constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism, are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature…”
  • Article 2 of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism of 1999 adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations: “…(b) Any other act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act…”.
  • The Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism (2002) from the European Union: “…the intentional acts referred to below in points (a) to (i), as defined as offences under national law, which, given their nature or context, may seriously damage a country or an international organisation where committed with the aim of: — seriously intimidating a population, or unduly compelling a Government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act, or seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation, — shall be deemed to be terrorist offences: — (a) attacks upon a person's life which may cause death; (b) attacks upon the physical integrity of a person; (c) kidnapping or hostage taking; (d) causing extensive destruction to a Government or public facility, a transport system, an infrastructure facility, including an information system, a fixed platform located on the continental shelf, a public place or private property likely to endanger human life or result in major economic loss; (e) seizure of aircraft, ships or other means of public or goods transport; (f) manufacture, possession, acquisition, transport, supply or use of weapons, explosives or of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, as well as research into, and development of, biological and chemical weapons; (g) release of dangerous substances, or causing fires, floods or explosions the effect of which is to endanger human life; (h) interfering with or disrupting the supply of water, power or any other fundamental natural resource the effect of which is to endanger human life; (i) threatening to commit any of the acts listed in (a) to (h).”

Even though there is no universal definition for terrorism, there are common elements that characterize it. For instance, terrorism:

  • usually involves the threat or use of violence by a collectivity or group of persons (state and non-state groups), which may or may not be organized.
  • is unpredictable and commonly affects civilians or other parties that are not part of any hostilities.
  • may have political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, or religious purposes or objectives.
  • may seek to compel the government, an international organization, or another group to do or abstain from doing an action.
  • may destabilize or destroy the political, constitutional, economic, or social structures of a country, an international organization, or another group.
  • may intimidate or cause a state of terror on the civilian population.
  • entails the violation of criminal law, international conventions, or other relevant laws.

Additionally, it is important to note that there are several types of terrorism, such as bioterrorism, cyberterrorism, ecoterrorism, domestic and international terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism, and narcoterrorism.

[Last updated in September of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]