what is or isn't terrorism


Because terrorism does not have one universally agreed upon definition, deciding what is and is not considered terrorism can prove to be very challenging. But, in order to have a constructive conversation about the topic, it is first important to establish an agreed upon definition of the term. When talking to students about terrorism (or terrorist attacks) it is very important to ensure that everyone understand the difference between terrorism and other forms of crime. If there is not a clear understanding of the term, the conversation can lose focus and lead to much confusion. Elements to keep in mind:


    Terrorists attacks are attacks that are:

  • Violent, or that threaten violence

  • Designed to coerce or intimidate a certain population of people (i.e citizens or government- any non-combatants)

  • Motivated by an ideology (political, religious, etc.)

Even with these three elements, there are many attacks, like some mass shootings, that still fall within a grey area because they don’t fit the stereotypical idea of a terrorist attack. For example, in 2009, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an army psychiatrist, killed 13 people in a shooting spree at Fort Hood, a military post in Texas. Hasan was believed to be dealing with some psychological problems and was very against the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. He later found out that he was going to be deployed to either Afghanistan or Iraq. Hasan had been discussing suicide bombings online and before he began the attack, he shouted “Allahu Akbar” which means “God is great” in Arabic. During his trial, he claimed to be acting in the defense of Taliban. This attack was definitely violent, it seemed to be motivated by an ideology, but where the grey area comes into play is the fact that he attacked a military post, which is not necessarily a non-combatant target. Generally, in order for something to be considered terrorism it has to attack a 'non-combatant' target.

In July of 2011, James Holmes opened fired in a movie theater killing 12 people and injuring another 70. He wanted to kill as many people as possible that day and said that homicide was his way of dealing with his depression.  He considered this to be a better option than suicide. While Holmes’ actions were undoubtedly very violent, and many terrorists have committed mass shootings, his actions do not make him a terrorist. This attack was not driven by any sort of political or religious ideology and he wasn’t trying to coerce any action from the government or citizens, he did it simply because he wanted to.

“One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.”

During the American Revolution, a group known as the Sons of Liberty, was organized by colonists to help themselves achieve independence from Britain.  They were responsible for many acts of violence in the 13 colonies, namely protests against the Stamp Act, and tar and feathering supporters of the British Crown. From the colonies' perspective, the Sons of Liberty were fighting for their rights and freedom, but from Britain's perspective, they could be considered terrorists. The Sons of Liberty were certainly using violence and the threat of violence. They were trying to coerce and intimidate the British Monarchy, and they were certainly motivated by a political ideology. The point here is that perspective plays a big role in our perception of what is or is not terrorism.