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Understanding Terrorism in the 21st Century

Understanding Terrorism in the 21st Century

Graph created by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) depicting the type and number of terrorist acts from 1980-2001. (Courtesy: FBI)

Noor Razzaq

In post-911 American society, “terrorism” has become an everyday term used to describe everything from gorilla style warfare against U.S. troops overseas to the mass murder of civilians in the name of foreign ideological and political agendas. Due to the current political context of the United States in the world regarding the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, many citizens of the western world automatically associate terrorism with right-wing Islamic extremism. The purpose of this article is to expound upon the common American worldview of terrorism to extend beyond so-called “Islamic” extremism and other inherently limited definitions of terrorism. This article will specifically analyze various definitions of terrorism, briefly overview characteristics and goals of terrorism, and review various widely accepted categories of terrorism.

The difficulty in effectively defining the concept of terrorism lies in the fact that the definition of terrorism has changed significantly over the centuries. While the word ‘terrorism’ was originally coined to describe the “systematic order of terror” used to rule the reluctant citizenry of 18th century France (Roberts, 2002, p. 1), it has evolved into something much different and much less uniformly definable. Although there is no longer a universally accepted definition of terrorism, there have still been attempts at a definition. For example, Razzaq (2003) defines terrorism as a “systematic use of fear and criminal activity to achieve goals or objectives that a terrorist organization has laid out” (p. 2). However, this definition is an example of how representatives from various organizations define terrorism in support of their own organizational goals; in Razzaq’s case, this was the simplest definition necessary in order to provide instruction to tactical operators in hostage rescue.

Another example of defining terrorism in accordance with organizational structure and agendas would be the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) definition which states terrorism is “the calculated use of violence or the threat of 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” (Constitutional Rights Foundation, n.d.). Scholarly definitions are a little more all-encompassing due to a lack of organizational influence or agenda, such as the definition presented by Professor James M. Poland of California State University in Sacramento. Poland defines terrorism as the premeditated, systematic, and deliberate mayhem, murder, and threats to innocent people used to gain political or tactical advantage and to influence an audience (Constitutional Rights Foundation, n.d.).

There are some common characteristics of terrorism that various “experts” on the subject agree upon. First, terrorism is an extreme form of political manipulation, usually with the goal of influencing some sort of public policy. Terrorists perform acts of terror in order to alter public perception of the government’s overall legitimacy or effectiveness. This is accomplished both by disrupting or destroying lines or methods of communication in an effort to create doubt in the hearts of citizens that their government can protect and provide for them and hiding out in urban areas, thereby inherently causing an increase in civilian casualties that can be blamed on the government the terrorists are fighting against. Criminal acts such as bombing, beheadings, and kidnapping are used as a means to the end of whatever objective the terrorist group sets out to accomplish. In addition to the aforementioned characteristics, the International Terrorism and Security Research (n.d.) lists the following as generalized goals of terrorism: producing widespread fear and panic, attract media attention to their cause, embarrass, harass, and/or weaken government security forces causing them to overreact and appear oppressive, satisfy vengeance, and free prisoners. These definitions all differ from insurgency, which is actually a movement with the goal of attacking a particular government is to gain geographic territory or political power/equality and does not necessarily require the use of terrorism.

Not only does the definition for terrorism vary depending on the entity or organization defining the term, so does public opinions and views on terrorism. The old axiom “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” would be the paradigm of most terrorists, who do not see themselves as terrorists, but rather as combatants fighting for their beliefs by way of unconventional warfare. In contrast, a victim of terrorism will view the terrorist as evil and heartless, a fact demonstrated by the public outcry against extremists (who mistakenly call themselves “Muslim”) in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks in 2001. The increase in prevalence of terrorist attacks by Arab extremists over the past couple of decades further exacerbates the national paradigm that terrorism is primarily of Middle Eastern or Islamic practice and origin. However, this is simply not the case.

There are a myriad of categories of terrorist groups and terrorism in general. These include Religious, Separatists, Ethnocentric, Nationalistic, Revolutionary, Political, Social, Domestic, and International or Transnational. Religious terrorism is the category most Americans are familiar with due to the widespread media coverage of Islamic extremism. The major danger with religious terrorist groups lies in the rigidity of their beliefs. “Religiously motivated terrorists see their objectives as holy writ, and therefore infallible and non-negotiable” (ITSR, n.d.). It should be noted that while terrorism by extremists from Muslim countries is the most widely covered, virtually every religious group in the world has (and still is) engaged in religious terrorism. Another type of terrorist groups is the Separatists, who use terrorism as a means of obtaining political autonomy, though separatists could also be categorized as insurgents. An example of this would be the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Ethnocentric terrorist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), believe in their own superiority based on inherent racial characteristics and are motivated by the concept of ‘ethnic cleansing’ by way of extermination and/or subjugation of all other races.

Nationalistic terrorism is much like separatism in that there is a desire for political autonomy; however, this is generally based on a certain widespread cultural idealism such as was the case with the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Revolutionary Terrorism is dedicated to the overthrowing of an established political order and replacing it with a new social and/or political structure. The United States is known throughout the world (except domestically) to have trained many citizens of foreign nations in revolutionary terrorism as a method of covertly spreading democracy in various countries overseas (though we don’t call it revolutionary terrorism). An example of this is the South American nation of Honduras which became a constitutional democracy in the 1980s with the assistance of U.S. Special Forces, who trained and assisted contras in overthrowing their former government (Photius Coutsoukis, 2004). Political terrorism is simply a broad category which encompasses all types of politically motivated terrorism.

‘Social terrorism’ pertains to terrorist acts carried out in regards to a special interest, such as abortion, animal rights, minority rights, and environmentalists. Domestic terrorist groups operate within their own country and fight for varying ideologies. Examples of domestic terrorist groups in the United States include the KKK, Aryan Nation, and the Earth Liberation Front (Crawford, 2001). Finally, there is International and Transnational terrorism, terms which more describes the operational influence, reach, and support of these groups. International groups operate in multiple countries, but usually focus on a specific geographical region for their activities whereas transnational terrorists operate and focus on multiple countries. Hezbollah is considered to be an international terrorist group in that they are primarily concerned with ongoing events in Lebanon and Israel, whereas Al Qaeda could be considered a transnational terrorist group (ITSR, n.d.).

The bottom line is that there are many views, concepts, and definitions of terrorism. While many in the western world automatically associate terrorism with right-wing so-called “Islamic” extremism, the fact is that this type extremism only comprises a percentage of terrorism and terrorist groups across the globe. It is important for those responsible for combating 21st century terrorism to go beyond the common American worldview of terrorism to extend beyond religious extremism to an understanding of the topic as applied to both the United States and the world theatre as a whole.


Constitutional Rights Foundation. (n.d.). America Responds to Terrorism: What is Terrorism. Retrieved July 10, 2007, from:

Crawford, M. (2001). MILNET: Domestic Terrorist Group Profiles. Retrieved July 10, 2007, from:

International Terrorism and Security Research. (n.d.). What is Terrorism?; Goals and Motivations of Terrorists; Categories of Terrorist Groups; and Differences between Terrorism and Insurgency. Retrieved July 10, 2007, from:

Photius Coutsoukis. (2004). Honduras United States Military Assistance and Training. Retrieved June 19, 2007, from:

Razzaq, N.Z. (2003, September). U.S. Air Force 1st Security Forces Squadron Emergency Services Team (EST) Lesson Guide. Paper presented at Langley Air Force Base EST (SWAT) Team’s First Instructional Forum on Terrorism.

Roberts, A. (2002). The Changing Faces of Terrorism. Retrieved July 10, 2007, from:

© Noor Razzaq

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