[Gadi Adelman is] "Leading in the movement in the study of counter-terrorism", Dr. Walid Phares, Advisor to the Anti-Terrorism Caucus in the US House of Representatives

Not Every Violent Act Amounts to Terrorism

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911In order to defeat something we must be able to agree on its definition, especially when it involves our national security. Bandying about terms in an already flawed system does no one any good.

Watching the media coverage this past week on the plane crash in Austin, I found myself yet again screaming at my television. Far too many pundits were calling it an act of terror after all the facts had shown that Joseph Stack had committed an act of suicide by flying his private plane into a building that housed IRS offices.

What is the Definition of terrorism? There isn’t just one. There are thousands.

This subject is, without a doubt, the most argued about subject with terrorist experts and novices alike. The amount of books and papers on the definition of terrorism alone is extraordinary. While studying terrorism over the years, I have seen and heard more definitions and the arguments for those definitions than there are terrorist groups themselves. No two groups, organization or country can seem to agree on a definition and this is one of the reasons that terrorism will continue to exist on a worldwide scale. Without an agreed upon definition to explain terrorism, let alone understand it, how can anyone begin to defeat it? This is simple logic: before you can combat anything, let alone live with or defeat it, you must first understand it.

Anytime I speak or lecture on terrorism, I always devote a great deal of time on its definition. Not having an agreed-upon definition is one of the biggest problems facing this nation and the world as a whole. An Internet search on the “definition of terrorism” will give you over 8.5 million results.

The United Nations does not even have a definition on terrorism because they could never come to an agreement on one, although many within the UN have tried. The first attempt to arrive at an internationally acceptable definition was made in 1937 by the League of Nations, the forerunner to the UN, but the drafted definition never came into existence.

The various Departments of our own Government cannot agree on a single definition of terrorism. All government agencies are required to follow the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004; however, even in following the IRTPA, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), The National Security Agency (N.S.A), The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and The State Department all have different definitions of terrorism.

This in itself is an oxymoron. How can all these United States government agencies have different definitions? How can we, as a country, work together against something when our own government cannot even agree on a single definition?  This is my biggest pet peeve in the counterterror or antiterrorism argument.

In their book Political Terrorism, Schmidt and Youngman cited 109 different definitions of terrorism, which they obtained in a survey of leading academics in the field. From these definitions, the authors isolated the following recurring elements, in order of their statistical appearance in the definitions:

  • Violence, force (appeared in 83.5 percent of the definitions);

  • political (65 percent);

  • fear, emphasis on terror (51 percent);

  • threats (47 percent);

  • psychological effects and anticipated reactions (41.5 percent);

  • discrepancy between the targets and the victims (37.5 percent);

  • intentional, planned, systematic, organized action (32 percent);

  • methods of combat, strategy, tactics (30.5 percent).

After having read hundreds of definitions and studying terrorism, I have written my own definition, which is comprised of many of the above noted statistics. I wrote this after 9/11 because I felt that a more complete and accepted definition was needed. For example, most that I have read excludes combat troops from their definition – as if just because one is a member of the armed services, he can not be a victim of terrorism. Others that I have read did not include religion, and so on. My definition will not be accepted by terrorist organizations or those states that sponsor it, but I am not trying to be politically correct – nor am I attempting to unite the world on one definition. Maybe if the United States and/or the United Nations adopted one definition, they would immediately know and understand that as soon as any country or organization dismissed the definition that they are probably terrorists or supporters of terrorism themselves.

You may notice that my definition uses several other definitions as a guide. The main difference is that I do not make distinctions between domestic or foreign terror, nor do I place terrorism into different categories. It does not matter if you die in the United States or in a foreign country just as it does not matter what type of terrorist kills you. Dead is dead, just as terrorism is terrorism.

My definition is as follows:

A terrorist incident is a premeditated violent act or an act dangerous to human life, which is politically or religiously motivated and perpetrated against noncombatant and combatant targets alike by sub national groups or clandestine agents without regard to race, religion, national origin, gender or age. These acts are intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; influence social objectives; the policy of a government; or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction.

Short, simple, and to the point.

Let’s stop using labels and throwing out words that that have far-reaching consequences when it is a matter of life and death and we are at war. Phrases such as eco-terrorism, cyber-terrorism and narco-terrorism, or using the word terrorism any time there is a criminal act or tragedy, only helps diminish its true meaning. Our government obviously has a problem with its own words, definitions and political correctness. We need not help it along by encouraging the use of incorrect terminology.




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