Debating the Definition of Terrorism: A Challenge for Academia - Essay Sample

Published: 2023-11-15
Debating the Definition of Terrorism: A Challenge for Academia - Essay Sample
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Terrorism Society
Pages: 5
Wordcount: 1366 words
12 min read


Academics and scholars often disagree on the appropriateness of the term ‘terrorism.’ The term has remained contested due to its many definitions, posing a challenge in its educational use and study. Its insecure ontological status has led to its frequent misuse by both politicians and academicians (Hayes, 2015). There remains no consensual definition despite being acknowledged as a common issue with several social phenomena of political significance. Essentially, terrorism is political, perpetrated by various actors, and characterized by deliberate but random targeting of non-combatants (Greene, 2017, 415). While the application of the term remains debatable, terrorism is still a useful analytical term and should thus be retained. It tells apart different classes of analytical feats in the search for a definition, including defining and conceptualizing terrorism.

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Ontological Debates on Terrorism

Scholars and other groups have attempted to define terrorism without reaching a consensus. One definition holds that terrorism refers to politically driven heterogeneous violence that involves an extended set of acts, targets, and actors. It aims at eliciting fear among the directly threatened targeted and a wider implied audience to maximize political achievement and communication (Bryan et al., 2011, 83). Conversely, another scholar argues that terrorism is the deliberate creation and exploitation if terror through the threat of violence or violence pursuing a political change (Wilkinson, 2012, 15). Another definition is that terrorism is a violence of its threat envisioned as a figuratively communicative act (Bryan, 2012, 18). The direct victims of the action are objectified as a means to create a psychological effect of fear and intimidation for political objectives.

There exist broad definitions of the word ‘terrorism’ that lack a consensus on the actors and the intended impacts. The lack of definitional certainty on terrorism has led to ontological instability, resulting in many inadequate and unwieldy definitions. Nevertheless, according to the fuzzy set theory, everything has elasticity, and what matters is the degree to allow for grouping and analysis (Bryan et al., 2011, 89). The definition of terrorism, therefore, depends on the subjective judgment and the level to which particular actions fit the interpretation. Terrorism’s uncertain ontological status makes it challenging to define it adequately (English, 2016, 139). However, the term has a collection of unique and identifiable characteristics that set it apart from other kinds of political violence and could thus serve useful analytical functions; hence it should be retained.

Arguments for the word ‘Terrorism’

Terrorists’ targets are not essentially the victims of violence but are instead audiences to the actions. As such, terrorism mainly entails political communication rather than direct military action (Bryan, 2012, 19). Unlike soldierly acts that seek to directly degrade the enemy’s physical ability to deter them from fighting, terrorism majorly targets the creation of terror. For instance, states that attempt to hide their involvement in civilian-directed violence and use disappearance strategies without kidnap or torture engages in terrorism (Jackson, 2008, 29). Their actions do not harm but, instead, create an image of ruthlessness and omnipotence hence intimidating the targeted groups. However, in some instances, state terrorism could be both direct and instrumental; for instance, when the government murders a vocal union member (Jackson & Pisoiu, 2018, 16). Such acts serve to weaken the union while sending a message to potential leaders and terrifying the wider society.

Conversely, terrorism is an intentionally and pre-determined strategy of political violence and therefore has an instrumental and rational foundation. Such a foundation also implies that the various actors, such as individuals, states, or groups, can employ it to pursue strategic goals (Greene, 2017, 428). Additionally, this basis denotes that terrorism is not an inherently evil nature or a determinant of future behavior. The actors can abandon it at any time, depending on their objectives. Terrorists can, therefore, opt to adopt non-violent strategies to meet their goals and are not predisposed to violence. The foundation also suggests that political motivations are core to distinguishing other forms of violence aimed at terrifying a particular group from terrorism (Jackson & Pisoiu, 2018, 12). Moreover, the basis implies that terrorism is intentional and forethought, unlike the terror induced by community disturbances or rioting.

Terrorism is aimed chiefly, but not exclusively, at civilians. During the war, some actions aimed solely at eliciting fear from enemy soldiers and their lay audience could be regarded as terrorism. Besides, the use of some forms of militarily ineffective but demoralizing chemical weapons or bombing locations occupied by civilians and lacking strategic targets could be categorized as terrorism (Jackson, 2008, 27). A violent campaign targeting off-duty military personnel or police officers and was intended to intimidate or cause fear in the wider or a particular section of the society could be termed as terrorism (Wilkinson, 2012, 13). As such, any terror-causing or intimidating actions aimed primarily at civilians directly or indirectly constitute terrorism.

Furthermore, terrorism is primarily intended to intimidate and cause fear. These impacts stand out as the central purpose and not an unintended consequence. For terrorism, the intent to create terror can be deduced from the context, target, and the foreseen results (Wilkinson, 2012, 13). Instances such as placing bombs in public areas and prevalent use of torture against vocal opponents are aimed at terrifying a wider audience (Hayes, 2015). Although it could be argued that actors engage in a given level of intentionality to cause terror, the central purpose is to spread intimidation to an extensive society.

Employing a conception of terrorism based on the term’s unique and identifiable aspects yields several advantages. It expands the phenomenon by the actor’s nature, including several categories, such as non-state terrorism and gender-based terrorism. It also broadens the analysis to not only focus on peace but include other aspects such as the behavior of the perpetrators in a war to differentiate terrorism from political violence (English, 2016, 137). Moreover, such an approach brings some degree of consensus among the multiple definitions posed by various scholars since they include these characteristics in their arguments.


All in all, the definition of terrorism has been problematic due to the lack of consensus by different scholars. While academicians seem to agree on the consequences of terrorism, there are considerable disparities in the actors. However, using the identifiable and unique characteristics of the term, it could still be useful for analytical purposes. The distinct aspects differentiate it from other forms of violence and provide clear outlooks on what constitutes terrorism. Nonetheless, many politicians and scholars still label particular acts of violence as terrorism, which makes the term simplistic and compromises its use in academic study. It is often confused for crime and war, making it challenging to study other kinds of violence. The term is also used pejoratively against certain groups, causing a lack of consensus on its meaning and use. However, focusing on the unique characteristics of terrorism, a temporal contingent of what the term means, and its application in analytical aspects.


Bryan, D., 2012. A landscape of meaning: constructing understandings of political violence from the broken paradigm of ‘terrorism.’ na. Pp.17-24.

Bryan, D., Kelly, L., and Templer, S., 2011. The failed paradigm of ‘terrorism.’ Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 3(2), pp.80-96.'terrorism'

English, R., 2016. The future study of terrorism. European Journal of International Security, 1(2), pp.135-149.

Greene, A., 2017. Defining terrorism: one size fits all?. International & Comparative Law Quarterly, 66(2), pp.411-440.

Hayes, J., 2015. Is the Concept of Terrorism Still Useful?. International Relations and Security Network paper, ETH Zurich Center for Security Studies (23 January 2015),

http://www. CSS. ethz. ch/en/services/digital library/publications/publication. html/187968.

Jackson, R., 2008. An argument for terrorism. Perspectives on terrorism, 2(2), pp.25-32.

Jackson, R., and Pisoiu, D. eds., 2018. Contemporary debates on terrorism. Routledge. Pp. 10-20.

Wilkinson, P., 2012. Is terrorism still a useful analytical term, or should it be abandoned? YES: The utility of the concept of terrorism. Contemporary Debates on Terrorism. Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge, pp.12-17.

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