Terrorism definition legitimacy literature review examples

The definition and understanding of terrorism and its nature heavily dependent on the political, legal and social contexts in which it is assessed. Individuals, organized groups and even governments across the world have overtime have used terrorism for their ends, which has effectively made it increasingly difficult to accurately define and apply it to the rapidly changing contexts (Ibrahim, Oct 2008). Descriptions of terrorism have ranged from criminal acts that are intentioned to cause a state fear/terror among the public, some, individuals or groups of people for political or other unjustifiable philosophical, racial, ideological, coercive diplomacy, religious etc. It refers to the purposeful and indiscriminate employment of actual or threatened coercion, force, intimidation and/or coercion to inflict fear in order to attain political, economic religious and/or ideological objectives that are unjustified under established law or reason. Hoffman (2006) terms terrorism as the asymmetrical conflicts designed to inflict psychic fear and terror through the non-combatants’ destruction and violent victimization.

The definitions of terrorism seek to highlight several aspects, including psychology, strategy and ideology, which are the driving forces behind the violence and other inducements of fear or terror. While the specific reasons may range from personal to national interests, or the interaction of both personal and national needs (Ibrahim, Oct 2008). The emergence of Al Qaida, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the Basque Separatist Movement ETA has led to the emergence of wholly new definitions. These include the repeated employment or threatened employment of political, ideological, religious etc, and secretively organized violence by an individual or groups to induce a psychological effect that the actions are intended for. This definition includes torture, violent attacks and other cats that are only geared to achieve a certain desired psychological effect in the victims or other people towards supporting the views etc of the perpetrators.

Terrorism from a psychological perspective can never be acceptable, but other perspectives of terror have variously been seen in a positive light. Ideologies refer to beliefs, principles or values by which a person or group defines its goals and objectives. It encompasses or stems from religion, politics, programs, personal convictions or other sources. There have a variety of terrorist groups that have been driven by ideologies and include the Irish Republican Army, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. These terrorist organizations seek to accomplish ideologically inspired goals, including reunification of territories, independence and religious freedoms among others. Ideological terrorism is equally inexcusable irrespective of the circumstances of the attacks. The United Nations’ Resolutions against terrorism that is inspired by ideology are legally prohibited. The UN unequivocally condemns all forms of ideological terrorism, practices and methods as both unjustifiable and criminal, regardless of the person that perpetrates it (Hoffman, 2006). Using terror to impose or defend one’s ideologies amounts to ideological bullying of other people, and by the very act of savage terror, it amounts to denying other people the very factors that people seek to avoid or gain.

The third perspective of terrorism amounts to logical extensions of failed politics and other systems of justice or achievement of desirable goals for an individual or group of people (Bakker, 2007). Whenever people desire to address their respective grievances through the accepted legal, political etc channels, they anticipate to receive what they seek according to the existent laws/logic. If however, it is impossible to achieve their ends through the acceptable means, because of the structural difficulties, political disadvantage, corruption or other difficulties, it is likely that they will resort to other means that may be unacceptable, illegal or violence (Precht, 2007). Terrorism that arises from this is largely strategic, and is driven by a careful analysis of the goals of an individual, group or nation, coupled by the identification of ways to achieve those goals according to the relative likelihood of success of every strategy.

Terrorism in this case normally arises out of desperation, if victory is beyond the reach of a group that believes in its objectives, and it is strategically helpful in meeting them. In 1913 for instance, Germany sank a US civilian ship that was believed to have been shipping weapons and military supplies to its enemies (Hoffman, 2006). Germany was struggling to prevent the inevitable defeat in the costly conflict, and even though it was both wrong and illegal to sink a civilian tanker, they opted to sink it if that would (i) affect the psyche of the American People and (ii) prevent the supplies from reaching the battlefields. While the legitimacy of this remains dubious, South Africa’s African National Congress under Nelson Mandela and other Black leaders frequently employed terrorism in order to fight the Apartheid regime (Precht, 2007). Apartheid/racial discrimination was/is illegal under international, and the then colonial government employed ruthless tactics to defeat black populations that fought against the system. The government’s strategies were illegal, and since it was better armed and enjoying the benefits of the state instruments, it was impossible for black movements to make any headway. They effectively employed terrorism. This form of terrorism is legitimate.


Bakker, E. (2007). Jihadi terrorists in Europe, their characteristics and the circumstances in which they joined the Jihad: An exploratory study. Hague: Clingendael CSCP Paper.

Hoffman, B. (2006). Inside terrorism, Edition 2. Columbus: Columbia University Press.

Ibrahim, A. (Oct 2008). Reducing Terrorism Over the Long Term : The only way to beat terror long-term is to reduce the motivation to radicalise,. London: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Precht, T. (2007). Home grown terrorism and Islamist radicalization in Europe: From Conversion to Terrorism. København: Danish Ministry of Justice.