Common Definition of Terrorism

There is much difficulty when it comes to establishing what a terrorist actually is because of the lack of definition that exists on an international level. The difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter cannot easily be identified as a result of this, which prevents the War on Terror from being adequately dealt with. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether a definition would prove effective given that different interpretations of terrorism exist amongst the international community.

The definition of terrorism has been subject to much controversy over the years because of the different interpretations that exist. Accordingly, terrorism is viewed differently by governmental agencies and under various legal systems. It is has been argued that because of the conflictions that exist within this area, a common definition of terrorism needs to be adopted by the international community (Sorel, 2003). Terrorism occurs on an international level and unless consensus exists within this area, difficulties will continue to ensue when trying to combat terrorism. It would be highly beneficial if a universal definition was employed as there would be much more consistency and terrorist acts would be more easily identified (Webster, 2011). Terrorism has been defined by Hoffman as “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change” (1998: 32). Terrorism is present whenever there is the threat of violence or violence itself which is intended to have physical and emotional effects upon victims. It has also been suggested that “terrorists seek to obtain the leverage, influence and power they otherwise lack to effect political change on either a local or an international scale” (Hoffman, 1998: 32). Despite these interpretations, it is still extremely difficult to determine whether a person is committing an act of terrorism. This essay will consider in light of this whether a common definition of terrorism have helped to combat terrorism in the Arab uprising in relation to Syria.
Defining Terrorism
Consequently, terrorists are capable of being mistaken for freedom fighters who merely seek to achieve political freedom by taking part in a “resistance movement against an oppressive political or social establishment” (Webster, 2011: 1). Freedom fighters include the likes of the South African Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who were both labelled freedom fighters on the basis that they fought against national governments for freedom (Webster, 2011). There is, nonetheless, a fine line between terrorists and freedom fighters because of the fact that they both act in a similar manner and so it is imperative that a distinction can be made between the two (Raport, 2013). Gioia (2006) further notes that this is difficult to achieve in practice and terrorists are capable of escaping liability on the grounds that they are freedom fighters. Whilst one jurisdiction may consider a person a terrorist another jurisdiction may consider the same person a freedom fighter. It has thus been argued that; “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” (Buchanan, 2004: 1). This makes it extremely difficult to remain consistent within this area of the law and highlights the need for a universal definition of terrorism. As put by Rosand; “the General Assembly’s inability to reach agreement on a definition of terrorism after nearly thirty-five years of discussions in one form or another has limited the impact of its counterterrorism efforts” (2006: 399).
Terrorism and Syria
Conflictions will continue to exist unless a universal definition is adopted and terrorism will remain difficult to combat. This has been exemplified by the Arab uprising in relation to Syria since the Syrian Arab Republic has been considered both a victim of terrorism as well as a perpetrator. The Syrian government has thus been accused by the US State Department and George W. Bush of sponsoring acts of terrorism for organisations like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Struggle Front (Diane, 1995: 19). However, because of the uncertainty surrounding the definition of terrorism it has proven very difficult for the Syrian government to be properly sanctioned. As argued by Rapport; “the case of Syria illustrates how the concept of state-sponsored terrorism, and evidence for it, lacks clarity and is used politically” (2013: 238). It was demonstrated by officials of the United States that whilst the actions of the Syrian government were much more professional and deadly than Libya’s, the evidence that links Syria to direct acts of violence is murky (New York Times, 1986: 1). Despite these uncertainties, the US government continues to publish lists of the number of terrorists incidents that have occurred in Syria (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 2013: 4). However, because Syria has continued to support the US and other governments in their opposition to the al-Qaeda, there has been a reluctance to name Syria as a sponsor state (Diaz-Paniagua, 2008).
It has been said that this is the result of a necessity to obtain the assistance of Syria when negotiating the release of British, US and French citizens that are being held hostage in the Middle East (Dettmer, 2014: 1). Syria is thereby a vital component for the establishment of peace within this area, which is why it has proven difficult to combat terrorism in Syria. It is clear from these findings that there is sufficient evidence to name Syria as a terrorist sponsor, yet because of Syria’s political connections there has been a refusal to do so. Arguably, a common definition of terrorism would therefore have done nothing to prevent the terrorist actions from being conducted in the Arab uprising in relation to Syria since there is a political reluctance to name Syria as a terrorist sponsor. It has been noted in view of this that it would be “naive to think that there are laws in war” (Al-Saadi, 2013: 1), which is certainly true here. Although a common definition would be better overall in providing certainty, it is questionable whether it would in fact help to combat terrorism. Furthermore, because of the fact that different states view terrorism differently, a common definition would restrict the ability of states to identify terrorism on a case by case basis. This was identified by Sorel when it was pointed out that; “the problem facing a global definition is the difficulty in taking account of special circumstances according to the type of action committed, the nature of the victims or the type of method of the terrorist action” (2003: 365).
Consideration as to whether a definition is needed was made by the Security Council in September 2001 during the adoption of Resolution 1373 and it was concluded that; “one shouldn’t try to define terrorism in order to reach a quick agreement; to do so runs the risk of getting into deeper and deeper water” (2001: 1). This signifies that because terrorism acts are so wide-ranging, it would be difficult to incorporate a definition that would be able to comprehend every single act of terrorism. Flexibility is therefore vital within this area, yet because of the confusions that arise when trying to distinguish between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, it is necessary to have some conformity. This was identified by Saul who stated that there is a “need to condemn violations to Human rights, to protect the state and deliberative politics, to differentiate public and private violence, and to ensure international peace and security” (2008: 1). It is unlikely that these objectives can be achieved without a common definition since it is necessary that terrorist actions can be identified and distinguished against the actions of a freedom fighter (Diaz-Paniagua, 2008: 47). It remains arguable whether a definition would in fact be workable given the reluctance to name Syria as a sponsor of terrorism and some have suggested to define terrorism would prevent a sectoral approach towards terrorism to be employed.
As put forward by Gioia; “a definition would only be necessary if the punishment of the relevant offences were made conditional on the existence of a specific terrorist intent” (2006: 4). Many would in fact disagree with this statement on the basis that much of the complexity that exists when trying to combat terrorism is the result of the lack of consensus within this area. Hence, the current approach that is being employed by the international community does not appear satisfactory and attempts to clarify the meaning of terrorism are continuously being made. An example of this can be seen in relation to the definition that was provided by the League of Nations Convention of 1937 under Article 1.1. Under this definition an act of terrorism was described as a “criminal act directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public.” The United Nations General Assembly also provided under Article 2.1 of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism that a terrorist is defined as someone who causes; “death or serious bodily injury; serious damage to public or private property; or damage to property, places, facilities, or systems likely to result in major economic loss” (2002: 1). Effectively, it is evident that attempts to define terrorism have and will continue to be made, yet whether there will ever be complete consensus in this area is doubtful and it cannot be said that a definition would have helped to combat terrorism that is being committed by Syria.
Overall, whilst it is clear that a definition of terrorism is needed in order to provide clarity within this area, it cannot be said that a common definition would have helped to combat terrorism in the Arab uprising in relation to Syria. This is due to the political reluctance to name Syria as a sponsor of terrorism regardless of the evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, it has also been suggested that flexibility needs to remain in this area so that terrorism can be determined on a sectoral basis. Hence, not every country will view terrorist actions the same and so a determination will need to be based on a case by case basis in order to prevent confliction. Regardless of this, there is still a pressing need to provide some conformity within this area, which is why the international community have made great attempts to provide a universal definition.
Al-Saadi, Y. (2013) ‘The Rise of the Arab ‘War on Terror’ Discourse’, [Online], Available: [26 March 2014].
Buchanan, P. J. ‘Terrorists – and Freedom Fighters?’ AntiWar, [Online], Available: [26 March 2014].
Dettmer, J. (2014) ‘Holding Aid Hostage Syria’, Middle East Institute, [Online], Available: [26 March 2014].
Diaz-Paniagua, C.F. (2008) Negotiating Terrorism: The Negotiation Dynamics of Four UN Counter-Terrorism Treaties 1997-2005, City University of New York.
Diane Publishing. (1995) Patterns of Global Terrorism, Diane Publishing.
Gioia, A. (2006) The UN Conventions on the Prevention and Suppression of International Terrorism in Nesi, G. International Co-operation in Counter-Terrorism: The United Nations and Regional Organisations in the Fight Against Terrorism.
Hoffman, B. (1998) Inside Terrorism, Columbia University Press.
National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. (2013) ‘Annex of Statistical Information’ Country Reports on Terrorism, [Online], Available: [27 March 2014].
Raport, D. C. (2013) Inside Terrorist Organisations, Routledge.
Rosand, E. (2006) ‘The UN-Led Multilateral Institutional Response to Jihadist Terrorism: Is a Global Counterterrorism Body Needed’, Journal of Conflict and Security Law, C&S Law 2006 11 (399), Issue 3.
Saul, B. (2008) Defining Terrorism to Protect Human Rights, Sydney Law School Legal Studies, Research Paper No 08-125.
Security Council. (2001) Le Terrorisme est un totalitarisme, Le Monde.
Sorel, J. (2003) ‘Some Questions About the Definition of Terrorism and the Fight Against Its Financing’, European Journal of International Law, EJIL 2003 14 (365), Issue 2.
The New York Times. (1986) ‘Evidence of Syrian Link to Terror still Murky’, [Online], Available: [26 March 2014].
United Nations General Assembly. (2002) ‘Report of the Ad Hoc Committee established by General Assembly Resolution 51/210 of 17 December 1996’, Sixth Session, Annex II, art 2.1.
Webster, M. (2011) ‘Freedom Fighter’, An Encyclopaedia Britannica Company, [Online], Available: [26 March 2014].

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