There is neither an academic nor an international legal consensus regarding the proper definition of the word "terrorism".
Some scholars believe the actions of governments can be labelled "terrorism".
Using the term 'terrorism' to mean violent action used with the predominant intention of causing terror, Paul James
and Jonathan Friedman
distinguish between state terrorism against non-combatants
and state terrorism against combatants
, including 'shock and awe
Shock and Awe" as a subcategory of "rapid dominance" is the name given to massive intervention designed to strike terror into the minds of the enemy. It is a form of state-terrorism. The concept was however developed long before the Second Gulf War by Harlan Ullman as chair of a forum of retired military personnel.
However, others, including governments, international organisations, private institutions and scholars, believe the term is applicable only to the actions of violent non-state actors
. Historically, the term terrorism was used to refer to actions taken by governments against their own citizens whereas now it is more often perceived as targeting of non-combatants as part of a strategy directed against
Historian Henry Commager
wrote that "Even when definitions of terrorism allow for state terrorism
, state actions in this area tend to be seen through the prism of war or national self-defense, not terror."
While states may accuse other states of state-sponsored terrorism
when they support insurgencies, individuals who accuse their governments of terrorism are seen as radicals, because actions by legitimate governments are not generally seen as illegitimate. Academic writing tends to follow the definitions accepted by states.
Most states use the term "terrorism" for non-state actors only.
The Encyclopædia Britannica Online defines terrorism generally as "the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective", and states that "terrorism is not legally defined in all jurisdictions." The encyclopedia adds that "[e]stablishment terrorism, often called state or state-sponsored terrorism, is employed by governments—or more often by factions within governments—against that government's citizens, against factions within the government, or against foreign governments or groups."
While the most common modern usage of the word terrorism refers to civilian-victimising political violence
several scholars make a broader interpretation of the nature of terrorism that encompasses the concepts of state terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism. Michael Stohl
argues, "The use of terror tactics is common in international relations and the state has been and remains a more likely employer of terrorism within the international system than insurgents.
Stohl clarifies, however, that "[n]ot all acts of state violence are terrorism. It is important to understand that in terrorism the violence threatened or perpetrated, has purposes broader than simple physical harm to a victim. The audience of the act or threat of violence is more important than the immediate victim."
Scholar Gus Martin
describes state terrorism as terrorism "committed by governments and quasi-governmental agencies and personnel against perceived threats", which can be directed against both domestic and foreign targets. Noam Chomsky
defines state terrorism as "terrorism practised by states (or governments) and their agents and allies".
Stohl and George A. Lopez
have designated three categories of state terrorism, based on the openness/secrecy with which the alleged terrorist acts are performed, and whether states directly perform the acts, support them, or acquiesce in them.
The Drownings at Nantes
were a series of mass executions by drowning during the Reign of Terror in France
wrote critically of terror
employed by tyrants
against their subjects.
The earliest use of the word terrorism
identified by the Oxford English Dictionary
is a 1795 reference to tyrannical state behavior, the "reign of terrorism
" in France.
In that same year, Edmund Burke
decried the "thousands of those hell-hounds called terrorists" who he believed threatened Europe.
During the Reign of Terror
, the Jacobin
government and other factions of the French Revolution
used the apparatus of the state to kill and intimidate political opponents, and the Oxford English Dictionary includes as one definition of terrorism "Government by intimidation carried out by the party in power in France between 1789–1794".
The original general meaning of terrorism was of terrorism by the state, as reflected in the 1798 supplement of the Dictionnaire of the Académie française
, which described terrorism as systeme
, regime de la terreur
Myra Williamson wrote:
The meaning of "terrorism" has undergone a transformation. During the Reign of Terror, a regime or system of terrorism was used as an instrument of governance, wielded by a recently established revolutionary state
against the enemies of the people. Now the term "terrorism" is commonly used to describe terrorist acts committed by non-state or sub-national entities
against a state. (italics in original)
Later examples of state terrorism include the police state
measures employed by the Soviet Union beginning in the 1930s, and by Germany's Nazi regime
in the 1930s and 1940s.
According to Igor Primoratz, "Both [the Nazis and the Soviets] sought to impose total political control on society. Such a radical aim could be pursued only by a similarly radical method: by terrorism directed by an extremely powerful political police at an atomized and defenseless population. Its success was due largely to its arbitrary character—to the unpredictability of its choice of victims. In both countries, the regime first suppressed all opposition; when it no longer had any opposition to speak of, political police took to persecuting 'potential' and 'objective opponents'. In the Soviet Union, it was eventually unleashed on victims chosen at random."
The terror of tsarism was directed against the proletariat
. Our Extraordinary Commissions
shoot landlords, capitalists, and generals who are striving to restore the capitalist order. Do you grasp this ... distinction? Yes? For us communists it is quite sufficient.
An act of sabotage, sometimes regarded as an act of terrorism, was the peacetime sinking of the Rainbow Warrior
, a ship owned by Greenpeace
, which occurred while in port at Auckland
, New Zealand
on July 10, 1985. The bomb detonation killed Fernando Pereira
, a Dutch photographer. The organisation who committed the attack, the DGSE
, is a branch of France
's intelligence services. The agents responsible pleaded guilty to manslaughter
as part of a plea deal and were sentenced to ten years in prison, but were secretly released early to France under an agreement between the two countries' governments.
is the British Military Reaction Force
in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, which murdered innocent civilians from the Catholic community in order to stir up ethnic hatred and "take the heat off the army".
In November 2013, a BBC Panorama documentary was aired about the MRF. It drew on information from seven former members, as well as a number of other sources. Soldier H said: "We operated initially with them thinking that we were the UVF
." Soldier F added: "We wanted to cause confusion."
In June 1972, he[who?]
was succeeded as commander by Captain James 'Hamish' McGregor.
In June 2014, in the wake of the Panorama programme, the Police Service of Northern Ireland
(PSNI) opened an investigation into the matter.
In an earlier review of the programme, the position of the PSNI was that none of the statements by soldiers in the programme could be taken as an admission of criminality.
"Wall of sorrow" at the first exhibition of the victims of Stalinism
, 19 November 1988
Ruth J Blakeley, Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield
, accuses the United States
of sponsoring and deploying state terrorism, which she defines as "the illegal targeting of individuals that the state has a duty to protect in order to instill fear in a target audience beyond the direct victim", on an "enormous scale" during the Cold War
. The United States government justified this policy by saying it needed to contain the spread of Communism
, but Blakeley says the United States government also used it as a means to buttress and promote the interests of U.S. elites and multinational corporations. The U.S. supported governments who employed death squads
throughout Latin America and counterinsurgency training of right-wing
military forces included advocating the interrogation and torture of suspected insurgents. J. Patrice McSherry
, a professor of political science at Long Island University
, says "hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans
were tortured, abducted or killed by right-wing military regimes as part of the U.S.-led anti-communist crusade," which included U.S. support for Operation Condor
and the Guatemalan military during the Guatemalan Civil War
More people were repressed and killed throughout Latin America in the last three decades of the Cold War than in the Soviet Union
and the Eastern Bloc
, according to historian John Henry Coatsworth
Declassified documents from the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta
in 2017 confirm that the U.S. directly facilitated and encouraged the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of suspected Communists in Indonesia during the mid-1960s
Bradley Simpson, Director of the Indonesia/East Timor Documentation Project at the National Security Archive
, says "Washington did everything in its power to encourage and facilitate the army-led massacre of alleged PKI members, and U.S. officials worried only that the killing of the party's unarmed supporters might not go far enough, permitting Sukarno to return to power and frustrate the [Johnson] Administration's emerging plans for a post-Sukarno Indonesia."
According to Simpson, the terror in Indonesia was an "essential building block of the quasi neo-liberal
policies the West would attempt to impose on Indonesia in the years to come".
Historian John Roosa, who commented on documents which were released by the U.S. embassy in Jakarta in 2017, said they confirmed that "the U.S. was part and parcel of the operation, strategizing with the Indonesian army and encouraging them to go after the PKI."
Geoffrey B. Robinson, a historian at UCLA, argues that without the support of the U.S. and other powerful Western states, the Indonesian Army's program of mass killings would not have happened.
Criticism of the concept
The chairman of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee has said the twelve previous international conventions on terrorism had never referred to state terrorism, which was not an international legal concept, and when states abuse their powers they should be judged against international conventions which deal with war crimes
, international human rights law
, and international humanitarian law
, rather than international anti-terrorism statutes.
In a similar vein, Kofi Annan
, at the time the United Nations Secretary-General
, said it is "time to set aside debates on so-called 'state terrorism'. The use of force by states
is already regulated under international law".
Annan added, "... regardless of the differences between governments on the question of the definition of terrorism, what is clear and what we can all agree on is any deliberate attack on innocent civilians [or non-combatants], regardless of one's cause, is unacceptable and fits into the definition of terrorism."
Dr. Bruce Hoffman
has argued that failing to differentiate between state and non-state violence
ignores the fact that there is a "fundamental qualitative difference between the two types of violence." Hoffman argues that even in war
, there are rules and accepted norms of behaviour that prohibit certain types of weapons and tactics and outlaw attacks on specific categories of targets. For instance, rules which are codified in the Geneva
and Hague Conventions
on warfare prohibit taking civilians
, outlaw reprisals
against either civilians or POWs
, recognise neutral territory
, etc. Hoffman says "even the most cursory review of terrorist tactics and targets over the past quarter century reveals that terrorists have violated all these rules." Hoffman also says that when states transgress these rules of war "the term "war crime
" is used to describe such acts."
has said those who argue that state terrorism should be included in studies of terrorism ignore the fact that "The very existence of a state
is based on its monopoly of power
. If it were different, states would not have the right, nor would they be in a position, to maintain that minimum of order on which all civilized life rests."
Calling the concept a "red herring
" he stated: "This argument has been used by the terrorists themselves, arguing that there is no difference between their activities and those by governments and states. It has also been employed by some sympathizers, and it rests on the deliberate obfuscation between all kinds of violence ..."
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Prevention of terrorism
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