What is international terrorism? Part I

By | October 21, 2021

The terrorist attacks in London in the summer of 2005 led to a renewed debate about international terrorism and the danger that Norway may also be affected by terrorism.

  • What exactly is international terrorism?
  • Where are the boundaries between terrorism and related forms of political violence?
  • What kind of danger does terrorism represent?

2: What is terrorism?

In order to be able to respond, it is equally important to map out what terrorism is not . The question of how terrorism should be defined is highly politicized. Various actors have a great interest in defining terrorism in their own way. Therefore, there is little international agreement on what terrorism is. Terrorism is a phenomenon surrounded by gray areas that overflow into other forms of violence and destruction. However, most agree that terrorism involves criminal activity and that the attacks on Madrid, Sharm el Sheikh, London and not least the 9/11 attacks are clear examples of terrorism.

In addition to presenting a definition of terrorism, in this article we will limit terrorism to other forms of violence – guerrilla warfare, organized crime, armed resistance, sabotage and state terror. The words terrorism and terror are occasionally used interchangeably. The most correct thing is to look at terrorism as a category of terror. Terrorist bombing – as during World War II – is an example of non-terrorist terrorism. Broadly defined, we can say that terrorism is a violent political strategy . Terrorists deliberately choose their violent strategy and often approach their political goals in a systematic way.

We associate terrorism with political goals; this means that organized crime falls outside the definition . Terrorists have political goals, while organized criminals have economic goals. The latter are primarily concerned with their own profits. However, terrorist groups are often involved in organized crime – bank robbery, hostage-taking, drug trafficking – to fund their attacks. While terrorists are primarily looking for money that can serve the cause, the organized criminals aim to make a fortune from their acts of violence.

Before we define terrorism, we should look more closely at the questions that such a definition should answer:

  • Who commits terrorism?
  • Who is affected by terrorism?
  • What are the goals of terrorist groups?

3: Who commits terrorism?

According to eshaoxing, it is widely believed that most terrorists are poor, uneducated and insane (mentally unstable). This is by far a misunderstanding and a myth, which can easily overshadow insight into what terrorism is. Osama bin Laden is far from a poor boy, and many terrorists have higher education. Terrorists are also no more mentally unstable than others. On the contrary, we have examples of unstable people being kicked out by terrorist groups. They are often seen as a security risk that could endanger other members of the group.

Can states be terrorists ? This is one of the questions that scholars are arguing about. There are many examples of terrorist groups being supported by states. Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and Iran are examples of states that have been accused of this.

However, it can be somewhat misleading to include states as terrorists. It is more accurate to say that states can carry out state terror and terrorize the population of their own or another country. From this point of view, terrorism is perpetrated by non-state actors. In pure deaths, however, there is little doubt that state terrorism has cost significantly more lives than terrorism. A grim example of gross state terror is the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.

4: Who is affected by terrorism?

Terrorism often appears as war-like acts against civilian targets. Some refer to terrorism as war crimes in peacetime. By far the most common is that it is civilians who are affected by terrorism. Sometimes, however, the distinction between civilian and non-civilian is unclear. It is therefore more accurate to say that terrorism is aimed at non-combatants . But what should we call it if a group in peacetime surprisingly attacks a Norwegian military base and people / soldiers are killed in the action? Many would call this terrorism even if the target was not civilian in the strict sense. People in uniform are not automatically legitimate targets.

Terrorists often try to transform peaceful and open societies into “war zones” characterized by a state of emergency. Provoking “overreaction” by the authorities is a well-known tactic for terrorists. Thus, they hope to be able to “reveal the true face of a regime” and win the population over to their side.

Attacking soldiers in active service will be a slightly different matter. Then the attack can in some cases be understood as legitimate armed resistance to an occupation government. Unfortunately, the criteria for what is perceived as legitimate and illegitimate resistance struggle almost always depend on the eye that sees. In today’s Iraq, armed resistance and terrorism coexist. Armed resistance was also used by the Norwegian home front during World War II. However, much of the resistance movement’s actions during the war in Norway can be defined as sabotage. Sabotage is not primarily aimed at people. It differs from terrorism in that sabotage aims to destroy critical infrastructure – roads, power supplies, communications centers. Saboteurs do not actively select innocent people as their targets.

Some of the resistance struggle during the war also took the form of guerrilla warfare . The similarities between terrorism and guerrilla warfare are many. However, guerrilla movements are very often concerned with controlling territory, and they often carry out ambushes and raids on a militarily superior enemy.

A guerrilla movement often hides in rough terrain or inaccessible areas as it can barely fight a military opponent on an open traditional battlefield. In this connection, the term asymmetric warfare is often used. Both guerrilla warfare and modern terrorism can be seen as forms of asymmetric warfare. The supposedly weak party chooses here itself time and place for its attacks. The whole understanding of what is war and what is not war is challenged by these types of controversial and unpredictable militant strategies.

5: What are the goals of terrorist groups?

Some of the goals of terrorists are to:

  • create awareness – especially when using the media – of their case
  • spread fear
  • affect someone else as well as those who are directly physically attacked
  • exercise power and influence political processes and decisions

Terrorists therefore want attention to their case. In our time, international terrorist groups are dependent on reaching out to the mass media. Without access to the media, it becomes more difficult to communicate their demands and spread their message to the society that is being attacked. If it does not succeed, terrorism appears as extreme, unjustified violence without any overriding goal or reason.

international terrorism 1