Let’s Talk About Terrorism

It happens in in African dictatorships, it happens in European democracies, in South Asian jungles, in East Asian streets, in American schools, in subways, in airports, at sea, on land - everywhere. No wonder so many states sign up for things such as “Wars on Terror”, striking at militants in sovereign states on the other side of the world and supposedly restraining the abilities of groups suspected of terrorist affiliations.

Terrorism is the biggest threat to the modern world, right?

An honest question to the reader: with such an existential threat to our very existence, what do you define as a terrorist or terrorism?

I strongly encourage to write down exactly what you define as a terrorist or terrorism, whether it be in a comment on this article, a comment on the site where you saw it, or on a piece of paper right next to you.


The origin of the word “terrorism” comes from the French Revolution, specifically the governing principle of Maximilien Robespierre’s where, by use of terror, Robespierre ruled France. Thus, terrorism in its original form was a governmental philosophy, much like liberalism or conservatism. A terrorist in this regard would be a warlord who rules his lands with an iron fist and kills dissenters in a public and intimidating way, a president who uses speeches and demagoguery to inspire fear in her own people to get her way/obscure her defects, or a government organ which intentionally creates an atmosphere of terror by its actions.

But the essence of this word has obviously changed from the time when it meant ruling by terror. Very few, if any, of the above old fashion “terrorists” listed above would now be considered so. Now terrorism is not a philosophy to rule by, but instead, an asymmetric form of warfare that destabilizes and inflicts psychological/morale damage on an opponent.

How, then, is the term exactly defined and who is now encompassed by this term? It depends on who is asked (note that each of these links are exclusively western interpretations). Religious fundamentalists, nationalist fundamentalists, social advocacy groups, reactionary-conservative groups, and separatist groups are the most often identified with it, but it is regularly expanded even further. Charitable organizations who happen to work with enemy combatants, journalists who happen to be reporting something someone doesn’t like, minorities who are receiving undue coverage, even individuals who retweet the wrong thing in the wrong place, just about anyone could be classified as a terrorist.

This is one of the fundamental problems with the term terrorism as it currently exists. If anyone can be defined as a terrorist given the right viewpoint, what does the word even mean anymore? Common sense would say the problem will work itself out - no one really thinks that ALL those people are terrorists – some of this is just hyperbole. Right? But consider how terrorism works today – the use of terror for a political cause, an asymmetric form of warfare that destabilizes and inflicts psychological and morale damage on the enemy. This describes every one of the groups above, because given the viewpoint of the actor describing what is terroristic behavior, each of those activities have the potential to use terror (as viewed by the person being inflicted), because each can be seen as destabilizing, demoralizing, and psychologically intimidating.

Now if we can understand the goals and maybe even sympathize with an action that has these effects, even a deadly plot can become a noble, patriotic act, or at worst a necessary evil to accomplish something good. We can justify the means because we understand and sympathize with the ends. But if the action is foreign to us, and we cannot or will not sympathize with the end goal, it becomes one of wanton terror with no real point to it other than to intimidate and destabilize. Therefore, Palestinians can justify rocket attacks and Israelis can justify airstrikes. It just depends on who you think they enemy is.


Take the most common American counterexample: the American Revolutionary war, specifically the campaign of the “Swamp Fox” Francis Marion against Lord Cornwallis. By use of raids, ambushes, and stealth, his campaign became the epitome of asymmetric warfare use to destabilize a superior force. But we don’t villainize this terrorist, in fact we lionize him as a patriot. He was actually a personal hero of mine in grade school.

Now ponder the next few examples: Sherman’s March to the Sea in the American Civil War, Hizbullah’s asymmetric campaign against Israel, the raid and ambush tactics of Confederate cavalry captains in American Civil War, the raid and ambush tactics of the French and their allies in the French and Indian war, French resistance sappers during WWII, Native American raids against white settlers in the western frontier during the 1800’s, the Islamic State slaughtering Yazidi’s to take over land, white settlers butchering Native Americans to steal land, Allied firebombing of civilians in WWII, Russian bombing of Chechens in the 90’s, Palestinian suicide bombings and rocket attacks in Israel, the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki. (I won’t link any of these because they are easily searchable)

If you’re anything like me, you’ll justify some of these actions while classifying others as barbarous. But each can be forms of terrorism in the modern sense. Now apply the definition that you wrote down earlier to each of these events and, without expanding on or rationalizing, see what each equates to. Again, if you’re like me you’ll find that your definition doesn’t quite match up with what you believe are justified actions.

This only covers the generally easy to classify acts of terrorism, because they are actionable and violent. Political and stochastic terrorism are even harder to describe, and more than likely isn’t even addressed by most definitions.

Take for example Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen born in Las Cruces, NM in 1971. This man was a spokesperson for al Qaeda, a cleric and lecturer. While this man was implicated in planning several attacks across the world, he never actually participated in them. In fact, the reason why he was most dangerous was his charisma. He convinced people to join al Qaeda, to carry out suicide bombings and shootings. But does that, by your definition, make him a terrorist? Now consider that he was a US citizen, and had first amendment rights to say what he wanted. Does that still count? The American government thought so, and in 2011 killed him in a drone strike.

Again, some other examples: Americans vocally advocating for ISIS (like al-Awlaki), Imams creating fatwas defending the actions of al Qaeda, tweeting anti-government slogans, pastors preaching on the need for ethnic purity in their community, journalists printing state secrets, journalists printing articles actively calling for the downfall of the government, journalists printing articles actively calling for the slaughter of people, citizens doing all the same actions posited by journalists, foreign citizens doing all the same actions posited by journalists, journalists printing critical articles about the ruling government, public protests against the government.

Again, while instant conceptions of what constitutes terror and what doesn’t might come to mind when reading through that list, if you compare it to the definition you wrote down, you might find that you disagree with yourself. I’ll say that if you’re like me, probably only 2 or 3 of these definitions will spring the emotions usually evoked by terrorist activity. The fact is that each of these can again be considered terrorism, and the only defining factor in whether they are being how you rationalize the action.


Now let me ask you another question: based off your own definition of terrorism, is it a threat to the very existence of your community, the United States, Western Civilization, the liberal international order, or the existence of human life on earth?

It again depends on how you define terrorism.

Take for instance 9/11/2001, a day that I can still lucidly recount and probably will be able to for the rest of my life. This was the deadliest terrorist attack in US history, killing 2,977 people just trying to go about their lives. It was the cause of the Afghanistan War, probably the Iraq War, and indirectly the reason the Syrian Civil war has become the bloodbath it is today. But it never was a true existential threat to the United States. Al Qaeda was never a true existential threat to the US. ISIS was never a true existential threat to the US. Each could cause the US pain, but could nowhere near bring it down. That is because militant terrorist actors have limited resources, and except in times of extreme instability, cannot existentially threaten a country’s existence.

In fact, the greatest threat posed by militant terrorism is that the country to which it happens tends to overreact. People become afraid of the awesome and spectacular power of a shooting or a bombing, and try to curtail all possible freedoms that might have allowed it to happen. While well meaning, once the dazzling effects of the terrorist attack wear off, the limits that were placed seem at best unnecessary, at worst actively harming the country. Two examples of this right here in the US are taking off your shoes before getting on a plane, and the Patriot Act. Even worse, there is usually a backlash against the limits that were emplaced, and the attack that started this might become even MORE plausible in the future. Overreaction, though, is a societal failing and not truly terrorism.

If instead you focus on the propaganda/persuasive aspect of terrorism, the entire calculus changes.

The Peoples Republic of China, for instance, is existentially threatened by cultural rights in many of its provinces. Tibet, which considers itself it own state and has its own cultural traditions, is constantly suppressed. This is done in fear that Tibetan nationalism will further wrest sovereignty from China. This, too, is the case with the Uighur population in the Xinjiang region of China. Thus, any cultural rights advocate in China can be seen as existential terrorist threat to China itself. This is the same for the Chechen population in Russia, the Kurdish population in Turkey/Iraq/Syria/Iran, and the Catalonian population in Spain.

In North Korea, simple free speech media is an existential threat to the state, and can be considered terrorism. This is due not just to a fear that the people will realize the destitute conditions they live in (which certainly is a threat to the North Korean regime), but also because free speech can easily lead to collective action. This is the same in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Egypt, China, Turkey, the Philippines, Venezuela, Bahrain, the UAE, and to some extent the United States (yes, advocating for people to be locked up because of hate speech is a limit to free speech). Obviously, the threat feared here is that the collective action will destabilize the country and lead to major violence or civil war, a threat which is not that farfetched. Consider Syria, where collective action was alternatively violently suppressed by the government and used by revisionists and led to full civil war.  

Neither of these problems might sound like terrorism to many of us (freedom of culture and freedom of speech certainly don’t to me), but again, terrorism depends on the angle from which you view it. These problems would and sometimes do destabilize countries and cause death, destruction, and terror. In these cases, the ends we see from the means are justified.


None of this is to say that all events are equal and that we can’t judge anything as good or bad, in fact arbitrary standards and subjective judgements are necessary for creating order from the anarchy that is life. The problem is when those standards or judgements become so broad that they lose all real meaning, but are still used for very important decisions, logics, and strategies. This is what has happened to the word “terrorism” – it is now so nebulous that it is pointless as a defining term. It, at the same time, tries to impart a functional and moralistic definition to an action. The moralistic aspect of this action is necessarily subjective, and in fact changes the functional aspect of the action as the moralistic quality changes. Each country, each person, necessarily has their own definition of the term, and all are forced into the policy by way of public debate.

Barring a Westphalian moment, where the world gets together then agrees on and defines the exact nature of terrorism, the word terrorism is as useful as the word “sovereignty” was before the 1600’s.

Instead we should be laboring to make our descriptions more concise and completely unimbued with moralistic quality, which allows each action the complexity that it deserves. In a perfect world, we would describe each entity around the world by its exact agreed on moniker, i.e. al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Islamic Front, KKK, Red Faction, whatever, and know the exact history and referential information regarding each. But that’s obviously impossible, as there is a legitimate need to simplify these into manageable groups. What we need to avoid is the Manichean description of good/bad, terrorist/freedom fighter that exists today.

To end, stop using the word terrorist and start using verbiage that means something.