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by Ophir Falk

A series of coordinated suicide bombings in Sri Lankan churches and luxury hotels, carried out by an Islamic organization on Easter Sunday, killing over 250 people was an appalling act of terrorism. Almost all would agree on that.

Was the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi also an act of terrorism? It was, if it was a deliberate act, motivated by religious or political objectives, as alleged by Turkish officials and others[i]. Moreover, if the slaying was intentionally orchestrated by the Saudi government, it was an act of state terrorism. That’s basic. Or is it?

Today, after years of modern terrorism and counterterrorism, the international community still does not agree on a single definition of terrorism. Despite the daily threats posed to many states, the definition conundrum prevents an agreed classification that could better facilitate the fight against terrorism and thwart the public legitimacy that most terrorist organizations seek. When a problem is accurately and acceptably defined, it should be easier to solve.

Terrorism is an overly used term often heard in different discourses and contexts. It is used by the general public and in the course of academic, political, and legal debates, not to mention constantly referenced in the media. It may not be feasible to verse one universal definition for all discourses, but the term’s key criteria can and should be agreed upon.

Terrorism has derogatory connotations with which few want to be associated. The more ambiguous the concept, however, the more it lends itself to opportunistic referrals and affords vehement condemnation across the geopolitical spectrum. Ironically, condemnation of terrorism can be heard from Washington to Teheran, without agreement on the meaning of the term or who should be held accountable for its chaos and carnage. Iranian leaders can send condolences to grieving Jewish families in Pittsburgh[ii] shortly after inciting to wipe the Jewish state off the map.[iii] Terrorism is “intolerable” when it hits us but too often deemed justified or at least “understandable” when it hits others. What can most states agree on, nevertheless? What is the world’s common red line?

Definitions, Conceptualization and Perspectives

Alex Schmid, a forefather of terrorism studies, dissected the issue and presented 109 distinct definitions of terrorism and 22 different elements ascribed to terrorism in common use.[iv] A decade later, Walter Laqueur carried out a similar study, observing that it is generally agreed that terrorism involves violence or the threat of violence.[v] Two decades later, in the context of a wide-ranging Handbook on terrorism, Schmid and Easson compiled 260 different definitions, but were still unable to point to a universal consensus on one.[vi] Even within the United States there are different definitions given by different agencies.[vii]

One reason for the lack of agreement on defining terrorism is because the contextual meaning of the term has changed so frequently over the past two hundred years[viii]. Terrorism has deviated from its original focus of state-sponsored violence designed to induce fear and terror in the enemies of the French revolution, to describe the exact opposite: political violence directed against the state[ix]. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, prior to World War I, terrorism was often used to refer to anarchists and left-wing social revolutionaries. After World War II and the decline of the European empires, terrorism became linked with violent methods against colonial governments used by various anti-colonialist groups seeking self-determination.

Two issues have dominated the definition discussion in international law discussions: (i) whether states can commit acts of terrorism, and (ii) whether one can distinguish a terrorist from a freedom fighter struggling against an oppressive regime. [x]

States, Civilians and Non-Combatants

Source: David L. Ryan, Boston Globe The scene at the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon when one of two bombs exploded.

One of the most significant elements in the evolution of contemporary asymmetric conflicts, especially when studying sub-national groups or clandestine agents, is that the distinctions that may have once existed between terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and insurgency are now all but nonexistent in much of public discourse.[xi] In the past, terrorist organizations were usually of small size with limited strength; guerrillas were depicted as being able to control territory and exercise limited sovereignty over populations; while insurgency was often considered a more sophisticated and advanced form of warfare than was typically used by terrorists.[xii] Today, those distinctions, in common discourse, are all but obsolete. [xiii]

It is my assertion that it is the choice of targets that can differentiate these forms of warfare. If the deliberate choice of targets in an attack are civilians, then it is a terrorist attack; and if an organization endorses attacks against civilians as part of its written or unwritten charter, then it is a terrorist organization. Anything else should be considered something else.

Terrorist organizations can have paramilitary or even advanced military capabilities and apply guerrilla tactics or carry out sophisticated insurgent operations against military and civilian targets. Not every attack carried out by a terrorist organization is an act of terrorism. Notwithstanding, if an organization deliberately targets civilians, then it should be considered a terrorist organization. Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are two examples of such organizations. A lone attacker, not affiliated with a recognized organization, can be an anti-Semite, white supremacist, or Islamophobe who targets civilians to further his disturbing ideology, and is therefore a terrorist. Case in point: The man who, who recently slaughtered 11 Jewish worshipers – civilians – in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but did not belong to any organization.[xiv] The March 2019 massacre at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand is another example.

Bruce Hoffman, America’s leading scholar of terrorism studies, defines terrorism in his classic textbook, as “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change”[xv]

This definition offers a basis for studying the various idiosyncrasies of organizations and individuals who resort to violence in an effort to achieve their political goals. By focusing on political change, however, it excludes attacks that are not ‘revolutionary’ in nature, and the exploitation of fear to preserve an existing political status quo and repress change. The U.S. Department of Defense provides a similar definition, which includes religious or ideological change[xvi], but relies on subjective assessment. More importantly, from a counterterrorism perspective, these definitions do not isolate the phenomenon that civilized states should confront. Namely, the deliberate targeting of civilians – by individuals, organizations or states.

States exercise terror. When Iran trains, finances and equips organizations like Hezbollah to target civilians, they are sponsoring terrorism. When Iranians themselves carry out attacks on civilians, like the 1994 attacks on AMIA in Argentina, and the atrocities orchestrated in Syria in recent years, they are directly and indirectly carrying out acts of terrorism and can be categorized as a terrorist state. Was the slaying of Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi act of state terrorism? It should be considered as such, if the decision to kill was made deliberately by the Saudi government. Strong relations, including arms deals with the West and a common cause to confront a repugnant regime in Iran, do not change that premise. Is the Palestinian Authority, by providing financial rewards to suicide bombers’ families, sponsoring terrorism? It should be considered as such.

State terrorism, aimed against civilians, considered internal or external foes, has in fact claimed far more victims than terrorism perpetrated by non-state actors.[xvii] The lethality of actions carried out by well-trained non-state groups such as al-Qaeda, the Tamil Tigers, and Hamas are modest compared with the consequences in Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and in Iran since 1979. Even if external state-inflicted “war crimes” can be addressed by international law, excluding state terrorism from the scope of terrorism gets rogue states off the hook.[xviii]

Further obfuscating the meaning of “terrorism” is the sometimes ambiguous idea of who constitutes a “non-combatant”.[xix] Would the deadly suicide attack on the USS Cole on October 12, 2000 be considered an act of terrorism? This attack, carried out by al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen’s Port of Aden, killed 17 American sailors and injured 39 more.[xx] While the attack on the USS Cole proved al-Qaeda’s operational credibility, provided the group with media exposure, and served as a recruitment enhancer, can the attack be considered an example of what U.S. law describes as “premeditated, politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatants”?[xxi] Not if one considers U.S. sailors aboard an American destroyer in Yemen to be combatants.

Another example further illustrates the sort of confusion that often surrounds the use of “non-combatants”: On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah, an internationally recognized terrorist organization, attacked a number of targets on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, killing three Israeli soldiers, abducting two, and wounding another two.[xxii] Was Hezbollah’s attack, an act of terrorism? If one considers the attacked soldiers to be combatants, the answer is no. It was a military attack, like the one on the USS Cole, carried out by a terrorist organization that targets combatants when it is presumed to be effective.

In yet another definitional variation, Edward Peck, former U.S. Chief of Mission in Iraq who was once asked by the Reagan White House Task Force on Terrorism to draft a definition of terrorism, expressed the following opinion:

“… the U.S. Code Title 18, Section 2331, reads, ‘International Terrorism,’ means ‘activities that,’ I quote, ‘appear to be intended to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping. …’ Yes, well, certainly, you can think of a number of countries that have been involved in such activities. Ours is one of them. Israel is another. And so, the Terrorist, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.” [xxiii] (Bold added)

Mr. Peck’s proposition legitimizes terrorism by casting it as subjective and suggests that a terrorist act is “in the eye of the beholder.” The statement that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” has become one of the most difficult impediments in coping with terrorism, particularly as a global effort.[xxiv] Attackers of civilians, whether on buses, aircrafts or in skyscrapers, along with the organizations they represent, must be viewed as terrorists and treated accordingly by the entire international community.[xxv] In other words, those who target civilians, regardless of their cause, cannot be considered ‘freedom fighters’ and should be considered terrorists.

A Legal Perspective

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution to cooperate in the fight against terror[xxvi], leading numerous UN member states to pass legislation within their jurisdictions that defined terrorism and aimed to facilitate the confrontation with it. An international law definition, however, has yet to be reached.

There have been numerous academic and legal attempts to define terrorism over the years since 9/11. However, they all suffer from shortcomings such as the use of subjective adjectives, being too long, being insufficiently inclusive, or too inclusive. These shortcomings have likely hampered the ability to reach a consensus. [xxvii]

A Counter-Terrorism-Driven Definition of Terrorism

In what may seem as a challenge to common terrorism studies thought, Boaz Ganor, Israel’s leading scholar of terrorism studies, proposed a short and concise definition that highlights counter-terrorism practice and prioritizes the safeguarding of civilians:

“Terrorism is the deliberate use of violence aimed against civilian targets by non-state actors in order to achieve political ends.”[xxviii]

Granted, the above definition does not encompass all the attributes that terrorism research warrants, but it does designate the core threat of terrorism and challenge of counter terrorism. Namely, the targeting and safeguarding of civilian society. Thus, Ganor’s definition can be built upon to facilitate a consensus on the key criteria of terrorism. Namely, it is proposed that terrorism be defined as a ‘deliberate attack or threat of attack against civilians and/or civilian targets, to further or to defend political or religious objectives.[xxix]

The definition features three key components:

  • Account of Action. First, the definition states that terrorism involves “a deliberate attack or threat of attack.” Note the use of “attack” rather than “violence,” which is the word more commonly employed in such definitions. The rationale behind preferring “attack” to “violence” is that the latter may exclude cyber-warfare. Such actions can cause mass disturbance and even destruction, but they do not necessarily involve violence. Cyber-attacks, which have become a widespread and growing threat, can cause physical harm to populations due to power outages, pollution, infrastructure shutdowns, and more.
  • Type of Target. Next, the definition declares that terrorism involves action against “civilians and/or civilian targets.” While “non-combatant” has a much broader scope, it leaves too much room for interpretation, and manipulation. The use of the word “civilian” allows the definition to obtain a wide international consensus.
  • Motivation. Third, the suggested definition states that terrorism involves “an attempt to further political or religious objectives.” While some might feel that the motivation behind an attack is irrelevant, this component serves to differentiate terrorist actions from common criminal acts. Furthermore, limiting the definition to political objectives would not take into consideration attacks carried by fundamentalists who seek to impose their religious beliefs but are not necessarily interested in political power.

Importantly, the proposed definition does not limit the term to attacks carried out by non-state actors. A number of state actors sponsor and directly practice terrorism. The international legal framework should address that. The principle of distinction, under which all involved in the armed conflict must distinguish between combatants and civilians, and the laws governing crimes against humanity are not sufficient; a state that has a policy of deliberately targeting civilians should be considered a terrorism state. Iran is such a state.[xxx] Furthermore, the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi if it was a deliberate act, orchestrated by the Saudi government, should in fact be considered an act of state terrorism.

Consensus on Civilians as the Key Criterion

The premeditated killing of civilians has been carried out daily for the past eight years in Syria and for over a decade in parts of Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, Kenya and Iraq. More than 10 terrorist attacks causing over 100 civilian casualties in each attack occurred in these locations in 2015 alone.[xxxi] On Easter Sunday, it hit Sri Lanka.

Civilians are not legitimate targets, regardless who the attacker is. Studies indicate that avoiding or minimizing civilian casualties, increases counter-terrorism effectiveness.[xxxii] Similarly, militants might reach their political goals more often if they refrained from targeting civilians by terrorism. Therefore , the key criterion of protecting the lives of civilians, should be universally agreed upon.

To a large extent, terrorism, over the years, has been an issue of perception in terms of proponents and antagonists to the sides participating or victimized by the violence.[xxxiii] If civilians were perceived, by attackers and attacked alike, as illegitimate targets, the targeting of civilians may decrease.[xxxiv]

Civilians of all faiths have been victims of terrorism in recent years. This should stop.

The time has come to level the field and judge all actors, states, organizations or individuals, by the same laws and standards. In the words of Winston Churchill, we should strive for a world where the strong respect the rights of the weak. [xxxv] By applying the same standards to all, the strong and weak may both benefit as more can be held accountable to their actions.

The only silver lining that might arise from the Khashoggi debacle is that an international consensus be set, that when a state deliberately attacks a civilian, for example killing a journalist that expresses critical views against that state’s prince, that state would be considered to have committed a terrorist act.

From a counter-terrorism perspective, it would be ineffective to prioritize the diagnostic details of attacks, idiosyncrasies of attackers or the various attributes of the terrorism, while shelving any judgement on targeting civilians. Instead, we must invest our thought and action in confronting this strategic threat: The need to label what is clearly immoral and unacceptable. Targeting civilians is just that.End.


Ophir Falk is a visiting scholar at Georgetown University and research fellow at International Institute of Counter Terrorism (ICT). He is the founder of Acumen Risk Ltd., a risk management firm and is the author of the forthcoming book: ‘Targeted Killing, Law and Counter-Terrorism Effectiveness’



[i] Karen DeYoung, ‘Saudi account of killing changes’ The Washington Post October 26, 2018

[ii]Foreign Minister of Iran, Javad Zarif’s Tweet, which can be viewed on this site: (last accessed October 29, 2018)

[iii] Jeffrey Goldberg, ‘The Iranian Regime on Israel’s Right to Exist’, The Atlantic, March 9, 2015 (last accessed October 29, 2018)

[iv] Alex P. Schmid and Albert J. Jongman, Political Terrorism: A New Guide to Actors, Authors, Concepts, Data Bases, Theories, and Literature. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1988, pp. 5–6.

[v] Walter Laqueur, The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 6.

[vi] Easson, Joseph J. and Alex P. Schmid. “Academic, Governmental and Intergovernmental Definitions of Terrorism.” In The Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research, edited by Alex P. Schmid, 99 – 157. New York and London: Routledge, 2011.

[vii] Brian Whitaker , The Definition of Terrorism , Guardian Unlimited , May 7, 2001 ; National Strategy for Combating Terrorism . Washington, DC : The White House , 2003 , p. 1; ‘Various Definitions of Terrorism’, (last accessed October 29, 2018)

[viii] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 1st ed., Columbia University Press 1988, Chapter 1 p. XX

[ix] Greene, A. (2017). Defining Terrorism: One Size Fits All? International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 66(2), 411-440. Doi:10.1017/S0020589317000070 pg. 413

[x] Greene, A. (2017). Defining Terrorism: One Size Fits All? International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 66(2), 411-440. Doi:10.1017/S0020589317000070 pg. 414

[xi] Q&A: Bruce Hoffman, Outgoing Security Studies Director, Talks IS and Counterterrorism by Alfredo Carrillo – November 29, 2017, (last accessed October 28, 2018).

[xii] Q&A: Bruce Hoffman, Outgoing Security Studies Director, Talks IS and Counterterrorism by Alfredo Carrillo

[xiii] ISIS for example controls territory and is considered by most to be a Terrorist organization

[xiv] Tim Craig, ‘Suspect in synagogue massacre known as loner’, The Washington Post, October 29, 2018

[xv] Inside Terrorism 3rd Edition, page 44.

[xvi] Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Washington, DC: United States Department of Defense, 2001, p. 428

[xvii] John F. Murphy, Defining International Terrorism: A Way Out of the Quagmire, Israel Yearbook on Human Rights 19, 13-14, 1989.

[xviii] Greene, A. (2017). Defining Terrorism: One Size Fits All? International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 66(2), 411-440. Doi:10.1017/S0020589317000070 pg. 440

[xix] In the United States of America, for example, Terrorism is defined in Title 22 Chapter 38 U.S. Code § 2656f as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”

[xx] Bodies of U.S. Sailors Flown Home, BBC News, October 15, 2000, (accessed October 27, 2018).

[xxi] According to 22 USC § 2656f(d)(2), the term “terrorism” is defined as “the premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents”

[xxii] Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, IDF Spokesman: Hizbullah Attack on Northern Border and IDF Response, news release, July 12, 2006, (last accessed October 29, 2018)

[xxiii] Democracy Now, “Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah Talks with Former U.S. Diplomats on Israel, Prisoners, and Hezbollah’s Founding,” July 28, 2006, (accessed December 6, 2017).

[xxiv] Boaz Ganor, Defining Terrorism: Is One Man’s Terrorist Another Man’s Freedom Fighter? International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (last accessed October 27, 2018).

[xxv] Falk, O., & Morgenstern, H. (Eds.). (2009). Suicide terror: understanding and confronting the threat. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. p. 6

[xxvi] United Nations Security Council resolution 1368

[xxvii] For a leading legal definition see: B. Saul, Defining Terrorism in International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp 65-66

[xxviii] B. Ganor, Most recently, on September 5th 2018, in the context a Counter Terrorism Conference, Ganor reiterated this definition and the logic behind it, during a debate with Daniel Reisner on the subject. (See minute 15 in this) (last accessed February 12, 2019)

[xxix] This definition adds on to Ganor’s definition as it is not limited to nonstate actors and includes religious motives.

[xxx] In fact, the US administration has recently expressed a plan to designate Iran’s military Islamic Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist organization. There are also American officials who expressed concern that it could put US troops and intelligence officers at risk of similar actions by foreign governments (last accessed March 20, 2019)

[xxxi] Ophir Falk, ‘Another Rude Awakening’ Jerusalem Post, November 21, 2015; and (last accessed April 27, 2019)

[xxxii] Ophir Falk & Amir Hefetz (2017) Minimizing Unintended Deaths Enhanced the Effectiveness of Targeted Killing in the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2017.1402429

[xxxiii] Brian M. Jenkins, ‘Fifteen Years On, Where Are We in the “War on Terror”? ’, CTC Sentential, September 2016, Volume 9, Issue 9 pg 7-13

[xxxiv] Boaz Ganor, ICT Counter Terrorism Conference, September 5th 2018,

[xxxv] George H.W. Bush, at Joint Session of U.S. Congress on September 11, 1990

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