Different definitions of terrorism in a divided world

By Vipul Tamhane

The United Nations (UN) was founded in 1945 with the goal of maintaining international peace, and security and promoting social progress. The UN’s Charter, established in 1945, sets out its purposes, principles, member states’ rights, and organs like the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, and Secretariat. These unified guidelines and governance structures are supposed to drive the world to achieve these goals, including countering global terrorism which falls under the jurisdiction of UNOCT to lead and coordinate the UN’s counter-terrorism efforts.

UNOCT is responsible for providing strategic guidance, technical assistance, and capacity-building to Member States in their fight against terrorism. This entails the unification of ideologies to look at terrorism as a global threat and make efforts in unity with a singular goal. However, this cause has a fundamental deterrence, as the world can’t spell out the definition of ‘Terrorism’ in unison.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) defines terrorism as “any act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to civilians or non-combatants to intimidate a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.”

India defines terrorism as acts that incite, promote, or encourage violence against public sections with the intent to disrupt public order or strike terror in the minds of the people. Russia defines terrorism as acts that undermine constitutional order and state security, while China defines it as acts that threaten national security, social stability, and people’s interests.

Turkey’s definition includes acts that incite, promote, or encourage acts of violence against the state or the public, including critical speech or expression. The Egyptian Penal Code defines terrorism as an act causing death, injury, property damage, or environmental damage with the intent to intimidate the public or force government or international organizations to act. South African Terrorism Act of 2004 defines terrorism as any act of violence intended to compel a Government or any other person to do or abstain from doing any act.

Wherein, in the Western world the definition doesn’t sync either the United States Code defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” The definition of terrorism in the Western world is a complex and evolving issue. These definitions are broader than other definitions and may include acts not typically considered terrorism or inconsiderate of global ideologies. 

Armed resistance to foreign occupation, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is viewed as justifiable resistance rather than terrorism in a few Arab nations. They think that violence against armed forces can be justified as self-defense and liberation fights. Armed combat against repressive governments is viewed by freedom fighters as a method of safeguarding certain ethnic or religious communities, typically in regional conflicts or civil wars. This alters the popular perception of terrorism since these two justifications, which are widely imprecise, might be misinterpreted to meet legal gaps. These are just some of the key areas of disagreement that have led to contradictions amongst global communities regarding the definition of terrorism.

The lack of a universally accepted definition makes it difficult to develop effective counter-terrorism strategies and prosecute terrorists.

To justify the definition of terrorism, a lot of variables must be considered, including the region’s socio-political situation, people’s religious beliefs and historical precedents, and cultural standards. Terrorism is sometimes, but not always, described internationally in terms of four characteristics: the threat or use of violence; a political aim; a desire to upset the status quo; the intention to spread terror by spectacular public acts; and the intentional targeting of people. However, the discrepancy in the viewpoint stems from the fact that there is no globally agreed definition of terrorism. This has resulted in several definitional conflicts across worldwide groups.

Currently, the globally significantly recognized terrorism only accounts for the conflicts in or arising from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. The Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, has gained significant territory and control in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001. The Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011, has created a power vacuum for various terrorist groups, including ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the PKK. Iraq is struggling to contain ISIS’s resurgence, while Yemen’s civil war since 2015 has created a breeding ground for terrorism.

Somalia, plagued by al-Shabaab, has also been plagued by terrorism for years. Wherein, the Militancy in Jammu and Kashmir mainly involves a slew of Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) listed terrorist groups viz. Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) which are Pakistan supported, are broadly unnoticed by the international community under a mellow umbrella front of Kashmir region disagreement as reported by the redundant United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), which was asked to leave India by the Modi government.

Historically, consider the Bosnia and Herzegovina conflict – in which Serbs went on an ethnic cleansing rampage against Bosniaks, or the Tutsi Hutu struggle in Rwanda and Burundi, in which extreme Hutus committed genocide against an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. There are other wars across the world that the Western world does not consider terrorism, but the Arab and African world does. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute, a long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, is frequently viewed as a political struggle, whereas the Arab and African countries regard it as a type of terrorism.

The Darfur civil conflict going on since 2003, has resulted in thousands of fatalities and displacements, and the Western world considers it a humanitarian disaster. The Somali civil war, which has been ongoing since the early 1990s, has also resulted in thousands of deaths and displacements. The Western world considers Somalia to be a failed state, but the Arab and African worlds consider it to be a type of terrorism. And, then the Russian conflict with Ukraine is up for a global debate.

To establish a widely accepted definition of terrorism, it is crucial to consider political and cultural factors while focusing on shared characteristics such as violence, deliberate targeting of civilians or noncombatants, and the instigation of fear or terror. The process requires a willingness to find a middle ground and incorporate the principles of international law as a guiding framework. 

This can be achieved through the establishment of an international commission, conferences, or an online forum dedicated to crafting a comprehensive and unprejudiced definition of terrorism. Through global collaboration, we can develop a unified understanding of terrorism that safeguards individuals and promotes a safer world.


Vipul Tamhane is a counter terrorism expert and a visiting faculty with Pune University (SPPU) at Dept. of Defense and Strategic Studies (DDSS). He is also founder and Editor-in-Chief at Diplomacy Direct, a public interest Think Tank based in India.


Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times  

Images courtesy of Skabash! and Provided

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