In its most basic definition, the term terrorism refers to any act that that is perpetrated for the purpose of causing terror. There is no universal definition as to just what acts are considered terrorism, but it is commonly considered to be an action that causes fear and/or harm for a political, ideological, religious, or economic objective. Acts of terrorism deliberately target civilians, neutral military personnel, or other non-combatants, with blatant disregard for their safety. To explore this concept, consider the following terrorism definition.

Definition of Terrorism


  1. The use of violence, threats, or intimidation to incite fear, or to coerce action, for political purposes.
  2. The use of violence as a means of achieving a goal.


1795     French  terrorisme

What is Terrorism

The very word terrorism is charged with emotion, and politically loaded. Perhaps it is for this reason that the world communities have failed to come up with a universally accepted definition of the term. Most governments do agree that certain key elements define an act as terrorism. These elements include:

  • An act of violence
  • Targeting non-combatant targets
  • Designed to spread fear
  • That is politically motivated

The FBI defines terrorism, according to U.S. law, specifically 18 U.S.C., section 2331, which defines terrorism, both domestic and international, as any activity that is violent, or dangerous to human life, which violates federal or state law, and appears to be intended to:

  1. Intimidate or coerce a civilian population
  2. Influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion
  3. Affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping

An additional element of international terrorism is that it is committed outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., or “transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.”

Types of Terrorism

The National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals has grouped terrorism into six distinct types. All types of terrorism, however, share common characteristics of violence perpetrated for the purpose of inciting fear, harming people’s lives, and destroying property. The six types of terrorism are:

Civil Disorder

Groups of people often conduct civil disorder in the form of a protest, which is often staged in response to an unpopular political action or policy. Individuals participate in civil disorder with the goal of sending a message that the public is unhappy, and that changes should be made. While most protests begin, or have the goal of remaining, non-violent, riots do occur in which people are injured or killed, and property is destroyed.

Political Terrorism

Political terrorism entails violent acts perpetrated against citizens, with the goal of making a point with governmental leaders.

Non-political Terrorism

Non-political terrorism is perpetrated by a group for any purpose other than a political objective. Non-political terrorism is often done in the name of religion, and is a very dangerous act, as many religious terrorists are willing to sacrifice their own lives, or the lives of people they love, for their cause.

Quasi Terrorism

Quasi terrorism refers to a violent act that uses the same tactics of terrorism, though the perpetrator has different motives. For example, if a man holds a group of civilian hostages in his attempt to evade police, or to escape, he has used the same method as a terrorist group, but for a different goal.

Limited Political Terrorism

Acts of limited political terrorism are one-time acts of violence aimed at making a political or ideological statement in response to a government policy or action. Perpetrators of limited political terrorism have no goal to overthrow a government.

State Terrorism

State terrorism is a violent act perpetrated by an existing government. Commonly, state terrorism involves a conflict with another country, or involves the government’s goal of controlling the population. State terrorism is one of the oldest forms of terrorism, dating back to the 1793 French Revolution.

Domestic Terrorism

As defined by the U.S. Patriot Act, acts of domestic terrorism are those which “(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended— (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”

To put it more simply, when a group of two or more people commits acts of violence or force against people or property, for the purpose of intimidating or coercing a government or civilian population, in furtherance of social or political objectives, it is considered domestic terrorism. Domestic terrorism includes only those acts of terrorism that occur within the geopolitical boundaries of the United States, or its lawful territories.

While any group with a political or social goal could commit domestic terrorism, such acts are commonly associated with groups such as:

  • Animal and environmental rights groups
  • White supremacists organizations, black separatists, and other hate-based groups
  • Anarchists and anti-government militias

Cyber Terrorism

Cyber terrorism is the unlawful use of the Internet, computers, and other forms of technology to further a terrorist agenda. Sometimes referred to as “electronic terrorism,” cyber terrorism is defined by the FBI as a:

“[p]remeditated, politically motivated attack against information, computer systems, computer programs, and data which results in violence against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.”

Often times, cyber terrorism has the goal of causing financial problems, or even actual physical violence. The U.S. Commission of Critical Infrastructure Protection concerns itself with the danger of cyber terrorism being perpetrated against critical systems, including air traffic control, power plants, water systems, military installations, and the banking industry.

Global leaders agree that cyber terrorism is a very real, and rapidly expanding, threat, and have responded by creating the International Multilateral Partnership Against Cyber-Terrorism (“IMPACT”), to combat the problem.

Anti terrorism Laws

Anti terrorism laws have the goal of preventing terroristic acts of violence by individuals or terrorist groups. Anti terrorism laws enacted by the government extend the powers of governmental agencies, beyond their normal scope, when it comes to terrorism. For example, anti terrorism laws may allow intelligence agencies access to otherwise private records of individuals suspected of being part of terrorist organizations. Such agencies can also monitor terror suspects without judicial permission as would be required in ordinary circumstances. Anti terrorism laws allow the government to detain terrorist suspects for longer periods, and to hand down stiffer punishments.

Specific Terrorism Laws

In an attempt to make the war on terrorism more successful, anti terrorism laws in the U.S. allow states to bypass their own state laws, to utilize federal laws, when it comes to terrorism-related crimes. Some notable U.S. legislation furthering terrorism laws include:

  • The Biological Weapons Anti terrorism Act of 1989 – makes buying, selling, or manufacturing biological agents for use as weapons a criminal act prosecutable under terrorism laws.
  • Executive Order 12947, signed by President Clinton on January 23, 1995 – prohibits transactions with terrorists who threaten to disrupt the Middle East peace process. This Order was later expanded to allow freezing of assets.
  • Executive Order 13224, signed by President George W. Bush on September 23, 2001 – authorizes the seizure of assets belonging to anyone who provides material or financial support, or who are otherwise associated with a terrorist group.

Penalties for Terrorism

Terrorism involves the use of brutality and violence for the purpose of instilling fear, and it is often perpetrated on a larger scale than other crimes. The goal of terrorism is to draw attention to the group or their goals. Since terrorism involves many criminal acts, and the crime affects large numbers of people, penalties for terrorism are very severe. When a person is convicted of an act of terrorism, he may face a long prison sentence, which will be served at a maximum security prison, under close supervision.

In cases of extreme violence, penalties for terrorism may include the death penalty. The individuals actually carrying out the violent acts are not the only ones that may face these severe penalties, as those who fund or support terrorism can also be charged and punished under the same laws. The U.S. federal government, or the ruling authority in the country in which the terroristic acts take place, is responsible for imposing penalties for terrorism.

September 11, 2011 Terrorist Attacks

On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four airplanes in the U.S. After taking over the planes, the group flew two of them into the World Trade Center in New York City, hitting two buildings, causing them to catch fire and collapse. A third plane flew to Virginia, and crashed into the Pentagon. The fourth plane, believed to be headed to the White House, crashed before it could reach its goal, as passengers onboard the plane fought the terrorists, taking the plane off course.

The terrorists, 19 in total, were from the Middle East and belonged to Al Qaeda, a well-known terrorist group led by Osama Bin Laden. The group practices Islam on an extremist basis, and is opposed to the democratic nations of the world, including the United States. After the planes crashed into their target buildings, America responded by digging through the rubble in order to find survivors. Nearly 3,000 people, most of them U.S. citizens, died in the attacks.

The United States quickly declared war on the terrorist group Al Qaeda. In October of 2001, the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan, where the Taliban government allowed Al Qaeda to maintain its base. The forces quickly began hunting down members of the terrorist group, capturing and killing the terrorists. On May 1, 2011, U.S. troops were finally able to locate the leader, Osama Bin Laden, in Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed in the attack.

 Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Asset – Any valuable thing or property owned by a person or entity, regarded as being of value.
  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Coercion – The act of using force or intimidation to ensure compliance.
  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • International Criminal Law – An area of international law that deals with conduct viewed as serious atrocities, holding individuals guilty of such conduct accountable. Such issues commonly include war crimes, genocide and other crimes against humanity, terrorism, and other crimes of aggression.
  • Jurisdiction – A territory in which the court has the right, power, and authority to administer justice by hearing and resolving conflicts.
  • Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.