Defining Terrorism in the 21st Century

Posted by on May 25, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 7 comments



I wanted to write this piece about “terrorism”, not because I think it will get me a lot of hits, but because I think the word itself has become somewhat overused, and more often than not, in a divisive and sensationalist way. Though this is hot on the heels of the events of last week in Woolwich (from which my reaction cost me a bunch of followers, and I was subjected to a slew of insults for even commenting), please read this with an open mind and base your opinions firmly from there. This article raises more questions than it answers, but hopefully it will spark a useful and meaningful debate.

The world, it seems, is overrun with violence and terror. One only needs to read or watch the news, and daily hear of this or that atrocity against people perpetrated by fellow humans. In wartimes, in civil unrest, in times of dire need, we look on with a certain distracted and judgmental stare at the violence and killing and death, and one could be forgiven for thinking that the whole world is spiraling into a chaos of rape, murder and war. We see, from a distant but first hand perspective, western troops on the front line of Afghan firefights, the Bangladeshi protests asking for the beheading of bloggers, and the civil unrest as the middle-east overthrows its power structures. And we watch on, while sipping tea in our comfortable homes, a million miles away from the “action” that seems to be the fodder of the “news” outlets. It is horrible, sure, but most of us are so far removed from any of this that it ceases to be information, and is only served up as a form of morbid entertainment.

Most of the time, we fail to react, excepting for a sad shake of the head and a few dishonest words about how horrible it all is. However, there is one word, a cliche of mainstream society, which will be sure to get a reaction.


It’s a term which gets thrown around like Frisbee, from one news outlet to another, from politician to politician, and elicits a strong and impassioned response, especially in The West. It creates an undercurrent of distrust among people, and is gobbled up by the populace like a delicious dessert. If we are to believe what we are told, terrorism is the biggest threat to our way of life in the 21st century, and it is rife, and everywhere.

The happenings in Woolwich last week were quickly labelled “terrorism”, but why? What constitutes this term, and how do we make a decision between what is a deliberate “terror attack” and a horrible situation with seriously deluded and unstable assailants? When does murder become terror, and what do we gain or lose when labeling a horrendous act as “terrorism”?

As always, we need to look at the word, and its accepted meanings before we can make any decisions about whether it is being used correctly or not. The “World English Dictionary” defines terrorism as:


1. systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve some goal 2. the act of terrorizing 3. the state of being terrorized

Certainly these criteria have been met when looking at cases like 9/11, the Unabomber or the Bali-bombings, but does the case in Woolwich meet the criteria? And what triggered the knee-jerk reaction to label it terrorism in the first place?

The Woolwich assailants are both dark-skinned Londoners, both Muslim men, both muttering or screaming the name of the Islamic god while perpetrating the heinous act. They decapitated a man in a busy city street, and with blood on their hands, warned others that this would be their fate too. Using their religious beliefs as a platform, and the political situation in Afghanistan as an excuse, they killed a man, a British soldier, in broad daylight. But is this “terrorism”?

At a casual glance it would seem that the blatant use of the word “terrorism” comes to the fore when any of these criteria are met:

  1. A man or men of colour
  2. Being Islamic

We never hear of a “Christian terrorist”, and rarely are the people we label as “terrorists” of Anglo-Saxon descent, and even less commonly are they born and bred in the country where they perpetrate their crimes. If they are, they are labeled as “domestic terrorists”, which takes most of the sting out of the label, and somehow makes them less of a threat. The power of the word “terrorist” is only amplified if somehow the perpetrator is removed from the populace at large, either by race, religion or nationality. Terror is more of a threat if it comes from afar.

Timothy McVeigh, a white American man, who in 1995 killed 168 people and injured hundreds in Oklahoma City, is notorious in American history. Labelled a “domestic terrorist”, his single act of “terrorism” has only been surpassed on American soil, in terms of scale and human mortality, by the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. But he was neither a Muslim, nor a “foreigner”, and while his deeds were horrendous, it appears that the “threat from within” is something we need not worry about when compared to the “threat from outside”. McVeigh was a non-practising agnostic Catholic, and he perpetrated his act with a particular political target in mind: The “tyrannical US Government”. He doesn’t fit the mold of “today’s terrorist”, and therefore is problematic in terms of the media portrayal of exactly what constitutes “terrorism”. But this was, without doubt, an actual act of terrorism in the proper use of the term.

If a crime is to be labelled “terrorism” if a particular political or social agenda is at the root of the crime, why then do we not label the shootings in schools or universities as “terrorism”? The “École Polytechnique massacre” of 1989, where Marc LePine shot and killed 14 people, all because of his hatred of “feminism”, was not labeled an act of “terrorism”, even though he clearly had an agenda for doing so. I do not see the Woolwich killing as very different from the Montreal massacre, except in the case of Woolwich, the basis for the act was attributed to the doctrines of Islam. This makes all the difference in how we label the act.

What is most striking about the Woolwich case is the apparent ease with which it was labelled a “terrorist attack”. London has had its fair share of actual terrorist attacks, from the numerous IRA attacks in the 20th Century, to the 2005 Islamic attack, London is a hotbed of terrorist activity in the west. It is no wonder that “terrorism” springs to mind any time people are brazenly killed on the streets. What happened in Woolwich, however was something else.

Not to belittle the horrible incident in Woolwich, I would go so far as to say that the label “terrorist” was immediately given to these two men because of the factors of their race and religion, and was only confirmed later that terrorism was their actual intent. They proclaimed that their act was political, but it seems it was not backed by any “known terrorist group”, nor is it clear what their actual political agenda was. Muslim clerics have denounced the act, saying that the attack has “no place in Islam”. One particular story, by Muslim writer Tarek Fatah for The Huffington Post, goes so far as to address the roots of the seemingly endless string of Islamic attacks worldwide. He writes:

As a Muslim, I can say without fear, the latest terror attack has a basis in Islam and it’s time for us Muslims to dig our heads out of the sand.

Unless the leaders of British mosques as well as the Islamic organizations in the U.K. denounce the doctrine of jihad as pronounced by the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami, and distance themselves from the ideology of Qutb, al-Banna and Maudoodi, they stand complicit in the havoc that these jihadis are raining down on the rest of us.

Sane and rational people do not hack the head off a soldier in the middle of the street in broad daylight. Sane and rational people do not blow up a building with the hopes of killing as many as possible, or start shooting indiscriminately in a university classroom. One has to be at least slightly unhinged to do something like that. But for a sane and rational person to justify an act of this kind, a religious text full of acts of barbarism seems as good an excuse as any, be it Judaism, Christian or Muslim.

Without doubt, the attack in Woolwich was intended as a “terrorist attack”, and that the men involved are actual “terrorists”, but does this act of terrorism arise from the Islamic faith, or is it something arising from the society we find ourselves in? I’d say it has to be a combination of both, and that the undercurrent armed “jihadi” movement that so many see as walking hand-in-hand with Islam is just the trigger, or excuse, for the disenfranchised to feel justified and redeemed.

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I've been meaning to write something about this as well, maybe this will get me going.  We've started labeling things as "terrorism" because laws worldwide limit what nations can do as far as declaring war on each other, but we really have no such limits when it comes to "terrorism", which gives governments an excuse to declare an enemy a "terrorist" and then go after them, ignoring the rules and regulations they'd otherwise have to follow.

A lot of these organizations do not formally represent any government, but the meaning of government is changing and instead of having a specific country field a military force, it's cheaper, easier and let's be honest, less potentially dangerous, to just fund a terrorist organization that will attack their enemies without having them wear their flag on their sleeve.  Heck, the U.S. has been doing it for decades, funding "freedom fighters" who attack our enemies and try to overthrow the legitimate government.  We have been clearly involved in terrorist activity, as I'm sure most first-world countries have, yet we have plausible deniability.  We didn't do it!  It was them!  We just don't mention that they did it with our money.


>><i> what do we gain or lose when labeling a horrendous act as “terrorism”?</i>

A sense of comradery. Inviting a sense of an 'us' and a 'them'. Giving us a sense of closure where there is none, nor can ever be.

It isn't that 9/11 language tries to be as consistent with the 20th C as possible. It's for making us feel better about minds that terrify us.

Those minds of criminals that are by no means as easily understood nor as mentally unusual as we keep sincerely hoping they'll be.

Their premeditated, groupish, fits-of-bloody-rage drawing attention to their cause ...are a mirror to our unfathomable "defensive" US wars.


"I do not see the Woolwich killing as very different from the Montreal massacre, except in the case of Woolwich, the basis for the act was attributed to the doctrines of Islam. This makes all the difference in how we label the act.


They proclaimed that their act was political, but it seems it was not backed by any “known terrorist group”, nor is it clear what their actual political agenda was. Muslim clerics have denounced the act, saying that the attack has “no place in Islam”. "

There are some very good points in this article, especially in the quoted sections. Now, I'm speaking from the US perspective on this one, but there have been times when people have been loathe to refer to specific acts as terrorist acts; the examples that come to mind are the refusal of various right-wing pundits to label attacks on abortion clinics and doctors as 'terrorist' acts, even when there is clearly a political or social goal here.

Two other things I'd point out. The first is that there's no actual accepted definition of 'terrorism'. I've gotten into large-scale arguments about this with people before, but it's important to always keep that in mind. For example, even the United States government uses multiple definitions of 'terrorism' within itself and it gets even more complex when you start discussing it through the lens of international relations or international law (there's no standard definition there, either). So there are a wide variety of cases you could classify as a terrorist attack (or not) based on slightly different definitions of the word.

The second thing is that for something to be a terrorist attack, a specific claim of responsibility, knowledge of the perpetrators' identity, or even necessarily the exact motive isn't always necessary. The phenomenon of unclaimed attacks isn't as uncommon as people would think.


Great post - thank you. I would define this as terrorism because the intention was to strike fear in the hearts of the nation / politicians/ armed forces that this was how "vengeance" is to be played out now. The two chaps are clearly mentally ill though - as you say, no sane person could / would do what they did. They have been "groomed" by scurrilous imams ( who probably noted their mental vulnerability and manipulated it ) to this point, the more silent one especially seemed almost sedated. They see the fight as being taken to the land of the perpetrators and can justify it in the same way 9/11 would have been justified.

Terrorist is a loaded word however and it is possible to get caught up in semantics when discussing it. It can be reserved for a particular "type" of person ( religion / colour ) so can clarify what a person is trying to describe without having to reveal their racially motivated overtures.

Thanks for opening up the discussion.


@2h_2n When it comes to Islam, it's pointless to use modern words like terrorist, when jihadist will do just fine. It's only the PC media that's trying a coverup about the true nature of Islam and is deliberately trying to obfuscate the issue, as in the article I linked to. Yes, they'd like to reduce Christian and Muslim terrorists to the same level, but there's one giant difference. View this great new video that shows how modern jihadists get their orders straight from Allah in the Quran, which sets them apart:



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