Note: the Inconvenience of Having a Universal Definition of Terrorism

What would it mean to universally define terrorism as “the intentional use of, or threat to use, violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims”? To officially use Professor Boaz Ganor's definition would actually mean that the numbers of terror attacks would lower considerably, taking away thus the government's ability to politically capitalise on them and to gain popular support for certain warfare policies. In this post, the Mali example will be used.

According to START, Mali has suffered 199 terrorist attacks between 1990 and 2014, resulting in the death of 725 people, in total, including 178 perpetrators. 70% of the attacks were carried out between 2012 and 2014. In this period, the most common targets were military (28%) and diplomatic (25%). Business targets are deemed very rare being one of the few examples the recent attack on a hotel in Bamako. Three organisations alone were responsible for 72% of all attacks:

  • The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), 38%
  • Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), 17%
  • Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), 17%

Revisiting Boaz Ganor's Definition of Terrorism
“Terrorism the intentional use of, or threat to use, violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims (..) based on three important elements:
The essence of the activity (i.e. an activity that doesn't involve the use, or threat to use, violence will not be defined as terrorism).
The aim of the activity is always political (i.e. in the absence of a political goal, the activity in quest will not be defined as terrorism).
The targets are civilians (i.e. acts are purposely directed at civilians; which distinguishes terrorist acts from other kinds of political violence [e.g. guerrilla warfare and civil insurrection])."
Applying the Definition
If we apply the above definition to the Mali example, we realise that over half of the attacks would not be considered a terrorist attack since they are military objects (NB: almost all of the so-called Diplomatic targets were UN Peacekeeping/Stabilisation Missions, meaning that they were technically a Military target); therefore striking such targets would be considered political violence at best; since 53% of the 199 terrorist attacks wouldn't constitute terrorism. Such consideration would have a huge political impact inasmuch as it wouldn't draw the same international sympathy it does under the classification of terror – and by targeting the military, it could have other implications that wouldn't exactly serve national interests within a specific political conjuncture.

Another implication, of not viewing the 53% Mali attacks as an act of terrorism, would be that the three organisations that perpetrated them would not be considered terrorist movements, and therefore illegitimate entities, but either guerrilla movements (given the tactics they use) which would confer them a certain degree of legitimacy or, in the worst case scenario, cartel-style criminal organisations that due to the success of their operations would hint at a loss of control and incompetence on the part of the authorities.

We all agree that we need a clear universal definition of terrorism in order to globally fight it effectively. However, there seems to be the lack of political will to do so when country A defines terrorism as any attack against people and government (as if there were an equivalence between people and the government [a small group of individuals who often make decisions that negatively affect people's lives in absolute impunity]); when country B defends a definition that includes criticism against the regime/ruling party; and when country C defines terror as anything that contradicts its agenda. Meanwhile, the civilian population pay the price.

Political profit should not tramp on people's Security.

(Image: Self-Portrait with Death as Fiddler - Arnold Böcklin)


  1. If there was a widely accepted definition of terrorism how could certain governments prosecute dissidents as terrorists? :-)

    1. Hi Anon :D!

      Right? That is one of the issues preventing an official definition of terrorism.

      Anon, thank you so much for your comment :D.


  2. Everything is so damn phony. To me it's very simple to reach a consensus but what do I know?

    1. Hi Patty :D!

      Welcome to Dissecting Society.

      One would think that governments would want to place people first, but, I agree with you: any definition that would place civilians first (as per the International law) should be preferred and easy to adopt, right?

      Patty, I hope to see more of you here and thank you for your comment :D.


  3. My friends and I have been trying to come up with a definition for the past six years and have not yet succeeded. It is one of those vague terms that can be used or misused, and more often than the latter where the left liberals are concerned. But that is the opinion of the right leaning nuts!

    1. Hi Rummy :D!

      Ah, why not; what's missing in your definitions?
      lol true, leftists can be extremely insidious about the term.

      LOL LOL I know, I know: that's what we're called these days, isn't it? Stay tuned for next week, my friend. ;)

      Rummy, thank you so much for your comment :D.


  4. So if I consider the Internal Revenue Service, 1) it directs its attention towards civilians, 2) there is the implied threat of violence towards those who don't pay up, and 3) its purpose is to give the impression that at least part of the government is operating on real money, which is clearly a political objective. Thus, the IRS is - per the definition - a terrorist organization, although one that I would fully support, making me a terrorist sympathizer of some sort.

    Frankly I would like to see if there is some way to communicate the moral situation and necessity of action without relying on the intermediary of the term "terrorism". For example, my ancestors were Druids who enthusiastically practiced human sacrifice and consulted the gods regarding their fortunes by reading the entrails of the still living victims. For this reason the practice of Druidism was banned by the pre-Christian, religiously tolerant Romans without any need to quibble over the definition of terrorism.

    1. No, Looney the IRS could never be a terrorist organization cause they are a government institution. Terrorism implies a non-state actor, you know that.

    2. Ah, yes, I forgot. Correction noted.

    3. Hi Looney :D!

      First Part: LOL LOL LOL exactly.

      Second Part: excellent example. But you know, terrorism today requires a special legal procedure because countering it differs from countering petty crimes and other criminal activities. Sometimes I even think we need a special court to deal with such cases. But if we lack an official definition we will never achieve this goal. Moreover, people will not realise the threat they face and won't adjust accordingly (the attacks in Paris last month are a clear example of that).

      But you do make a good point. Thank you *bowing*.

      Looney, awesome comment as always: cheers :D.

      Have a blessed weekend

    4. OMG Looney, I'm sorry!! My humour radar must be really low this week :-(
      You were so gracious about it: G-d bless you!

      Max, Shabbat Shalom, darling.

  5. Max, right now people think that having an official definition would tap into Islamic terrorism. I have spoken to educated people who have told me that when they think of the word terror they immediately think of Muslims. Educated people...!! So it's a complex subject.

    1. Hi Celeste :D!

      Yeah, I have met some of those "educated people" too. Their tunnel vision is unbelievable.

      Darling, thank you so much for your comment :D.

      Shabbat Shalom


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