How Do You Define Terrorism?

ByABC News
October 10, 2001, 3:59 PM

Oct. 11 -- America may have declared a new war against "terrorism," but it turns out that no one is all that sure just what "terrorism" is.

That includes the U.S. government. "No one definition of terrorism has gained universal acceptance," the State Department said in a report on world terrorism in 2000.

The key elements to terrorism are obvious to many violence, noncombatant targets, intention of spreading fear, and political aims. But crafting a watertight, commonly accepted definition has proven difficult.

Are attacks on military personnel or political leaders acts of terrorism? What about attacks on property? Must terrorism be physically violent, or is it enough to simply instill fear?

FBI, State Department Look to Different Definitions

Even among U.S. governmental agencies, different definitions of terrorism are used.

The State Department's definition holds that only sub-national groups, not states themselves, can commit acts of terrorism. It states the violence must be politically motivated, but does not mention instilling or spreading fear.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's definition includes the use of illegal force or violence "for purposes of intimidation, coercion or ransom," but does not require it to be politically motivated.

The FBI looks to the Code of Federal Regulations definition: "The unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

The FBI has labeled as terrorists groups such as the Earth Liberation Front, which has taken responsibility for destroying millions of dollars worth of property, but claims to be nonviolent and avoid hurting people.

After the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, there is more pressure to agree on one particular definition.

In the Eye of the Beholder?

"There has never been any consensus definition of terrorism," says Richard Betts, director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.