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 Definition An act, with targets including civilians or civilian infrastructure, intended to create an atmosphere of fear in order to obtain a political objective. [d] [e]
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Added to the Core controversial articles page

This article is controversial if we agree that some states practice terrorism:

Terrorism has been practiced by both left-wing and right-wing political organizations, religious and nationalistic groups, revolutionaries, as well as — to use the somewhat controversial notion of "state terrorism" — armies, police, and security forces.

I have put this article in the list of Core controversial articles ( because it is clear to me that state terrorism is a type of terrorism (that deserves ample space in this article, in this day and age).

Pierre-Alain Gouanvic 00:28, 2 July 2008 (CDT)

First, then, we need a "mainstream" definition of state terror. There is, for example, a qualitative difference, no matter what one believes about the death penalty, between execution after a long judicial process, and "night and fog" disappearance and the night (the Nazi nacht und nebel)
I also revised some of the weapons-related material in the lead. Nuclear weapons do not fall into an utterly unique category, when considering such things as the genetic coding for Type A botulinum toxin spliced into normal enteric Eschericia coli, or, rumored to have been a Soviet experiment, a chimeric virus with elements of smallpox and Ebola. Howard C. Berkowitz 11:55, 2 July 2008 (CDT)
Regarding an eventual definition of state terrorism, I would follow the lead given by the former United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan:
"...regardless of the differences between governments on the question of definition of terrorism, what is clear and what we can all agree on is any deliberate attack on innocent civilians, regardless of one's cause, is unacceptable and fits into the definition of terrorism. And I think this we can all be clear on." (see
This would be for the mainstream component. Then, I would state the following:
(Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, described as pioneers in the concept of State Terrorism, have argued) that the distinction between state and non-state terror is morally relativist, and distracts from or justifies state terrorism perpetrated by favored states, typically those of wealthy and developed nations (Chomsky and Herman, 1979).
In other words, I would find evidence and theories suggesting that powers and super-powers can willfully decide to behave outside of the international rules, to inspire fear, deliberately. A canonical example would be the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, any doctrine that declares, with Macchiavelli, that the Prince, or the super-power, may act violently, without justifications that are acceptable to others, deliberately creates a sense of fear. The doctrine of pre-emptive strikes-wars could be compared to a terrorist doctrine. This is the kind of things that the Monde Diplomatique discusses, if I'm not mistaken. This seems logical, doesn'it?
Pierre-Alain Gouanvic 01:12, 5 July 2008 (CDT)
I have no problem in describing the practices of political police and the like, directed at individual groups of citizens or residents, as state terror. I do, however, have a serious problem with labeling efforts to break a national will, as long as both proportionality and knowledge of the consequences are understood, as state terror. Personally, I'd much rather have been at Hiroshima than in Tokyo during the fire raids. Based on the limited knowledge of nuclear weapons at the time, I am not going to accept the nuclear attacks as state terror. As opposed to the RAF "dehousing" campaigns, neither nuclear attack was deliberately directed at a civilian area; there were major military targets near the aiming point of each. Howard C. Berkowitz 01:47, 21 March 2009 (UTC)
Interesting discussion. But I wanted to point out that, as most people realize, that there is no commonly accepted definition of terrorism, and this whole subject serves as a flash point for all kinds of disagreements. I have a sense of the mainstream sense of terrorism, which is perhaps closer to the HB view, and which is listed below with an alternative definition of terrorism with references; this definition doesn't consider supposedly legitimate governments as being sponsors of "state terrorism", that is, doesn't put much emphasis on governments as terrorists. However, this mainstream view of terrorism is at odds with my personal view of terrorism, which I see as "violence against individual rights" and which does, in fact, include governments as being possible terrorists. In my book Common Sense on Amazon, I argue that there are three possible terrorists -- criminals (neighbors who violate our rights), tyrants (our own government if it violates our rights, detentions, torture, even perhaps frisking at airports) and foreign terrorists (Osama bin Laden et al). And my thesis is that it's not sensible to prevent only one type of terrorist, but that tackling all three types is necessary, and that the common theme underlying all successful prevention methods is what I call light, that is, exposure. Light to prevent crime is identified movement in public (which people agree to); to prevent tyranny it's exposing what governments do; to prevent foreign terrorism it's exposure of treaties. My ultimate terrorist was Hitler, not bin Laden. But this is controversial stuff, and my sense is people are unwilling (for many reasons) to confront what terrorism is all about.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 16:38, 9 March 2010 (UTC)

Defense Department-funded report on terrorism

This report, 'How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa'ida' covers hundreds of terrorist organisations worldwide, and includes various statistics and interesting points about the "war on terror". John Stephenson 04:24, 31 July 2008 (CDT)

Some bold improvements

I have tried to make the lead somewhat less emotional, as well as stating some of the issues in taxonomy.

Fukuyama's argument that terrorism is a tactic resonates strongly with me. A biological weapon is a biological weapon; "bioterrorism" is no more than the use of biological weapons, against civilian populations, to achieve a political objective.

An improvised explosive device (IED) or land mine is a weapon, not terrorist or not. IEDs and mines were major causes of mortality and morbidity in the Vietnam War, but if one military force used them as an "automatic ambush" against another, it would be hard to call them terrorism.

I propose, therefore, to start cutting back the weapons and tactics details, giving examples of how their use could be considered terroristic, but linking to the actual details in other articles. Unquestionably, there are blurred cases, such as the use of biological weapons by Japanese Unit 731 against Chinese populations; there were indeed treaty violations and this could be a war crime, but the principal goal seemed to be assisting the advance of ground forces and "terrorism" doesn't easily fit. Howard C. Berkowitz 20:39, 15 March 2009 (UTC)

The Ganor link is dead. I'll look for other definitions.
Further, the History section should cut back to broad patterns; history of terrorism in individual places belongs in subarticles. It's not terribly practical, with large countries, to put their terrorism pattern under one motivation.
Anyone else reading this? Howard C. Berkowitz 01:42, 21 March 2009 (UTC)
I'm reading this Howard. My sense is that the whole issue of "strategy" versus "tactic" is mostly ancillary to what terrorism is, but if you feel strongly about it, I'm not going to make a huge issue about it. But a general approach to this whole subject might be as follows -- since there are different types of terrorism and senses of it -- which depend on who the terrorist is and what their target is -- then maybe we could have the overall word terrorism be an umbrella term referring to the specific types, and we could have specific articles about each type of terrorism. And what could the specific types be? And here I'm less sure but let's try this:--Thomas Wright Sulcer 11:47, 10 March 2010 (UTC)
  • terrorism as a strategy in war (ie tactics like you say)
  • terrorism by radical groups to achieve a political objective
  • international terrorism
  • terrorism as organized crime (drugs, intimidation of witnesses, bribing police)
  • terrorism by governments (state terrorism)
  • other types of terrorism
What do you think?--Thomas Wright Sulcer 11:47, 10 March 2010 (UTC)
Tom, I just have a minute; appropriately, I'm off to a seminar on Iran. I should be back between 4 and 5 Eastern. May I suggest that you look at military doctrine, and let me know if we are using "strategy" and "tactic" in the same way? I'm not sure what you mean by the first bullet above. "Organized crime" is difficult with most definitions of terrorism, although the "narco-terrorism" where the drug industry is a quasi-state does fit with the inherently political definition of terrorism.
You see, I rarely will simply call someone a "terrorist" even though he practices "terror". There are huge differences among 9/11 and Lod Airport and Marks & Spencer and the Haymarket Riot and the Maccabees and the London Iranian embassy hostage situation -- to say nothing of the differences among Harris' dehousing, the fire attack on Tokyo and the nuclear attacks, Guernica and Rotterdam, Mutual Assured Destruction, Lidice, and Operation Condor. The problem is that calling them all terrorism makes the term useless as a differentiator. Howard C. Berkowitz 18:48, 10 March 2010 (UTC)
I think we agree about the difference between strategy and tactics; where I disagree with you is thinking that this distinction is that important to terrorism. If you conceive of strategy as a general plan for overpowering an opponent, then you could conceive of terrorism as one tactic which might accomplish this. But the whole strategy vs tactics assumes we're talking about a war situation, and terrorism may or may not involve being in a war situation.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 23:41, 10 March 2010 (UTC)
I looked over the article military doctrine -- good article so far.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 23:41, 10 March 2010 (UTC)
The general problem with the word terrorism is that it's a big, confusing umbrella term, used by many people for many different purposes, with nasty connotations; even you and I can't agree what it means. What happens is that the more you try to specify the term and say exactly what it is, the more we lose people. I think the sensible approach (or strategy) is to keep it simple, and stick to what most people agree on -- and go into more specifics with specific senses of the term (eg international terrorism, terrorism during war, state terrorism, media crime, etc or whatever sub articles you think we should include.)--Thomas Wright Sulcer 23:41, 10 March 2010 (UTC)

Strategy vs. tactics

It's not at all obvious to me that the great majority of people using terrorism don't consider themselves in war, and have strategies from the sophisticated to the trivial. al-Qaeda, although not a nation-state, clearly operates at all four levels of military doctrine. A person blowing up abortion clinics still has a strategy of stopping abortion, which is a political and thus strategic concept. The leaders of Operation Condor thought they were conducting a defensive war strategy against Communism, but even more against the established order.

Try two assumptions to control the definition of terror: it has a political motivation and it targets civilians. I think you will find that clarifies a great many situations. Howard C. Berkowitz 00:03, 11 March 2010 (UTC)

I think some acts of terrorism don't have a political motivation. Serial killers, such as the Washington metro snipers, create terror on a massive scale, and they clearly have a political effect, but in their minds, the serial killers don't see themselves as trying to accomplish some political purpose. And some acts of terrorism don't target civilians, but soldiers or governments -- consider the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 198? -- 240 US Marines died -- wasn't that terrorism? I think the sensible thing to do is not try to be too exact in any definition.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 00:21, 11 March 2010 (UTC)
No, I think the CZ value is to try to be exact, although I agree the creating of the emotion "terror" is not synonymous with "terrorism". Take the D.C. snipers -- I lived there at the time, and indeed shopped at one of the target stores. John Muhammad had some warped political agenda, which wasn't very clear but could qualify as self-radicalization. Practical events from the Oklahoma City bombing to Nidal Hasan mean that we do have to consider "lone-wolf" terrorism.
The 1983 Beirut barracks bombings were emphatically political, and didn't just target U.S. Marines; there was a near-simultaneous bombing of a French barracks. Both were under UN auspices. Yes, it was a suicide attack, but on a military target; I have trouble calling it terrorism. Capture and torture of soldiers is much closer to terrorism, but bombing a theoretically (if far too lightly) defended target? The 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, but not the World Trade Center, still can qualify as terrorism because the passengers in American Airlines Flight 77 were in no way combatants. Were the Japanese kamikaze terrorists?
Overly broad definitions of terrorism are causing much confusion in the public sphere. Now, I certainly don't object to the article explicitly discussing nonconventional attacks on military targets, or how a Ted Bundy differs from a Timothy McVeigh. Howard C. Berkowitz 01:21, 11 March 2010 (UTC)
I agree CZ should try to be exact, but the problem is the term terrorism is essentially abstract, blurry, inexact. So your efforts to try to be exact about something inexact essentially mean that instead of the "Mainstream view" of terrorism, you're writing about the "Howard Berkowitz" view of terrorism. For instance, I think most people would consider the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings as terrorism -- I think this is the mainstream view whether we like this or not. I don't feel strongly enough about this to fuss with you endlessly about it Howard; my own personal view is that I have major problems with both the mainstream view AND your sense of what terrorism is; but I think this is one of those subject areas where nobody can agree.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 13:11, 11 March 2010 (UTC)
Not trying to be heavy-handed here, but I think we are running into a CZ model here. The idea is that definitions don't come from "most people", but from experts. In this case, I'm a military workgroup editor that has been doing professional work on terrorism since the late sixties. The definition I propose is a reasonable synthesis of the one used in professional literature, and, indeed, in quite a number of international organizations and governments.
In all fairness, this has been a sensitive area. Larry Sanger has taken a more "most people" view on certain areas, terrorism being one of them. I disagree with him, but, at this point, the expert-vs.-common view needs to be resolved by a future Editorial Council.
What would seem appropriate is to have a section in terrorism on "Are all suicide attacks terrorism?", linking to and expanding the suicide attack article. The Beirut attack is especially difficult, as Lebanon was beyond failed state and into open civil war — and responsibility has never been completely clear for the barracks and embassy attacks, although there are some good ideas (see Robert Baer).
In other words, have plenty of related articles on the non-core meaning of terrorism, have lots of links and redirects, but keep the definitions in main articles focused. Weapons of mass destruction have a quite specific professional definition, but there has been increasing use, in U.S. prosecutions, of including "high explosives" in WMD terrorism indictments — and, while I hope I'm misreading it, a backpack in one current prosecution.
Letting popular opinion drive definitions so they include everything means that they eventually exclude nothing, and new terms are needed to be specific.
So, I'm going to make a working Military Editor ruling that a terrorist act must deliberately target civilians or civilian infrastructures, and must have some political goal. By all means have related things, but in separate, highly linked articles. This, incidentally, excludes neither state terrorism nor lone-wolf activities. It would exclude the kamikaze and other Japanese tokko (Special Attack) tactics. Howard C. Berkowitz 16:01, 11 March 2010 (UTC)

(undent) Before doing much more on this article, I'm going to wait to hear if other Editors can agree with that working ruling or refine it, and if they are willing to work, even in a non-writing mode, on the article. There's the practical issue that if we pull Approval of V1 or Approve V2, two other editors (Military, History, Politics) will have to be involved. Howard C. Berkowitz 16:03, 11 March 2010 (UTC)

"Freedom fighter" vs. "Terrorist"

The article contains a common summary that I consider flawed:

It is often said, especially by critics of the West and of capitalism, that terrorism is merely a label ascribed by those in power to those who do not accept their authority, and resist it with violent and unlawful means. On this view, whether someone is better described as a "terrorist" or instead as a "freedom-fighter" depends on whether the state's power is thought to be wielded lawfully and fairly.

This loses sight that virtually all terrorism, save the nihilists, is a political act. I get very confused when a nation (let's say the Third Reich) launches a major conventional war, for political objectives, and the conventional wisdom is that there is collateral damage to civilians. The more proper question is proportionality of the act to the desired political response. To take an extreme example from warfare, the argument can be made that the nuclear attacks on Japan -- not that their effects were fully understood -- were intended to decrease civilian casualties that would result from a ground war.

The "critic" aspect seems emotional. We can recognize it, in the article, as emotional and propagandistic, but not part of the operational calculus of a strategist who uses terror as a tactic. As far as the material in the paragraph starting this, I'm sure Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, and Foday Sankoh (Sierra Leone) would be surprised to be called Western capitalists. Howard C. Berkowitz 16:37, 22 May 2009 (UTC)

"Freedom fighter" is about ends; "terrorist" is about means. They're not mutually exclusive. Peter Jackson 18:14, 11 March 2010 (UTC)
The ends are more properly in articles about insurgency or revolutionary warfare. By restricting the discussion of terrorism to be means (with qualifications), it makes the article more coherent. There's no reason not to crosslink between means and ends articles, but there's a serious problem to combine them. Operation Condor had a political end, but preservation of the state rather than revolution. Howard C. Berkowitz 19:39, 11 March 2010 (UTC)
Still you shouldn't label a freedom fighter a terrorist. Maybe the freedom fighter committed an act that can be considered terrorism, but it doesn't make sense to label and exclusively characterize him as a terrorist. There is much negative connotation with someone being a terrorist, and it is flat out nonsensical and arrogant to characterize a freedom fighter as one. There was a Korean freedom fighter Ahn Jung-geun whom the Japanese & Japanophiles at Wikipedia are trying to label as a "terrorist," but I disagree with that completely. Citizendium should get this one straight. (Chunbum Park 14:16, 21 May 2010 (UTC))
I disagree. If one takes the core definition of terrorism as violence against civilians in order to achieve a political objective, the nobility of the objective doesn't qualify the act. Here's a parallel: not all homicide is murder. There is justifiable homicide in self-defense or defense of others. There are forms of homicide, such as manslaughter in common law, where there may not have been an intention to kill, but there was negligence, or "depraved indifference to human life", that led to the death of an another person.
The only way to keep it straight is to deal with the nature of the target and the means of attack chosen. Now, there are not-unreasonable definitions of terrorism that include actions against civilian property. It's a bit ironic when people use the Boston Tea Party as a symbol of not doing enough about terrorism. Howard C. Berkowitz 14:43, 21 May 2010 (UTC)
Would there be distinction between indiscriminate killing of civilians and destruction or assassination of political targets (i.e. soldiers, police station, and political leaders)?(Chunbum Park 15:51, 22 May 2010 (UTC))
Oh you already said it. So Ahn wouldn't be described as a terrorist, since he never targeted civilians except for political leaders? (Chunbum Park 15:54, 22 May 2010 (UTC))


I propose to reorganize the History section on strictly chronological/geographic lines, with motivations as a subordinate level. Right now, it's organized more by ideology, so, for example, one doesn't see there is both Jihadist and anti-abortion terrorism concurrently in the U.S.

This article really needs work. Howard C. Berkowitz 21:43, 19 December 2009 (UTC)

Alternative definition of terrorism (from earlier draft on WP)

When at Wikipedia I worked out with several editors a kind of compromise (which got reverted by administrators) but I thought it was a good compromise definition (while allowing that there's MUCH disagreement over this whole subject.) I'll put it here in case anybody is interested, or possibly interested in using the references, but I'm not interested in fussing much over the definition here on CZ:----Thomas Wright Sulcer 16:56, 19 February 2010 (UTC)

Terrorism, despite considerable disagreement about a precise definition,[1][2][3][4] is often considered to be deliberate[5] violence[6] or the threat of violence[7] directed at innocent[8][9] non-combatants[8] and governments[7] to cause fear[6] systematically[10] to attract media attention[11] for causes which may be political[5][3][6] or ideological[7] or religious[7] and which are viewed as coercive.[7][10][12] An act which meets many or all of these criteria is often considered to be terrorism. There is considerable disagreement about whether the term can describe government or religious leaders and whether the term should be extended to include wartime acts. Further, the distinction between terrorism and crime is hard to specify.[13][14]
The term is charged politically and emotionally and has strong negative connotations.[15] Its meaning often depends on the ideology of the user and the context of its use. Studies have found more than one hundred definitions of the term.[16][17] At present, there is no internationally agreed-upon definition. Governments have described opponents as terrorists to delegitimize them.[18][19] Some suggest that the term terrorist is so fraught with conceptual problems that a better term would be violent non-state actor.[20][5] Terrorism has a long history and has been practiced by both right-wing and left-wing political parties, nationalistic groups, religious groups, revolutionaries, criminals, and others.[21]

(end of section)----Thomas Wright Sulcer 16:56, 19 February 2010 (UTC)

Approval issues

While there is an Approved article, there was, in 2007, discussion about revoking the Approval. As a Military Workgroup Editor, I don't really consider Version 1 of Approved quality, but I'd rather work on extensive revisions and get a new Approved version.

Before spending extensive time on it, however, are there two other Editors (Military, History, Politics) that would, assuming a decent second version, who would work on a nomination? Howard C. Berkowitz 16:53, 9 March 2010 (UTC)

I agree with the sentiment that the "approved" article status of Version 1 should be revoked, and I think the current draft is better, although I still have major problems with the definition as it is. Basically I think issues of whether a supposed act of terrorism is political is tangential (although I think many acts of terrorism do have a so-called political motivation). And, the issue of targeting civilians is tangential as well, although I agree that many instances of terrorism happen in which civilians are, indeed, targeted and killed. What I think the essence of terrorism is, is this: violence. That's the core ingredient. And, particularly, violence against individual rights. In my view, that's what it's all about -- any definition that fails to put these criteria front and center is off the mark, in my view. Violence is human vs human aggression, hurting, maiming, killing, wounding, menacing. And rights are powers to act in the future that other people agree, beforehand, that people have clearance to do. These two concepts nail what terrorism means for me, but I realize this is not the mainstream view.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 14:03, 17 March 2010 (UTC)
I guess what I'm saying is that the current definition -- emphasizing "political objectives" and "civilians" -- I don't think this is the "mainstream view" or that it's even the accepted version by the so-called "expert community". In preparing articles about terrorism prevention, I read through many newspaper and journalist accounts, as well as books by experts such as Hoffman, and I got a sense of what people think this term is about. It's clearly not my sense about violence + individual rights. I think the "expert" view is that terrorism is hard to define precisely and that it's a pejorative or loaded term which describes something negative. And I think the definition I've posed above as the mainstream definition (with the numerous references) is better than the "political" and "civilian" one, since it more accurately reflects what both experts and publics think terrorism is.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 14:03, 17 March 2010 (UTC)
There has been an overwhelming need, in government and military circles, to come up with a somewhat constrained definition. Otherwise, politicians and sound-bite journalists devalue the term by making everything terrorism.
I believe, and I think I can support, that the prevailing core expert view about terrorism is that it has a political goal, although not necessarily a clear or obvious one, and it is targeted against civilians or at least noncombatants. When I say noncombatants, I can include, for example, an off-duty soldier, not one under military security.
It's gotten a more pejorative sense than in the way, for example, Lenin said "the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize", emphasizing the political and psychological. Some writers argue that Mao's Phase I is terrorism, but I believe most now recategorize it as small-unit or individual acts, such as non-random assassination, raids on government facilities, etc.
Francis Fukuyama's comment that "war on terror" makes as much sense as "war on submarines" is widely accepted. Hoffman, I think, is very good on the internal organization of terrorist organizations, but less so on the basic definition.
This a sufficiently confused and emotional area that I don't think we can rely on public opinion, although it's certainly reasonable to have a section on charges and countercharges that an act was, or was not, terrorism. There's a deplorable tendency, in the U.S., to lean too far in calling Islamic things terrorism, but not things on the domestic extreme left or right.
Let's get more views in this.Howard C. Berkowitz 15:03, 17 March 2010 (UTC)
Fair enough. Just saying that every book on terrorism that I've come across usually has a chapter at the outset talking about how confused the definition of terrorism is; such as Hoffman's book. I think Jenkins book has something similar but it's been a while since I've read it. There is horrifically confused expert gobbledygook in the book by Alex Schmid called "Political Terrorism" which is a nightmare of confusion, over-intellectualizing, and essentially junk. But doesn't the title right there tell you something -- that some kinds of terrorism aren't political? And the civilians targeted aspect too I see as problematic; suppose a terrorist group kills the local police force of a town; clearly the police are "combatants", and it's a scary act; I think most people (even YOU) would think that such an act was terrorism, even though it didn't target "civilians".--Thomas Wright Sulcer 15:19, 17 March 2010 (UTC)
Police aren't necessarily combatants, which are usually defined by the Third Common Article of the Geneva Conventions. On the other hand, "civilian" tends to mean "not government". The language is a little circular here, since you are saying "terrorists" killed the police. I still can't easily think of something that is terrorism, but is not political. Who does it? What the British call "ordinary decent criminals"? Individual mass murderers? Howard C. Berkowitz 07:33, 18 March 2010 (UTC)

Continuation: differing definitions of terrorism

(note: some agree about "political motivation" others don't)--Thomas Wright Sulcer 15:36, 18 March 2010 (UTC)

  • A writer for The Atlantic wondered about the nebulousness of terrorism:
"In other words, does terrorism have to have another agenda besides spreading terror? And is terrorism only an act that comes out of cold, calculating effort, with full knowledge, intent, and malice aforethought? If someone "snaps," does that mean their ensuing violence is, by definition, the act of a crazy person, not a terrorist? And is there a difference between people who "snap?" Is there a clear difference between someone who goes "postal" at their place of work or study, like Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, and someone who goes "postal" at their place of work but has disturbing Islamic ties, like Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood? Ever since the attacks of 9/11, the word "terrorism" has been thrown around a lot by traumatized and worried Americans. A hundred people might have 100 different ideas of what the word means, and who is and isn't a "terrorist," in a 2010 world. But there are actually some very clear, and surprising, guidelines for what, at least officially, constitutes a "terrorist" act. First and foremost, the "Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act" of 1996 spelled out a very clear definition of what acts and crimes fall under the "Federal Definition of Terrorism" (a definition modified somewhat by the U.S.A Patriot Act). Section 2332 of U.S. Code 18C113B states that terrorism is an act that "is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct," and is also a violation of any number of prohibited acts, including: "killing or attempted killing during an attack on a Federal facility with a dangerous weapon," and "killing or attempted killing of officers and employees of the United States." The list is actually quite long, and extends far beyond those two prohibitions. It does seem to disqualify the D.C. sniper as a terrorist, on the basis of his not having an agenda to retaliate against or change government policy or action (at least, that I know of). And I didn't find anything on the list of qualifying acts that seemed to cover a student or professor "snapping" and shooting their colleagues, as long as those colleagues weren't government employees. But what's interesting is that while the basic facts of Major Nidal Hasan's attack on his colleagues at Ft. Hood bears far more resemblance--at least on the surface--to the profile of both the Virginia Tech and the University of Alabama shootings than the attacks on the World Trade Center, what sets his case apart as a terrorist act--at least according to statute--isn't his Islamic ties. It may be that Maj. Hasan carried out his shooting spree not as a result of "snapping," but as a cold and deliberate act of political terrorism. I don't have enough information to make that call, one way or another. But consider this. If Maj. Hasan had been a Caucasian Christian but had disagreed with the war in Afghanistan and objected to being deployed there, and had, out of anger over those two items, blazed into the base at Ft. Hood and started shooting, he still would be guilty of a terrorist act, according to statute. His actions would still have been an effort to retaliate against, or influence, government action ... and they would have been directed against officers and employees of the U.S. government. Namely, other members of the U.S. Army... (the discussion goes on....) "[22]
  • DHS definition: "any activity that involves an act that is dangerous to human life or potentially destructive of critical infrastructure or key resources; and ... must also 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."[23]
  • FBI definition: "the unlawful use of force or 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."[23]
  • US Dept of Defense definition: "the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimdate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological objectives."[23]
  • Netanyahu's (former Israeli PM) definition: Terrorism according to his definition is the "deliberate and systematic murder, maiming and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends." Netanyahu expands on the definition by explaining that the word "deliberate" necessarily excludes accidental civilian war casualties; that "systematic" implies a "methodical campaign of repeated outrages" (and not isolated occurrences) from guerillas (who wage war on regular military forces). Terrorists according to the definition are sparked and guided by political considerations. Netanyahu's definition is useful for separating the "common criminal" from the terrorist, for it infers that the terrorists are invariably concerned with items other than material goals or personal benefits. Terrorists, according to the definition, are sparked and guided by political considerations. An important point to note here is that "motivated by political considerations" is not synonymous with "espouses a particular political philosophy". [24]

What I'm trying to emphasize is how MUCH speculation there is about this subject, from different angles. My sense is that any effort on our part to state that "Terrorism is X" is like a flashing neon sign to terrorism experts everywhere that we don't know what we're talking about. Perhaps a better approach is to have an article dealing with the confusion surrounding the issue of how to define terrorism. And, after that, to try to fix up the "terrorism" article draft with a more toned down, humble approach at the definition.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 15:36, 18 March 2010 (UTC)

Let's back up. Would you disagree that terrorism is a means of waging asymmetrical war, or otherwise it's simply mass murder or mayhem? If so, the classic Clausewitz definition of war is "the extension of national politics by military means." Hoffman does do good work, but, incidentally, if you want to cite a DoD definition, use the primary source, which would be the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dictionary. Lane Wallace is a general writer for The Atlantic, primarily in aviation.
My personal sense of terrorism is from the perspective of civil rights -- that is, terrorism is violence against individual rights so I think mass murder is definitely a form of terrorism, but so is a mugging. About the DoD definition -- I'm not trying to add new material here so the specific source isn't that important -- I think that IS the DoD definition. What I'm trying to do is make the point that even sources WITHIN THE US GOVERNMENT DISAGREE.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 18:00, 18 March 2010 (UTC)B
My inclination would be to go much more to specialists, from Mao Zedong to David Kilcullen to James Eliot Cross (my first instructor in guerrilla warfare) to Andrew Exum to David Petraeus to Francis Fukuyama to Roger Trinquier to Michael Scheuer to Peter Bergen to Carlos Marighella to Robert Baer to Osama bin Laden. It's not clear to me why an expert-reviewed article needs to be "humble".
Mao Zedong is a specialist in terrorism? David Petraeus is a specialist in terrorism? Osama bin Laden is a specialist in terrorism? Generally I think your thinking is confused, and you're making the mistake that many make, which is this: that terrorism is an "expert-only" discipline; further, you compound the mistake by asserting that you can say, with some certainty, exactly what the consensus is among the experts about what terrorism precisely is. About being humble -- I think you could be a little more humble if you'd realize how complex the subject is, how much you don't know, how much disagreement there is. When established experts such as Bruce Hoffman spend a whole chapter talking about how difficult terrorism is to define, it makes sense that if you're trying to establish yourself as an expert in terrorism that you address the same kinds of concerns that Hoffman does.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 18:00, 18 March 2010 (UTC)
Unfortunately, the references you are giving are variously general circulation magazines or the statements of political leaders/departments with an agenda. The quote of Netanyahu is coming, with an explanation, from a Palestinian site that educates about "the Palestinian conflict and the atrocities being committed against the Palestinian people by the brutal Zionist occupation." There are decent strategic analysts in the Middle East, but is this a reputable source?
You're missing the point. Regardless of the source or reputability of the Netanyahu quote, I KNOW the Netanyahu definition is accurate -- I read his book years back and it's exactly the same -- regardless of subsequent commentary on it. You've failed to address my point about how there's a huge lack of consensus within the expert community about this definition.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 18:00, 18 March 2010 (UTC)

I have not thought this through at all but it reminds me of similar discussions that break out between scientists and non-scientists, namely, what is the meaning and correct usage of the word theory. These arguments are rarely resolved and, in my opinion, people should not try to resolve them, just too time consuming. The easiest approach is to define the word in the context of the article. As long as the definition is clear from the beginning, that other definitions exist does not have to be resolved. Chris Day 19:20, 18 March 2010 (UTC)

So which definition to use? Presumably the most well defined and most common usage among people who work in this area. Is that a debatable issue? Not rhetorical question, I have no clue. How much space should be allocated to far more general definitions? For reference, I don't see isolated incidents of terror to be terrorism, even if politically motivated. I think that violence is an important aspect but this needs to be combined with a who and a why. If i'm understanding this discussion correctly there are far broader definitions out there. But are they really legitimate enough for any in-depth disccussion in this article? Chris Day 19:30, 18 March 2010 (UTC)

As far as establishing myself as an expert, I am a Military Workgroup Editor, but a few brief mentions — I first did analytical support to United States Army Special Forces in 1966, at the Center for Research in Social Systems at American University. While it certainly hasn't been my only area of military research, I have done a reasonable amount of open source intelligence consulting since 9/11 (and, for that matter, was 3 miles from the Pentagon on 9/11). Without getting into inappropriate detail, I have worked on C3I systems for dealing with terrorist information. Articles here, such as insurgency, al-Qaeda, Taliban, al-Shabab (insurgency), Foreign Internal Defense, etc., I think, show some familiarity.
CZ just doesn't operate on a consensus basis, but eventually comes back to expertise. I'm puzzled, for example, why Osama bin Laden, Mao Zedong and David Petraeus would not be considered authoritative, Mao obviously not on jihadist motivations. Howard C. Berkowitz 20:23, 18 March 2010 (UTC)

Continuation of discussion: differing definitions of terrorism

(break for editing)

Howard I think you're smart, well-read, intelligent, and are an expert in other areas such as WANs, VPNs, and network computing. If you think of yourself as an "expert" on terrorism because of projects you've worked on, or your affiliations with the military, and as a result, you can dismiss my "non-expert" thinking because I didn't have such experiences -- this strikes me as narrow-minded, with a bias of seeing things like a horse with blinders, such as looking at terrorism through government-type lenses. Authors I've read and respect (but still disagree with) like Graham Allison or Bruce Hoffman or Brian Michael Jenkins who ARE considered as "experts" by different communities, and appear on TV and such -- there is a mainstream view that people like this are the experts on terrorism, and I don't get any sense that you've come to terms with their thinking, but rather that you're on a tangent here. That would be the first thing I'd expect if I was to say "HB is an expert on terrorism" -- that you'd have at least some commentary on their thinking.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 21:11, 18 March 2010 (UTC)

When you mention people like Mao Zedong (a Chinese military dictator) or David Petraeus (a US military commander), I'm thinking we're not on the same wavelength here. It fits in with your bias -- of seeing terrorism as a military/government problem -- but differs radically from my perspective (which considers crime as a subset of terrorism), or from the mainstream perspective which is available with intelligent reading of newspapers which you seem to dismiss out of hand. Most people would see Osama bin Laden AS A terrorist, not an "expert" on terrorism.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 21:11, 18 March 2010 (UTC)

There is somewhat of a consensus among people seen as terrorism experts (Hoffman etc) about what terrorism is, but it's more open and encompassing that the narrower definition you espouse; and still they disagree; if there's any consensus, it's that terrorism is a HARD thing to define, that it's pejorative, that there's considerable disagreement about what the term means. I'm trying to help here, Howard; I'm not an expert, but I've read widely, have done original thinking on this subject, and wrote a book about terrorism prevention which YOU haven't read. In general, I think my strategy to prevent terrorism is the only one that's any good, since it would prevent smuggled nuclear bombs; but it has not been subject to serious review, and time will tell; I realize it's not the mainstream view here, but my writing here in CZ is trying to say what the mainstream view is.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 21:11, 18 March 2010 (UTC)

It's too bad, because I think the subject of terrorism is one area where we could compete effectively with WP. There's a know-it-all there on WP who won't permit intelligent discussion about terrorism, who sees it one way, and won't allow for differing views, and the result is lackluster.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 21:11, 18 March 2010 (UTC)

Actually, Tom, you sent me your book and I did read it.
How can the best-known terrorist in the world not be an expert on the subject? Indeed, I have found a substantial number of people have never read his statements about his goals and tactics. They exist. They are even cited here.
I think bin Laden is excellent at not getting caught, and the scheme to topple the twin towers was creative and brilliant. But I think there are serious flaws in his thinking overall. I've read some of his writings too. Still, I think of these people as experts: Graham Allison, Bruce Hoffman, and yes I have problems with their thinking too. Sorry Howard I don't see you as an expert. You don't have a book out there with the word "terrorism" on it and your name on it. But I think you're very smart and knowledgeable about many things.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 22:56, 18 March 2010 (UTC)
Tom, not all credentials are in book form. When I applied as a Military Editor, I provided a good deal more of my background to Editorial Personnel Administrators; some is work experience and other things I don't necessarily publicize. CZ, however, does have a means of recognizing expertise, and it's the Editor process.
If there are serious flaws with Bin Laden's thinking, then I encourage you to present them within the Osama bin Laden article. While I don't always agree with Michael Scheuer, I was always impressed with Scheuer's assignment to kill or capture bin Laden, but also to write the book Through Our Enemies Eyes, and describe how, in certain cultural contexts, bin Laden has the impact of a Thomas Paine.
By all accounts, incidentally, the attack on the Twin Towers was initially Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's idea, which he convinced bin Laden to accept as a variant on his original Operation Bojinka. Howard C. Berkowitz 23:34, 18 March 2010 (UTC)
One of the problems is when the definition of terrorism becomes so broad as to encompass virtually any violence, what, then, how is it then actionable? Sorry, I can't accept a definition of crime as a subset of terrorism. Now, if you were to consider them both a subset of compellence, that would, in fact, make some sense in social and military science thinking. If you look, for example, at self-radicalization, there's quite a bit of history that deals with terrorism as other than Islamic.
The purpose of a definition is to define something -- you can't rewrite a definition because by choosing a particular definition, it will render something "unable to be acted upon".--Thomas Wright Sulcer 22:56, 18 March 2010 (UTC)
I agree crime as a subset of terrorism is not a mainstream view. It's my view.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 22:56, 18 March 2010 (UTC)
I think it's a fairly basic CZ principle that newspapers are not, in the absence of other materials, the principal sources to define mainstream opinion in anything. Are you saying that your definition is the mainstream view and be accepted here? Howard C. Berkowitz 21:37, 18 March 2010 (UTC)
I disagree about your claim about newspapers. Newspapers, media generally have smart people who are accountable for getting the facts right. When they goof, it undermines their integrity, and they can quickly lose readers if they fail to tell the truth or cover stories adequately. When I was writing for WP about problems with different branches of government, I found that most reporters had it JUST RIGHT and called most of the problems in just the right way; I quoted them extensively. My sense is sources like the NY Times & Washington Post & BBC News are invaluable for helping us get a handle on nebulous concepts such as "terrorism". I respect them. I'd choose a NY Times or WP or BBC News definition of terrorism over yours.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 22:56, 18 March 2010 (UTC)
Which definition of mine? The one above with all the footnotes -- that's a composite mainstream definition with many compromises which (I think) does a better job than the draft article definition in saying what the mainstream sense of terrorism is. But it's not perfect. It's kind of a hedge. But the violence against individual rights is not mainstream -- that's my personal definition which I think is right, but I realize it's not accepted.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 22:56, 18 March 2010 (UTC)
The CZ approach is to synthesize,so there isn't a "Howard definition" here. Nevertheless, sources that go into the usage include the UN Working Group, Francis Fukuyama/Brookings Institution, Carlos Marighella, V.I. Lenin, Jack Cloonan, Mao Zedong, David Kilcullen, Brian Drinkwine, and others. There are people such as Peter Bergen and Thomas Ricks that left journalism and now write and work with think tanks. Of course, the terrorists' own doctrinal manuals are informative, be they the Green Book of the IRA, the Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, or the Manchester Manual. Howard C. Berkowitz 23:34, 18 March 2010 (UTC)
I have no problem with including those sources. But I think the idea of an encyclopedia article on a subject like "terrorism" is to reflect what people think it is -- ie the mainstream view -- not the view of a few experts or something we craft up. Diverging too far from the mainstream view risks us losing our credibility, in my view.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 01:05, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
CZ policy is that the expert consensus is emphasized, and, in cases of dispute, that is determined by Editor(s). Howard C. Berkowitz 01:25, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
OK, here's my take on the current definition. Generally it isn't that bad but could use improvements:Thomas Wright Sulcer 01:05, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
Terrorism refers to (comment: I don't like the construction "refers to"; why not just say "is"?) any violent act, (comment: there's also a sense of terrorism as a phenomenon or pattern of activity, not just an act.) intended to cause civilian casualties (comment: government officials? mayors? police? militia? military officers? if they're attacked isn't this terrorism as well?) or massive (comment: what is "massive"?) disruption (comment: what constitutes "disruption") committed (comment: this gets into a fuzzy area; the general idea is violent acts that were deliberately done, on purpose, as opposed to accidental) to create an atmosphere of fear (comment: agree) in order to obtain a political objective (comment: tough defining "political"; what if its ideological or religious; what if objective is economic, such as a bank robbery, but a big one that disrupts a whole section of a city -- is that terrorism?) The act may be intended to cause direct casualties (comment: repetition of casualties idea in first sentence) or to disrupt critical infrastructure. (comment: again, this is from the perspective of a government trying to fight terrorism) Thomas Wright Sulcer 01:05, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
Civilian means not-military, and can reasonably be extended to security forces such as police and intelligence. I don't see why critical infrastructure is particularly governmental. It includes utilities such as electrical power, health care, transportation, etc. Howard C. Berkowitz 01:25, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
I think the core idea should be violence. So I'd prefer using that word rather than "violent act". Violence is what it's about. I think there is widespread agreement about this. Also, the idea of intended violence can be terrorism too -- but which doesn't emerge in casualties. For example, if police catch a terrorist before detonating something, it's still "terrorism"; or when the Unabomber shut down LA airport by pretending an attack was imminent there -- that would qualify as terrorism to many. Some definitions instead of "civilian casualties" think in terms of "innocent" versus "guilty" -- and terrorists primarily attack the innocent (although what does "innocent" mean? A dubious concept in my view.)Thomas Wright Sulcer 01:05, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
"Violence or disruption"? Shutting down financial systems would be immensely disrupted. I'll also agree with intended as well as completed.
"Innocent vs. guilty" is not especially mainstream, at least in the developed world. It's not, in my opinion, a meaningful term. It's really needful to look at terrorism without moralizing. Howard C. Berkowitz 01:25, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
What if an insane man who doesn't know right from wrong but who is a technical genius, builds a nuclear bomb in a Manhattan basement, detonates it, millions die. Terrorism? No political objective. He wasn't TRYING to cause fear. Not deliberate. But I'd surely say it was terrorism, bigtime.Thomas Wright Sulcer 01:05, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
I would disagree. Not political. Howard C. Berkowitz 01:25, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
I wouldn't think of this as terrorism either. Would you define murders in a high school such as Columbine terrorism? That too I would not. Even the Oklahoma bombing I find hard to define as terrorism since the political agenda, while anti-government was not really part of an organised group. Chris Day 01:54, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
Oklahoma City is hard to call, Chris, but see self-radicalization. We're going to be seeing more "lone wolf" attacks from all sorts of political directions. Howard C. Berkowitz 02:05, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
What if government becomes the terrorist? The murder of Aquino by Marcos' bodyguards on the tarmac of Manila airport, for example. Government did it. It wasn't intended to cause civilian casualties or massive disruption. It WAS trying to cause a political objective. Terrorism? Was Hitler a terrorist? Stalin?Thomas Wright Sulcer 01:05, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
This example is not terrorism, as it was targeted to specific opposition. Operation Condor, however, is a decent example of state terror, since it was intended to create a climate of intimidating civilians. See also Great Terror. Howard C. Berkowitz 01:25, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
I wouldn't call this terrorism either. State sponsored murder or assassination. Chris Day 01:54, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
What if government security guards frisk an extra-beautiful model multiple times through airport security because they like feeling her body and seeing her fume. Is that terrorism? Or just abuse? Is frisking in general terrorism? It ASSUMES beforehand (without any specific evidence) that EVERY PASSENGER is a terrorist planning a bombing. It violates personal space and privacy. Is that terrorism? In my personal view, it's a form of mild form of tyranny, but it's legitimate because people consent to it because they think there is no better way to prevent skyjackings or mid-air bombings.Thomas Wright Sulcer 01:05, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
I'd tend to call it "security theater", but not terror. Howard C. Berkowitz 01:25, 19 March 2010 (UTC)
Howard I'm realizing how many different articles you've worked on regarding the whole subject of terrorism -- so with all that work, you're definitely becoming an expert and I think your approach is the way to do CZ. Like a thicket of wikilinks.--Thomas Wright Sulcer 15:37, 20 March 2010 (UTC)
Some time ago I looked up the definition in the relevant Act of Parliament. So far as I could make out, it would cover all military operations, lawful or not, by anyone other than the British crown. Peter Jackson 15:07, 21 May 2010 (UTC)
Who exactly are civilians? This came up in Gaza, with different statistics for civilian deaths depending whether you counted police. Was Dr Mengele a civilian? Whether or not he was, would assassinating him have counted as terrorism? If Nazi death camps had been run by "civilians" rather than Waffen SS, would bombing them have been terrorism? Anti-abortion "terrorists" would claim that their targets are exact moral analogues of Mengele and death camps. Peter Jackson 15:11, 21 May 2010 (UTC)
Josef Mengele was a uniformed Hauptsturmfuhrer in the Waffen SS, under a chain of command, and carried arms openly when he carried them. He would be a legitimate military target.
If "civilians" ran the camps, but were part of the government, they would be military targets. It's actually blurred, because the camp administration was under the WVHA, part of the SS, and the SS was a Party, not State, organization. I would claim that the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon was terrorism not because there were civilian workers in the building, but because there were clearly uninvolved civilians in the aircraft.
For your abortion example, the targets are not acting under color of government authority, further excluding them from a "military" defense -- if one goes down that road, they also fail the tests of lawful combatant.Howard C. Berkowitz 15:54, 21 May 2010 (UTC)
The SS, apart from Hitler's personal bodyguards, were under the authority of the RSHA, making them effectively state operatives.
I agree with you about the Pentagon.
The abortion issue can get quite complicated when you take into account as you just did the fact that the US health service is private, not governmental. I suppose one would have to describe the relevant point of view something like this:
"A group of private individuals (doctors &c) is carrying out mass murder of other private individuals (unborn children). The government has been forbidden by its own courts to prevent this, and is obeying this order. A third group of private individuals ('terrorists'?) therefore use violence against the first group."
I'm not sure how or whether the concept of terrorism aplies in such quasi-anarchistic contexts. Peter Jackson 17:18, 19 August 2010 (UTC)

(undent) There would be several ways to consider terrorism in the abortion context. First, much as village leaders were messily killed by the Viet Cong for "collaboration", a sense of terror among abortion providers dissuades them from performing the acts in question. Second, acts unchecked by government can encourage the recruiting of the third group. Howard C. Berkowitz 18:24, 19 August 2010 (UTC)

Some further thoughts:
  1. What's the conceptual difference between deterrence (e.g. capital punishment) and state terror(ism)?
  2. The Mafia etc. terrorize people too.
Peter Jackson 09:48, 26 August 2010 (UTC)

I'm not quite sure where to go here; this is becoming a discussion of ideologies. Capital punishment is not necessarily viewed as deterrence; I would say a minority do have that opinion. If one views the Mafia as a quasi-state attempting to change politics, it qualifies; if it is viewed as preventing interference by Ordinary Decent Criminals, it is not.
If you want to argue about the terr root, please provide references that this is an actual area of discussion, not coincidence.
With the Mafia, it would vary significantly if the target is a merchant made an example of what happens to those who do not pay extortion, and a magistrate or police officer whose murder is intended to change state policy. Howard C. Berkowitz 13:15, 26 August 2010 (UTC)


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  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Francis Townsend, Bruce Hoffman, Steve Inskeep (host). Experts Explore How To Define Terrorism Act, 'NPR', November 25, 2009. Retrieved on 2010-01-13. “Incidents like Fort Hood are forcing terrorism experts to refine what should count as a terrorist act. ... When you look at the just basic English dictionary definition of terror, which is the use of violence to instill fear and intimidation, I think it's hard to imagine this wasn't an act of terror. ... Professor BRUCE HOFFMAN (Georgetown University): For me, an act of violence becomes an act of terrorism when it has some political motive.”
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  8. 8.0 8.1 What is terrorism?, 'BBC News', 20 September 2001. Retrieved on 2010-01-13. “Hardly anyone disputes that flying an aircraft full of passengers into the World Trade Center was terrorism of the worst kind. But the outrage has tended to obscure the fact that there is still argument about what the word covers. In other contexts, the debate about who is a terrorist and who is a freedom-fighter is not dead. ... You would get wide agreement across the world that innocent civilians or bystanders should not be targeted - as opposed to being killed inadvertently in an attack on the military.”
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  11. [ "politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant"]
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  14. Jean Paul Laborde. COUNTERING TERRORISM: NEW INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL LAW PERSPECTIVES: 132ND INTERNATIONAL SENIOR SEMINAR VISITING EXPERTS’ PAPERS, 'United Nations', 2007. Retrieved on 2010-01-13. “By defining terrorism as a crime rather than as an international security issue, the General Assembly has chosen a criminal law approach rather than a war model of fighting terrorism.”
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  18. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named tws11janx33225
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