I wrote a short document recently on what terrorism is and what a terrorist is. To many here it will seem like a foolish question, yet it's a critical issue to define terrorism when it comes to applying it to criminal law. I'm looking for comments on the issue in general and also some feedback on the definition I propose and it's problems.
What is terrorism and what is a terrorist?
‘What is terrorism?' and ‘What is a terrorist?' are both poignant questions that are at the heart of decisions on the national and international level. To call somebody a terrorist or hand down sentences for acts of terrorism one must first define terrorism and somehow be able to apply it. Indeed, it is this application that is so controversial, often in the context of conflicts over national liberation and self-determination  . Because of the difficulty in creating a definition that encompasses these issues definitions of terrorism often are not easily applied in criminal law. This is seen in the fact there is no academic or international legal consensus on the definition of terrorism  . This is because the term terrorism has so many connotations, in particular negative connotations which influence how the word terrorism is interpreted. However, there is a need to define terrorism – the need to condemn violations of human rights, to protect the state and deliberative politics, to differentiate public and private violence, and to ensure international peace and security  . Furthermore, criminal law is noted to have three main purposes  - to declare conduct forbidden, to prevent it, and to express society's condemnation of wrongful acts.
The first step to developing a working definition of terrorism is to examine current definitions and see their failings (remembering the lack of applicability of current definitions) and then improve upon them. For example, the British government's definition of terrorism from 1989 is "the use of violence for political ends, and includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public or any section of the public in fear." The issue with this definition is that it is too encompassing. Espionage, war and many other state sponsored activities constitute as ‘terrorism' under this definition. In fact, as police work is meant to put the public, and in particular criminals, in fear of breaking the law, we could constitute police work as terrorism were the definition assumed to be accurate. Clearly, the general nature of this definition is inadequate to be applied in a court of law and fails to do things like differentiate public and private violence and protect the state and deliberative politics, both of which were established as part of the need to define terrorism earlier. Furthermore, usage of a word in common parlance is also important to determining how a word should be used. As common parlance would not have us refer to police work such as catching murderers as terrorism. Because of these issues, we can consider the British definition of terrorism inadequate and that it should not be accepted. Improvements on the British definition centre on the phrase ‘any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public in fear', where specifics need to be used such as ‘a use of violence primarily intended to stoke fear or terror into a section of the public for criminal purposes' . Criminal purposes can be described as those that are against the law and unnecessarily put the public in danger or harm in some manner.
A superior definition and the one most commonly accepted definition among academics is the United Nations definition of 1992. 
"An anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby – in contrast to assassination – the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative of symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat – and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organisations), (imperilled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience(s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought."  (Schmid, 1998) .
This definition essentially states that terrorism is a method promoting anxiety through repeated violence that is executed in secret. Terrorism's primary aim is to achieve various things and is achieved by means where the direct targets of violence are not the main threat. What is good about this definition is that it specifies the aim of terrorism and delves into the detail of how terrorist acts are executed and how they occur. This serves as a solid foundation for a definition of terrorism.
However, there are still problems when this definition is applied to the idea of terrorism as it is commonly thought of. For example, the majority of the public would consider 9/11 to be a prime example of terrorism. However, the UN definition states that terrorism is "an anxiety inspiring method of repeated [emphasis mine] violent action" and that terrorism is employed by ‘(semi) clandestine individual, group or state actors". These two sections of the definition raise problems. On the first statement the issue is that terrorist attacks are often isolated, and so aren't able to be considered repeated violent action. And, in the case of a link between attacks being established one still must necessarily exclude the first example of aggression (many people believe 9/11 to be the first example of terrorist action by Al Qaeda) as being ‘terrorism' because the first action can never be repeated due to being the first action! On the second statement one has issues with the usage of the word ‘clandestine'. This is problematic because clandestine often refers to keeping secret in addition to being done secretively yet many terrorist groups claim responsibilities for their attacks which is hardly what a clandestine actor is. Of course, these issues raise the question of whether the definition should be kept yet 9/11 not be considered a terrorist action, although given the basis of defining words partly on common usage, this definition should be rejected.
The question then is to how one should form a definition of terrorism given the problems raised in prior definitions. The British definition of terrorism shows that any definition must be specific and detailed in order to not wrongly imprison innocents. The UN definition shows that one has difficulty specifying whether the perpetrator of the actions is kept secret or whether terrorist acts are repeated or singular. On these two points terrorism doesn't fit into ‘one category or another', so a definition should avoid specifying on these points. Also, a good definition should incorporate the strengths of the UN definition – specifying the aims of terrorism and the nature of terrorist acts and their execution.
So, a definition of terrorism should strongly follow the strengths and general idea found in the UN definition. Furthermore, it should be altered when talking about clandestine actors and whether violence is repeated or not. Thereby, a definition of terrorism similar to the UN definition looks like this:
Continued in the next post
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