Definitions of Terrorism Utilized

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For centuries, fear has been used as a tactic to gain political power, oppress religious groups, and, in some cases, fight social injustice. The early first century Sicarii employed fear and murder in order to overthrow the Roman rule and gain religious freedom. In 1605, Guy Fawkes attempted to terrorize the House of Lords in England so that Roman Catholic persecution would end (Roser 1). While mass terror has been viewed as a low priority issue in the past, the alarming increase in terrorism over the past three decades has seized the attention of the world.

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These recent events have raised many public questions: What motivates terrorists to commit such egregious acts; and how can humanity combat an undefined enemy, and a suicidal one at that? Terrorism can be considered effective in the sense that its reverberations echo in the lives of the affected for as long as they live; despite this fact, the issue of moral justification arises. Some minority groups claim that there are certain circumstances in which terrorism is justifiable while many victims of grotesque acts of terror adamantly advocate the opposite; those who commit acts of terror are indeed monsters regardless of religious conviction or political motivation. How, exactly, is a terrorist defined? Due to the complexity of gathering data on terrorists and the perception of positive and negative sides of acts of terrorism, there is no universally agreed upon definition of terrorism.

In fact, there are at least 22 legal definitions of terrorism utilized by the United States Government (Beck 1). A loose definition of a terrorist according to Colin J. Beck, a research student at Pomona College, is any individuals who target citizens and threaten national security (Beck 2). Another definition, used by the United States Government to determine terrorist organizations, limits terrorism to politically motivated violence against noncombatant targets (Beck 3). The inconsistencies in the definitions are important because they determine what groups of people are constantly watched by international governments and those who are simply ignored. The fact that there is no international definition of terrorism strengthens the terrorist’s movement because there can be no unified effort against those who would be internationally designated terrorists.

In order to effectively analyze present-day terrorism, it is necessary to understand the origins of the issue and the motives of the perpetrator. One of the first know acts of terror was set off by religious tensions in first century Rome. Nestled in the pressure cooker of the Middle East, an elitist Jewish sect of Zealots known as the Sicarii opposed Roman rule and sought to instill terror in the hearts of law-abiding citizens. The Sicarii stabbed their victims with concealed daggers, thereby creating an uproar in a public area. After the killing, murderers would join in the cries of indignation in order to decrease suspicion and possibility of discovery (Roser 1). These undertakings, motivated by hatred for the anti-Jewish authorities, are comparable to present day terrorism in the Middle East. Another instance of past terrorism is the plot to destroy the House of Lords in England. A secret group of individuals conspired to upseat the ruling party in England in order to reinstate a Catholic Monarch (Roser 1).

The plot, initiated by Robert Catesby, consisted of stockpiling numerous cases of gunpowder in a lower section of the English parliamentary house and igniting the cases when many lords and rulers were present in the chambers above. These religious motives justified the potentially devastating act in the eyes of the criminals, but upon further observation, this logic compromises the original intent. The terrorists in both situations sought to overthrow the powers over them in exchange for their own ideas of ruling in order to benefit the people they represent. These instances of early resistance and terror have defined pre-twentieth century terrorism (Roser 1). There is one event that has greatly altered United States national security in the past twenty years. Arguably the most infamous terrorist attack in recent history is the strike on the World Trade Center towers in New York City, New York on September 11, 2001. Most Americans know the details of this event but few know the stories of two masterminds who planned the operation: Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Osama Bin Laden. One man was consumed with his religion while the other was consumed with achieving political goals.

At one point in Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s life, he was a regular boy growing up in the middle east; however, when he was a teenager, he succumbed to the greatly politicized Muslim Brotherhood. Mohammed became obsessed with the concept of war on religions that oppose Islam at an early age and began to adopt severely anti-American values (Marks 5). Mohammed moved to the United States to pursue an Engineering degree; however, this was clearly not his ultimate goal. He fit the profile of a natural immigrant. Mohammed believed that the United States was weaker than many people suspected so he formed a plot to hijack planes and fly them into significant buildings. According to an interview with Osama Bin Laden, Mohammed was said to have liked the action when planning catastrophic events (Marks 6). He certainly thrived on September 11, 2001.

Osama Bin Laden was quite the opposite of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Laden was a devout follower of Islam, praying seven times a day and fasting twice a week at the age of 13 (Marks 6). In contrast with Mohammed’s political motivations, Laden was largely motivated by a religious ideology. His steadfast belief in Islam drove him to lead an attack on one of his primary enemies: the United States (Bergen 2). The partnership between the two men culminated in one of the most devastating acts of terror in recent history. The process Mohammed and Laden went through as younger boys is now known as radicalization and can be defined by favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions (radical def. 3.1.b).

Radicalization is a tactic employed by many terrorist organizations to gain new recruits and can also explain some of the motivations of present-day terrorists. Contrary to popular belief, terrorists are predominantly motivated by political goals rather than religious agendas or otherwise (Roser 1). A psychologist from Pennsylvania State University found common strands between persons who are susceptible to radicalization and terrorist recruitment. Two frequent characteristics are those of perceived disenfranchizement and victimization (DeAngelis 1).

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Definitions Of Terrorism Utilized. (2019, Nov 28). Retrieved February 2, 2023 , from

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