Terrorism uses violent action to create fear in the societies targeted; it is not new, and neither is it exclusive to radical Islamic groups. Through the reaction of Western states, which have made it a major preoccupation since the attacks of September 11, 2001, attempting to exploit anxiety, terrorism often results in a withdrawal from the rule of law in democratic countries and a reinforcement of repressive policies in authoritarian regimes.

Historically the word “terrorism” refers back to the regime established under the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. During the 19th century, though, the meaning shifted to designate a specific form of political violence.

Politically contingent definition

The definition of terrorism is a matter of debate – one person’s terrorist is often another person’s freedom fighter. For the Nazis, resistance fighters under the Occupation were “terrorists”; similarly, the US authorities and media have systematically labeled as terrorists the rebels attacking US forces in Iraq after 2003. Although there have been attempts at definition – by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005, for example – no international consensus exists on the concept, and rival definitions can be used in order to include (and discredit) the actions of particular groups and exclude those of others. Logically enough, no movement describes itself as “terrorist,” and most groups described in this way reject the label.

Nonetheless, a legal definition remains necessary, especially when a government adopts specific “anti-terrorist” legislation to deal with the risk of terrorist actions – which might involve longer detention times, more limited defense rights and harsher sentences. Under the French law of 1996, an act counts as terrorism if it is “committed with the intent (…) of seriously disturbing public order through intimidation or terror.” This definition is fairly subjective (with respect to identifying what “disturbs public order,” for example) and inapplicable in many situations, conflict situations in particular. Actions that fall within the traditional sphere of acts of war, or should be defined as a political assassination (like that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914), can thus be labeled as terrorism in order to discredit the perpetrators.

Diverse definitions and affiliations

Despite this diversity and subjectivity, some elements of definition nonetheless emerge. Terrorism is not an ideology. It is a violent mode of action that inspires anxiety (“terror”) and is generally used in the context of an asymmetrical relationship (weak attacking strong). The direct targets of the violence (generally civilian) do not necessarily correspond to the primary objectives (unlike an act of war or a political assassination) because the aim, via media coverage of the violence, is to create a climate of fear and insecurity among those who are direct and indirect witnesses. The immediate victims of the violence can be chosen at random (opportunistic targets) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) within a target population (a community or religious group, for example), and serve to send out a message. The September 11 attacks were particularly effective less for the number of fatalities (nearly 3,000) than because the whole world witnessed them (on television) and felt itself targeted.

Terrorist attacks between 1996 and 2016

Source: National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), 2016, Global Terrorism Database,

Comment: The map provides a very contrasting view of global terrorism over the course of the past 20 years. The main victims of attacks (in terms of numbers killed and monthly frequency of attacks) are the populations of “failed” states, who are exposed to conflict and recurring violence in its multiple forms. The Global Terrorism Database is a compilation of different databases produced successively since 1970 by two US private security agencies and two university research centers on security (Universities of New Haven and Maryland). It is compiled from real-time recording of incidents and from retrospective research, and uses a broad definition of terrorist acts.

For terrorists, maximizing the number of victims is not as important as sowing fear throughout society. Their goal is for the violent acts to generate an aftermath of social, legal and political chaos in order to weaken the states or societies targeted. In the 1970s, this was the vision of extreme left terrorist groups like Germany’s Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof Group), who thought that the government’s tough anti-terrorist stance would reveal the supposedly fascist nature of German power to everyone. Today’s Islamic State (IS) organization has the same goal: seeking to set non-Muslims against Muslims in order to fracture Western societies via a latent civil war, while simultaneously delegitimizing national political authorities by proving them incapable of fulfilling their primary function, that of ensuring their citizens’ security on their own territory.

Terrorism has existed for many years and has never been exclusive to Islamist groups. Other groups claiming religious affiliations have also used these methods (the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum sect in 1995, terror campaigns waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army [LRA] in Uganda, bomb attacks and assassinations of Arab civilians by the Irgun in Mandate Palestine, etc.), as have small far-left and far-right groups (especially in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s) and nationalist movements like the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in Northern Ireland, ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna) in the Basque country, the FLN (National Liberation Front) during the Algerian War, the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) during the 1970s and 1980s, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, etc. All regions of the world, then, are impacted by the actions of terrorist groups, whether they are part of a local, regional or global struggle. Although media coverage is especially intense when Western societies are targeted, the vast majority of terrorist attack victims are located in countries of the South, especially in those affected by war (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, etc.).

Terrorist attacks: change in the number of deaths by region, 1970-2016

Source: START, 2016, Global Terrorism Database,

Comment: The diagram shows how numbers killed by terrorist attacks in large regions of the world evolved between 1970 and 2016. The Middle East and North Africa are the areas most affected by this spasmodic mass violence, which has considerably increased over the most recent period. The change is quite similar in sub-Saharan Africa and verging on it in Western Asia. The Global Terrorism Database is a compilation of different databases produced successively since 1970 by two US private security agencies and two university research centers on security (Universities of New Haven and Maryland). It is compiled from real-time recording of incidents and from retrospective research, and uses a broad definition of terrorist acts.

Abuses of the fight against terrorism

The label “terrorist” is highly stigmatizing. It signals a lack of legitimacy, allowing governments to apply legal rules different than those of ordinary criminal justice, based on a unilateral decision. The fight against terrorism can serve as a pretext for a hardening of certain political regimes, as in Russia (with respect to the Chechens) or China (with respect to the Uyghurs). In democratic countries, it can lead to the restriction of civil liberties and the use of procedures condemned by international law: introducing exceptional legal regimes (state of emergency), violation of the Geneva Conventions, unlawful surveillance, use of torture, abductions and secret prisons, etc. In the wake of September 11, most Western governments adopted – without stirring public protest – legislation undermining civil liberties (such as the Patriot Act in the United States). This trend was confirmed in Europe following the attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 and in Brussels on March 22, 2016.

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