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Terrorism is hard to define

By Gilda Bour


Hello Louis, 

Once again, great podcast this week in regards to taking a difficult topic and conversation and bringing it up for open discussion. I wanted to respond to the domestic terrorism portion. From discussions that are occurring on social media, I see a lot of information that is being discussed and wanted to present some information that might help clarify the definition of terrorism that is relevant now. 

Also, I am only scratching the surface here. I am by no means an expert. The information that I provide is what I have learned in my research in studying the psychology of terrorism and disaster. I’d recommend to anyone to do research, to learn as much as they could, to reach out and ask questions to those around them that might have more information. 

Terrorism is hard to define. There is not really one perfect definition that all scholars have agreed upon and defined. Contrary to popular belief, terrorism it is not solely based on political motives. The reason I bring this up is that on social media, some people are firm in this belief. This is an outdated model and definition of terrorism. 

Let me expand upon the old and new theories of terrorism. 

Old terrorism was a premeditated, politically driven act that was carried out against civilians. Old terrorism was centered in certain areas, within borders usually against a country’s own people or against the people of another country. The United States engaged in an old form of terrorism with slavery. Threats and violence were utilized against a sect of people in the United States. In this threat to society, it kept people oppressed. (Roshandel, 2013)

New terrorism has become international, there is no adherence to rules of war, it can be for social, political or religious motives. Whereas in the past one country could feel a little sense of security that the issues were not within their borders with the older terrorism, that has now changed. With groups striking virtually anywhere, there is now less security. Attacks are meant to inflict as many casualties and horror as possible, to make a deep impact. This is the most lethal approach. The events of 9/11 killed a few thousand people and it was carried out on an international stage. It is a threat to society because of the intent to inflict as much damage and fear as possible. The new terrorism is not afraid of brutal violence and acts. Additionally, modern terrorism has four elements: violence for political, social or religious aims, a premeditated act, does not adhere to standard rules of war or any type of conduct codes, and inflict major psychological influences that range beyond the target. (Roshandel, 2013)

Political and Social

This is the use of violence or the threat of violence against civilians or civilians of another country or territory, in the pursuit of political or social goals. There might be a belief that certain groups or organizations may be entitled to particular rights, possessions or lands. 

Religious and Ideological

The motivation of terrorism that is most influential is religion. It motivates the majority of terrorism and terrorist attacks throughout the world.  Religious extremism gives rise to many terrorist organizations in their effort to achieve their motivations and goals. According to the global terrorism index, religious extremist groups such ISIL/ISIS, Boko Haram, Taliban and al-Qaida as are the main perpetrators of terror in the world today. The religious ideology that drives these organizations is based upon the interpretations of the prophet Muhammad and the Quran. 

For these religious extremist groups, religion and politics are intertwined. ISIS is a violent terrorist organization that want a political state that is intertwined with the faith of Islam and based upon Sharia law. They use violent means to attract new followers and inspire fear in their enemies.

This isn’t only Islamic based. This also includes acts of terror across all religions. For example, Catholic and Protestant Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims. 

Ideology does not need to be based upon or rooted in religious beliefs. This may be to further an ideology that a group deeply believes in, be it eco/environmentally related, racially driven or rights for animals or another group that might be perceived to be oppressed.


Lack of education, poverty, political oppression or lack of political freedom are a few reasons people commit acts of terrorism due to socio-economic reasons. This can be one person, a group of people or a society. 

White Nationalism Domestic Terrorism Threat

The white nationalist belief system and attitude revolve around the idea that white is superior to all other races and groups. They believe all others are inferior and advocate for racial segregation. Their group wants to end non-white immigration and reverse the Civil Rights act of 1964 and Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. One of their main goals is to preserve the white majority and reverse the change in demographics that is occurring. Within this group, there is a belief that there is a disparate amount of black on white crimes being committed and that white genocide is taking place. They want to create and maintain a white state. Their prejudice is not only isolated to race, but also to religious groups such as the Jewish community. This ideology is alluring to young men that perceive their power and control to be diminishing and blame this on other groups. With the election of Donald Trump, there has been a resurgence in White Nationalism and it has become more mainstream and less on the fringes.

It seems that law enforcement does not know what to do with the rise and surge of white nationalism. They are more focused on anti-terrorism at the borders or overseas and are missing the growing threat on our own soil. In the past few years, there have been additional incidents where white nationalism has been a real and present threat. The recent shooting in El Paso where 20 people died. April 2019 an anti-Semitic shooter entered a synagogue and killed one. In Charlottesville in 2017, white nationalists openly marched and one woman died. The Tree of Life mass shooting in October 2018, where a man opened fire and killed eleven people in the Jewish community. Nine people were shot and killed at a place of worship in Charleston, SC in 2016. Two people were shot and killed in Kentucky in October of 2018. These are only a few out of many that are occurring. These are just a handful that I am naming. Each of these incidents were linked to white nationalism as the ideological drive behind the attacks. 

There needs to be more investigations done by law enforcement agencies at all levels and the threat level needs to be escalated. “The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism has reported that 71 percent of the extremist-related fatalities in the United States between 2008 and 2017 were committed by members of the far right or white-supremacist movements” (ADL, 2019). Yet the threat level and the focus are not as intense as they are with Islamic extremism and Islamic ideological motivated terrorist attacks. 

With all the focus on anti-terrorism from Islamic extremism, the white nationalist movement has been growing.  Until the white nationalist movement is labeled consistently as domestic terrorism and legislature and statutes are written to support it as thus, law enforcement agencies will continue to struggle with how to handle this threat. It is real. It is present. It needs to be addressed, researched, brought to the forefront as the domestic terrorism that it is.

Lone Wolf

The lone wolf might operate alone, but they do not do so in a vacuum. Their ideology is usually inspired by a political, socio-economic or religious based groups or ideology. Lone wolf attackers that have only been inspired to act due to the propaganda and message of a group or organization can be incredibly dangerous. This is because it is hard to track or identify them. In many incidents, law enforcement is not even aware of them until after they commit an act of terror. (Roshandel, 2013)

Mental Illness and Terrorism

Because a terrorist’s violent acts are horrific and sometimes hard to comprehend, there is a strong desire to blame the mental health of a terrorist. There must be something mentally wrong with the person for them to be a part of a terrorist organization or for them to want to commit acts of terror. It would be easy to label a terrorist as mentally ill and believe that terrorism could be stopped if the mentally ill were treated. 

This is very rarely the case though. As with any population, there are going to be people who are mentally ill, yet this is not the driving cause for terrorist behavior. While there are personality traits that will lead a person to be more prone to acts of violence, this alone does not make them terrorists. Terrorists become part of a terror organization for a few different reasons, be they for political or religiously ideological reasons, to counter against oppression by a foreign invader or because they were recruited by a friend or family member. They succumbed to propaganda and influences. One is not mentally ill because they are religiously devoted. One is not mentally ill because they so strongly believe in a particular agenda so adamantly that they might be radicalized by it. They have succumbed to the influences from that particular group or organization, the propaganda, the message and the promises. 

Additionally, terrorist organizations are reluctant to recruit mentally ill members. They have an agenda and plan, and someone that is mentally ill might potentially risk what their organization is trying to accomplish. These people would not necessarily be reliable and they would prove difficult to control. (Roshandel, 2013)

One important point to bring up is how carefully one needs to be with labeling groups terrorist organizations. This may be a slippery slope. Because an organization might have a few extremist members, cause property damage or commit other acts does not mean it is a terrorist organization. It needs to be reviewed regarding what type of organization they are, what they inspire, their ideology, their resources and many more factors. 

A few references for further reading on this topic:

Anti-Defamation League. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.adl.org/

Attorney General's Guidelines on General Crimes, Racketeering Enterprise and Domestic Security/Terrorism Investigations. (2017, March 02). Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/archives/ag/attorney-generals-guidelines-general-crimes-racketeering-enterprise-and-domestic

Cragin, Kim, & Peter. (2003, January 01). Terrorism and Development: Using Social and Economic Development to Inhibit a Resurgence of Terrorism. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1630.html

Freytag, A., Schneider, F., Krüger, J., & Meierrieks, D. (2011, July 08). The origins of terrorism: Cross-country estimates of socio-economic determinants of terrorism. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0176268011000723?via=ihub

Nato. (n.d.). The economic downturn: A boon for home-grown terrorists? Retrieved from https://www.nato.int/docu/review/2012/Threats-Within/homegrown-terrorism-socio-economics/EN/index.htm

Terrorism 2002/2005. (2010, May 21). Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/terrorism-2002-2005

Terrorism Report - 2008. (2009, April 30). Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/stats-services-publications-terror_08.pdf/view

The Moral Psychology of Terrorism : Implications for Security, edited by Jalil Roshandel, and Nathan Lean, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.

Vision of Humanity. (n.d.). Reports Archive. Retrieved from http://visionofhumanity.org/reports/