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terrorism, the threat or use of violence, often against the civilian population, to achieve political or social ends, to intimidate opponents, or to publicize grievances. The term dates from the Reign of Terror (1793–94) in the French Revolution but took on additional meaning in the 20th cent. Terrorism involves activities such as assassinations, bombings, random killings, and hijackings. Used primarily for political, not military, purposes, and most typically by groups too weak to mount open assaults, it is a modern tool of the alienated, and its psychological impact on the public has increased because of extensive coverage by the media. Political terrorism also may be part of a government campaign to eliminate the opposition, as under Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and others, or may be part of a revolutionary effort to overthrow a regime. Terrorist attacks also are now a common tactic in guerrilla warfare. Governments find attacks by terrorist groups difficult to prevent; international agreements to tighten borders or return terrorists for trial may offer some deterrence.

Terrorism reaches back to ancient Greece and has occurred throughout history. Terrorism by radicals (of both the left and right) and by nationalists became widespread after World War II. Since the late 20th cent. acts of terrorism have been associated with the Italian Red Brigades, the Irish Republican Army, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Peru's Shining Path, Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Weathermen and some members of U.S. “militia” organizations, among many groups. Religiously inspired terrrorism has also occurred, such as that of extremist Christian opponents of abortion in the United States; of extremist Muslims associated with Hamas, Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other organizations; of extremist Sikhs in India; and of Japan's Aum Shinrikyo, who released nerve gas in two attacks in Japan (1994, 1995).

In 1999 the UN Security Council unanimously called for better international cooperation in fighting terrorism and asked governments not to aid terrorists. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Al Qaeda on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—the most devastating terrorist attacks in history—prompted calls by U.S. political leaders for a world “war on terrorism.” Although the U.S. effort to destroy Al Qaeda and overthrow the Afghani government that hosted it was initially successful, terrorism is not a movement but a tactic used by a wide variety of groups, some of which are regarded (and supported) as “freedom fighters” in various countries or by various peoples. So-called state-sponsored terrorism, in which governments provide support or protection to terrorist groups that carry out proxy attacks against other countries, also complicates international efforts to end terror attacks, but financial sanctions have been placed by many countries on organizations that directly or indirectly support terrorists. The 2001 bioterror attacks in which anthrax spores were mailed to various U.S. media and government offices may not have been linked to the events of September 11, but they raised specter of biological and chemical terrorism and revealed the difficulty of dealing with such attacks.


See W. Laqueur, A History of Terrorism (1977) and No End to War (2003); B. Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (1998); M. Carr, The Infernal Machine: A History of Terrorism (2007); S. Nathanson, Terrorism and the Ethics of War (2010); M. A. Miller, The Foundations of Modern Terrorism (2013).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


a form of politically motivated action combining psychological (fear inducing) and physical (violent action) components carried out by individuals or small groups with the aim of inducing communities or states to meet the terrorists’ demands. The concept remains notoriously difficult to define with any precision. The major problem is summarized in the adage that ‘one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter’. The issue is complicated further because some would argue that acts of terrorism do not belong exclusively to the politically motivated but may also be employed by criminals and psychopaths. However, political terrorism can be thought of as the use of violence by a group either acting on behalf of, or in opposition to, an established political authority In broad terms, it is possible to identify three major types of politically motivated terrorist behaviour:
  1. revolutionary terrorism;
  2. sub-revolutionary terrorism; and
  3. terrorist action which is essentially repressive in nature (see also TERRORIST ORGANIZATIONS). Thus it is also necessary to differentiate between terrorism which is perpetrated by the state itself (see STATE TERRORISM) and actions which are undertaken by groups in pursuit of political change. Finally, it is possible to identify ‘INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM’, i.e. acts of terrorism which transcend the boundaries of one state. The tactics adopted by terrorists have been widespread. including kidnapping, bombs in public places, the ‘hijacking’ of aeroplanes, attacks on property, the extortion of ransom, raids on banks, and state oppression, arrests and torture.

Rubenstein (1987) suggests that terrorism usually springs from the political alienation of the INTELLIGENTSIA from both the ruling class and the masses. The former engages in repression and the latter is indifferent. This combination is particularly likely to appear in colonial situations although it may occur in any country where a social crisis generated by rapid and uneven economic development isolates intellectuals from the masses for whom they wish to act as political spokesman. The other precondition for terrorism occurs when a reform movement collapses or when it appears that such movement will not succeed in restructuring society. For advocates of terrorism, individual or small-group violence becomes the only means that can expose the fragility of the ruling class, raise the consciousness of the masses, and attract new members and supporters to the movement. Rubenstein shares the Marxist view that terrorists have rarely gained mass working-class support and have usually been ineffective in making social revolutions. As an instrument of political change, however, terrorism has often been effective, e.g. as an adjunct of nationalist movements.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000


Al Fata
Palestine Liberation movement’s terrorist organization. [Arab. Hist.: Wigoder, 186]
Baader-Meinhof gang
German terrorists. [Ger. Hist.: Facts (1978), 114–115]
Black Panthers
militant black revolutionists and civil-rightists. [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 46]
Nazi secret police; executors of “Final Solution.” [Ger. Hist.: Wigoder, 211]
the Irish Republican Army; long history of terror and violence. [Irish Hist.: NCE, 1365–1366]
Ku Klux Klan
post-Civil War white supremacist organization used terrorist tactics against blacks. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 1505]
(National Socialism) spread fear and terror throughout Hitler’s Germany. [Ger. Hist.: NCE, 1894]
Red Brigade
Italian terrorist group; assassinated Aldo Moro (1978). [Ital. Hist.: Facts (1978), 133]
Reign of Terror
(1793–1794) revolutionary government made terror its means of suppression, by edict (September 5, 1793). [Fr. Hist.: EB, IX: 904]
Symbionese Liberation Army
small terrorist group that kid-napped Patty Hearst (1974–1975). [Am. Hist.: Facts (1974), 105]
American terrorist group against the “Establishment.” [Am. Hist.: Facts (1972), 384]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve some goal
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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It is alleged he had files in circumstances which gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that they were for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.
In addition, the event must be "certified" as an act of terrorism by the federal government, which must determine that the act was committed by persons acting on behalf of a foreign interest in an effort to coerce U.S.
The determination of whether there has been an "act of terrorism" is made by the Treasury Secretary.
A global definition is not immune from political influence in certifying an act of terrorism, but it is more likely to result in consistent application of coverage and more predictable certifications of terrorist acts.
SIOC is available for use by FBI employees and representatives from other federal, state, or local agencies during times of national crisis, such as following the commission of an act of terrorism.