Terrorism: Law, Definitions, Typologies

Assessing the difference between terrorism and violent behavior, first of all, it should be noted, that terrorism can be classified as violent behavior, as it is a behavior that produces violence. Nevertheless, terrorism is distinguished from most crimes that fall under the violent behavior category by several criteria. One of the criteria is that terrorism is a changeable aspect, which, unlike violent behavior, changes along with its definitions based on historical circumstances and social context. Another aspect of comparison can be seen in the media recognition, where violent behavior strives to be unknown with their offenders usually having personal opportunistic goals, while terrorism seeks wide recognition for their acts with the goals serving symbolical meanings for their participators.

Brian Jenkins is a terrorism researcher and expert. According to his view, which can be considered as one of the main differences between terrorism and violent behavior, is the denotation of terrorism as a theatre where “Terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people listening and not a lot of people dead” (Thomas & Hirsh, 2000) In that regard, terrorists do not address a particular person, but rather their purpose is presenting an intimidation move, and thus their victims are mostly civilians so they are to be scared of and talked about. Accordingly, the terrorists seek the reaction of the international public arenas and governments toward their actions.

As terrorism can differ in its definitions and its manifestations, typology is a classification that captures the terrorist’s activities allowing the identification of what types of terrorists are examined. According to terrorism typologies, terrorism can be classified in different ways such as:

  • Terrorism classified by place
  • Terrorism classified by personality trait
  • Terrorism classified by target
  • Terrorism classified by purpose
  • Terrorism classified by issue (O’Connor, 2006)

Typology can help in counterterrorism as it helps create the tactics to respond and conceptualize the counterterrorism mission.

The diversity of terrorism definitions led to that Schmid using the most common aspects of these definitions to create a definition consensus, which was consequently adopted by the United Nations.

The consensus definition states:

Terrorism is 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 or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat-and-violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organization), (imperiled) 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. (White, 2009).

The main problems of understanding domestic terrorism by law enforcement could lie mainly in the difficulty of classification and the distinction between other crimes. In that regard, this difficulty can pose a threat in both ways, where incidents such as hate crimes, or organized crimes can be confused with terrorism, or the terrorism act is classified as a normal crime. Additionally, the expansive surveillance powers granted to cases of domestic terrorism can be used, creating a loophole that can be exploited without a warrant. In that regard, mostly, the problems of domestic terrorism for law enforcement could be evaluated as a problem of definition and assessment.

The theory of Jeffrey Ian Ross put emphasis on social and psychological factors of terrorism. Ross’s concept combines social structures with groups’ psychology. He identified traits according to which it can be stated that the more of these traits the person exhibits, the more likely it is that the person will engage in terrorism. The importance of this theory can be seen in conceptualizing a causal model which will lead to identifying the origins of terrorism. In that regard, with further investigation and research, there is a possibility to outline the conditions that promote terrorism. In that regard, the findings of these studies will help develop more efficient counterterrorism measures in the future.


  2. Terrorist Groups. (2009). Web.
  3. Thomas, E., & Hirsh, M. (2000). The Future Of Terror.
  4. White, J. R. (2009). Terrorism and homeland security (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
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