The changing definition and nature of terrorism

The definition of terrorism has changed dramatically over time. It originated from the French Revolution, where it was used to describe the actions of the Committee of Public Safety and the Terror. The revolution was also seen as terrorism against the crown heads of Europe. Then, in the late 19th and early 20th century, terrorism began to be associated with Marxism and communism, ideologies that were similarly revolutionary as the idea of democracy during the French revolution. Nowadays, terrorism is more commonly used to describe the violent actions of various groups mostly based within the Middle East, plotting attacks against what they think are the enemies of their religion.

Different people can view terrorism differently depending on their own political views. For example, the people participated in the French Revolution thought of themselves as liberators of Europe from tyranny. The Marxists thought of themselves as liberators of the proletariats. Those people have mainly disengaged from society and the morality of the majority. In their view, the violence they commit could be justified by the end goal, which could be to create their version of a better society.

These changes and different interpretations have made terrorism hard to define. Even experts on the subject do not agree with each other. Furthermore, terrorism is not entirely different from other forms of unconventional warfare, such as insurgency and guerrilla warfare. So how do we actually define terrorism? Can it ever be defined?

This post is part of my responses to questions in an online course called “Terrorism and Counterterrorism” from Georgetown University, via edX.

Originally published at on September 26, 2015.

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