Definitions Of The Term Terrorism Criminology Essay

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Many people have a good idea of what the word terrorism means. That meaning however, is so charge with emotion and imagery that the meaning is difficult to use in an analytical sense. Terrorism is many things to many people: a legitimate tool for those who wish to use it, an immoral weapon for those it is used against, and an impossible to remove thorn in the side of those trying to combat it. Terrorism, therefore, is also a relative term. A violent action or attack may be called terrorism by its victims and by those who combat against it, but may be defined by those who use it as war, freedom fighting or insurgency. Such ambiguity and relativity make the term terrorism problematic to qualify, hard to measure and difficult to define.

The object of this essay is to compare the elements of various definitions of the term terrorism in an attempt to understand it as a concept, a weapon and method of influence. In doing so, this essay will also review terrorism against national security and Malaysia's vulnerability. Lastly, this essay will present the authors view of terrorism through personal experience.


The word terror comes from the Latin word terrÄ“re which means 'frighten', thus a terrorist is someone who favours or uses terror inspiring methods of governing or coercing government or community [1] . From this simple definition, using such a technique of influence is defined as terrorism. Unfortunately it is not that simple and numerous definitions have been postulated by various dictionaries, authors, organisations, and governments that expand the simple definition to include methods, purpose, timeframes and definitions of the victims, targets and perpetrators. A quick on-line search can locate dozens of definitions which build upon the basic structure of the simple definition above. Alex Schmid, in his 1988 review of terrorism, details over one hundred different definitions of the term.

The simple definitions of terrorism stand at one end of the spectrum. Walter Laqueur's simple definition has three constituent parts; the use of force, against innocent victims and for political purpose. Laqueur adds that any desire to qualify the term beyond this simple definition is pointless as the term 'terrorism' is so controversial [2] . He also adds that further definition will not aid understanding of the topic and promotes retaining a simple definition because the meaning changes constantly as the social context of its use changes and evolves.

Unfortunately such pragmatism has gone unheeded and many long and detailed definitions have evolved at the other end of the spectrum; the most complex of which exist as governmental and non-governmental definitions. The 'academic consensus definition' developed by Schmid on the basis of his work in 'Political Terrorism' uses thirteen of the twenty two constituent parts he found in common definitions of terrorism. Schmid's definition is notably used by the United Nations and it states [3] :

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), (imperilled) 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.

The significance of this definition and other longer definitions is that the expansion allows the definition to encompass a greater range of relativity in defining the actors, victims, methods and purposes.

The realisation that terrorism is a tactic, not a goal, aids to the understanding of the term. While some victims and populations may see terrorism as mindless bloodshed, scholars generally agree that there is nearly always a purpose behind each action [4] . This tactic is similar to any deterrence or coercive method, whereby the goal is to increase the cost of a government or non-state policy in order to force change to a different policy. Generally, terrorism is a tactic of the weak that would not stand a chance against a government in conventional conflict. Additionally, it must be noted that terrorism cannot govern or hold territory; hence its use is limited and employment of terrorism as a tactic requires a change in stance if the purpose is met.

Violence, or its threat, is a mainstay of the terrorist, but not all violence can be labelled terrorism. Actions during war between states, even the use of weapons of mass destruction, are generally not considered terrorism, despite the abhorrence place on such tactics by modern society. However, when non-state actors use bombs to kill civilian personnel, this behaviour is generally called terrorism. Therefore in defining what terrorism is, it is important to detail who carries out the action as well as how and to whom [5] . While seemingly hypocritical, the difference is important as this distinguishes between legitimate actors carrying out public violence for public purposes and terrorists who are private actors using violence for public goals [6] .

In using their violent acts, terrorism creates two types of victim; the immediate victim and the intended target population. The immediate victim is the one who is injured, maimed or killed and the intended target population is the recipient of the message the act contains. Generally, terrorist care little for the selection of the immediate victims, who are merely symbolic targets [7] , and concentrate more on the method employed to dramatically convey their message to gain the most exposure or coverage. In doing so terrorists create a fear of the way in which people are killed rather than increasing the actual statistical chance of it happening [8] . This fear is the prime concern to states as it is this fear that drives the purpose of the terrorist and provides the greatest threat to the national security of a state.

National Security

Terrorism has long been recognised as a serious threat to national security in both foreign and domestic spheres. The changing nature and adaptability of terrorism and terrorists, aided by the effects of globalisation have ensured that state efforts to eradicate or reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks remain high on national security agendas. Terrorism threatens national security on multiple levels such as the public fear due mentioned previously,

Currently the terrorist threat to Malaysia is ambiguous. The Malaysia government states that there is currently no terrorist threat to Malaysia [9] yet the American Embassy in Malaysia issued a warning in Jan 2010 of possible terrorist attacks against tourists in eastern Sabah [10] .

Laws to allow control over aspects of terrorist activity that could not occur under normal laws. ISA etc in Malaysia, UK & USA laws

Despite the fact that there has been no demonstrable terrorist event in Malaysia for a significant period, the Malaysian government commits significant resources and effort in ensuring this status remains. In 2003 the Malaysia established the South-East Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT), which focuses on regional training and counter-terrorism capacity-building.