What is Terrorism? -Defining what seems obvious

Terrorism is generally seen as one of those things that makes us think “I know it when I see it.” Like everything though, there is a definition for it. In fact, there are actually many definitions for it.

To simply look up “terrorism” on Google would tell you that it is “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”
To break that down tells us that terrorism is violence or intimidation used in the pursuit of political aims, especially against civilians. The two key requirements there being violence or intimidation and in the pursuit of political aims.

We commonly associate terrorism with acts of mass violence or- in the modern age- intimidation or attacks via the internet; bombings, large shootings, massive cyber-attacks, etc. Most likely any of those events would be terrorist attacks, but the method of attack alone is still missing the second element of being in the pursuit of political aims. It would be hard to commit one of those types of attacks without having a good reason, most likely that reason is about forcing government to change. That change can be to implement religious standards, to stop enforcement of certain laws, to allow a region to break away, or just about anything that a person or group sees as a worthy cause.

While it may be a worthy cause to them, to anyone else it is simply horrendous, disgusting terror. It is an act that can be justified by no cause or belief system. Terrorists on the other hand often see themselves as victims of some type of oppressor, whether this is actually true for an individual terrorist is irrelevant to the fact that they believe it’s true. That personal belief justifies their horrific actions. For our team, we use the definition of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to analyze terrorism: "The unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

This definition allows us more points to analyze terrorist acts or groups to determine their mission, effectiveness, and modus operandi. Even in the United States, however, there are many more definitions.


The FBI is the main law enforcement agency in the US, but their definition still isn’t even the legal definition. Title 18 of United States Code (US federal criminal law) has an even more in-depth definition and so do many more US government agencies including the Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security. They also have different definitions for domestic and international terrorism. Many US states also have their own laws regarding terrorism and so they maintain their own definitions. Countries around the world and international organizations such as the United Nations have unique definitions as well.

They don’t all have the same points for what is required to be an act of terrorism due to political concerns or the unique concerns and threats to their regions. With so many definitions and specific, unique requirements within these definitions, not everything is necessarily “terrorism” even though it usually is.

Responsible law enforcement agencies and security services will generally wait until their investigation confirms an incident meets the requirements of what is terrorism under their own laws before declaring that it is. Declaring something to be “terrorism” is not about religion, race, creed, or any of the other variables people often point to. Instead, it is about the horror of an act of violence and the reason why it was committed.


We firmly believe that better public understanding of what terrorism is and how it works will help democratic nations create legislation that will make the 21st Century a time when terrorism can be fought more effectively than ever.


This article is part of the Public Education Mission of Gecko Professional Services. We strive to raise public awareness of international security issues. This means we like to deal in identifiable trends, hard facts, and in-depth research to form our positions, articles, and intelligence products.

We do not like to comment on specific incidents, especially before all facts are known, and this is for a variety of reasons; not all incidents fit into a trend- this can be because some incidents are unique outliers and others can be the start of new trends, there can often be confusion on even major facts due to multiple sources hearing different things or updated information coming out too quickly to obtain, and, lastly, specific incidents are often politicized. We do not seek to be involved in politics, only to be involved in the apolitical mission of ensuring and supporting public safety in the free society we all cherish.

With that said, this article was certainly prompted by the mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. We write this because there is genuine confusion as to why this terrible incident was not immediately called a terrorist attack even though it seems so painfully obvious that this is an act of terror.

While we hope, pray, and think for and of all those killed, injured, and affected, we also see the need to help make people aware of what terrorism is. Our team is made up of professionals in security, intelligence, law enforcement, and military careers, we are all people whose mission stops for nothing. To the contrary, when the worst of our society comes to the forefront we do not stop or slow down, not even for a moment- we get to work. The mission of responding to these terrible events and ensuring that they don’t happen again is one that doesn’t rest, so neither do we.