Chapter 2 The Nature of the Beast Defining Terrorism
Opening Viewpoint: Are Hate Crimes Acts of Terrorism?
Hate crimes refers to behaviors that are considered to be bias-motivated crimes but that at times seem to fit the
definition of acts of terrorism. Hate crimes are a legalistic concept in Western democracies that embody (in the law)
a criminological approach to a specific kind of deviant behavior. These laws focus on a specific motive for criminal
behavior—crimes that are directed against protected classes of people because of their membership in these
protected classes. Thus, hate crimes are officially considered to be a law enforcement issue rather than one of
The separation between hate crimes and terrorism is not always clear because “hate groups at times in their life
cycles might resemble gangs and at other times paramilitary organizations or terrorist groups.”a They represent
“another example of small, intense groups that sometimes resort to violence to achieve their goals by committing . . .
vigilante terrorism.”b Among experts, the debate about what is or is not “terrorism” has resulted in a large number
of official and unofficial definitions. A similar debate has arisen about how to define hate crimes because “it is
difficult to construct an exhaustive definition of the term. . . . Crime—hate crime included—is relative.”c In fact,
there is no agreement on what label to use for behaviors that many people commonly refer to as “hate crimes.” For
example, in the United States, attacks by White neo-Nazi youths against African Americans, gays, and religious
institutions have been referred to with such diverse terms as hate crime, hate-motivated crime, bias crime, biasmotivated crime, and ethno-violence.d
Are hate crimes acts of terrorism? The answer is that not all acts of terrorism are hate crimes, and not all hate crimes
are acts of terrorism. For example, dissident terrorists frequently target a state or system with little or no animus
against a particular race, religion, or other group. Likewise, state terrorism is often motivated by a perceived need to
preserve or reestablish the state’s defined vision of social order without targeting a race, religion, or other group. On
the other hand, criminal behavior fitting federal or state definitions of hate crimes in the United States can have little
or no identifiable political agenda, other than hatred toward a protected class of people.
It is when political violence is directed against a particular group—such as a race, religion, nationality, or
generalized “undesirable”—that these acts possibly fit the definitions of both hate crimes and
terrorism. Terrorists often launch attacks against people who symbolize the cause that they oppose. In the United
Kingdom, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere, many individuals and groups act out violently to promote an
agenda that seeks to “purify” society. These crimes are committed by groups or individuals who are “dealing in the
artificial currency of . . . ‘imagined communities’—utopian pipe dreams and idealizations of ethnically cleansed
communities.”e For example, after German reunification, “street renegades [demanded] a new Lebensraum of a
purified Germany whose national essence and coherence will not be weakened and ‘contaminated’ by ethnic and
racial minorities.”f Their targeted enemies were Turkish, Slavic, and southern European immigrants and “guest
This chapter concludes with a Case in Point discussing the 2016 mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, in the United
States, within the context of incidents that can be defined as both an act of terrorism and a hate crime.
a. Barkan, Steven E., and Lynne L. Snowden. Collective Violence. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001, p. 105.
b. Ibid., p. 106.
c. Perry, Barbara. In the Name of Hate: Understanding Hate Crimes. New York: Routledge, 2001, p. 8.
d. Hamm, Mark S. “Conceptualizing Hate Crime in a Global Context.” In Hate Crime: International Perspectives
on Causes and Control, edited by Mark S. Hamm. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson, 1994, p. 174.
e. Kelly, Robert J., and Jess Maghan. Hate Crime: The Global Politics of Polarization. Carbondale: Southern
Illinois University Press, 1998, p. 6. Citing Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin
and Spread of Nationalism. London: New Left, 1983.
f. Ibid., p. 5.
This chapter investigates definitional issues in the study of terrorism. Readers will probe the
nuances of these issues and will learn that the truism “one person’s terrorist is another
person’s freedom fighter” is a significant factor in the definitional debate. It must be
remembered that this debate occurs within a practical and “real-life” framework—in other
words, a nontheoretical reality that some political, religious, or ethnonationalist beliefs and
behaviors are so reprehensible that they cannot be considered to be mere differences in opinion.
Some violent incidents are mala in se acts of terrorist violence. For example, the New
Terrorism is characterized by the threat of weapons of mass destruction, indiscriminate
targeting, and intentionally high casualty rates—as occurred in the attacks of September 11,
2001, in the United States; March 11, 2004, in Spain; July 7, 2005, in Great Britain; November
26–29, 2008, in India; January and November 2015 in France; March 22, 2016, in Belgium; and
repeated attacks in Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria. The use of these weapons and tactics against
civilians is indefensible, no matter what cause is championed by those who use them.
Photo 2.1 A new fascist generation? Youthful racist skinheads in London give the fascist salute.
Leon Morris/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The definitional debate is evident in the following examples drawn from state-sponsored and
dissident terrorist environments:
State-Sponsored Terrorist Environments. The Régime de la Terreur during the French
Revolution was an instrument of revolutionary justice, such that terrorism was considered
a positive medium used by the defenders of order and liberty. From their perspective,
state-sponsored domestic terrorism was both necessary and acceptable to consolidate
power and protect liberties won during the revolution. Modern examples of state
terrorism such as Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia also sought to consolidate an
ideological vision through internal political violence—a racial new order in Germany and
an egalitarian workers’ state in the Soviet Union. The methods they used to build the
ideological vision resulted in the deaths of many millions of noncombatant civilians, and
both the Nazi and Stalinist regimes were by definition quintessential terrorist states.
Dissident Terrorist Environments. The anticolonial and nationalist wars after World War
II often pitted indigenous rebels against European colonial powers or ruling local elites.
Many of these wars involved the use of terrorism as an instrument of war by both state
and dissident forces. During these wars, as well as in subsequent domestic rebellions, the
rebels were referred to as freedom fighters by those who favored their cause.1 The
counterpoints to these freedom fighters were the European and American “colonial and
imperialist oppressors.” Thus, for example, indiscriminate attacks against civilians by
rebels in French Indochina and French Algeria were rationalized by many of their
supporters as acceptable tactics during wars of liberation by freedom fighters against a
The discussion in this chapter will review the following:
Understanding Extremism: The Foundation of Terrorism
Defining Terrorism: An Ongoing Debate
A Definitional Problem: Perspectives on Terrorism
The Political Violence Matrix
Understanding Extremism: The Foundation of Terrorism
An important step toward defining terrorism is to develop an understanding of the sources of
terrorism. To identify them, one must first understand the important role of extremism as a
primary feature of all terrorist behavior.
Behind each incident of terrorist violence is some deeply held belief system that has motivated
the perpetrators. Such systems are, at their core, extremist systems characterized by intolerance.
One must keep in mind, however, that though terrorism is a violent expression of these beliefs, it
is by no means the only possible manifestation of extremism. On a scale of activist behavior,
extremists can engage in such benign expressions as sponsoring debates or publishing
newspapers. They might also engage in vandalism and other disruptions of the normal routines
of their enemies. Though intrusive and often illegal, these are examples of political expression
that cannot be construed as terrorist acts.
Our focus in this and subsequent chapters will be on violent extremist behavior that many people
would define as acts of terrorism. First, we must briefly investigate the general characteristics of
the extremist foundations of terrorism.
Political extremism refers to taking a political idea to its limits, regardless of unfortunate
repercussions, impracticalities, arguments, and feelings to the contrary, and with the intention not
only to confront, but to eliminate opposition. . . . Intolerance toward all views other than one’s
Extremism is a precursor to terrorism—it is an overarching belief system that is used by
terrorists to justify their violent behavior. Extremism is characterized by what a person’s beliefs
are as well as how a person expresses his or her beliefs. Thus, no matter how offensive or
reprehensible one’s thoughts or words are, they are not by themselves acts of terrorism. Only
persons who violently act out their extremist beliefs are labeled terrorists.
Two examples illustrate this point:
First, an example of extremist behavior. Daniel and Philip Berrigan were well-known members
of the Roman Catholic pacifist left and were leaders in the antiwar and antinuclear movements in
the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. What they believed in was an uncompromising
commitment to pacifism. How they expressed their beliefs was by committing a series of
symbolic, and often illegal, protest actions. During one such action on May 17, 1968, they and
seven other Catholic men and women entered the Baltimore Selective Service Board, stole
Selective Service classification forms, took them outside to a parking lot, and burned several
hundred of the documents with a homemade, napalm-like gelled mixture of gasoline and soap
flakes. This was certainly extremist behavior, but it falls short of terrorism.3
Second, an example of extremist speech. The American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (AKKKK) were an activist faction of the KKK that operated mostly in the Midwest and East during
the 1990s. What they believed in was racial supremacy. How they expressed their beliefs was by
holding a series of rallies at government sites, often county courthouses. They were known for
their vitriolic rhetoric. The following remarks were reportedly taken from a speech delivered by
the Imperial Wizard of the AK-KKK in March 1998 at a rally held at the county courthouse in
Butler, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh:
Take a stand. . . . Join the Klan, stick up for your rights. . . . Only God has the right to create a
race—not no black and white, not no nigger, not no Jew. . . . Yes, I will use the
word nigger, because it is not illegal. . . . We are sick and tired of the government taking your
money, and giving food and jobs to the niggers when the white race has to go without! Wake up
This language is intentionally racist, hateful, and inflammatory, yet it falls short of advocating
violence or revolution. A sympathetic listener might certainly act out against one of the enemy
groups identified in the speech, but it reads more like a racist diatribe than a revolutionary
Common Characteristics of Violent Extremists
Scholars and other experts have identified common characteristics exhibited by violent
extremists. These characteristics are expressed in different ways, depending on a movement’s
particular belief system. The following commonalities are summaries of traits identified by these
experts and are by no means an exhaustive inventory.5
Intolerance is the hallmark of extremist belief systems and terrorist behavior. The cause is
considered to be absolutely just and good, and those who disagree with the cause (or some aspect
of the cause) are cast into the category of the opposition. Terrorists affix their opponents with
certain negative or derisive labels to set them apart from the extremists’ movement. These
characterizations are often highly personalized so that specific individuals are identified who
symbolize the opposing belief system or cause. Thus, during the Cold War, the American
president was labeled by the pro–United States camp as the “leader of the free world” and by
Latin American Marxists as the embodiment of “Yankee imperialism.”6
Extremists adopt moral absolutes so that the distinction between good and evil is clear, as are the
lines between the extremists and their opponents. The extremists’ belief or cause is a morally
correct vision of the world and is used to establish moral superiority over others. Violent
extremists thus become morally and ethically pure elites who lead the oppressed masses to
freedom. For example, religious terrorists generally believe that their one true faith is superior to
all others and that any behavior committed in defense of the faith is fully justifiable.
Extremist conclusions are made to simplify the goals of the cause and the nature of the
extremist’s opponents. These generalizations are not debatable and allow for no exceptions.
Evidence for these conclusions is rooted in one’s belief system rather than based on objective
data. Terrorists often believe these generalizations because in their minds, they simply must be
true. For example, ethnonationalists frequently categorize all members of their opponent group
as having certain broadly negative traits.
New Language and Conspiratorial Beliefs
Language and conspiracies are created to demonize the enemy and set the terrorists apart from
those not part of their belief system. Extremists thus become an elite with a hidden agenda and
targets of that agenda. For example, some American far- and fringe-right conspiracy proponents
express their anti-Semitic beliefs by using coded references to international bankers or a Zionistoccupied government (ZOG). Neo-Nazi rightists degrade members of non-European races by
referring to them as mud people.
The World of the Extremist
Extremists have a very different—and, at times, fantastic—worldview compared with
nonextremists. They set themselves apart as protectors of some truth or as the true heirs of some
legacy. For example, racial extremists within the American Patriot movement have argued that
non-Whites are “Fourteenth Amendment citizens,” and that only “whites are sovereign citizens
whose rights are delineated, not by the government, but rather by a cobbled assortment of
historical writings whose meaning is often subject to their fanciful interpretation.”7
Extremists frequently believe that secret and quasi-mystical forces are arrayed against them and
that these forces are the cause of worldwide calamities. For example, some bigoted conspiracy
believers argue that the Illuminati or international Judaism mysteriously control world banking
and the media or that they run the governments of France and the United States. One conspiracy
theory that was widely believed among Islamist extremists in the aftermath of the September 11,
2001, attacks was that Israeli agents were behind the attacks; that 4,000 Jews received telephone
calls to evacuate the World Trade Center in New York; and therefore that no Jews were among
the victims of the attack.
As in the past, religion is often an underlying impetus for extremist activity. When extremists
adopt a religious belief system, their worldview becomes one of a struggle between supernatural
forces of good and evil. They view themselves as living a righteous life in a manner that fits with
their interpretation of God’s will. According to religious extremists, those who do not conform to
their belief system are opposed to the one true faith. Those who live according to the accepted
belief system are a chosen people, and those who do not are not chosen. These interpretations of
how one should behave include elements of the social or political environment that underlies the
belief system. For example, Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, is a
fundamentalist Christian university founded in 1927. It once justified its prohibition against
interracial dating and marriage as an application of God-mandated truths found in Holy
Scripture. Similarly, one student at a Pakistani religious school explained that “Osama [bin
Laden] wants to keep Islam pure from the pollution of the infidels. . . . He believes Islam is the
way for all the world. He wants to bring Islam to all the world.”8
Photo 2.2 Members of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement, including a young boy, march
in Washington, D.C., from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol building.
David S. Holloway/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Extremists have a very clear sense of mission, purpose, and righteousness. They create a
worldview that sets them apart from the rest of society. Thus, extremist beliefs and terrorist
behaviors are very logical from the perspective of those who accept the extremists’ belief system
but illogical from the point of view of those who reject the system.
Defining Terrorism: An Ongoing Debate
The effort to formally define terrorism is a critical one because government antiterrorist policy
calculations must be based on criteria that determine whether a violent incident is an act of
terrorism. Governments and policy makers must piece together the elements of terrorist behavior
and demarcate the factors that distinguish terrorism from other forms of conflict.
There is some consensus among experts—but no unanimity—on what kind of violence
constitutes an act of terrorism. Governments have developed definitions of terrorism, individual
agencies within governments have adopted definitions, private agencies have designed their own
definitions, and academic experts have proposed and analyzed dozens of definitional constructs.
This lack of unanimity, which exists throughout the public and private sectors, is an accepted
reality in the study of political violence.
A significant amount of intellectual energy has been devoted to identifying formal elements of
terrorism, as illustrated by Alex Schmid’s surveys, which identified more than 100
definitions.9 Establishing formal definitions can, of course, be complicated by the perspectives of
the participants in a terrorist incident, who instinctively differentiate freedom fighters from
terrorists, regardless of formal definitions. Another complication is that most definitions focus on
political violence perpetrated by dissident groups, even though many governments have
practiced terrorism as both domestic and foreign policy.
One important distinction must be kept in mind and understood at the outset: Terrorism is not
synonymous with guerrilla warfare. The term guerrilla (“little war”) was developed during the
early 19th century, when Napoleon’s army fought a long, brutal, and ultimately unsuccessful war
in Spain. Unlike the Napoleonic campaigns elsewhere in Europe, which involved conventional
armies fighting set-piece battles in accordance with rules of engagement, the war in Spain was a
classic unconventional conflict. The Spanish people, as opposed to the Spanish army, rose in
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