The meaning and history of terrorism

Severed head: The “first terrorist” Robespierre is himself arrested and beheaded in 1794.

During the first 15 years of this century, the word “terrorism” has become one of the most commonly used words in public debate. What exactly is it and what does it mean?

  • What is terrorism? Let’s check the dictionary.

    “The unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” Oxford English Dictionary.

  • So the Paris attacks count as "terrorism", right?

    Under that definition, yes. It was unofficial, in that no recognised state organised it; it was against the law; there was violence and intimidation, and it was almost certainly done for political reasons.

    But the difficulty here with the word ‘terrorism’ is that it is defined most of all by its motive: to cause terror. Since all the gunmen and suicide bombers involved in this attack are dead, it is hard to know what their own inner motive for the attacks was. To cause fear among the civilian population of France and Europe? Probably, but we cannot know for sure.

  • How do governments define terrorism?

    The UK Terrorism Act of 2000 defines the term more broadly, saying that it is ‘designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public’, and can involve violence against a person, damage to property, a threat to a person’s life, a serious risk to the health and safety of the public and, interestingly, ‘serious interference with an electronic system’ — now known as “cyber-terrorism”.

  • How long has terrorism been around?

    As long as humans have existed, some would say. To get your own way by intimidating others is in the darker side of human nature: and in Britain’s past the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 could be described as terrorism. The Romans used the term “terror cimbricus” to describe the state of panic and emergency in Rome in response to the approach of the warriors of the Cimbri tribe in 105BC.

  • And the word "terrorism"?

    By a strange twist of fate, the word originates from France, where it was first used just after the French Revolution of 1789. This period was known as the “Reign of Terror” and involved two rival political factions, the Girondins and the Jacobins, who fought a bitter civil war. Around 40,000 people were summarily executed in a period of just over a year. In France, it is usually referred to simply as ‘la Terreur’.

    However, the meaning of the word has changed since then. Originally, it was exclusively used to describe acts by governments, or those in authority. But since the mid 19th century it has meant acts committed against innocent people, usually by those not representing a state, such as Islamic State, al-Qaeda or the IRA.

  • What are other common characteristics of terrorism?

    In the age of mass-media and 24-hour television, today’s terrorists know that they can spread terror quickly. The more morbidly iconic an attack, the more scared people will be: images of planes flying into the World Trade Centre on 9/11 and of a London bus with its roof blown off on 7/7 are seared into Western minds forever. Friday’s atrocities were perhaps most terrifying for the way they targeted innocent civilians out to enjoy their evening at a rock concert or a football match.

    But while almost everyone has condemned the Paris attacks, some believe that the term terrorism is too widely used. The famous saying is that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Many “freedom fighters” through history have used some violence to achieve their goals. Does that make them all terrorists?

  • So is there an agreed definition of terrorism?

    No. But if the aim is to intimidate the population, we can lessen its effects by being as courageous as possible in the face of terrorism. If the public are scared, or if the government changes its policies out of fear, then many would say that the terrorists have won.

You Decide

  1. Will terrorism be around forever?


  1. Write down your own definition of “terrorism”. Make a poster out of all the different definitions expressed in your class.

Word Watch

No recognised state organised it
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but it is not a recognised state or nation in the way that France or the UK is. However, even though it has no official recognition, it still has elements which make up a state.
Gunmen and suicide bombers
At the time of writing, the identities of four of the perpetrators were known: three were French nationals; the other was a Syrian national who is believed to have entered Europe through Greece during the flow of refugees in the summer.
The Girondins and the Jacobins
Rival republican movements which fought for control of France after the execution of Louis XVI in 1789.
Summarily executed
When someone is accused of a crime and immediately killed without the benefit of a full and fair trial.
Islamic State has largely supplanted al-Qaeda as the main perpetrator of Islamic terrorism.
Enjoy their evening at a rock concert or a football match
Some have suggested that cultural events were targeted in order to demonstrate Islamic State’s hatred for the Western way of life.