Non-subjective definition of "terrorist", or widely used equivalent term?



Philipp comments:

...We all know that one side's terrorists are another side's freedom fighters...

Suppose big Country X provides arms to little Country y's native "freedom fighters", who do certain scary things, ("for freedom!"), which goes on for a decade or so, but then Country y's freedom fighters wind up fighting against Country X, doing the same scary things, which Country X now labels "terrorism".

Meanwhile Country y's fighters still consider themselves freedom fighters, and let's suppose that for the average fighter from Country y the daily routine never changed, they still get up in the morning, report in, and follow orders to get the same-old same old scary things done.

That'd be a subjective usage of the term "terrorism".

Is there a non-subjective usage of the term, one that both sides could agree upon as unequivocally terrorism, irrespective of the cause or target?

If not, is there any non-subjective term, (which describes the job of doing the scary things Country y's fighters do), that both sides would always agree upon?


Posted 2018-06-24T17:18:30.530

Reputation: 11 325

15How uncomfortable are you with soldiers being classified as terrorists? – origimbo – 2018-06-24T17:38:06.647


Possible duplicate of Why are partisan groups in Afghanistan called terrorists?

– user4012 – 2018-06-24T17:40:24.780

6"We all know that one side's terrorists are another side's freedom fighters" - this is all about justification. As user4012 pointed out, you can be both, or none, so both terms are virtually independent. The point is that "terrorism" is conceived as bad, so people supporting the political cause will try to avoid the term while people opposing the cause will try to impose it onto their opponents. This should not be confused with the meaning of terrorism. Who kills civilians with the intent to spread fear to further a political cause is a terrorist, it is not important if the cause is just. – Thern – 2018-06-25T08:27:44.097

2It's ok. You can say United States (Country X) and Afghanistan (County y); however, they didn't become 'ersatz terrorists' for 'doing the same scary things'. Their resistance to Soviet invasion and 9/11 were different things, and the daily Afghan soldier didn't become a terrorist; the leadership became guilty of harboring (mostly Saudi) terrorists. – lly – 2018-06-25T10:35:19.700

1Why would any individual vote to close this question? – guest271314 – 2018-06-26T15:41:58.673



TL;DR: Yes, there is an objective term.
No, there is no way to force people to use the term objectively in political contexts and they don't tend to.

The term "terrorism" isn't subjective.

Quoting Wikipedia:

Since 1994, the United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly condemned terrorist acts using the following political description of terrorism:

"Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them."


A definition proposed by Carsten Bockstette at the George C. Marshall Center for European Security Studies underlines the psychological and tactical aspects of terrorism:

Terrorism is defined as political violence in an asymmetrical conflict that is designed to induce terror and psychic fear (sometimes indiscriminate) through the violent victimization and destruction of noncombatant targets (sometimes iconic symbols). Such acts are meant to send a message from an illicit clandestine organization. The purpose of terrorism is to exploit the media in order to achieve maximum attainable publicity as an amplifying force multiplier in order to influence the targeted audience(s) in order to reach short- and midterm political goals and/or desired long-term end states."

Note that the three components are required, which makes this an objective definition:

  1. Acts that are intended to instill fear/terror
  2. Acts against general public (civilians/non-combatants). This is why for example attacks on the military during armed conflict generally aren't universally considered terrorism.
  3. For a political purpose (note that just what the purpose is is 100% irrelevant to the definition, as long as it's politics and not, say, robbery)

Now, the confusion that birthed your question arises out of two things:

  1. You (or whatever your sources are) are confusing the well-defined objective tactics (terrorism) with a wholly orthogonal point, the goal of the movement.

    Yes. The oft-repeated "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" is basically a word game designed to confuse people.

    Someone is a terrorist if and only if they engage in above-defined objectively defined acts of terrorism as a tactic.

    Someone is a freedom fighter if they do something to advance freedom (whether they advance freedom or not is a bit more subjective and squishy, but let's pretend we can agree on that).

    The two are wholly orthogonal - you can be a freedom fighter using a wide variety of tactics, only one of which - and often, the least effective - is terrorism. You can be a freedom fighter and not a terrorist (Mahatma Gandhi is the typical example) or you can be a terrorist and NOT a freedom fighter (Taliban seems to fit here - they don't by any stretch of imagination fight for anyone's freedom in any stretch of the word; they fight to oppress other inhabitants of Afghanistan into their version of Sharia) or you can be a freedom fighter who engages in acts of terrorism and become both (IRA, Jewish fighters attacking the British during Mandate times, Basque separatists).

  1. Also very importantly, just because there is an objective definition, it does not at all mean that political bodies will not disingenuously ignore that definition when it suits their political/ideological purpose.

    The USSR didn't recognize the IRA as terrorists for a variety of political and ideological reasons. Many people in the USA and Israel refuse to recognize the PKK (a Kurdish organization) as terrorists for the same reason.

    This willful ignoring of the objective definition applies to both type 1 and type 2 errors. That is, not only people refuse to apply "terrorist" label to clearly objectively terrorist organizations (PKK, Hamas, IRA), but they also apply the label to things that don't fit that definition.

TL;DR: Yes there is an objective term. No, there is no way to force people to use the term objectively in political contexts.


Posted 2018-06-24T17:18:30.530

Reputation: 84 347

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– Philipp – 2018-06-25T13:45:00.553

4In Addition it should be noted that terrorism is a valid military tactic that has been used throughout human history to various levels of effect to achieve a military goal from Sherman's March to the Sea, to the Dresden Bombing, to Northern Ireland's IRA goals. – Frank Cedeno – 2018-06-25T14:47:52.820

2I think an important addition here is that the definition can be clear and crisp like this, but when you apply it to real life situations, "intent" is a much more complicated topic. One could argue all military operations intend to instill terror -- they also intend to damage the other nation's military capabilities. A good military leader understands that an act can have more than one intent, and acts on all of them. (I'd make this an answer myself, but your answer is so solid, I'd rather make it a comment beneath it) – Cort Ammon – 2018-06-25T15:52:31.237

@CortAmmon - this was in the chat that was deleted by moderator. No, you cannot argue that the intent was to instill terror by killing civilians, if the military operation explicitly chose an option that kills LESS civilians, at the expense of an option that kills more. In that case, the "terror via killing of civilians" is 100% obviously NOT the intent, as the demonstrated action clearly conflicts with that hypothetical intent. – user4012 – 2018-06-25T15:59:40.927

3@user4012 So the line in the sand is "as long as there's a way that kills more civilians, your approach is not terrorism?" Assigning intent to any individual other than yourself is known to be a hazardous process. Intent has never been a simple thing, as long as there have been humans. Just look at the political process and how hard it is to untangle intent there. – Cort Ammon – 2018-06-25T16:05:25.113

4Is it clear what's a "noncombatant target" is, e.g. during apartheid? I think they started with arson attacks against police targets, also state property such as telephone exchanges. – ChrisW – 2018-06-25T16:10:50.977

@ChrisW - police and military are a grey area as far as that definition is concerned, which is why I explicitly exclude them from the narrower definition (see #2) for the sake of making it as objective as possible. Personally I would say it depends - attack on policeman enforcing bad law is not terrorism, attack on police barracks is (basically, whether police are acting in combatant role or member of civil society role). – user4012 – 2018-06-25T16:54:56.380

@CortAmmon - no, that was not what I said. I said that, as long as there is a way to affect more civilians (ceterus parabus), the fact that you choose not to is clear evidence that your intent was NOT to attack civilians. Because if that was your intent, you would have assuredly chosen a target with more victims. – user4012 – 2018-06-25T16:57:26.070

1@CortAmmon Think of it this way. You are moving furniture in the room with a 70' fancy TV costing $2000, and a $100 vase 2 feet away from the TV. You do something while moving that shatters the vase. Any jury would clearly conclude that you did NOT shatter the vase out of intent to cause material damage to apartment owner - because, if that was your intent, you would have shattered the TV instead. Your choice of actions proves your intent. – user4012 – 2018-06-25T17:04:50.227

1@user4012 If I chose the path which drops the $800 laptop, do I get to argue that I did not intend to cause material damage because, if I did, I would have gone after the TV instead? – Cort Ammon – 2018-06-25T17:12:33.997

@CortAmmon - I mean, in theory, someone could argue that you're just being whily and deliberately chose laptop JUST so you could mount such a defense. But the underlying issue comparisons aren't 2000 vs 800, it's 2000 vs. 100, which is a whole different comparison - 100 just isn't enough damage if your goal IS to cause damage. And that is the order of magnitude we are talking about in this topic - collateral damage being single to low double digits, vs high hundreds that is possible if you actually set out to deliberately attack civilians on purpose. – user4012 – 2018-06-25T17:49:43.943

6This definition of "Terrorists" makes the UK and US government in World War 2 terrorits, as they purposedly used terror against the unarmed civilian german population through bombing, and did so for a political purpose. – Bregalad – 2018-06-25T18:18:34.143

@user4012 So can you tell me the objective line in the sand between the two? Obviously its' trivial to define examples that are black and white. A Napoleonic era infantry charge is clearly military. Setting off a dirty bomb in the middle of manhatan without any military followthrough is clearly terrorism. But those are the easy cases. If the definition is objective, we should be able to draw an objective line through the more grey cases. – Cort Ammon – 2018-06-25T18:36:52.283

@CortAmmon - I suspect that the term "combatant" has a fairly non-subjective legal definition, probably in some treaty or another. As such, non-combatant is whatever doesn't fit that definition, making it objective as well. – user4012 – 2018-06-25T19:14:46.900

@user4012 So as long as you only ever affect one or the other in any way, it should be crystal clear, right? That way you'd never have to worry about whether killing your one combatant hiding in a city kills 5 civilians or 6 civilians turning your military action into a terrorist one. – Cort Ammon – 2018-06-25T19:16:42.620


@user4012, The 70" TV might also be broken by dangerously clumsy friend, which might lead to mistaken inferences of ill intent; the military equivalent of whom might be an army of friendly accidental terrorists, sturdy and persistent allies whose weapons-grade obliviousness is more dangerous to their friends than hostile terrorists.

– agc – 2018-06-25T20:03:11.673

@user4012 as per Hague convention, a combatant is a member of an armed force bearing weapons. Note that an armed force per that convention also can include non-combatants, for example, medical and religious personnel. – Danila Smirnov – 2018-06-26T04:33:16.703

1@CortAmmon Objective definition also requires full information on the object to be known. If you know the intent behind an action, this definition is precise, if not - then you cannot really apply it, so you can't tell a terrorist act from military action bar subjective judgement (which is exactly what is usually happening IRL). – Danila Smirnov – 2018-06-26T04:51:39.287

@Bregalad - Is that an issue? Nothing precludes a government from using terrorist tactics - ISIS is or was briefly a government of sorts. I don't know if I'd call an organization a "terrorist" organization, precisely, if they do lots of other things: governments enforce laws, levy taxes, and many other non-terror activities. But I'd have no problem labeling their activities "terrorism." – Obie 2.0 – 2018-06-26T07:21:41.760

2That is, "terrorism" is what was defined in the answer. A "terrorist group" is a group that uses terrorism as their primary strategy. A "terrorist" is someone who employs terrorism as their primary method (yes, this could include some soldiers or officers in a government military). – Obie 2.0 – 2018-06-26T07:25:30.670


@Bregalad: Actually, this definition could be seen to make all the major powers in WW II terrorists, because they all bombed civilians (ignoring other acts which would also qualify as terrorism). However, they all acted under the doctrine of total war, which considers almost everything a legitimate military target - so under that definition, bombing civilans is legitimate and thus not terrorism. So as usual, it depends on the assumptions you build on.

– sleske – 2018-06-26T08:02:29.317

3@sleske It's not major surprise nazi germany or the soviet union would enter in the definition of terrorists, so I didn't point it out, I just pointed out that this definition makes the western allies terroritsts, too. Kinda hironic when those same governments declared the "war on terrorism". – Bregalad – 2018-06-26T10:28:24.867

1@sleske Just because one side (or both) adopts a doctrine legitimizing terrorism doesn't change anything objectively : ) Which only reinforces the original premise "No, there is no way to force people to use the term objectively in political contexts." – Agent_L – 2018-06-26T10:48:21.303

@CortAmmon- as I said before, it's about the intent, not about numbers. Was the goal to kill 1 combatant? (and 5 civilians were an unintended, unfortunate side casualties that couldn't easily be avoided?) Or was the goal to kill random people, and an easy option to take out 1 combatant without affecting non-combatants was deliberately not chosen? (again, with a modern military capable of killing 10000 people with great ease in a couple of minutes, you have to have pretty convincing proof that 5 civilian casualties are actually deliberate and by design) – user4012 – 2018-06-26T12:01:59.503

@agc - I'm not sure what your point is. I never argued that mass casualty is proof of ill intent (though it is a solid evidence of one). I argued that LACK of mass casualty is a very solid evidence, if not proof, of LACK of ill intent. – user4012 – 2018-06-26T12:06:24.827


The plain definition of "terrorism" does apply to both sides

Merriam-Webster dictionary

terrorism: the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion

Wikipedia, citing Terrorism & Communication: A Critical Introduction Matusitz, Jonathan (2013)

  • It is the use of violence or threat of violence in the pursuit of political, religious, ideological or social objectives.
  • It can be committed by governments, non-state actors, or undercover personnel serving on the behalf of their respective governments.
  • It reaches more than the immediate target victims and is also directed at targets consisting of a larger spectrum of society.
  • It is both mala prohibita (i.e., crime that is made illegal by legislation) and mala in se (i.e., crime that is inherently immoral or wrong).

Two examples of state sponsored terrorism in the U.S. are the Trail of Tears (note, there were several historical trails of tears; see The Debate over Indian Removal in the 1830s) and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 where so-called "black Wall Street" was destroyed, in part using aircraft to drop incendiary devices onto homes and business.


Posted 2018-06-24T17:18:30.530

Reputation: 1

M-W seems a bit vague, so some hair-splitting: it doesn't appear to distinguish between incidental terror, (suppose a murderer is terrified of going to jail, yet he is not a victim of terrorism), and terror as an end in of itself, (applies to parents telling children about boogeymen, or Krampus, etc., directors of horror movies, barking dogs, wild bears, sharks, skunks...), and coercion, (all of criminal Law, and much of the rest). The Matusitz definition means the accused then battles over whether some action is really an instance of mala in se. – agc – 2018-06-24T20:10:59.783

@agc Any non-subjective definition is going to be results-based, which precludes classifying coming as incidental or deliberate. – origimbo – 2018-06-24T20:20:02.430

2@agc Are you suggesting that the plain meaning of the term "terrorism" is ambiguous, equivocal, and is capable of being applied, used, misused and interpreted in an arbitrary and capricious manner? – guest271314 – 2018-06-24T20:21:06.277

@guest271314, Not exactly. Rather I'm looking for any "plain meaning". Nobody much disputes who is and isn't a Plumber, a Tailor, or a Cook, even if one of them is from an enemy land or has immoral goals. So what exactly does a terrorist make or do (or unmake and undo) that's distinct from who they're working for or why they work. – agc – 2018-06-24T20:40:07.627

@agc The first bullet point at the answer is the plainest meaning. The previous comment applies, for example, to individuals whom are not considered a "terrorist" if a church or school is attacked, others are citizens whom are groomed entirely by the individuals who later arrest and charge them for doing nothing but following the instructions of agents of the state. – guest271314 – 2018-06-24T21:24:43.727

@agc Just as important relevant to the meaning of the term is the inverse of the plain meaning; can you provide a concise definition of what is not "terrorism"? – guest271314 – 2018-06-24T22:32:02.853


Inverse? Maybe not, but we can devise a contrary from the M-W definition. Admirable-ism: the systematic use of beauty and good taste especially as a self-evident means of persuasion. Proper artistry, really. Or if not that, satyagraha maybe...

– agc – 2018-06-25T02:38:56.513

Dictionaries don't provide non-subjective definitions, they simply describe how a word was/is used. See the disclaimer on the definition of racism.

– Rob Rose – 2018-06-25T23:39:59.397

@RobRose Dictionaries are used within the process of the construction of words. If there is ambiguity as to the interpretation of the plain meaning of a word or term then legislative notes, technical documents or other materials can be reviewed to determine what the word was intended to mean by the first individual or entity which used the word or term. – guest271314 – 2018-06-25T23:43:15.390

Sorry, but how does the Trail of Tears fit the definition of terrorism? It was cruel and unjust, yes, but its main purpose (as far as I understand) was to clear land for white settlers, not specifically to instill fear in the victims of the relocation. – sleske – 2018-06-26T08:05:42.843

1@sleske "Sorry, but how does the Trail of Tears fit the definition of terrorism? It was cruel and unjust, yes, but its main purpose (as far as I understand) was to clear land for white settlers, not specifically to instill fear in the victims of the relocation." That is post-genocide apologist commentary. When you write "clear land" do you realize you are referring to the land of sovereign nations? The actions of the United States went far beyond the notion of "instill fear". The United States waged wars of terror and committed genocide against sovereign indigenous nations for material gain – guest271314 – 2018-06-26T14:14:47.840

@guest271314 Yes, but the question asked for a non-subjective definition, which cannot be found in a dictionary. – Rob Rose – 2018-06-26T18:11:51.810

1@RobRose Disagree with your assessment of the non-subjective definition. People apply their subjectivity to the objective definition for their own political interests. – guest271314 – 2018-06-26T18:16:13.600


There is no objective definition.

User 4012 provides the typical formal definition in their answer:

"Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them."

However, there are some reasons this can never possibly be an objective definition:

  • "... intended or calculated..." It is well known in philosophy and psychology that ascribing intent to any individual besides ourself is a hazardous process. You never know what someone else is thinking, according to the most accepted beliefs of philosophers over the last few thousand years. Hence why I use the phrase "ascribe intent." You declare "here is your intent for the action you just did." Such a concept can never be objective.

  • "... are in any circumstance unjustifiable." This is an inherently subjective phrasing. "Unjustifiable" is a word which implicitly requires a justifier to make the judgement. The only way to divorce this concept from the individual doing the judging is to invoke an external judge, such as a deity. This, itself, is recognized as another one of those hazardous processes.

Now that does not mean we cannot use the term, we just have to be specific about our subject. The major Western powers all generally ascribe to the same philosophy, so it is easy to declare some actor's actions to be "intended to provoke terror" with respect to their shared viewpoint. However, that is only as objective as their shared viewpoint is.

Cort Ammon

Posted 2018-06-24T17:18:30.530

Reputation: 1 394

4The first word, "criminal" is also difficult. – Stig Hemmer – 2018-06-26T09:06:30.147


@StigHemmer On the other hand, the word "criminal" somewhat helps nudge towards the convention that "terrorism" is usually by non-state actors, as states can amend domestic criminal definitions to exclude their own actions from mala prohibita criminality (and inversely, potentially explicitly include particular groups; this also is to say nothing of the norm of the state's "monopoly on violence"). This of course does not address international norms of mala prohibita actions, nor of mala in se actions in general.

– Myles – 2018-06-26T10:21:48.963

While I think this is a valuable consideration, Isn't this kind of an isolated demand for rigor? How many definitions of things in real life would clear this bar? – Jared Smith – 2018-06-26T12:35:25.950

1@JaredSmith I don't think it's isolated. I think this sort of thing appears all over. Consider the "jury of your peers." If everything that mattered in the criminal justice system was objective evidence, we'd have clerks taking care of verdicts and sentencing. However, in practice, nearly everything we deal with in the criminal system has an element of subjectivity in it. Even the "objective" parts typically include some subjectivity ("beyond reasonable doubt"). It's why jury selection is such a big deal. – Cort Ammon – 2018-06-26T15:17:48.073

1The purpose of a jury is to identify a subject for these statements: the subject is your peers. Those 12 jurors (in USA) are a proxy for "the people" and their collective opinion. If anything, I'd say not holding "terrorism" to this bar would be an isolated lack of demand for rigor. And, in my experience, holding the belief that a subjective position is, in fact, the objective one is an enormously common cause of conflict in the world today. One might even be able to argue it is the only cause. – Cort Ammon – 2018-06-26T15:18:58.200


I would use the word "combatant", although that term can be imprecise given the exact conditions of the scenario in question. Unlike the other answers, and like you, I consider "terrorist" is subject to a moral point of view.

JD Gamboa

Posted 2018-06-24T17:18:30.530

Reputation: 119

1"Combatant" is a little less general than "soldier". That is, one might say that all terrorists are combatants, but not all combatants are terrorists. – agc – 2018-06-25T19:37:21.853

Sorry, but this is just plain wrong. The generally agreed-upon definiton of "combatant" is someone who engages in legal violence (usually as the member of an organized, legally recognized military force). A terrorist is by definition not a combatant. – sleske – 2018-06-26T08:07:40.883

"generally agreed-upon" you say. Yet Merriam-Webster: "Definition of combatant : one that is engaged in or ready to engage in combat." "Definition of combat 1 : a fight or contest between individuals or groups". So combatant is as generic as you'd like. – JD Gamboa – 2018-06-26T16:33:54.813


Geneva definitions are different as you say, but there is still a space for what they called "unlawful combatant" or also belligerent, which is yet another word as generic as you'd find pleasing.

– JD Gamboa – 2018-06-26T16:35:29.990


Yes, let's start with the assumption that Group Z first operates inside country y without Country X (!) and the group wants either to overthrow the government of Country X or split apart from Country X to create a new Country K, then Group Z members are "insurgents" or "rebels".

This is a definition both sides can live with. It does not nullify the "freedom fighter" label (yeah, we are fighting against the government), but it also says nothing about the way the insurgents operate (fear and terror, "terrorism"). In fact, the area of warfare which is designed to counter rebel operations has the name counterinsurgency.

The whole things gets again a lot murkier once Country X comes into play. Once Group Z starts to make attacks against Country X to overthink their support or trying to convince people to join their fight against Country X, then you call the attackers non-subjectively and neutrally "infiltrators".

It is typical that Group Z is also marked as "terrorist" when in fact the government of Country y is a puppet government of Country X who only tries to give the impression that Country y is independent and actually suppress people of Country y.

Thorsten S.

Posted 2018-06-24T17:18:30.530

Reputation: 4 510

1Note: In the OP Country X is a foreign sponsor, not Group y's native land.
Suggested edit: s/group Y/_Group **y**_/g; s/country X/_Country **y**_/g.
– agc – 2018-06-24T20:24:39.300

Possible typo: In the revised intro, first paragraph, maybe it should be that Z operates in y, and therefore wants to overthrow y, (not X), and change the name y to k? Note k is lower case, since it'd still be a little country. – agc – 2018-06-25T02:53:34.317

This answer ignores that terrorism actually is a concrete act. So things are not really getting murky, it is just that people might get confused when propaganda sets in, or that they believe that it can't be terrorism if it is a just cause. Yes of course it can. – Thern – 2018-06-25T08:50:22.017