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Lesson 1-1 Terrorism Defined

A suitable working definition for terrorism is “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” Within this definition are three key elements—violence, fear, and intimidation. Each element produces terror in its victims. The policy of the United States is summarized as follows:

  • All terrorist acts are criminal and intolerable, whatever their motivation, and should be condemned.
  • The U.S. will support all lawful measures to prevent terrorism and bring those responsible to justice.
  • No concessions will be made to terrorist extortion, because to do so only invites more terrorist action.
  • When Americans are abducted overseas, the U.S. will look to the host government to exercise its responsibility to protect all persons within its territories, to include achieving the safe release of hostages.
  • The U.S. will maintain close and continuous contact with the host government during the incident and will continue to develop international cooperation to combat terrorism.


Terrorism is a criminal act that influences an audience beyond the immediate victim. The strategy of terrorists is to commit acts of violence that draw the attention of the local populace, the government, and the world to their cause. Terrorists plan their attack to obtain the greatest publicity, choosing targets that symbolize what they oppose. The effectiveness of the terrorist act lies not in the act itself, but in the public’s or government’s reaction to the act.

For example, at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Black September Organization killed 11 Israelis. The Israelis were the immediate victims. But the true target was the estimated 1 billion people watching the televised event. The Black September Organization used the high visibility of the Olympics to publicize its views on the plight of the Palestinian refugees.

Similarly, in October 1983, Middle Eastern terrorists bombed the Marine Battalion Landing Team Headquarters at Beirut International Airport. Their immediate victims were the 241 U.S. military personnel who were killed and over 100 others who were wounded. Their true target was the American people and the U.S. Congress. Their one act of violence influenced the United States’ decision to withdraw the Marines from Beirut and was therefore considered a terrorist success.

On 11 September 2001, terrorists skyjacked U.S. commercial planes and crashed two planes into the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon in Washington D.C. The terrorist attacks inflicted serious loss of life by destroying the World Trade Center towers and part of the Pentagon building. They were designed to strike a blow at the American will and its economic and military structure. Although the attacks succeeded in hitting their targets, they galvanized the will of the American public to take political, financial, and military actions to combat terrorism.


There are three perspectives of terrorism: the terrorist’s, the victim’s, and the general public’s. The phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is a view terrorists themselves would accept. Terrorists do not see themselves as evil. They believe they are legitimate combatants, fighting for what they believe in, by whatever means possible. A victim of a terrorist act sees the terrorist as a criminal with no regard for human life. The general public’s view is the most unstable. The terrorists take great pains to foster a “Robin Hood” image in hope of swaying the general public’s point of view toward their cause.


David L. Heiserman, Editor

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Revised: June 06, 2015