Suicide Attackers: Definition of Terrorism

Suicide Attackers: Definition of Terrorism


Terrorism and terrorist are problematic terms because they are so loosely defined; broadly used to categorize individuals, groups and actions; and increasingly politicized (Dombrowsky, 2005). Without a clear definition of terrorism and what constitutes an act of terror or one to be a terrorist, the usage of these terms should be discouraged, as there are other terms that can be better applied (Britton, 2005). The assumptions made when terrorism and terrorist are used to describe an individual who engages in acts of warfare against a state, or total war against civilians, are that the actor is somehow worse than an ordinary guerrilla warfare opponent. Therefore, in the case of Al Jihad, the fictive Palestinian organization, it is important to consider these points before determining how to label the groupas terrorist, guerrilla or criminal. This paper will describe the differences among the three labels, discuss the dilemmas faced while making these distinctions, provide an overview of different academic and governmental definitions of terrorism, discuss why developing an internationally accepted definition is a problem, and discuss how the lack of an internationally accepted definition hinders efforts to combat terrorism.

Labeling Al Jihad

Al Jihad wants to create a Caliphate State and therefore can be considered a non-state actor interested in establishing itself as a state. Its method of gaining control is diverse: it targets civilians by engaging in suicide bombings like the terror group Al Shabaab in Somalia (Center for International Security and Cooperation, 2019). It has used IEDs to target Israeli soldiers. It has engaged in rocket attacks like Hamas. It has adopted a small-scale total war approach in its mission to become a Caliphate State. The question is: how should other states categorize Al Jihad? As a criminal group, a terror group, or as a guerrilla group? The fact is that it demonstrates characteristics of all three.

A criminal group is one that is well-organized with a network that enables it to operate beyond the boundaries of state and national lines. Such groups are able to coordinate their attacks, raise funds, transfer funds, grow their network, and become international over time. While it is unclear the extent to which Al Jihad is organized across state boundaries, it does stand to reason that the potential for it to grow across state lines exists, since its own mandate is to create a new state of its own. This requires some organization, planning, funding, networking, and infrastructure. Al Jihad could be considered a criminal group for that reason.

A terror group is one that engages in acts of terror for the purposes of destabilizing a regime, community, society or state. Al Jihad is certainly acting as a terror group, considering its attacks on civilians in Tel Aviv. Its goal appears to be to create chaos, concern, fear, anxiety, and despair in the Israeli state. The US Code classifies terrorism as any premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated againstnoncombatanttargets by subnational groups orclandestine agents. Al Jihad certainly fits that definition since its motivations are political (to establish a state of its own) and the group does target noncombatants (civilians).

However, the group also engages in guerilla tactics against combatants, namely the IDF, using IEDs and rockets. Thus, it also falls under the categorical label of a guerilla group. Its tactics include a killing journey that targeted civilians, soldiers and law enforcement. It is essentially a group focused on total war through terrorist, criminal, and guerilla means.

Dilemmas Faced in Making Distinctions

The difficulty in making distinctions is that there is a sense that one must be all one thing or another. The reality is that there is a great deal of overlap among the different labels. Terror groups can have characteristics similar to criminal groups; guerilla groups can have characteristics similar to terror groups, and so on. Col. Cusic, for example, of the US Army, has stated that terrorism within the countrys borders is a criminal act and the proper responsibility of civil law enforcement (Cusic, 2009, p. 7). A response to a group should not be predicated upon how that group is labeled. Sufficient is the fact that the group represents itself as an enemy combatant to an established state. Yet, governments and academics believe that response must be total and integrated: Docobo (2005) notes, for instance, that the new policing model for terrorism and homeland security must address the areas of crime prevention, intelligence gathering, and information sharing [necessitating] a shift in the culture of law enforcement agencies, involving the creation of external partnerships, citizen involvement, problem solving, and the transformation of the organization.

Academic and Governmental Definitions

Academic definitions of terrorism and governmental definitions often overlap but academic definitions tend to focus on the nature and essence of terrorism while governmental definitions tend to focus on the relationship between terror and the state. Docobo (2005) represents terrorism as a criminal act and thus states that both neighborhood crime and terrorism threaten the quality of life in a community and exploit the fear they create (Docobo, 2005). In other words, terrorism should not be seen as anything different from any other type of criminal activity.

The RAND Corporation (2004) has stated that terrorism is regionally or locally rooted, ultimately, because terrorists want their own land or space or state that they can control: they want to exclude or kill those who oppose them; they want to have their own government and laws and rules; and they require support from locals. Moreover, the ideology behind terrorism is typically fundamentalist, extremist, radical and religious. Thus, terrorism is something that exists or at least begins at the grassroots level, according to RAND: Jihad is a mission: al Qaeda is a processit is not progress-oriented; its mission is to keep fighting to be worthy of Allahonly he will award victory (p. 31). However, this definition overlaps with the definition of a guerilla group, which is really an unofficial military group that targets the state in order to change power.

The US government defines terror groups as any group practicing, or which has significant subgroups which practice,international terrorism; and international terrorism is defined as involving citizens or theterritoryof more than 1 country (US Code). Terror activities can include training, fundraising, financing, and recruitment (US Code)so it is not just a matter of one blowing up a bus or launching rockets. One who recruits, trains or raises funds for such a group can be called a terrorist or member of a terror organization. This is the reason states like the UAE have labeled Hamas as a terror group (Batrawy, 2021). But all of these definitions overlap: guerilla groups can be criminal or terroristic and so there is no hard and fast rule but rather it is a matter of political and geopolitical preference for how one chooses to see or classify a group.

Differences and Similarities

Obviously the main similarities are that criminal groups, terror groups, and guerilla groups all tend to be unofficial or unrecognized by other states as legitimate organizations. Therefore, they are all criminal in this way. The other similarity they share is that they all tend to engage in unlawful means to obtain financing or funds, whether through theft, money laundering, or other measures. The differences among the groups are that criminal groups are not necessarily interested in regime change or in obtaining their own government: their goal is usually simply profit-oriented; however, it can include regime change if the criminal group sees a government as particularly troublesome to its aims and it wants to remove that government from power. Butthen the group becomes somewhat more like a guerilla group or terror groupor at least is likely to sponsor such groups to achieve its aim. Or it may simply support political opponents and not resort to military or terror tactics. Guerilla groups are military groups that act on their own agendas and orders. They target the statebut they may not be viewed as terror groups by other states, depending upon their cause and what they say they are fighting for. For instance, Hamas is viewed as a terror group by Israel and the UAE, but other Middle Eastern states do not view it as a terror group but as a resistance group. Iran supports Hamas because it views Israel as the aggressor and illegitimate state in Palestine. In other words, one mans terror group is another mans resistance group. Terror groups, however, tend to be organized across state lines, supported internationally, and part of a plan to erect their own state.

Difficulty of Achieving an Internationally Accepted Definition of Terrorism

As Barzegar (2011) points out, the concept of terrorism is one that policy makers have settled upon to provide themselves with justification for shaping foreign policy in a new way: in other words, it is a concept that provides cover for geopolitical ambitions. Britton (2005) has noted that some influential segments of society have…the need to conjure up demons or insist on demon definitions, and here I am thinking particularly of the current US Administration and its bizarre rhetoric in its so-called war against terrorism (p. 114). Terror may be defined by certain conditions but in the end it is an abstract notion and the proper response to terrorism cannot be generic or assuming (Dombrowsky, 2005). Because internationally various states have various perspectives, aims, policies, alliances, and agendas, there is no agreement, politically or geopolitically speaking on how one group should be represented.

How the Lack of an Internationally Accepted Definition Hinders Efforts to Combat Terrorism

Because there is no agreement on what defines terrorism, or how a terror group is different from a guerilla group or criminal group, it is difficult to develop a combat policy or approach that is internationally supported. Al Jihad, for instance, will be seen as a resistance group by Iran because it is similar to Hamas. The US is in the midst of a negotiation with Iran on energy development. If Iran supports Al Jihad, does this mean the US cannot in good faith negotiate with Iran? But for its own economic reasons, the US may want to come to a dealso how Al Jihad is viewedwhether as a terror group, a guerilla group, or criminal groupwill depend on these geopolitical factors. Defining terrorism, in other words, is something that goes on within the context of a much larger political, social, and economic world in which geopolitics matters immensely.

For states to cooperate and collaborate there would have to be an alignment of geopolitical ambitions and that is rarely the case. States form and break alliances, and shifting friendships and positions occurs with regularity. States may be friendly one year and not the next. They may attempt to formalize a relationship and yet may hit roadblocks over specific political or geopolitical issues, trade, or security matters. Terrorism is really an expression of one group of people using violent means to combat its perceived oppression and to gain political control. But this same may be said of a criminal or guerilla group as well. Moreover, the fact that states form alliances with such groups is not a secret.


Al Jihad may be considered a criminal, guerilla, and terror groupbut there is no guaranteed that the international community will ever agree on how Al Jihad should be categorized or classified. The international community consists of diverse actors and states, all with their own agendas and ambitions. Some of them may align themselves with or support Al Jihad and its cause or crusade against Israel since they themselves are at war with Israel. Other states might view Al Jihad as an enemy combatant and want it classified according to the harshest terms possible. Moreover, there is some political strategizing that must take place when determining how to classify a group. If one country supports that group, but another classifies it as a terror group, there will be sanctions that can harm the supporting the group. Thus, it is not always a case of combating terrorism but rather of using terrorism to wage economic sanctions against other states in a geopolitical gambit for control and domination of a region. After all, it has been argued that some of the states that signed the Abraham Accords did so in hopes of being removed from the US terror list. Thus, terror is really a politically useful term. Combating these groups, however, is really a local issue that can be solved with the help of the international communitybut not necessarily through the application of an internationally approved definition of terrorism.


Barzegar, K. (2011). The Terror Plot: An Ideological War for Geopolitical Interests.

Retrieved from

Batrawy, A. (2021). UAE and Israel press ahead with ties after Gaza cease-fire. Retrieved


Britton, N. (2005). Dog or Demon? What is a Disaster? Philadelphia: Xlibris.

Center for International Security and Cooperation. (2019). Al Shabaab. Retrieved from

Cusic, J. (2009).The Confusion of Homeland Security with Homeland Defense. Army

War Coll Carlisle Barracks Pa. Retrieved from

Docobo, J. M. (2005).Community policing as the primary prevention strategy for

homeland security at the local law enforcement level. Retrieved from

Dombrowsky, W. (2005). Not Every Move is a Step Forward. What is a Disaster?

Philadelphia: Xlibris.

RAND Corporation. (2004). The Operational Code of the Jihadists: Slide Show. A

Briefing Prepared for the Army Science Board.

US Code. 22 U.S. Code 2656f – Annual country reports on terrorism. Retrieved from

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