Expert Commentary

‘All Terrorism is Revolutionary’

Bruce Hoffman
Professor, Georgetown University

The United States has been at war against terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS for over 15 years now, with every violent attack that takes place on the streets of the West prompting fears of a renewed terrorist threat. But not all heinous acts of violence are considered terrorism. The Cipher Brief’s Levi Maxey spoke with Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University and director at the Center for Security Studies, about how to define terrorism and what distinguishes it from other forms of political violence.

The Cipher Brief: Philosophically how do you define terrorism?

Bruce Hoffman: One of the longest chapters in Inside Terrorism is devoted to defining terrorism. I define terrorism as the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change. All terrorist acts involve violence or the threat of violence. Terrorism is specifically designed to have far-reaching psychological effects beyond the immediate victim(s) or object of the terrorist attack. It is meant to instill fear within, and thereby intimidate, a wider target audience that might include a rival ethnic or religious group, an entire country, a national government or political party, or public opinion in general.

Terrorism is designed to create power where there is none or to consolidate power where there is very little. Through the publicity generated by their violence, terrorists seek to obtain the leverage, influence, and power they otherwise lack to effect political change on either a local or an international scale.

What is critical to note in the above definition is that terrorism is always political, and it is always about power. That separates it from “terror,” which is an emotion. The emotion of “terror” or of being “terrorized” can of course be harnessed for political purposes – which is why we put the “–ism” at the end. That –ism is enormously important because it endows terrorism with its essential political dimension and thereby denotes that terrorism is ineluctably a tool designed to achieve some form of political change by using violence, or at least the threat of violence, to do so.

Terrorism is conceived by its perpetrators to be consequential: in other words, to thrust a cause, a grievance or an issue onto a political agenda. The ends of the actual violence, or threat of violence, are to compel or force a government, a society or a people to address a grievance or an issue, which is something both very different and far more complex than just creating an emotional response of terror.

TCB: So the defining characteristic of terrorism is not the act of violence itself, but rather the political motivations or justification behind it?

Hoffman: No. It is the act of violence—but only if that act has a political motive or intent. In my view, it is a fool’s errand to define terrorism based on any perceived motivation or justification behind terrorist act. Over four decades ago, David Fromkin and his seminal Foreign Affairs article explained the subjectivity inherent in definitions based on motive and justification which, he persuasively argued, would thus be depend simply on whether one sympathized or identified with the perpetrator or the victim.

The defining characteristic about a violent act to determine whether it is terrorism or not is to ask if it is about political change? Is it systematic – of a sustained, planned and premeditated campaign of violence, which is another hallmark of terrorism; or just a serendipitous, spontaneous or episodic outburst of violence that has no political motive?

By definition, all terrorists are revolutionary and therefore political. They are always about political change, and they are using violence to achieve that change, which is starkly different from an emotional response to something – which is terror.  What complicates this is that terrorists want their victims to respond emotionally – not rationally or soberly.

TCB: If all terrorists are revolutionaries, are all revolutionaries terrorists? 

Hoffman: No. Some revolutions have used terrorism and others haven’t. But terrorism is itself always revolutionary since it is about achieving fundamental change that its perpetrators and adherents argue would not be possible without violence or the threat of violence.

The problem is that there has never been one agreed upon, universal definition of terrorism, and moreover, the definition of terrorism historically has constantly changed and evolved over time. Therefore, it becomes almost unrealistic to expect that there is going to be one totally agreed upon, completely acceptable definition of this phenomenon, and this lack of agreement therefore perpetually generates controversy and disagreement.

But why should we expect a single definition of terrorism when there are profound differences in agreeing on what the terms democracy, communism or fascism specifically mean? Some of the most popular political currents or ideologies of modern time have defied easy or neat categorization, and terrorism fits into that mold as well.

TCB: Can national armies engage in terrorism, through shock and awe tactics such as the firebombing of Tokyo or Dresden in World War II? If not, and the difference is that national armies are tied to the Geneva Conventions, isn’t a terrorist group essentially fighting the political order that made the Geneva Conventions, making the distinction nil?

Hoffman: The actions – and depredations – of the militaries of established nation-states do not fall within the normative view of what we call terrorism. There is a separate, far more useful category to characterize those acts, which have been repeatedly codified in international law as war crimes. That is not to explain, justify or accept heinous acts of violence by militaries that deliberately target civilians. Nor to exculpate or exclude militaries, it is just to say that what we call terrorism in the most common usage of that word is something perpetrated by non-state or sub-state actors and not in the word’s most widest and accepted usage normally associated with militaries. That is something different—e.g., war crimes or crimes against humanity or even genocide.

Terrorism, on the other hand, has historically been viewed as the actions of irregulars – small bands of armed men, larger collections of fighters grouped in militias, or belonging to some irregular paramilitary force – not the formal military establishment of an existing nature state.

TCB: Is terrorism then merely a tactic of political violence used by the weak relative to their objectives, such as weaker state-sponsors of terrorism or non-state groups taking on conventionally superior foes?

Hoffman: Yes, it always has been. It is about leveraging violence or the threat of violence for political power. It is a strategy of the powerless or the would-be powerful.

Again, that is not to make a moral judgment that militaries don’t engage in these types of heinous acts of violence, especially against innocent civilians. It is just to distinguish historically and normatively what is described as, and generally agreed upon, as terrorism.

TCB: How would you define a terrorist then? Is it only the individual’s that commit the acts of violence, or do others that provide logistical support or recruit and proselytize count as terrorists as well, such as Anwar al-Awlaki?

Hoffman: Just as there is no such thing as a viable political party comprised of one person only, a terrorist has to be part of a broader movement or enterprise that has an ideology and agenda, and a strategy and process. To be a terrorist, that person has to be acting from motives that situate his or her violence within a broader political context. So, yes, there can be lone wolf terrorists, acting completely on their own – but in the service of a broader ideology or who perpetrate their violence in the service of a wider ideal or cause.

TCB: What is the difference between an insurgent group and a terrorist organization?

Hoffman: There may not be any. Insurgents and guerillas routinely use terrorist tactics. Indeed, historically, over two-thirds of the groups appearing on the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list could just as easily be characterized as guerrilla or insurgent groups. The problem is that in modern nomenclature, terrorism is an enormously pejorative or negative word that is regarded as subjective and as affixing a political label to someone. Whereas words like guerilla and insurgent are oddly regarded as far more neutral, objective and anodyne.

Even though guerillas and insurgents use terrorist tactics, we should see these separate terms as interchangeable, though. Instead, this type of unconventional or asymmetric warfare should be viewed on a continuum. Historically, smaller, numerically inferior, poorly armed entities have had to use terrorism as a tactic. As groups grow larger, seize and control territory, exercise sovereignty over populations, and are able to more openly recruit, they become guerilla bands. In other words, they become organized and have the opportunity to train, and they deploy under at least some military command and control structure.

But they may still use terrorist tactics. For example, the National Liberation Front, or Vietcong, was a guerilla group, but they used terrorist tactics. Insurgency is one step up from terrorist groups where these guerilla movements are not only able to control the territory and exercise some sovereignty over a population, but are now able to mobilize populations on a large and systematic scale and engage in propaganda and information operations. Here, they begin to fundamentally reshape the political, economic, and social environment in which they exist along the lines of their revolutionary ideology and desire for profound and far-reaching change.

A century ago, major media had no hesitation using the word terrorism. Now, you have many media that not only boast of the fact that they regard terrorism as a pejorative word that they deliberately abjure from using, but often will have a different description of an incident, using in the same article or news report as many different adjectives as possible that they regard as more neutral or more anodyne than the word terrorism but which only has the effect of confusing things more.

We must, however, recognize that terrorism is the most useful term to describe that phenomenon. The problem is this word is now used promiscuously to describe a variety of actions – whether violent or not – which do not conform to the components of an objective definition of terrorism that I describe at the beginning of the interview.

TCB: Do we need to define the groups that we are countering then to determine which tactics we use?

Hoffman: I would say that counterterrorism is more tactical, whereas counterinsurgency is much more strategic – you are trying not just to weaken the groups and diminish their capacity for violence, but also to refashion or fundamentally change the environment which they operate or exist so that it becomes much less fertile ground for such violence.

Counterinsurgency is always a much more long-term solution to a problem than counterterrorism, which is mainly designed to weaken an adversary. Counterinsurgency entails kinetic as well as non-kinetic approaches and tools and is designed to ensure that the fundamental grievances motivating violence are addressed, assuaged and resolved so that, once defeated, the terrorist groups don’t have the opportunity or the foundation to regroup and reorganize themselves and thereby resurface to recommence their violent campaigns.

The Author is Bruce Hoffman

Professor Bruce Hoffman is a tenured professor at Georgetown University and the Director of the Center for Security Studies.  He has served as a commissioner on the Independent Commission to Review the FBI's Post-9/11 Response to Terrorism and Radicalization, a Scholar-in-Residence for Counterterrorism at the CIA, and an adviser on counterterrorism to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2004.

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One Reply to “‘All Terrorism is Revolutionary’”
  1. Great article. Couple of questions:

    1) Would you define the Vegas attack terrorism?
    2) Do you think fear is fundamental to terrorism or a political/religious/ideology cause?
    3) Is there an example of a mass casualty attack that isn’t terrorism?