Terrorism is a Tactic Not an Ideology

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ISIS suicide truck bomber detonates his device. (Video screenshot)
ISIS suicide truck bomber detonates his device. (Video screenshot)

Terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology. This is important to clarify, because people often talk about terrorism as if it was a thing on its own. They speak about someone being “a terrorist,” without saying for which cause he was fighting.

Frequently, the implication is that any given terrorist is an Islamist, since so much of the terrorism in the world today is carried out in the name of that ideology. But this is misleading. There are many other kinds of terrorists. There are also many Islamists who are not terrorists and who are strongly opposed to terrorism, but who want the same goals as Islamist terrorists (commonly known as jihadists).

To qualify as an act of terrorism, the United States government looks for four metrics. According to the U.S. Criminal Code 18 2231, the act has to:

  • Be violent or threaten human life
  • Intimidate or coerce a civilian population
  • Intend to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion
  • Intend to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping 

In other words it’s the motive, rather than the violent act itself, that makes something an act of terrorism.

This distinction matters a lot in terms of trying to combat it. When a school shooting is carried out by a mentally disturbed person who wants to exact revenge on the world, it’s tragic and awful. But it isn’t terrorism, since such shooters do not have a specific goal in mind that they want to achieve through their violence.

When they do have a goal in mind, that’s an act of terrorism.

Since Clarion Project is opposed to Islamism, we do not talk about school shootings or even terrorism carried out by non-Islamist groups. This is not because we approve of terrorism. We oppose terrorism as a tactic across the board. We also do not think that Islamists are the only ones who commit acts of terrorism. And we oppose it even in support of causes we might otherwise support.

But our real opponent is not the tactic of terrorism — it is Islamism. When governments only focus on the tactic of terrorism, is a misdirection that prevents us from getting to the root of the problem.



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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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