Terrorism and the Media Resource Hub


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Basic Issues

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Key Points

  • Naming can be, to a certain extent, choosing a side
  • Terrorism has no internationally-recognized definition
  • Terrorism and resistance: a crucial difference
  • State terrorism: a "form of government"
  • "Glorification of terrorism": an expression to be carefully defined
  • Not all terrorism is "religiously-inspired"
  • Establish and report the facts, without stereotype or generalization
  • Lists of terrorist organizations: a useful (but politically-suspect) tool
  • The idea that "one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter"


These words have always been the subject of controversy. “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” “Today’s terrorist is tomorrow’s statesperson.” These recurring phrases have become clichés in journalistic and political commentaries. They mean that using these terms is never neutral. Naming is, to a certain extent, choosing a side, at the risk of masking reality or accepting the interpretation that one of the newsmakers wishes to impose.

Terrorism is a catchall word. Does it refer to a tactic, or an ideology? Is it a crime, or an act of war? There are dozens of definitions of the word ‘terrorism’, which often emphasize specific points, reflecting a political or moral approach.

Although the term comes up in many texts and conventions, there is currently no agreed upon definition within the United Nations (UN), despite the mission assigned in December 1996 to a special Committee established by the General Assembly. Set up in 2003, the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change submitted a report approaching a definition the following year. After bringing up the existing texts, particularly the Geneva Conventions condemning war crimes and crimes against humanity and the 12 United Nations conventions against terrorism, it proposed to use the word ‘terrorism’ to refer to “any action [...] that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act”.

It can be important to make a distinction between ‘terrorism’ and ‘resistance’, as the difference is so pervasive in the media and has led to so many positions and viewpoints. The fight against occupation is an essential point, but as the French political scientist Jacques Tarnero points out, “the choice of methods of combat and targets distinguishes resistance from terrorism.” In other words, a kamikaze attack targeting civilians, in the name of combating occupation, is not an act of resistance, but a terrorist crime.


Referring to something as ‘state terrorism’ very frequently gives rise to lively debate. To what extent can States that violate international humanitarian law be described as ‘terrorist’? There are radically-opposed answers and often complete disagreement between those who denounce “acts of terrorism” when they emphasise the number of civilian deaths and those who justify their “proportional” use, although they admit it can cause “regrettable collateral damage”.

Where did the term terrorism originate?

State terrorism generally escapes the notice of those who try to forge a common international definition of terrorism within intergovernmental organizations. And yet, the word ‘terrorism’ comes from the Reign of Terror perpetrated by Robespierre during the French Revolution, at the end of the 18th century. Then, it referred to the State’s brutal actions against its political enemies.

When is it legitimate to speak of State terrorism? When, replies Gérard Chaliand, terror is used as a “way of governing, allowing the established power, through extreme measures and collective fear, to break those that resist it.”

Torture, forced disappearances, selective assassinations of opponents and widespread massacres are some of these extreme measures. It may seem paradoxical, but this ‘state terrorism’ can even appear when fighting against terrorism or insurrections. Historical examples abound, each of which naturally often raises emotions, memories and debate.

Complexity is added when ‘state terrorism’ is practised within democratic governments. ‘State terrorism’ has been sometimes linked to the notion of the ‘deep State’, i.e. the network of security services, economic interests, political factions and even criminal groups acting in the shadows, behind the ‘legal façade’ of democracy, and aiming to shatter any change made by the established order, even if that means resorting to terrorist acts.


Once again, these words present a challenge, because the media face laws that penalise the glorification of terrorism. When, though, can they be said to glorify terrorism?

The question is evident for the media considered close to “terrorist” organizations: do they unofficially cater to those organizations? What laws apply to these media, which have a disputed journalistic status? Some countries demand that they close down; others are content to monitor them and look out for content that could violate their laws.

The accusation of praising or glorifying terrorism can, however, drift, until even a legitimate, journalistic coverage of organizations described as ‘terrorists’ is criminalised, or the media are forbidden to reveal illegal State actions taken in the fight against terrorism.


The media (and political spheres) tend to concentrate, depending on the period, on certain forms of terrorism. From about 1960 to 1980, the news mainly covered terrorism linked to the extreme right and left and pro-independence movements. While such terrorism has not completely disappeared, today “religiously-inspired terrorism” attracts the most attention, and particularly attacks instigated by organizations claiming to follow Islam, which generate the widest media coverage.

Although many researchers and religious scholars analyse these equations and formulate often-contradictory theories on whether terrorism is founded on religion, the reference to Islam is strongly contested, not only within the Muslim community, but also by countries where Islam is the State religion. Thus, on 11 May 2016, during one of the meetings of the UN Security Council, the representative of Kuwait explained, on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), that the expression “religiously inspired terrorist groups” was erroneous, as “no religion either condones or inspires terrorism”, although there are “terrorist groups that exploit religions.”

In their studies and reports on terrorist risks, States and institutions take care not to limit themselves to religiously-inspired groups, and cover every threat. Thus, in its 2015 report, Europol also described extreme right-wing, anarchist and ethno-nationalist organizations.

Stressing these figures, representatives of the Muslim community question the standards and routines of information processing. They denounce the fact that extreme right-wing attacks are generally less widely covered by the media, and the motives of the perpetrators are depoliticised and often attributed to mental illness. Their white identity and religious beliefs (Christian) do not lead to all the members of their ethnic or religious community being considered terrorists.

Other groups, however, accuse “right-minded” or “politically correct” media of trying to acquit Islam of the acts committed by groups claiming to follow it. Monitored and suspected on all sides, the integrity of the press, tried by the attempt not to stereotype or generalise, is put to a hard test.

Click on the following terms to learn more about other specific types of terrorism:


This form of terrorism once again shows the importance of defining words. While one French dictionary, the Larousse, defines cyberterrorism as “all the serious, large-scale attacks (viruses, pirating, etc.) launched on the computers, networks and information systems of a company, an institution or a State, with the aim of provoking a general disruption susceptible of causing panic”, others, such as the Council of Europe, apply the term to all the online practices of terrorist groups, including propaganda and recruitment. To avoid generalisation, more precise words have appeared, such as ‘cyber jihad’ or ‘e-jihad’ to refer to Al-Qaida or the Islamic State group’s use of the Internet.

For some authors, whether an attack can be qualified as a ‘cyber-terrorist’ attack depends on its impact and motivation. As Alix Desforges remarks in one of the records published by France’s Institute for Strategic Research of the Ministry of Defence (IRSEM), some specialists such as Dorothy Denning make a clear distinction between ‘hacktivism’ and cyberterrorism. Hacktivism covers “operations that use hacking techniques against a target’s Internet site with the intent of disrupting normal operations but not causing serious damage”.

Today, experts estimate that there is no great risk that terrorist organizations will use cyberterrorism to intimidate and seriously disrupt the functioning of a State or any of its strategic institutions or facilities. At this stage, they believe that such attacks are more likely to be government strategies. However, there is growing awareness as to the vulnerability of States and large companies and their dependence on information systems. The combination of a cyber-attack and a ‘conventional’ attack to disrupt the reaction of the security services and hospitals is particularly feared.

Gangster terrorism

This expression, which refers to the co-existence of criminality and terrorism, is now mainly applied to the extremists who started out as delinquents and to the hybridisation between criminal activities (arms, drug and human trafficking, money laundering, etc.) and terrorist activities. This term is sometimes used for the mafia, which violently attacked the Italian State, notably by assassinating the general Dalla Chiesa in 1982 and the judge Giovanni Falcone in 1992.


This term refers to the direct involvement of armed, political groups in drug trafficking; the cooperation between criminal groups involved in drug trafficking and armed groups (guerrillas); the taxation of drugs by armed groups and terrorist acts committed by drug traffickers.


The UN does not maintain a global list of all terrorist organizations but instead relies upon specific lists such as the UN 1267 Sanctions Regime List, adopted by Resolution 1267 in 1999.

This list focuses on individuals and groups linked to Al-Qaida, the Taliban and their associates. Since 2011, the sanctions committee established by Resolution 1267 was subdivided to apply solely to Al-Qaida and its associates. Regime 1988 (2011), created the same year, applies specifically to the Taliban. In 2015, Resolution 2253 brought about the “List of Sanctions against ISIL/Da’esh and Al-Qaida”.

These UN lists come under Chapter 7 of the Charter of the United Nations and the sanctions that they imply are thus binding for all Member States. The List related to sanctions against ISIL/Da’esh is managed by the sanctions committee, known as Committee 1267, which is composed of all fifteen members of the Security Council. These lists have consequences for the entities and individuals who are members of these groups, or considered as such (travel ban, bank-account freezes, assets freezes, etc.).

The expression “terrorist State” is more frequent and designates States that use terrorism as an instrument of international influence. This term also stirs up debate, because actions that a State deems counter-terrorist can be denounced as terrorist actions by those who oppose them or suffer from them. However, it does reflect a reality in international politics. History is full of black files that evoke, without always being able to give conclusive evidence, the involvement of States in terrorist acts, thus fuelling the constant temptation of seeing behind every attack a “great coordinator” and masked conductor.


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