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State terrorism refers to acts of terrorism conducted by governments. Like the definition of terrorism and that of state-sponsored terrorism, the definition of state terrorism remains controversial and without international consensus.


Scholar Gus Martin describes state terrorism as terrorism "committed by governments and quasi-governmental agencies and personnel against perceived enemies," which can be directed against both domestic and external enemies. The original general meaning of terrorism was of terrorism by the state, as reflected in the 1798 supplement of the Dictionnaire of the Academie Francaise, which described terrorism as systeme, regime de la terreur. Similarly, a terrorist in the late 18th century was considered any person "who attempted to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation." The terms "establishment terrorism," "terrorism from above" (as opposed to "terrorism from below" (terrorism by non-state groups), and "structural terrorism" are sometimes used to denote state terrorism.

The Encyclopedia Britannica Online defines terrorism generally as "the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective," and adds that terrorism has been practiced by "state institutions such as armies, intelligence services, and police." The encyclopedia adds that "[e]stablishment terrorism, often called state or state-sponsored terrorism, is employed by governments -- or more often by factions within governments -- against that government's citizens, against factions within the government, or against foreign governments or groups."

While the most common modern usage of the word terrorism refers to civilian-victimizing political violence by insurgent or conspirators, scholars typically make a broader interpretation of the nature of terrorism that encompasses the concepts of state terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism. In fact, terrorism scholar Michael Stohl argues, “The use of terror tactics is common in international relations and the state has been and remains a more likely employer of terrorism within the international system than insurgents. Stohl clarifies, however, that "[n]ot all acts of state violence are terrorism. It is important to understand that in terrorism the violence threatened or perpetrated, has purposes broader than simple physical harm to a victim. The audience of the act or threat of violence is more important than the immediate victim."


[[Image:Cruikshank - The Radical's Arms.png|thumb|left|1819Caricature by Briton George Cruikshank. Titled "The Radical's Arms", it depicts the infamous guillotine. "No God! No Religion! No King! No Constitution!" is written in the republican banner.]]

Terror by states has a long history. For example, Aristotle wrote critically of terror employed by tyrants against their subjects. The earliest use of the word terrorism identified by the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1795 reference to tyrannical state behavior, the "reign of terrorism" in Francemarker. In that same year, Edmund Burke famously decried the "thousands of those hell-hounds called terrorists" who he believed threatened Europe. During the Reign of Terror, the Jacobin government and other factions of the French Revolution used the apparatus of the state to execute and intimidate political opponents, and the Oxford English Dictionary includes as one definition of terrorism "Government by intimidation carried out by the party in power in France between 1789-1794".

Later exemplars of state terrorism were the police state measures employed by the Soviet Unionmarker beginning in the 1920s, and by Germany's Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s. The bombing of Guernica has been called an act of terrorism, and other examples of state terrorism may include the World War II bombings of London, Dresden and Hiroshima.

Scholars Michael Stohl and George A. Lopez argue that an institutionalized form of terrorism carried out by states has occurred as a result of changes taking place following World War ll. In this analysis, state terrorism as a form of foreign policy was shaped by the presence and use of weapons of mass destruction, and that the legitimizing of such violent behavior led to increasing acceptance, when it was employed by states, of violence that had earlier been labeled terrorist.


Stolhl and George A. Lopez designate three particular forms of state terrorism exhibited in foreign policy behavior (p.207-208):
  • 1. Coercive terrorist diplomacy: (eg. discreet and controlled, and makes non-compliance intolerable)
  • 2. Covert state terrorism:
    • a)Clandestine state terrorism (eg. direct participation of states, ex. to weaken a governments or intimidate government officials of another state etc)
    • b)State-sponsored terrorism (eg. "states or private groups being employed to undertake terrorist actions on behalf of sponsoring state."
  • 3. Surrogate terrorism: (eg. assistance to another state or group that improves their capability to practice terrorism)
    • a)State-sponsored terrorism (eg. as above)
    • b)State acquiescence to terrorism (eg. group undertakes terrorism and is not explicitly backed by a state but not condemned either.)

Combatting State Terrorism

In Understanding Terrorism:Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues, Gus Martin argues that the work of organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are among the "approaches to the analyses of state terrorism [that] are useful for evaluating different types of state-sponsored violence," arguing further that during the late 1970s and 80's “in its annual global human rights reports Amnesty International has extensively documented the escalation in state terror…Amnesty International identified the main forms of state terror as arbitrary detention, unfair trial, torture, and political murder or extrajudicial execution."

Moral analysis

Philosopher Igor Primoratz provides four reasons why he believes that state terrorism is typically morally worse than non-state terrorism. First, because of the nature of the modern state and "the amount and variety of resources" available even for small states, the state mode of terrorism claims vastly more victims than does terrorism by non-state actors. Secondly, because "state terrorism is bound to be compounded by secrecy, deception and hypocrisy," terrorist states typically act with clandestine brutality while publicly professing adherence to "values and principles which rule it out." Thirdly, because unlike non-state actors, states are signatories in international laws and conventions prohibiting terrorism, so when a state commits acts of terrorism it is "in breach of its own solemn international commitments." Finally, while there may be circumstances where non-state actors are in such an oppressed situation that there may be no alternative but terrorism, Primoratz argues that "it seems virtually impossible that a state should find itself in such circumstances where it has no alternative to resorting to terrorism."

Arguments that states are incapable of terrorism

In recent decades the term terrorism has more often been applied to violent non-state actors, and some scholars dispute whether the concept of terrorism is properly applied to states.

So far without success, the United Nations has attempted to create an international legal definition of terrorism that excludes state terrorism. The Chairman of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee has stated that the twelve previous international conventions on terrorism had never referred to state terrorism, which was not an international legal concept, and that when states abuse their powers they should be judged against international conventions dealing with war crimes, international human rights and international humanitarian law, rather than against international anti-terrorism statutes. In a similar vein, Kofi Annan, at the time United Nations Secretary-General, stated that it is "time to set aside debates on so-called 'state terrorism'. The use of force by states is already thoroughly regulated under international law" Annan added, "...regardless of the differences between governments on the question of definition of terrorism, what is clear and what we can all agree on is any deliberate attack on innocent civilians, regardless of one's cause, is unacceptable and fits into the definition of terrorism."

Various analysts have attempted to formulate terrorism definitions that are neutral with respect to the perpetrators of the act, thus permitting a definition's logically consistent application to both non-state and state actors. However, perhaps in contrast, a recent unofficial definition of the word published by the United Nations states that "Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-)clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby - in contrast to assassination - the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organization), (imperiled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience(s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought."

Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, described as pioneers in late twentieth century thinking about state terrorism, have argued that the distinction between state and non-state terror is morally relativist, and distracts from or justifies state terrorism perpetrated by favored states, typically those of wealthy and developed nations (Chomsky and Herman, 1979). Chomsky has described low-intensity warfare as state terrorism, and writes: "The U.S. is officially committed to what is called 'low-intensity warfare'.... If you read the definition of low-intensity conflict in army manuals and compare it with official definitions of 'terrorism' in army manuals, or the U.S. Code, you find they're almost the same." (See Low intensity conflict for the US army definition.)


Scholars Emizet Kisangani and Wayne Nafziger argue that democide is equivalent to state terrorism.

See also


  1. Understanding terrorism: challenges, perspectives, and issues, by Gus Martin, SAGE, 2006, ISBN 1412927226. at [1], p. 111
  2. A History of Terrorism, by Walter Laqueur, Transaction Publishers, 2007, ISBN 0765807998, at [2], p. 6
  3. A History of Terrorism, by Walter Laqueur, Transaction Publishers, 2007, ISBN 0765807998, at [3], p. 6
  4. "Dealing with Terrorism," by Helen Purkitt, in Conflict in World Society, 1984, p. 162.
  5. Michael Stohl, p. 14
  6. The Superpowers and International Terror Michael Stohl, Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, Atlanta, March 27-April 1, 1984).
  7. Stohl, National Interests and State Terrorism, The Politics of Terrorism, Marcel Dekker 1988, p.275
  8. "Those Hell-Hounds Called Terrorists" By Harvey C. Mansfield, The Claremont Institute,' posted November 28, 2001
  9. Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edition, CD Version 3, 2002, Oxford University Press
  10. A History of Terrorism, by Walter Laqueur, Transaction Publishers, 2007, ISBN 0765807998, at [4], p. 6
  11. Terrorism, by Igor Primoratz, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, published October 22, 2007, at [5]
  12. What's wrong with terrorism? by Robert E. Goodin, Polity, 2006, ISBN 0745634974, at [6], p. 62
  13. Michael Stohl, “The Superpowers and International Terror,” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, Atlanta, March 27-April 1, 1984).
  14. 'Terrible beyond Endurance? The Foreign Policy of State Terrorism' by Michael Stohl and George A. Lopez, 1988
  15. Understanding Terrorism. Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues, Gus Martin, Sage Publications, 2006, p. 83
  16. State Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism, by Igor Primoratz, in Terrorism: The Philosophical Issues, Igor Primoratz, ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, pp. 119-120
  17. Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror, Sluka, Jeffrey (ed), Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, p.8


  • Sluka, Jeffrey A. (Ed.) (2000). Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-1711-X.
  • Chomsky, Noam and Herman, Edward S. (1979). The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism: The Political Economy of Human Rights: Vol. 1. Boston: South End Press. ISBN 0-89608-090-0

Further reading

  • Lerner, Brenda Wilmoth & K. Lee Lerner, eds. Terrorism : essential primary sources. Thomson Gale, 2006. ISBN 9781414406213 Library of Congress. Jefferson or Adams Bldg General or Area Studies Reading Rms LC Control Number: 2005024002.
  • Tarpley, Webster G. 9/11 Synthetic Terror, Made in USA -Progressive Press. ISBN 0-93085-231-1
  • Chomsky, Noam. The Culture of Terrorism ISBN 0-89608-334-9
  • Chomsky, Noam. 9/11 ISBN 1-58322-489-0

External links

Prevention of terrorism

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