Philipp comments:

...We all know that one side's terrorists are another side's freedom fighters...

Suppose big Country X provides arms to little Country y's native "freedom fighters", who do certain scary things, ("for freedom!"), which goes on for a decade or so, but then Country y's freedom fighters wind up fighting against Country X, doing the same scary things, which Country X now labels "terrorism".

Meanwhile Country y's fighters still consider themselves freedom fighters, and let's suppose that for the average fighter from Country y the daily routine never changed, they still get up in the morning, report in, and follow orders to get the same-old same old scary things done.

That'd be a subjective usage of the term "terrorism".

Is there a non-subjective usage of the term, one that both sides could agree upon as unequivocally terrorism, irrespective of the cause or target?

If not, is there any non-subjective term, (which describes the job of doing the scary things Country y's fighters do), that both sides would always agree upon?

  • 19
    How uncomfortable are you with soldiers being classified as terrorists?
    – origimbo
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 17:38
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    Possible duplicate of Why are partisan groups in Afghanistan called terrorists?
    – user4012
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 17:40
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    "We all know that one side's terrorists are another side's freedom fighters" - this is all about justification. As user4012 pointed out, you can be both, or none, so both terms are virtually independent. The point is that "terrorism" is conceived as bad, so people supporting the political cause will try to avoid the term while people opposing the cause will try to impose it onto their opponents. This should not be confused with the meaning of terrorism. Who kills civilians with the intent to spread fear to further a political cause is a terrorist, it is not important if the cause is just.
    – Thern
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 8:27
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    It's ok. You can say United States (Country X) and Afghanistan (County y); however, they didn't become 'ersatz terrorists' for 'doing the same scary things'. Their resistance to Soviet invasion and 9/11 were different things, and the daily Afghan soldier didn't become a terrorist; the leadership became guilty of harboring (mostly Saudi) terrorists.
    – lly
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 10:35
  • 1
    Why would any individual vote to close this question? Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 15:41

6 Answers 6


TL;DR: Yes, there is an objective term.
No, there is no way to force people to use the term objectively in political contexts and they don't tend to.

The term "terrorism" isn't subjective. Or to be more precise, it has a widely accepted, objective definition accepted by major institutions.

Quoting Wikipedia:

Since 1994, the United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly condemned terrorist acts using the following political description of terrorism:

"Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them."


A definition proposed by Carsten Bockstette at the George C. Marshall Center for European Security Studies underlines the psychological and tactical aspects of terrorism:

Terrorism is defined as political violence in an asymmetrical conflict that is designed to induce terror and psychic fear (sometimes indiscriminate) through the violent victimization and destruction of noncombatant targets (sometimes iconic symbols). Such acts are meant to send a message from an illicit clandestine organization. The purpose of terrorism is to exploit the media in order to achieve maximum attainable publicity as an amplifying force multiplier in order to influence the targeted audience(s) in order to reach short- and midterm political goals and/or desired long-term end states."

Note that the three components are required, which makes this an objective definition:

  1. Acts that are intended to instill fear/terror
  2. Acts against general public (civilians/non-combatants). This is why for example attacks on the military during armed conflict generally aren't universally considered terrorism.
  3. For a political purpose (note that just what the purpose is is 100% irrelevant to the definition, as long as it's politics and not, say, robbery)

Now, the confusion that birthed your question arises out of two things:

  1. You (or whatever your sources are) are confusing the well-defined objective tactics (terrorism) with a wholly orthogonal point, the goal of the movement.

    Yes. The oft-repeated "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" is basically a word game designed to confuse people.

    Someone is a terrorist if and only if they engage in above-defined objectively defined acts of terrorism as a tactic.

    Someone is a freedom fighter if they do something to advance freedom (whether they advance freedom or not is a bit more subjective and squishy, but let's pretend we can agree on that).

    The two are wholly orthogonal - you can be a freedom fighter using a wide variety of tactics, only one of which - and often, the least effective - is terrorism. You can be a freedom fighter and not a terrorist (Mahatma Gandhi is the typical example) or you can be a terrorist and NOT a freedom fighter (Taliban seems to fit here - they don't by any stretch of imagination fight for anyone's freedom in any stretch of the word; they fight to oppress other inhabitants of Afghanistan into their version of Sharia) or you can be a freedom fighter who engages in acts of terrorism and become both (IRA, Jewish fighters attacking the British during Mandate times, Basque separatists).

  1. Also very importantly, just because there is an objective definition, it does not at all mean that political bodies will not disingenuously ignore that definition when it suits their political/ideological purpose.

    The USSR didn't recognize the IRA as terrorists for a variety of political and ideological reasons. Many people in the USA and Israel refuse to recognize the PKK (a Kurdish organization) as terrorists for the same reason.

    This willful ignoring of the objective definition applies to both type 1 and type 2 errors. That is, not only people refuse to apply "terrorist" label to clearly objectively terrorist organizations (PKK, Hamas, IRA), but they also apply the label to things that don't fit that definition.

TL;DR: Yes there is an objective term. No, there is no way to force people to use the term objectively in political contexts.

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    In Addition it should be noted that terrorism is a valid military tactic that has been used throughout human history to various levels of effect to achieve a military goal from Sherman's March to the Sea, to the Dresden Bombing, to Northern Ireland's IRA goals. Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 14:47
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    @user4012 So the line in the sand is "as long as there's a way that kills more civilians, your approach is not terrorism?" Assigning intent to any individual other than yourself is known to be a hazardous process. Intent has never been a simple thing, as long as there have been humans. Just look at the political process and how hard it is to untangle intent there.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 16:05
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    Is it clear what's a "noncombatant target" is, e.g. during apartheid? I think they started with arson attacks against police targets, also state property such as telephone exchanges.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 16:10
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    This definition of "Terrorists" makes the UK and US government in World War 2 terrorits, as they purposedly used terror against the unarmed civilian german population through bombing, and did so for a political purpose.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 18:18
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    @Bregalad: Actually, this definition could be seen to make all the major powers in WW II terrorists, because they all bombed civilians (ignoring other acts which would also qualify as terrorism). However, they all acted under the doctrine of total war, which considers almost everything a legitimate military target - so under that definition, bombing civilans is legitimate and thus not terrorism. So as usual, it depends on the assumptions you build on.
    – sleske
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 8:02

There is no objective definition.

User 4012 provides the typical formal definition in their answer:

"Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them."

However, there are some reasons this can never possibly be an objective definition:

  • "... intended or calculated..." It is well known in philosophy and psychology that ascribing intent to any individual besides ourself is a hazardous process. You never know what someone else is thinking, according to the most accepted beliefs of philosophers over the last few thousand years. Hence why I use the phrase "ascribe intent." You declare "here is your intent for the action you just did." Such a concept can never be objective.

  • "... are in any circumstance unjustifiable." This is an inherently subjective phrasing. "Unjustifiable" is a word which implicitly requires a justifier to make the judgement. The only way to divorce this concept from the individual doing the judging is to invoke an external judge, such as a deity. This, itself, is recognized as another one of those hazardous processes.

Now that does not mean we cannot use the term, we just have to be specific about our subject. The major Western powers all generally ascribe to the same philosophy, so it is easy to declare some actor's actions to be "intended to provoke terror" with respect to their shared viewpoint. However, that is only as objective as their shared viewpoint is.

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    The first word, "criminal" is also difficult. Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 9:06
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    @StigHemmer On the other hand, the word "criminal" somewhat helps nudge towards the convention that "terrorism" is usually by non-state actors, as states can amend domestic criminal definitions to exclude their own actions from mala prohibita criminality (and inversely, potentially explicitly include particular groups; this also is to say nothing of the norm of the state's "monopoly on violence"). This of course does not address international norms of mala prohibita actions, nor of mala in se actions in general.
    – Myles
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 10:21
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    While I think this is a valuable consideration, Isn't this kind of an isolated demand for rigor? How many definitions of things in real life would clear this bar? Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 12:35
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    @JaredSmith I don't think it's isolated. I think this sort of thing appears all over. Consider the "jury of your peers." If everything that mattered in the criminal justice system was objective evidence, we'd have clerks taking care of verdicts and sentencing. However, in practice, nearly everything we deal with in the criminal system has an element of subjectivity in it. Even the "objective" parts typically include some subjectivity ("beyond reasonable doubt"). It's why jury selection is such a big deal.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 15:17
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    The purpose of a jury is to identify a subject for these statements: the subject is your peers. Those 12 jurors (in USA) are a proxy for "the people" and their collective opinion. If anything, I'd say not holding "terrorism" to this bar would be an isolated lack of demand for rigor. And, in my experience, holding the belief that a subjective position is, in fact, the objective one is an enormously common cause of conflict in the world today. One might even be able to argue it is the only cause.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 15:18

The plain definition of "terrorism" does apply to both sides

Merriam-Webster dictionary

terrorism: the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion

Wikipedia, citing Terrorism & Communication: A Critical Introduction Matusitz, Jonathan (2013)

  • It is the use of violence or threat of violence in the pursuit of political, religious, ideological or social objectives.
  • It can be committed by governments, non-state actors, or undercover personnel serving on the behalf of their respective governments.
  • It reaches more than the immediate target victims and is also directed at targets consisting of a larger spectrum of society.
  • It is both mala prohibita (i.e., crime that is made illegal by legislation) and mala in se (i.e., crime that is inherently immoral or wrong).

Two examples of state sponsored terrorism in the U.S. are the Trail of Tears (note, there were several historical trails of tears; see The Debate over Indian Removal in the 1830s) and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 where so-called "black Wall Street" was destroyed, in part using aircraft to drop incendiary devices onto homes and business.

  • M-W seems a bit vague, so some hair-splitting: it doesn't appear to distinguish between incidental terror, (suppose a murderer is terrified of going to jail, yet he is not a victim of terrorism), and terror as an end in of itself, (applies to parents telling children about boogeymen, or Krampus, etc., directors of horror movies, barking dogs, wild bears, sharks, skunks...), and coercion, (all of criminal Law, and much of the rest). The Matusitz definition means the accused then battles over whether some action is really an instance of mala in se.
    – agc
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 20:10
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    @agc Are you suggesting that the plain meaning of the term "terrorism" is ambiguous, equivocal, and is capable of being applied, used, misused and interpreted in an arbitrary and capricious manner? Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 20:21
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    Inverse? Maybe not, but we can devise a contrary from the M-W definition. Admirable-ism: the systematic use of beauty and good taste especially as a self-evident means of persuasion. Proper artistry, really. Or if not that, satyagraha maybe...
    – agc
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 2:38
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    @sleske "Sorry, but how does the Trail of Tears fit the definition of terrorism? It was cruel and unjust, yes, but its main purpose (as far as I understand) was to clear land for white settlers, not specifically to instill fear in the victims of the relocation." That is post-genocide apologist commentary. When you write "clear land" do you realize you are referring to the land of sovereign nations? The actions of the United States went far beyond the notion of "instill fear". The United States waged wars of terror and committed genocide against sovereign indigenous nations for material gain Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 14:14
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    @RobRose Disagree with your assessment of the non-subjective definition. People apply their subjectivity to the objective definition for their own political interests. Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 18:16

If I may be fully deconstructionist for a moment...

The 'definition' of a word is a matter of conventional usage. In other words, we develop a loose sense (a template) of how a word is used in various discursive contexts, and fit it to specific instances in order to convey meaning. Usually this process is non-problematic. Nouns like (say) box, star, or rabbit don't often produce confusion, and when they do — because the edges of definitions are fuzzy and gray, with things that might or might not be boxes, stars, or rabbits — we fudge through with gestures and clarifications. A definition is never meant to be 'exact'; it's meant to convey a sense of things so that others can grasp our meaning.

Think of that old psychological saw that what you see as red may not be anything like what I see as red, but the word 'red' helps us talk about (say) different kinds of apples effectively.

However, the usage of some terms is intrinsically non-systematic, so that the fuzzy, gray edges wash out any conventional consensus on a definition. 'Terrorism' falls in that category. I mean, we all loosely understand that 'terrorism' is defined as inflicting or threatening harm against 'innocent' (civilian or non-combatant) populations with the goal of forcing concessions from a political elite. It's a kind of hostage-taking, where the lives and welfare of an entire civilian population are threatened by the terrorists in demand for concessions from state institutions that (ostensibly) are responsible for those citizens. But in usage, the word always runs up against the fact that political leaders generally reserve the right to threaten or inflict harm against 'innocents' (be it their own citizens or foreign nationals) for the leaders' own political interests. How often do we hear about a local or national government rolling out tanks, armored vehicles, and military hardware to disperse civilian protests? The goal there is to inflict fear on the civilian population in order to preserve the political status quo, something which neatly falls under the definition of terrorism. But state actors tend to view such behavior merely as maintaining law and order.

This is why the UN definition of terrorism cagily begins with a reference to 'criminal acts': "Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public..." States define what a 'crime' is, and so states are largely immune to any accusations of terrorism.

So the actual 'in practice' usage of the term 'terrorism' is always schizoid, boiling down to something like:

Terrorism is the illegitimate use or threat of harm against a civilian population for political ends, where legitimacy is determined by sovereign state actors within a largely anarchic international realm.

Because the definition of terrorism always hinges on idiosyncratic, state-determined concepts of 'legitimacy', it's almost impossible to use in any meaningful, universal sense.


I would use the word "combatant", although that term can be imprecise given the exact conditions of the scenario in question. Unlike the other answers, and like you, I consider "terrorist" is subject to a moral point of view.

  • 1
    "Combatant" is a little less general than "soldier". That is, one might say that all terrorists are combatants, but not all combatants are terrorists.
    – agc
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 19:37
  • Sorry, but this is just plain wrong. The generally agreed-upon definiton of "combatant" is someone who engages in legal violence (usually as the member of an organized, legally recognized military force). A terrorist is by definition not a combatant.
    – sleske
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 8:07
  • "generally agreed-upon" you say. Yet Merriam-Webster: "Definition of combatant : one that is engaged in or ready to engage in combat." "Definition of combat 1 : a fight or contest between individuals or groups". So combatant is as generic as you'd like.
    – JD Gamboa
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 16:33
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    Geneva definitions are different as you say, but there is still a space for what they called "unlawful combatant" or also belligerent, which is yet another word as generic as you'd find pleasing. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unlawful_combatant
    – JD Gamboa
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 16:35

Yes, let's start with the assumption that Group Z first operates inside country y without Country X (!) and the group wants either to overthrow the government of Country X or split apart from Country X to create a new Country K, then Group Z members are "insurgents" or "rebels".

This is a definition both sides can live with. It does not nullify the "freedom fighter" label (yeah, we are fighting against the government), but it also says nothing about the way the insurgents operate (fear and terror, "terrorism"). In fact, the area of warfare which is designed to counter rebel operations has the name counterinsurgency.

The whole things gets again a lot murkier once Country X comes into play. Once Group Z starts to make attacks against Country X to overthink their support or trying to convince people to join their fight against Country X, then you call the attackers non-subjectively and neutrally "infiltrators".

It is typical that Group Z is also marked as "terrorist" when in fact the government of Country y is a puppet government of Country X who only tries to give the impression that Country y is independent and actually suppress people of Country y.

  • 1
    Note: In the OP Country X is a foreign sponsor, not Group y's native land. Suggested edit: s/group Y/_Group **y**_/g; s/country X/_Country **y**_/g.
    – agc
    Commented Jun 24, 2018 at 20:24
  • Possible typo: In the revised intro, first paragraph, maybe it should be that Z operates in y, and therefore wants to overthrow y, (not X), and change the name y to k? Note k is lower case, since it'd still be a little country.
    – agc
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 2:53
  • This answer ignores that terrorism actually is a concrete act. So things are not really getting murky, it is just that people might get confused when propaganda sets in, or that they believe that it can't be terrorism if it is a just cause. Yes of course it can.
    – Thern
    Commented Jun 25, 2018 at 8:50

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