For example, suppose some unofficial people from country A, who are not related to government or official structures at all, arm some people and pay them to go and kill the leader of country B.

Can this be regarded as terrorism?

  • 2
    the hijackers were "private", and wanted to hit the whitehouse, so was 9/11 still a terror act?
    – dandavis
    Commented May 12, 2020 at 15:32
  • @dandavis, of course it was. But is it equal to asassination of the US president? If it is, then there is an interesting question - if described situation is a terrorism - then (for example) those US mercenaries in Venezuela can be officially called terrorists. Commented May 12, 2020 at 15:54
  • you kill one person, you're a murderer. You kill a hundred and you are a terrorist. you kill a million and your'e a revolutionary.
    – dandavis
    Commented May 12, 2020 at 16:34
  • If the hitmen are unofficial, does it matter whether the leader is foreign or not? Commented Aug 28, 2021 at 10:40

4 Answers 4


Why not? There is not a whole lot of constraints on that in international law and, in practice, absolutely nothing preventing political leaders in country B and the local justice system from treating this as terrorism. At most they would risk mild condemnation from UN diplomats or perhaps from the country of origin of the perpetrators, if these happen to be politically connected.

You will find that many countries grant rather extensive powers for special terrorism jurisdictions to take charge of criminal cases. Many political leaders have accused other countries of sponsoring or condoning terrorism based on tactics or ideological alignment, sometimes for things they have themselves done elsewhere (targeted assassination, training and arming proxy guerilla forces engaged in asymmetric warfare, etc.)


Questions of the form can X be called Y are usually pointless. With your question, you just called X Y. More relevant is what national and international law has to say. Unfortunately the term terrorist has become a generic catch-all description for people the speaker does not like, much like communist or fascist in an earlier age.

When a private citizen acts without the sanction of his government, that usually makes the attempt a domestic, criminal matter for the state where it happens. That state may or may not have laws defining terrorism as distinct from ordinary or organized crime.

Depending on the circumstances, the crime might be motivated by purely personal circumstances, or the perpetrator could be not guilty by reason of insanity. Either of those would preclude the "terrorism" label.


Terrorism is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion." In other words, violent acts are committed in order to produce a psychological effect with political influence. Assassination of a political leader may or may not be designed to induce fear. So as a general claim, the answer is no.


Just to be perfectly analytical here... While terrorism is (intentionally) a poorly defined term, its aim is always to spread fear through the general civil population in order to create political leverage. Attempted assassinations or attacks on ruling elites don't generally serve that end, because ordinary citizens implicitly assume that civil authorities are natural targets for bad actors. There is no direct threat to the individual citizen from a group focused on political authorities, and thus no generalized fear.

I'm not suggesting that terrorists would never attack leaders, but if they do the goal would be to disrupt or damage government institutions more than to inflict harm on the leaders themselves. Thet'd want to attack symbols, not people, because symbols hold value to the general citizenry.

  • Aren't politicians symbols as well? Wouldn't harming them send a message that even those leaders aren't safe from the attackers?
    – JJJ
    Commented Aug 28, 2021 at 23:31
  • @JJJ: That”s not really how political symbolism works. Political symbols are usually idealizations of institutions; a person might be seen as embodying one, but killing a symbol entails much more than killing people. It isn’t about ‘sending a message’. It’s about undercutting a worldview to produce existential insecurity. Commented Aug 28, 2021 at 23:53
  • The Baader-Meinhoff gang tried to spread fear through politicians and industry leaders. So would that count as terrorism or not? Or in general, anything that spreads fear through one particular group within the population only?
    – gnasher729
    Commented Aug 28, 2021 at 23:55
  • Interesting, but I'm not entirely convinced. Can you add some references to support this reasoning?
    – JJJ
    Commented Aug 28, 2021 at 23:57
  • @gnasher729: As I said, the term 'terrorism' is intentionally poorly defined. From what I understand the BM gang was intent on fomenting revolution, not of forcing the state to capitulate; they wanted to push the state into performing acts of state terrorism that people would rebel against, so I wouldn't call their acts specifically terrorist. But I suspect that nuance is deeply arguable. Commented Aug 29, 2021 at 0:37

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