A Terrorist by Any Other Name

The complications of the term “terrorist”

The war on terror lasted over a decade, but policymakers have yet to agree on a definition of the term “terrorist organization.” According to the U.S. National Institute of Justice, “different definitions exist across the federal, international and research communities.”

Some characteristics of terrorism seem intuitive: attacks against civilians, extremism, and violence. The agendas of the terrorist groups listed by the EU and the State Department range from independence movements to religious extremism. Their one commonality is violent tactics.

But that commonality does little to alleviate the controversy or confusion surrounding the term “terrorist.” Because of its political charge and the adage that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, both BBC and Reuters restrict their use of the word. Internationally, deciding who is – and who is not – a terrorist becomes complicated by mismatched definitions and competing for political agendas.


Recently, the disagreement has been about the Kurdish worker’s party, known as the PKK, its Kurdish abbreviation. The PKK is a militant Kurdish independence group in southern Turkey and northern Iraq that may or may not be a terrorist organization. It depends on who you ask. In the eyes of Turkey, the EU and the USA, the answer is yes. The socialist PKK fought against Turkish in the mid-1990s killing thousands of Kurds and Turks. And now despite western chagrin, Turkey is refusing to increase Turkish military force against ISIS on the Syria-Turkey border, because to do so may mean cooperation with the PKK, which has historic ties to Assad in Syria. As a result, it is the PKK that is rallying troops and fighting off ISIS, and people are starting to question whether they should be listed as a terrorist organization at all.

Next to groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, the PKK, whose female fighters have garnered international fascination, seems progressive. But the Turkish government has good reasons to condemn the group – the PKK has attacked and killed civilians in the past.  Still, it seems strange to lump the PKK with transnational extremist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. All terrorist groups have goals beyond terror, but for the latter two, the mission seems to be more an excuse for violence.

The PKK’s mission is similar to that of the Irish Republican Army, a terrorist organization in Ireland that used horrific tactics in the 1980s to push for Irish Independence from Great Britain. Both groups have restricted national goals that stemmed from internal independence movements. Yet despite their differences in history and goals, in policy discussions, the PKK, the IRA, and ISIS all fall into the same category.

It is in those differences that a major pitfall of the term terrorist becomes clear. The term implies a relationship between all organizations that employ terror tactics when in reality, the differences between each group vary dramatically. Since the post 9-11 hysteria surrounding terrorism, “terrorist organization” has become shorthand for “enemy of the USA” for the majority of the US population. The designation of the term terrorist relays little information beyond a group’s evilness. Once an organization has been labeled terrorist, many associates it with 9-11 and with it comes a set of inaccurate assumptions about the group’s nature and history.

When organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda dominate foreign policy discussion, it is critical that the public understand more about individual groups. A strategy for confronting Al Qaeda must take into account the political and religious origins of the group’s opposition to the USA whereas confronting the Taliban requires a consideration of the group’s history as the former ruling party in Afghanistan.  But when blinded by charged terminology, the impulse, even among congress members, is to treat the organizations as the same thing.

The danger here is that blanket terminology leads to the blanket, ineffective policy. Once a word becomes as charged as “terrorism” it inevitably loses some meaning. But there’s a solution: other terms like “religious militants,” and “violent secessionists” relay twice the information to the public. This is the nuance that could sway public pressure in a more informed direction.

The awful tactics employed by groups like ISIS and the PKK can quickly be condemned through the use of the word “terrorism” – quickly but not cleanly. The term comes with the post 9-11 baggage of the terrorist groups before it, and that deserves consideration. Yes, it is all semantics, but in policy, semantics have an impact.