Defining Political & Criminal Terrorism

Defining Political & Criminal Terrorism

Differentiating Types of Terrorism

According to the FBI, terrorism is defined by three characteristics:

*Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
*Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
*Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S (FBI, 2015).


While a form of crime, terrorism is distinctly different with a focus on agendas, giving rise to two primary forms of terrorism: political and criminal. More specifically, political terrorism focuses on a political or social agendas whereas other criminal tends to seek profit. For example, a person threatening to blow up a building for money is a from of criminal terrorism while a foreign country  selling a nuclear weapon to a hostile country intending to use the device against the US could be considered a political terrorist act. However, the Russian Mafia selling the same weapon to the same foreign power might be considered criminal terrorism if profit is the motive. There is a fine line with terrorism but both can be extremely destructive.

Political terrorism is often viewed in terms of anti-government groups but consider that most religious terrorist groups are also politically motivated. The overarching goal of Islamic fundamentalism is to resist western ideology on the basis of it being a threat to Islam. This belief allows for Islamic governments to act in a totalitarian manner because it believes that it is acting in a manner which is protecting the nation from outside influences in particular westernization. This political ideology takes the form of a revolt against western ideology and philosophy which is viewed by fundamentalist as a threat to Islam.

Again, fundamentalism is much more than extremism or terrorism; it is rather a powerful challenge to the existing order of the international system of secular nation-states. Given that this institution is Western in origin, the revolt against it is also a revolt against the West… (Tibi, 1998)

The fundamentalist see the western threat as the European and United States imposing a secular political and philosophic order on Islamic states. However, this belief becomes a contradictory political ideology which creates instability rather than uniting the Islamic people. The fundamentalists in this way serve a more destructive role within the Middle East because they create internal turmoil and damage the efforts that have been made in the past to find autonomy and freedom from militant rule and dictatorships.

A Deeper View: Pathological, Labor, and War

Terrorism can be further articulated into other forms. Pathological terrorism refers to terrorism that involves the terrorism or other people which is motivate by the desire or thrill of inflicting fear and terror on other people. This is a common form of terrorism involving school shooters and lone wolf attackers. This is also a difficult form of terrorism to defend against and predict.

Labor terrorism is a form of terrorism that refers to political and economic systems that vie for control. This form of terrorism is wrought out of perceived imbalances in power and is rooted in class theory (Macionis, 2011). For example, labor terrorism can be seen in the riots in Venezuela political and economic crisis currently taking place.

War terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare that occurs as the result of one opponent being larger than another. This form of terrorism can be ideologically or politically driven but shares the component of one force being larger than the other. This situation creates a need for the smaller opponent to attack the larger one using terrorist tactics.

The problem with terrorism is that it is seen by those who practice it as a necessary from of combat or warfare because these groups are typically overmatched by their adversary. As such, terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare. Asymmetric warfare can be described as a conflict where two opponents differ in size and strength. Wars that involve Asymmetrical Warfare often are fought between a large entity such as the US and a small entity such as the Taliban. Strategies used in asymmetric warfare are often more based in tactics and unconventional warfare where the weaker of the two enemies takes advantage of the larger forces most prevailing weakness of being large and difficult to mobilize when fighting smaller opponents. Asymmetrical warfare can be described as guerilla warfare or insurgency, and often terrorism. The key point is that it is a form of warfare that attempts to undermine the larger opponent or wear him down through casualty and cost. When looked at from this perspective the Revolutionary War with the US and England is an example of terrorism. I only mention this idea because it seems important in terms of understanding the foe and how to defeat him.

The Largest Threat

Pathological terrorism is the largest threat to society because it is difficult to prevent. A person such as the Orlando Nightclub Shooter is difficult to identify because they are acting alone. This was what allowed Oklahoma Bombing to take place as well. People who are acting alone can cause a great deal of damage and are extremely difficult to prevent. This is especially true in cases of soft targets such as in the Paris Attacks. If there is going to be a prevention of this problem there needs to be more study of what makes a person susceptible to self-radicalization and the means to prevent this from occurring. It is difficult to believe that someone could be prone to becoming a terrorist simply by reading propaganda online but there must be some pattern to this process because these incidents are occurring at an alarming rate.


FBI. (2015). About Organized Crime. Retrieved from Federal Bureau of Investigation:

Macionis, J. (2011). Society: The basics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Schmalleger, F. (2011). Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st Century, Eleventh Edition,. Prentice Hall. NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Tibi, Bassam. The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder. Berkeley, Calif London: University of California Press, c1998 1998.


Triola Vincent. Mon, Feb 01, 2021. Defining Political & Criminal Terrorism Retrieved from

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