7.2.8 Acts of Terrorism

Acts of terrorism are intended to frighten people into supporting the aims of minority groups with ethnic or political agendas

Terrorism is defined here simply as the use of violence by a few people to frighten many others, “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause” (as defined by the UK Terrorism Act 2000).  This distinguishes it from (a) military confrontations between States and (b) violence used directly in non-political crime.  In his book, Terrorism: How to Respond, Richard English devotes the whole of chapter 1 to defining it unambiguously.

A small number of terrorists can intimidate a much larger population – so it is an effective technique for a minority to attempt to gain sway over the rest of the population.  Acts of terrorism are different from the actions of guerrilla resistance movements, whose targets are of military value.  Terrorists hit civilian targets, with the aim of generating popular pressure for political change.

Terrorist organisations appear to have a ready supply of recruits, even though they use violence so unspeakable that most people would be unable to bring themselves to commit it.  John Gray’s article, Excitement, hatred and belonging: why terrorists do it,[1] offers an explanation of what attracts individuals to terrorism: they gain “adventure, excitement, celebrity in local communities… belonging… and comradeship”.  This is appealing to disempowered people with a strong sense of grievance.  And death in action can be seen as a badge of honour, so terrorists tend to be unafraid of law-enforcement (

Acts of terrorism within a State have been used in several different scenarios:

●  The Basque separatist organisation, ETA, sought independence from Spain.

●  The IRA in Northern Ireland was pursuing the aim of a united Ireland.

●  Russian war crimes in its invasion of Ukraine can be classified as terrorism.  They were intended to intimidate the Ukrainian population into agreeing to accept Russia’s terms (

●  The Hamas murder of 1,400 Israeli civilians on 7 October 2023 was designed to provoke a violent reaction by Israel.  The resultant wave of support for Palestine, and the increase in anti-Semitism, were what it wanted.

The same techniques can be used in coordinated attacks across many countries – international terrorism – as exemplified by Islamic terrorism, which is described later (7.3.3).


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[1] John Grays’ article was a review of David English’s 2016 book, Does Terrorism Work? A History. ETA and the IRA are described as examples.

This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/728a.htm.