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 (

Michael Howard’s article in January 2022, How to Fight Terrorism, makes several good points:

●  “To declare war on terrorists ..is at once to accord [them] a status and dignity that they seek and that they do not deserve. It confers on them a kind of legitimacy.”

●  “The qualities needed in a serious campaign against terrorists — secrecy, intelligence, political sagacity, quiet ruthlessness, covert actions that remain covert, above all infinite patience — all these are forgotten or overridden in a media-stoked frenzy for immediate results, and nagging complaints if they do not get them.”

●  “Who in the United Kingdom will ever forget Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, when in 1972 a few salvos of small-arms fire by the British army gave the Irish Republican Army a propaganda victory from which the British government would never recover? And if so much harm can be done by rifle fire, what is one to say about bombing? It is like trying to eradicate cancer cells with a blowtorch.”

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 1,200 Israeli civilians on 7 October 2023 was designed to provoke a violent reaction by Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government obligingly responded by declaring war on Hamas.  It bombed apartment buildings, attracting worldwide criticism – including condemnation by the UN Secretary-General, as reported by Reuters on 21 January 2024:

“”Israel’s military operations have spread mass destruction and killed civilians on a scale unprecedented during my time as secretary-general,” Guterres said

Israel’s campaign has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities on Sunday, and displaced most of the enclave’s 2.3 million people from their homes.”

The resultant wave of support for Palestine, and the increase in anti-Semitism, were what Hamas wanted.  It is the latest episode in a series of acts of terrorism followed by excessive responses – as described earlier (

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


Next Segment

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/edition04/728b.htm.

[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.