Reconsidering Definitions of Terrorism: Putting the Spotlight on States and Impact

By Kate Lambroza (Georgetown University ’18), Guest Contributor

Graphic Design by Gabriella Mas (Georgetown University ’18)


Defining terrorism plagues organizations, agencies, and states alike. While terrorism dates back to the French revolution, the new tactics of international terrorist organizations have forced definitions to be modified. The problem with defining terrorism is that definitions often suit the needs of the definer. This means that it is difficult to find an unbiased definition of terrorism, which makes discussing terrorist activity from a scholarly standpoint challenging. The United States legal definition found in the US Code defines domestic terrorism as activities that “involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be 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.”[1] There are two main issues with this definition. First, if the purpose of committing terrorism is defined by the political motivation of affecting the policy of the government, then the government policies themselves cannot be considered terrorism and therefore the state cannot be considered as committing terrorism. This is alarming because over the course of history, states have inflicted more damage on their civilian populations than terrorist organizations. This is partially because they have a more dominant political position, but also because they have access to a larger pool of resources. The second issue is that the definition only addresses acts are intended to coerce and intimidate civilian populations as opposed to acts that have these consequences as a by-product. However, if we examine states’ actions in the past, then we find instances where the political motivation was to enact policy but the result was “dangerous to human life” and intimidation and coercion of civilians.[2] Thus, definitions of terrorism that emphasize the intent of actions rather than the impact are insufficient, as they fail to address the consequences of actions and therefore exclude states as perpetrators. Furthermore, a sufficient definition of terrorism includes but is not limited to acts that directly or indirectly result in mass-death of civilians and, or intimidation and coercion of a civilian population. Therefore, states can be inflictors of terrorism as they have routinely used methods to achieve political aims that indirectly met these results.

This essay examines two methods used by states to achieve political aims that illustrate how states can use terrorism. The first is the use of concentration camps by the Nazis in Germany during World War II and the Junta in Argentina from 1976 to 1983. The second is an examination of man-induced famines as a result of policy. The two famines discussed here are the Bengal Famine executed by British policies on food stock in Bengal during WWII and the Holodomor, which was a result of Joseph Stalin’s collectivization policies in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The concentration camps can be considered terrorism because although they were used to carry out the policies of the regimes, they had secondary consequences that manifested in mass death and intimidation and coercion of civilians. Similarly, the policies installed by Churchill and Stalin was originally to pursue political aims, but resulted in millions of civilian deaths and curtailment of resistance. Through these two sets of case studies, we find that the states that created the concentration camps and enacted these policies were responsible for committing acts of terrorism, proving that the US definition is insufficient.


Quantifying Death in Terms of ‘Mass-Death’

This essay identifies ‘mass-death’ as an indicator of committing a terrorist act, just as it considers intimidation and coercion as such. Applying meaning to quantification of death can often lead to accusations of diluting the severity of the loss of even a single life. On one hand, it should be considered that the loss of a single life is no more or less tragic than the loss of several lives,  following this ideological structure creates complications for using ‘mass-death’ in definitions of terrorism. While sub-state actors can easily be labeled as terrorists if they take a single innocent life, states can be excused since they have a legitimate monopoly of force. However, when extraordinary amounts of people begin to perish at the hands of a state, then their use of force is no longer legitimate. Therefore, characterizing ‘mass-death’ as an indicator of terrorism serves primarily but not exclusively to allow states to be considered terrorists. One could argue that the amount of people killed in Argentinian concentration camps is not nearly as many as those who perished in Nazi extermination camps such as Auschwitz-Birkeneau, and therefore there should be a further delineation of what is meant by ‘mass-death.’ However, the purpose of this essay is not to comment on the morals of quantifying death nor is it to hypothesize ways to do so, but instead to prove that the actions of states that have resulted in an extraordinary amount of deaths of civilians and complete permeation of fear into society should be constituted as terrorism.


A Note on Definitions of Terrorism           

While this essay works primarily within the framework of the US’ legal definition of terrorism, it is important to note why this choice was made and how this reflects on definitions of terrorism as a whole. First, there is no international official definition of terrorism, but instead a series of conventions that describe what acts would be universally considered terrorism. Furthermore, even though there is one legal definition of terrorism in the US, multiple government agencies have created their own definitions to suit their needs. Thus, there is no overarching official definition of terrorism and only one official legal definition within the United States. However, even this legal definition was not created until 1992. This young definition is illustrative of the challenges that defining terrorism presents. Furthermore, the definition was created in order to categorize the kind of terrorism that was happening at the time, which explains the amendment that was created in 2001 following the attack of the twin towers. Thus, the US definition of terrorism is currently outdated and must be modified in order to accommodate not just new types of terrorism but in order to offer a more comprehensive scope to include what we understand as terrorism today. Nonetheless, the official legal definition of the US was not chosen to illustrate the state’s lack of definitional intelligence, but rather as a reflection of the implications of defining terrorism in a way that excludes states and focuses on the intentions. The definition I work within puts an uneven focus on anti-state terrorism, even though “a complete classification and plausible conception of terrorism includes both counter-state and state terrorism,” since “the fact is that even small states have much more power to terrorize than even the most advanced antistate terrorists.”[3][4] Thus, as previously noted, “terrorism has occurred in virtually all parts of the world and in all types of society,” and even some “states that avoided or eliminated dissident violence were responsible for state terrorism against their own citizens.”[5] States will most likely never produce a definition that could implicate their very institution and since the largest international organization that is supposed to transcend the construction of statehood, the United Nations, is made up states, even the hope of an international definition seems futile. Nonetheless, when the time comes to hold a state accountable for an act deemed as terrorism by the five permanent members of the UN Security council, there will be a demand for an international definition.


Concentration Camps: Intentions and Impact

The legal definition of domestic terrorism in the United States is insufficient as it implicitly excludes Nazi Germany’s and Junta controlled Argentinian concentration camps. The camps were the result of the states’ policies and their creation was not intended to coerce and intimidate populations; in the case of the former the intention was to annihilate the Jews and in the latter to eliminate resistance to the regime. There are important differences between the Nazi and Junta regimes, but an Argentinian scholar notes that, “it is difficult in Argentina to speak about the Nazi genocide without referring at some point to our own recent history.”[6] In a more general sense, “the real purpose of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany as well as in Argentina was to reshape society.”[7] Thus, there are parallels in the way in which the regimes operated, specifically in their use of concentration camps. Despite the intentions of the camps, the presence of mass-death leading to coercion and intimidation as result of the camps in Nazi and Junta society is enough to consider them acts of terrorism. The concentration camps of the respective regimes permeated society with immense fear, coercing people into cooperation and intimidating them so much as to hinder resistance. While the concentration camps did work as a deterrence method against a civil revolt, there were exceptions in which individuals risked their lives to save others from the perils of the regimes. However, even the minority of those who did so lived under the constant knowledge that exposure would mean certain death. The coercion and intimidation of the civilian populations as a result of the use of camps highlight how states can impact civilians in a way that constitutes as terrorism.

The Nazi concentration camps created intimidation and coercion of civilians on two primary levels: the inevitability of death within the camp gave prisoners no choice but to submit to the norms instilled by the Nazis within the camps, and the sheer prevalence of the camps in Nazi occupied territories worked as a deterrent method to eliminate revolt from within the civilian population. The first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, was set up to imprison political opponents and eliminate resistance to the regime, but the camp system later became the primary means of carrying out the genocide of the European Jewry under the state policy of the “Final Solution.” The concentration camps, which were “distinctive feature of the regime,” killed the prisoners at an unprecedented rate making death feel impending.[8] The Nazis are estimated to have murdered approximately 6 million Jews, although this has recently become a controversial estimate and some scholars estimate the number to be as high as 8 million. Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi concentration camps, killed approximately 1.25 million civilians, most of whom were Jews, on the “human-to-ashes conveyer belt.”[9] Although it has been noted that the Nazis in total killed less people than the Soviets did during WWII, “the annual odds of dying under the Nazi occupation were almost two-and-a-half times that of Soviet citizens being killed by their government since 1917.”[10] Their methods for killing prisoners within the camps have been compared to “a stopwatch system, at the center of the best human technology, knowledge, and efficiency.”[11] It is indisputable that the Nazis committed the most systematic and technologically advanced genocide the world has ever seen with the concentration, labor, and extermination camps at the center of their operation. The mass death facilitated by the camps discouraged deviations from the prescribed accepted behavior of the prisoners. Thus within the camps, the pervasive fear of death as a result of the horror of the “Final Solution,” succeeded in oppressing the victims.

Nazi concentration camps also intimidated and coerced civilians beyond the walls of the camps. While those who perished in the camps met some of the most abysmal fates under the Nazi regime, the camps were also a “a two-way device, operating both on inmates of the camp and on society as whole.”[12] The Nazis from 1939 to 1945 created 6 extermination camps and set up approximately 15,000 labor camps, which “were designed not only to punish individual prisoners but also to terrorize the wider population from which the inmates of the camps were drawn.”[13] The Nazis did not advertise these camps as a deterrent method, but it would be naïve to say that they were hidden from the civilian population. Unlike the Soviet Gulags, the camps were in areas that could be easily accessed by those outside of the camps, for example, Auschwitz lies only a few hours outside of Poland’s second largest city – Krakow. In fact, “there was at least one camp within fifty miles of every major city so that the whole of society was trapped in a giant web of horror.”[14] The camps then, particularly the labor camps due to their prevalence, “remained a part of everyday life in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe.”[15] When neighbors are arrested and children are brainwashed with Nazi propaganda there is no doubt that people lived in perpetual fear. Moreover, when the places where these people are taken are numerous and known, civilians become paralyzed in their existence under the regime. Thus, byproducts of intimidation and coercion from the use of concentration camps illustrate how the Nazis committed terrorism.

The creation and use of concentration camps under the Junta in Argentina highlights a similar discrepancy as the Nazi concentration camps in the context of the US definition of terrorism focusing on intentions and excluding states as perpetrators. I recognize that the Argentinian concentration camps existed on a much smaller scale with a much different intentions than those of Nazi Germany. The concentration, labor, and extermination camps used by the Nazis in WWII were a means to carry out genocide, whereas, the Argentinian concentration camps were not created to eradicate an ethnic group, but to use a “program of forced disappearances, torture, and murder as a “Process of National Reorganization.”[16] Nonetheless, the Argentinian camps also functioned on the same two levels as the Nazi concentration camps, intimidating and coercing civilians in and outside of the camps. Furthermore, under the Junta regime there was an additional layer of completely arbitrary arrests, which contributed to injecting trepidation into all aspects of daily routines.

Although the Junta camps did not kill at the same rate as the Nazi concentration camps, they were notorious for their excessive use on torture as a method of extracting information and setting an example to influence other prisoners within the camps. One survivor of an Argentinian camp shared that, “concentration camps were the operating theaters where surgery took place – it is not coincidence that operating theater was the name given to torture chambers. They were also, no doubt, the testing ground for a new society: orderly, controlled, and terrified.”[17] The torture, then, was also used to deconstruct a prisoner’s sense identity, making them suitable agents for a complete restructuring of society. Thus, the violence used within the camps deterred adversarial behaviors of the inmates.

The amount of the concentration camps and their locations worked to intimidate and coerce civilians outside of the camps. The camps then operated on the internal level using violence to punish and repress the prisoners in brutal forms, but similarly to Nazi camps instilled a considerable amount of fear in the civilian population. The Junta set up approximately 500 concentration camps in the seven years they were in rule.[18] The first camp was created in the “provincial level of Tucuman,” where there was known militarized opposition to the regime.[19] As the Junta strengthened its foundation, they “went on to target Argentine society as a whole.”[20] The presence of the camps was known to Argentinian societies, as “the whole of Argentina was criss-crossed with concentration camps, including territories where there had previously been no organized military forces or brigades.”[21] Thus, these camps became part of Argentinian society, serving as a constant reminder of what could be if one was to be considered guilty of political treason.

While the profiles of those arrested by the Nazis became increasingly more narrow as the Nazis moved away from political opponents to primarily targeting Jews, the exact opposite happened in Argentina under the Junta. Those who participated in protests against the regime were the first to be put in the concentration camps, but as time went on, arrests and detentions became mostly arbitrary. Such randomness denied civilians from conceiving of a pattern of arrests, meaning that civilians could never be sure what would be construed as a transgression landing them in a camp. Eventually, “the targets of the military junta was anyone who committed a subversion to the dictatorship – a subversion being a physical act or a mere internalized thought.[22] Fear of arrest provided an incentive for civilians to inform the authorities of their neighbors’ activities, “suggesting through terror that this would be the only way to survive.”[23] Thus, the randomness of arrests and the sheer intrusive presence of the camps imposed “a particular model of society though terror and death.”[24] We see again how the impact of concentration camps is truly what constitutes an act of terrorism, which as proven can be carried out by a state.


State Policies: Intent and Impact

There is a pool of literature on concentration camps, their practical use and psychology behind them. There are other ways, however, that states can commit terrorism against civilians that do not present brick and mortar evidence. State policies can cause mass-death and intimidation and coercion by enforcing certain economic restrictions. While concentration camps illustrate a kind of additive form of state policy by creating tangible objects specifically designed to kill and imprison those identified by the regime, state policies that restrict food supplies can be considered subtractive. These famines often garner less scholarly attention and states are less likely to have to accept accountability because it is more difficult to prove that the famine was the goal of the states. Concentration camps, on the other hand, present a tragic piece of leverage that can be held against states when accusing them of genocide or terrorism. However, man-induced famines caused by state policies have resulted in millions of deaths from starvation and disease. Calculating deaths in the major famines of the 20th century is difficult because “starvation and disease fed off one another,” but estimated death tolls still reach into the millions.[25] Thus, similar to concentration camps, man-induced famines have the intention of political aims but also have dire effects on civilian population. Examination of the Bengal Famine and the Holodomor provides evidence that US definition of terrorism is insufficient in that excludes events where the intent was political but the impact was mass death, and intimidation and coercion.

The Bengal Famine was a result of numerous, consecutive policies instituted by Winston Churchill regulating food supply in Bengal during World War II. The policies were created to aid the British in the war against Nazi Germany and the rise of fascism in Europe. India, as a British colony, became the largest contributor to the war effort in the British Empire excluding Britain itself. Many parts of India’s economy were used by Britain, including “commercial production of timber, woolen textiles, and leather goods, and three-quarters of its steel and cement production,” but the agriculture industry was most affected.[26] The lack of domestically grown food and access to imported food supply in Bengal cannot be completely attributed to the British policies. There were a series of factors that created the Bengal famine, not least that crucial rice importation trade routes from Burma by Thailand were  blocked when the Japanese occupied Southeast Asia.[27] As a result of this occupation, imports of rice into Bengal decreased by almost 50 percent from 1941 to 1942. However, the British continued policies that exacerbated the situation, even though they knew full well the level of starvation that already existed in Bengal.

One of the most infamous policies created by Winston Churchill was referred to as the “scorching-earth policy,” which was later renamed the “Denial Policy.” In anticipation of a likely invasion of Bengal by the Japanese, Churchill issued an order on November 14th 1941, instructing any means of transportation (railroad lines, main roads etc.) to be destroyed and to eliminate all food supplies – leaving just enough for “local inhabitants.”[28] The intention of these policies was to ensure a speedy exit of Japanese troops in order to strengthen Britain’s position in the war by getting rid of a Japanese strong hold. However, a direct result of these policies was removal of rice “from traders’ storehouses and landowners’ golas, or miniature silos. In the confusion and panic, the vital caveat of leaving enough food for the people would be disregarded.”[29] By 1943, there was “a gap between rice production and consumption of 2 million tons in Bengal alone, with a 3.5 million ton shortage in India overall.”[30] The impact of these policies, specifically the Denial Policy, but also the absolute ravaging of Indian resources for the war, lead to the death of approximately 3 million Indians.[31] The starvation among civilians in Bengal, who were still members of the British Empire, was so profound that there are accounts of mothers killing their infants in order to end hunger pains. Beyond the physical torture of chronic hunger, “the effect on the psyche of prolonged hunger is profound.”[32] Thus, starvation that does not result in death leaves permanent damage on a person’s physical and mental health. The Bengal Famine exemplifies how the definition of terrorism must focus on consequences as the policies of the British were intended to pursue political aims, but the impact was mass death of civilians, therefore constituting them as acts of terrorism.

The Bengal Famine, while not well documented, is comparable to other man-induced famines that have gathered more attention. The Holodomor, loosely translating to “plague of hunger” in Ukrainian, was a famine created by the collectivization policies of Joseph Stalin from 1932 to 1933. Collectivization was a key part of communism, making all agricultural land property of the state. The policies that induced the famine were targeted specifically at the Kulaks, who were considered the more educated and somewhat elite farmers in Ukraine. However, similar to the unpredictability of arrests under the Junta, eventually the term Kulak became a political weapon of the state, and was applied to anyone that diverged from the accepted ideologies. Thus, Stalin used the term Kulak to categorize those who he perceived to be a threat the regime’s political goals. It is argued that Stalin instituted “starvation as a means of terror… in Ukraine as early as 1921, with the aim of crushing the so called ‘banditism of kulaks.”[33] These early policies pertaining to grain were primarily for revitalizing the Russian economy through ensuring hefty exports. However, as the regime consolidated its power, the “grain procurement plans grew out of proportion… the state stripped the collective farms completely of their harvest.”[34] At the height of the famine in 1932, it became clear that “the aim was to make starvation as severe as possible.”[35] Anatomically, those who were starving physically do not have the means to resist the regime, but the lack of the Ukrainians’ physical capabilities was also symbolic of the omnipotence of the USSR. The horror stories of cannibalism and rampant diseases that came out of the famine were part of the Soviet propaganda campaigns that “presented these ‘food difficulties’ as a consequence of the sabotage conducted by kulaks in collective farms.”[36] Even though the Kulaks were the primary victims of the famine created by Soviet policies, those who suffered as collateral damage were quickly redirected by the state to blame the very group being persecuted. The Holodomor, which often gets clumped together with other events of Soviet terror, killed approximately 7 to 10 million members of the Soviet Union.[37] Just as the policies of the British were partially to aid the war effort and subdue murmurings of an Indian independence, so were the grain policies under Stalin meant to institute collectivization but both resulted in mass death and intimidation and coercion of the civilian population.



There is no doubt that the means of perpetrators of terrorism have experienced a dramatic shift over the last two decades. The advent of the suicide bomber and using religion to justify statehood has fundamentally changed the world’s understanding of how terrorists operate on the global scale. The current legal definition offered in this essay includes groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS that commit acts “dangerous to human lives” that are “intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” in order to affect the policy of a government. There would be little hesitation in defining these groups as international terrorists, just as there was little debate over whether or not the Boston bombers were domestic terrorists; their actions fit in well with the US definition of terrorism and the US had no problem applying this definition in their handling of the trial. In this particular case, the US legal definition of domestic terrorism fulfilled its purpose. However, there are plenty of circumstances in which this definition can be deemed insufficient. As proven, the state use of concentration camps and state policies resulting in man-induced famines also create intimidation and coercion of a civilian population. Furthermore, despite states having a legitimate monopoly on the use of force, the mass-death that resulted from these policies delegitimizes them as acceptable actions of the states. To return to the definition at hand, whether or not these actions “appear to be intended” to intimidate or coerce, they do so nonetheless. Moreover, these are acts carried out by states rather than non-state or sub-state actors, layering another part of insufficiency on the US definition of terrorism. Therefore, the current definition needs to be modified in order to focus on impact rather than intention, which will allow for the inclusion of states.

While this essay only addresses one specific legal definition of terrorism, there are literally hundreds of definitions floating around between scholars, agencies, states, organizations, and institutions. The goal of an international definition that states will abide by seems entirely futile, considering that such a definition would have to allow states to be held accountable for terrorism. However, a conceivable solution would be to have a state that is at the forefront of protecting human rights domestically and internationally and that has significant impact on the international community, instill a new status quo by adopting a more comprehensive definition of terrorism, widening the scope to focus on impact and include states as offenders.


Work Cited

Daniel Feierstein. Genocide as Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under the Nazis and Argentina’s Military Juntas. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2014. Print.

Lutz Terrorism: Origins and Evolution. N.p.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Print.

J. Rummel Death by Government. Transaction Publishers. Kindle Edition

Jeffrey A Sluka. Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 2010.  Print.

Alec Torres “Ukraine’s Genocide by Famine.” National Review. N.p., 09 Nov. 2013. Web. 10 May 2017.

Madhusree Mukerjee. Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during   World War II. Sydney: Read How You Want, 2011. Print

Christian Noack Holodomor and Gorta Mór: Histories, Memories and Representations of Famine in Ukraine and Ireland. London: Anthem, 2014. Print.

Milan Zafirovski and Daniel G. Rodeheaver. Modernity and Terrorism: From Anti-modernity to Modern Global Terror. Leiden: Brill, 2014. Print.

“18 U.S. Code § 2331 – Definitions.” LII / Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School, n.d. Web. 10 May 2017

[1] “18 U.S. Code § 2331 – Definitions.” LII / Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School, n.d. Web. 10 May 2017.

[2] Ibid, (5)(A).

[3] Milan Zafirovski and Daniel G. Rodeheaver. Modernity and Terrorism: From Anti-modernity to Modern Global Terror. Leiden: Brill, 2014. Print.

[4] Jeffrey A. Sluka, Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 2010. Print.

[5]  J. Lutz, Terrorism: Origins and Evolution. N.p.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Print.

[6] Daniel Feierstein, Genocide as Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under the Nazis and Argentinas Military Juntas. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2014. Print.

[7] Ibid, 197.

[8]  Rummel, R. J.. Death by Government (Kindle Location 1768). Transaction Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[9] Ibid, 2244.

[10] Ibid, 2272.

[11] Ibid, 2242.

[12] Feierstein, 191.

[13] Ibid, 7.

[14] Ibid, 197.

[15] Ibid, 6.

[16] Ibid, 1.

[17] Ibid, 151.

[18] Ibid, 197.

[19] Ibid, 135.

[20] Ibid, 134.

[21] Ibid, 134.

[22] Ibid, 162.

[23] Ibid, 170.

[24] Ibid, 162.

[25] Madhusree Mukerjee. Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II. Sydney: Read How You Want, 2011. Print

[26] Ibid, 5.

[27] Ibid, 53.

[28] Ibid, 64.

[29] Ibid, 64.

[30] Ibid, 106.

[31] Ibid, 271.

[32] Ibid, 152.

[33]Christian Noack. Holodomor and Gorta Mór: Histories, Memories and Representations of Famine in Ukraine and Ireland. London: Anthem, 2014. Print.

[34] Ibid, 25.

[35] Ibid, 24.

[36] Ibid, 26.

[37], Alec Torres. “Ukraine’s Genocide by Famine.” National Review. N.p., 09 Nov. 2013. Web. 10 May 2017.



Leave a Reply