What is terrorism?

Terrorism is regularly spoken about on the news, and has been a major discussion point for politicians across the world over the past 50 years. But what is terrorism? Is it a new crime, and can we define what it is?

You can download the worksheet below. If you are unable to download the worksheet, please complete the questions in the yellow box as you go through this webpage.


Good if you can define what terrorism means to you.
Great if you can compare different historical examples of terrorism.
Amazing if you can evaluate your definition of terrorism following today’s lesson.


Watch the following video on the Manchester Arena attack that occurred in May 2017.

What method did the terrorist use?
What affect has this had on the survivors that attended the concert?
Why might the terrorist have committed this crime?

TASK ONE: What is terrorism?

Terrorism is a tricky subject. Journalists, politicians, historians and political scientists cannot agree on what terrorism really means.

Based on the video that you have just watched, and your own knowledge, write down a definition of what you think terrorism is.

When writing your definition, consider:
– Is terrorism different to other violent crimes?
– Do terrorists use certain methods?
– Do terrorists have certain aims?

TASK TWO: What similarities and differences are there in examples of terrorism?

Look at the examples of the terrorist incidents below. Whilst reading, input the information about these incidents in to a venn diagram to show the similarities and differences of the following:

1) The aims of the terrorists.
2) The methods used by the terrorists.
3) The reaction of the public.
4) Are there any other similarities or differences you can pick out?

The Reign of Terror – France, 1790s

Maximilien Robespierre

Maximilien Robespierre was a French revolutionary that took power in France following the French Revolution. Robespierre was responsible for setting up a new government in France that looked to remove the power of King Louis XVI and the Church. The new method of government, known as the French First Republic, set up an early form of democracy that allowed the people of France to vote for their representatives for the first time.

Despite this, there were still many in France that supported the King and the Church having more power than the people. To Robespierre, it looked like if these people were not dealt with, the French First Republic could fall apart. He needed to remove these people to allow the revolution to succeed.

‘The King must die so that the country may live!’

Maximillian Robespierre

To remove the threat to the new French government, Robespierre’s government allowed the execution of anyone who was found to support the King and the old political order. It was declared by the government that terror was ‘the order of the day’.

40,000 people were executed by the guillotine, an instrument of death that became feared across France. People targeted included important members of the Church, people who supported the King, and even the King himself. King Louis XVI was executed on the 21st January 1793.

The execution of King Louis XVI became a defining moment in France’s Reign of Terror.

People became increasingly worried about whether the Revolutionary government would find them guilty or not. They lived in a constant state of fear: although many agreed with the aim of what they were trying to achieve, they did not want to voice their concerns of the new government’s methods.

Eventually, a counter-Revolutionary group formed that arrested Robespierre. They found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to death, bringing France’s Reign of Terror to an end.

The Sicarii – Jerusalem, 54 AD

The Roman Empire stretched across the Meditteranean at its height, commanding land from Southern England to North Africa to Arabia. Despite its success, the Romans struggled to please the many different people it ruled over: these communities were extremely different to one another, and many did not like being ruled by a foreign power. It was hard for Roman leaders to adapt and ensure it ruled effectively in these places.

Map of the Roman Empire in 54 AD

One group that argued against Roman rule were the Zealots. These were strict Jewish individuals who observed the Torah (the Jewish holy texts) and argued that Jerusalem should be run by Jewish leaders.

The Sicarii were a splinter group of Zealots that looked to use violent shock-tactics to encourage an independent Jewish state. They dressed normally and kidnapped or murdered other Jewish men and women that chose to work with the Roman Empire in Jerusalem using sicas (daggers). These assassinations or kidnappings would often take place during the day in crowded areas. Their tactics brought a state of fear to Jerusalem. The Sicarii hoped their actions would stop people working with their Roman leaders and encourage the Romans to leave Jerusalem.

7 July London Bombings – London, 2005

On the 7th July 2005, four suicide bombers detonated explosives around Central London that claimed the lives of 52 people and injured hundreds more. It remains to be the most devastating terrorist attack in British history.

Coordinated bomb attacks took place on the Transport for London network at Aldgate, Edgeware Road and Russell Square underground stations, and also on a London bus near Tavistock Square. These attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists from the UK.

At the time, Britain was at war in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Both countries were Muslim countries in the Middle East. Following the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, a number of Western countries assisted in the invasion of these countries, targeting extremist groups that encouraged terrorist attacks.

The involvement in the Middle East by Britain appeared to be the main motivation of the attackers.

‘… Our democratically-elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security you will be our targets and until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation’.

Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the terrorist attack, in his video recording that was taped before the London bombings.

Although the events were shocking with devastating consequences, the incident did not force the British government to withdraw troops from Iraq or Afghanistan. Despite the horror, the British public did not stop using public transport or put pressure on the government to withdraw from the war. Instead, people choose to remember the people that died as heroes in a cowardly act. The aims of the terrorists were therefore not met.

TASK THREE: So what is terrorism?

Look back at your definition of terrorism that you wrote in Task One.

1 a) Do you think your definition successfully defines what terrorism is after reading the three case studies today?
1 b) Which part of your definition would you keep, and what would you change?
2) Rewrite your definition based on what you have learnt today. Use the following sentences to help you sum up what you put in your Venn diagram:
Terrorism always… (for something you found to be true in all three case studies)
Terrorism usually… (for something you found to be true in two of the case studies)
Terrorism sometimes… (for something you found true in only one case study).


Based on what you have learnt today, why do you think people studying terrorism find it a difficult to give ‘terrorism’ a definition?

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