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Who Is a Terrorist?

The Politics behind Labelling

Dhruba Raj Adhikari ( is a PhD candidate at the Central China Normal University, China.

Terrorism committed by states and their agents has been responsible for millions of deaths worldwide in the last two centuries. Yet the mainstream literature seems to be obsessed with terrorism perpetrated by non-state actors, and state terrorism remains an under-theorised and under-studied concept as compared to its non-state avatar. It is important, therefore, to critically look at the dominant discourse on terrorism; and the politics behind labelling someone as a terrorist needs to be interrogated thoroughly.

It was an ancien régime supported by the most powerful modern liberal democratic state of the world. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)— CPN(M)—was leading a spectacular resistance of the people against a medieval regime. The Nepali Maoists were declared “terrorists,” and their brutal suppression by the monarch’s Royal Nepali Army (RNA) became a part of the “global war on terror,” initiated by the United States (US) after the 9/11 attacks. To support the “war on terror,” was the most convenient way for the unpopular dictators in the Global South to gather legitimacy and support for their actions from the global hegemon, the US.

It was the year 2005. One day, the RNA surrounded our home, vandalised whatever furniture and utensils we had, and took away our family albums. My father was arrested a few months later and my mother moved in with my relatives. I was in the People’s Liberation Army and my brothers and sisters were pursuing higher education in the city. The only member of our family staying in the village home was my grandmother. However, the RNA did not spare even an old woman. They beat her mercilessly with the butts of their assault rifles, kicked her and left her unconscious. After the army left, the villagers took her to a hospital in Pokhra, a nearby city.

Every evening, the government radio would broadcast the news supplied by the RNA, mentioning the number of “terrorists” killed in “encounters.” Needless to say, most of the “encounters” were fake, and the so-called “terrorists” were no other than ordinary citizens or unarmed party cadres. During the 10-year civil war (1996–2005), around 17,000 Nepalis were killed by the state security forces and thousands disappeared. King Gyanendra’s men left no stone unturned in their effort to delegitimise the CPN(M) and People’s Liberation Army in the eyes of ordinary citizens and the international community. One of my schoolmates disappeared after he was arrested by the RNA from my hometown. After a few days, the army pulled out his father, a secondary school tutor, from the classroom where he was teaching and shot him dead.

The Nepali media during this period did not dare to write about these incidents. The pages of even the most renowned national dailies, published from Kathmandu, were filled with the royal propaganda, and only the information provided by the state security forces was considered authentic. They would rarely publish information provided by the Maoist side. There can be no denial of the fact that these bad memories of the civil war in Nepal have turned me into a sceptic. Even these days, I think thrice before buying into official claims related to any rebel outfits or even about whom they call terrorists.

The mainstream literature on terrorism seems to be obsessed with terrorism as perpetrated by non-state actors. However, this obsession with non-state terrorism makes me feel uncomfortable, especially due to the following reasons. First, what is labelled as “terrorism” by the governments in their official narratives, many a time, does not fall into the category of terrorism. Revolutions, rebellions, insurgencies, protests—anything that tries to disrupt the status quo is portrayed as terrorism by the ruling oligarchies. Second, securitising a wide spectrum of resistance, labelling it as terrorism, and adopting extraordinary measures in the name of security often lead to the erosion of personal freedoms and liberties of people. Finally, such an approach might result in a failure on the part of the policymakers and other responsible stakeholders to understand the underlying opportunities often provided by conflicts to transform polities and societies (Lederach 2003).

Moreover, historically, it has mostly been the state that has perpetrated terrorism, and non-state terrorism is often a mirror image of it or a response to it. According to Hoffman (2006: 43), “contemporary terrorism,” that is non-state terrorism, became “a more pervasive global force” only after 1945. This article attempts to look into the definitions of terrorism, including its classification into non-state and state terrorism, and differentiates non-state terrorism from insurgencies/rebellions and revolutions. It also tries to lay bare the politics behind labelling someone a terrorist.

Defining Terrorism

The word “terrorism” was first introduced into popular discourse during the French Revolution and had a positive connotation at the time, unlike today. The Jacobins, who established a revolutionary dictatorship, adopted a regime de la terreur (reign of terror) (1793–94) for maintaining law and order during a period of transition following the revolutionary upheaval (Hoffman 2006: 3). In the 21st century, terrorism is perceived in popular imagination, and for the right reasons, as a totally negative phenomenon and is equated with extreme cruelty and insanity. Paul Wilkinson (2011: 4) observes that terrorism can be, conceptually and empirically, categorised as a kind of violence that “violates the norms regulating dispute, protest and dissent.” Terrorism aims at creating extreme fear in a target group by perpetrating premeditated violence on immediate victim(s) (Wilkinson 2011: 4).

The perpetrator of terrorism might be a state or non-state actor. However, Laqueur (2002) in his book, A History of Terrorism, exclusively focuses on terrorism perpetrated by non-state actors. Wilkinson argues that even though state terrorism might have been carried out by undemocratic governments in the past, in modern functioning democracies, the major agents who perpetrate terrorism are non-state actors, and state terrorism is not the prime threat to the security of people (Wilkinson 2011: 6). But, a cursory look at the history of modern capitalist nation states suggests otherwise. Violence and terrorism carried out by so-called modern democratic states was a major security threat to the people in the 19th and 20th centuries, and it is even more so today (Blakeley 2010; Chomsky and Vltchek 2013; Roy 2009; Jackson et al 2010).

Amid disagreement among different scholars on the nature and scope of terrorism, the following definition of terrorism provided by Wardlaw seems to be the most tenable and comprehensive:

Political terrorism is the use, or threat of use, of violence by an individual or a group, whether acting for or in opposition to established authority, when such action is designed to create extreme anxiety and/or fear-inducing effects in a target group larger than the immediate victims with the purpose of coercing that group into acceding to the political demands of the perpetrators. (Wardlaw 1989: 16)

Non-state and State Terrorism

Wardlaw (1989) provides scope for including the state as a perpetrator of terrorism in contrast to the US Department of State’s definition, which portrays terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience” (cited in Roger 2008: 174). For the US Department of State, there cannot be any state terrorism, perhaps, because it is one of the states in the world which routinely practises violence that falls into the category of terrorism, if we go by Wardlaw’s definition.

State terrorism needs to be treated as a distinct category for three reasons. First, the harm inflicted by the state on the people has been much larger in volume in history as compared to that caused by non-state actors. The “sub-national groups” and “clandestine agents” do not have the capability to kill and torture people on a massive scale, which is possible for a modern state, until and unless they get access to weapons of mass destruction. Second, terrorism is not defined by the identity of the actor, but by method or tactics of violence used. When violence is used instrumentally upon a non-combatant victim to have an effect on a wider audience, it is terrorism regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. Third, the proper theorising of the phenomenon of state terrorism is important (Blakeley 2009; Jackson et al 2010) if genocides and mass murders being perpetrated by the states against minority ethnic communities have to be stopped.

State terrorism can be domestic or international. In 2002, more than 2,000 men, women and children were killed by Hindu extremists, allegedly backed by the state government of Gujarat, in India (Murphy 2010). This is one of the examples of domestic state terrorism. The state security forces in Nepal were responsible for thousands of extrajudicial killings, rapes, disappearances and torture during the civil war (1996–2005) (UNOHCHR 2012), and this can be deemed as another example of state terrorism at a domestic level.

The US government’s foreign policy conduct provides ample examples of international state terrorism, as it has been the biggest perpetrator of premeditated violence against civilian targets since World War II. To provide some well-known examples, 2,46,000 people were killed by atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US in August 1945. After the end of the two world wars, Western colonial and neo-colonial policies have caused the death of 50 to 55 million people globally. In 1965, after the failure of an attempted coup in Indonesia, between 5,00,000 and 3,000,000 communists and their sympathisers were killed by the state machinery, with the support of and help from the US (Chomsky and Vltchek 2013).

The bombing of Chile’s presidential palace and killing of the democratically elected left-wing President Salvador Allende in 1973 in a US-backed coup; repeated assassination attempts upon Cuba’s President, Fidel Castro, by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents; unleashing of Contra terror against the popularly elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s, etc, are some of the examples of state terrorism perpetrated by different US administrations (Blakeley 2009).

However, it is not always easy to differentiate between domestic and international state terrorism. For example, during General Pinochet’s repressive 17-year rule in Chile, violence was perpetrated by the government, but it had operational, political, economic and logistical support from the US.

“Scholars of terrorism have not only looked at terrorism as a particular kind of violence,” but they “have also been sensitive to discursive use and impact of the term terrorism” (Verkaaik 2008: 328). In this sense, labelling someone as a terrorist itself involves a great deal of politics. It is often said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Governments prefer to label their armed opponents as terrorists for a number of reasons. The primary reason could be that the state is presumed to have a legitimate claim over the monopoly of violence (Jackson et al 2010: 3). However, what politicians and some academics often do not realise is that this claim originates from a “social contract” among individuals. If the state begins to kill the people it is supposed to protect, the people should have the right to resort to counter-violence in self-defence. It is widely agreed that the international community has the “right to protect” the victims of state-sponsored violence. In such a scenario, the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence by a repressive state in itself should be deemed outrightly illegitimate.

Another reason behind the politics of labelling someone as a terrorist is that it opens the door to “‘exceptionalism.” It is often perceived that the terrorist label provides legitimacy to the “excessive use of force and the violation of human rights” (Verkaaik 2008: 329) even by states having liberal democratic pretentions. In the name of defending liberal democratic values, the ruling elite start resorting to extrajudicial killings and other measures that violate human rights. Thus, “normlessness is the only way state power actualises itself” (Gudavarthy 2014: 46).

The “global war on terror,” initiated by the US after the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 11 September 2001, provides one of the most glaring examples of a democratic government resorting to terrorist measures in the name of counterterrorism. The attack on a civilian target like the World Trade Center was, no doubt, a morally deplorable act, but it was presumably symbolic, selective, and was meant to send a message to the US government to stop the kind of policies it was pursuing in the West Asia. It was undoubtedly a terrorist attack and a criminal act because of the instrumental use of violence against innocent citizens of the US, who many a time have disagreed with their government’s West Asian policies. However, the drone attacks and indiscriminate bombings by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its allies in different parts of the world, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been no less barbaric and have caused enormous casualties. During the 11 September terrorist attacks, 2,753 civilians were killed and around 6,000 others were wounded, while the US attacks on Afghanistan and Pakistan led to the death of 53,519 civilians between October 2001 and July 2006 (Watson Institute 2016). This figure does not include casualties of the armed personnel and the jihadists. Besides, the attempt to exterminate an elusive and surreptitious enemy like the Al-Qaeda, which has a global network, by bombing remote villages of a particular country was completely irrational.

The very definition of terrorism provided by the US Department of State is a part of the power/knowledge nexus that serves the US’s interests by keeping its foreign policy conduct—which involves gross human rights violations—outside the purview of the anti-terrorism radar of the global civil society. The power/knowledge (Foucault 1980) dynamics plays a crucial role in the development of the discourse on terrorism. According to Foucault, “each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true” (Rainbow 1984: 73). The US Department of State, “charged with saying what counts as true” (Rainbow 1984: 73) when it comes to security matters, decides who is a terrorist and which acts fall under the rubric of terrorism. These beliefs/views are then imposed on the rest of the world by the global hegemon.

Recent wars in Syria and other countries in the West Asia have shown that the US and other great powers do not hesitate to attack even civilian targets if that serves their national security interests. It is rather unfortunate that many of the powerful states of the Global North have routinely used state terrorism as an instrument for achieving their foreign policy goals (Blakeley 2009: 4), despite their practice of liberal democracy at home. Similarly, governments in the Global South perpetrate violence against their own citizens. Therefore, it is important for the people of the Global South to recognise state terrorism, perpetrated by the great powers and their proxy states, as a major threat to human security.

Coming back to the civil war in Nepal, successive Nepali governments tried to suppress the people’s armed resistance by declaring the CPN(M) a terrorist organisation and by introducing anti-terrorism acts. The declaration of emergency by invoking certain constitutional provisions repeatedly turned “exceptionalism” into a normal practice, and liberal individual rights of the people were snatched away in a gradual fashion. King Gyanendra and his government labelled the Maoist rebels as terrorists in order to provide legitimacy for the terrorism unleashed by the state machinery.

I argue that the Maoist rebels were not terrorists; they were revolutionaries who wanted to end the monarchy and establish a republican democratic system in Nepal. They were not terrorists because they did not have any instrumental policy of using indiscriminate violence against non-combatants and unarmed civilians to terrorise the larger audience. They did have an alternative administrative and legal system. They held people’s courts, usually called “kangaroo courts” by their opponents, and these courts could also award the “death penalty.” Terrorism was not their modus operandi. The killings by state security forces were indiscriminate and brutal as compared to the targeted assassinations by rebels of people whom they deemed to be informers and state agents (Adhikari 2014).

When it comes to non-state terrorism, governments, politicians and some academics often try to blur the distinction between terrorism, insurgency and revolution. This might serve the vested political interests of dictators and pseudo-democrats, but it does not serve the purpose of academic research and writing. Such conceptual confusion will not serve any enlightened political interest as well. The insurgents and the revolutionaries might sometimes use terror tactics in the initial phase of their struggle, but terrorism is not their modus operandi. Therefore, it is not reasonable to categorise them as terrorists.

Revolutionaries have their own political programmes and ideas about organising society, which stem not from obscurantist dogmas but their belief in the concepts of democracy, justice and equality. They do not resort to the instrumentality of indiscriminate violence. In contrast, terrorists are terrorists because their prime modus operandi is terrorism, that is, the instrumental use of indiscriminate violence against soft targets like non-combatants, justified and glorified in the name of religious and other types of doctrines.

While revolutionaries aim to overthrow or radically restructure the state apparatus, insurgents rebel against a legitimate government to get their grievances addressed, and this may include violence and terror in their repertoire of resistance. The insurgents—especially ethnic and others—might push for power sharing too. Revolutionaries need to be viewed positively because they are agents of progress and change in societies. Insurgencies can be read as indicators of faulty institutional designs in different polities. If conflicts are taken as manifestations of structural violence and opportunities to transform the existing polities and societies, they can contribute to sustainable and just peace and prosperity (Lederach 2003).

Both revolutionaries and insurgents focus on institutions, while terrorists target the minds and the bodies of the people rather than merely the institutions. The ultimate aim of terrorism is to exterminate the “other,” and terrorists should be brought to book. A responsible state while dealing with them should follow due process of law so that it can differentiate itself from an enemy that has no moral compunctions.


My personal encounter with security issues, especially during the civil war in Nepal, informs me that usually it is not that easy to determine who is a terrorist and who is not. The whole discourse on terrorism is extremely political in nature and reflects the interplay of power and knowledge. The US Department of State’s definition of terrorism excludes any possibility of state terrorism. However, if indiscriminate violence is inflicted on non-combatant victims to create extreme fear in a wider audience, it is terrorism irrespective of who perpetrates that violence.

The core argument of this article is that state terrorism is the main problem, but it is under-theorised as compared to its non-state avatar. Governments often do not want to differentiate between insurgents, revolutionaries and terrorists. However, such an attitude does greater harm than good for the sustainable peace and prosperity of any society. The Nepali experience shows that the moment the rebels were accepted as a political force by the parliamentary parties and the international community, the country could enter into a new era of republicanism and loktantra (full-fledged democracy). If the Maoist rebels had not been accepted as a revolutionary political force and continued to be denounced as terrorists, Nepal would have remained a medieval monarchical state even today. Therefore, it is important not to be carried away by the mainstream discourse on terrorism, and the politics behind labelling someone as a terrorist needs to be interrogated properly.


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Wilkinson, P (2011): Terrorism versus Democracy: The Liberal State Response, 3rd edition, London and New York: Routledge.

Updated On : 16th Mar, 2018


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