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Terrorism: What's in a Word?
Lesson Snapshot

Learning objectives
Students will be able to analyze the consequences of defining terrorism in certain ways and learn how different individuals and groups might use the term for political advantage.

Grade level



NCSS standards

Time estimate
Three class periods, with homework

  • Part 1: Introduction, readings, and analysis
  • Part 2: Terrorism checklist
  • Part 3: Scenario assessment and discussion

What you'll need (see Resources for links)

Lesson Plan

Part 1

There is currently no definition of terrorism that is accepted internationally. Some acts -- like the attacks on the World Trade Center -- are indisputably terrorism, but others cause enormous debate. How do we decide what elements make a certain act one of terrorism? What consequences does that decision have? For example, would you consider the assassinations of Anwar Sadat, John F. Kennedy, or Robert Kennedy acts of terrorism, political extremism, or insanity?

  • It is important to understand the term terrorism and how this term can relate to religious militancy -- but these are not the same thing. Teachers might begin by asking students to give examples of acts of terrorism (not only 9/11) and to define the term. Or introduce the lesson by indicating that the term has been in the news a lot in recent months, and it's important to understand what it means.

  • Working individually or in small groups, direct students to the following articles online, or print enough copies for each student or group. Explain that these provide different perspectives on the issues surrounding the definition of terrorism.

    • "In Mideast, One Weapon of Choice Is a Loaded Word"

    • "Terror and Tyranny: What Powerful States Call Terrorism May Be an Inevitable Response to Injustice"

    • "What Is Terrorism?"

  • Have students mark or highlight on their copies of the articles the key issues in the definition of terrorism. Remind them that at this point they are not trying to come up with a final, perfect, authoritative definition, but to raise questions and uncover areas of disagreement discussed by the writers.

Part 2

  • Bring the class together and make a checklist on the black- or whiteboard or flip chart of the disputed questions in the definition of terrorism. Discuss each issue with the class. Issues might include the following:

    Most people would agree that terrorism includes violence. What about threats of violence? Kidnapping? Arson? Rape? What if no one is harmed -- is it still terrorism?

    Who carries out terrorism? Is terrorism always carried out by organized opposition groups? Can states be terrorists? Can individuals? Consider issues of inspiration, planning, provision of weapons, and military assistance. As an example, the Egyptian state has said attacks on tourist buses or assassinations of political leaders by Islamist militants were acts of lone, deranged individuals, not terrorism, because they wanted to prevent further loss of tourism and preempt claims that the state wasn't doing enough to counter terrorism.

    Does terrorism target only civilians? Could an attack on a military target be terrorism? How do you decide what a civilian is? What about off-duty military personnel? Colonial occupiers? What about the assassination of a head of state, one of whose roles is commander in chief? To qualify as terrorism, must perpetrators of an act of violence deliberately target civilians, or simply be reckless as to whether civilians as well as military targets might be harmed? Are all attacks on civilians terrorism? Is the target of terrorism always human, or can acts of sabotage against property also be considered terrorism?

    Is the motive behind an act important in deciding whether it is terrorism, or should only the act itself be considered? What is the objective of terrorism? Is terrorism "violence for an audience" -- an act committed to inspire fear in the public and therefore force policy changes? Or does a terrorist act have specific strategic objectives? Does it make any difference if the perpetrators consider themselves martyrs for a religious or political cause?

    Point of view
    If a cause is considered legitimate, are any means to achieve its goals legitimate? How does one distinguish between a terrorist and a freedom fighter? What is the difference between terrorism and guerrilla warfare? Is terrorism "the weapon of the weak"? Are illegitimate acts against an enemy in war terrorism, war crimes, or is there even a difference? Does history change the definition of terrorism? If a group achieves independence using tactics called "terrorist" by their previous occupier or sovereign, making their "rebellion" into a "war of independence," are they justified by their eventual success in becoming a state?

  • Based on this discussion, have students make their own checklist derived from the list created during the class discussion. They should include questions they think need to be answered to decide whether an act is terrorism or not. Students will use this checklist to evaluate various scenarios.

Part 3

  • Read the following scenarios aloud. Don't immediately reveal the historical incidents on which each scenario is based. Students should fill in the checklist, and then attempt to answer the questions they have posed in each case to decide whether the incident would count as terrorism.

    • A paramilitary group seeking independence blows up the military headquarters of the occupying force. The group's warning that there will be a bombing is ignored, and many people, civilian as well as military, are killed. (Based on the Irgun's bombing of the King David Hotel.)

    • Rebels seeking to set up an independent state fire at occupying troops from concealed positions. (Based on the tactics of the American colonists at Concord, Massachusetts, during the Revolutionary War.)

    • Members of a particular ethnic or religious group are killed in order to frighten other members of their group into fleeing territory. (Ethnic cleansing, seen in Rwanda, Bosnia, and other contexts. Class might also discuss whether American acts against Native Americans would fall into this category.)

    • A radical group makes a list of opponents it believes should be killed and distributes it to sympathizers, telling them that they will be rewarded in heaven for defending the innocent if they carry out these assassinations. (Radical antiabortion groups have published lists of doctors who perform abortions. Many people believe this is an encouragement to murder them.)

    • More than a dozen undercover agents of the state are killed in one day by a radical rebel group. (Michael Collins and the IRA killed 14 British secret agents in 1920 in Dublin.)

    • A government routinely "disappears," tortures, and murders civilians as well as political and military leaders whom it suspects of opposing the regime. (Iraq is a prime example of this, but there are and have been many other examples, including Chile under Gen. Pinochet.)

    • A militant religious group attacks, among others, women it feels are acting in an immodest fashion in public in order to pressure other women to behave in a certain way. (The Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, the Lashkar-e Tayyiba in Pakistan, and other groups have threatened women who do not wear a veil or who otherwise breach the group's vision of modesty.)

    • Religious militants attack members of the government, including an assassination attempt on the president. The government responds by sending in troops and destroying an urban area where the religious militants are based, killing more than 10,000 people in the process, including many civilians. (Syria's Hafez al-Asad attacked the city of Hama, a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 1982.)

  • Discuss students' answers to each of the situations above, revealing the historic examples behind each one. How many in the class thought each example was an act of terrorism? What were the determining factors in their decisions?

  • Invite student groups to select different cases above and conduct additional research. Ask students "What else do we need to ask?" as a way of helping them see that they need additional research to be able to support their response to each case as "terrorism or not."

  • Discuss the political impact of the term terrorism. Why is it an effective political tool (or weapon, as Cameron Barr describes it) to accuse your opponent of being a terrorist?

  • Being able to convincingly claim that your opponent is a terrorist grants enormous moral legitimacy to a party in a conflict. Is it important -- or possible -- to have a single consistent definition of terrorism? Why? How could such a definition be crafted?


  • How well does the student understand and articulate various definitions of terrorism?

  • Can the student explain the consequences of defining a particular act as terrorism, and what a party would gain by defining its opponents as terrorists?

  • Can the student raise additional questions about specific cases that would help them make a better decision about whether an act is terrorism?

  • How well does the student understand the difficulty in achieving international consensus on a single definition?


Core Resources:

Global Connections Essays:

Internet Resources:

Related Video:

Related Activities:

NCSS standards


  • Predict how data and experiences may be interpreted by people from diverse cultural perspectives and frames of reference.

  • Construct reasoned judgments about specific cultural responses to persistent human issues.

Time, continuity, and change

  • Systematically employ processes of critical historical inquiry to reconstruct and reinterpret the past such as using a variety of sources and checking their credibility, validating and weighing evidence for claims, and searching for causality.

  • Investigate, interpret, and analyze multiple historical and contemporary viewpoints within and across cultures related to important events, recurring dilemmas, and persistent issues, while employing empathy, skepticism, and critical judgment.

Global connections

  • Explain conditions and motivations that contribute to conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among groups, societies, and nations.

For more information, see the National Standards for Social Studies Teachers, Volume I.

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