Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Terrorist Crimes left without a Unified Definition

Terror attacks in the Middle East Hamas terrorist
Palestinian Hamas supporters protest against an Egyptian court’s decision to declare Hamas a ‘terrorist’ organisation, Gaza, Palestine, March 2015. Photo REX features Ltd

As terrorist violence increases, the world remains divided on a unified legal definition of what should be considered to be acts of terrorism. While there are varied definitions as stated by the national laws of different countries, the international court of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) has developed a unique legal international definition for this type of crime.

United Nations and UN Security Council

Despite several attempts by the UN General Assembly in the last decades to reach a binding, unified final definition of “terrorism” no agreement could be reached because of the widely different points of views among member states. For example, no common ground could be found on whether violence used by regimes for quelling rebel movements within their respective territories can be defined as “acts of terrorism.” 

Terrorist Crimes
Number of terrorist attacks and fatalities in the MENA region compared to Europe. ©Fanack CC BY 4.0 ©Fanack CC BY 4.0

The United Nations nor the UN Security Council have never levelled direct charges against any of its member states for committing “terrorist” crimes against their own people. International laws, especially the Four Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, have come up with definitions of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and the crime of “aggression” (as defined by the International Criminal Court ). 

However, these laws have failed to address the definition of terrorism as a different type of crime that may not necessarily target a large number of people, unlike crimes against humanity and genocide; and that should not necessarily fall under the category of armed conflict, unlike war crimes.

Nearly 80 years have passed since the first attempt to come up with an international definition of terrorist crimes, when the League of Nations — the international organisation that was created in the aftermath of the First World War, even before the establishment of the United Nations — drafted the 1937 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Terrorism. However, it was never ratified and never came into force, in part because of disputes among the member states over the articles on extradition. 

The Convention had defined “acts of terror” as “criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public”, including causing or attempting to cause death or serious bodily injuries, depriving heads of state or their immediately members of families or liberty, or the possession of weapons and explosives for the purpose of committing crimes against individuals or public property in that state

Resolution No. 210/51

On 17 December 1996, the UN General Assembly approved Resolution No. 210/51 to form a special committee to draft the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, according to a proposal made by India. The mandate of the committee was renewed and reviewed every year for 21 years by the UN General Assembly, and in accordance with specific agendas. On 14 December 2015, the UN General Assembly approved the Resolution No. 70/120, which recommended the establishment of a working group to draft the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism. 

However, discussions hit a dead end wall too, due to the continuous disagreements on the definition of “terrorism” between the member states that joined the committee and the working group. For example, these discussions have not yet been able to decide on the common criteria to distinguish between a “terrorist organisation” and a “liberation organisation.” The discussions were also unable to agree on one viewpoint on whether acts committed by the regular military forces of the states against their respective citizens should be labeled as “acts of terror.” Instead, the discussions agreed on limiting the proposed definition of terrorism to acts committed by individuals targeting the state, its institutions, or the public.

جرائم الإرهاب
Number of fatalities due to terrorist attacks per country in the MENA region ©Fanack CC BY 4.0

Despite these divisions on the definition of terrorism, in 1996 the UN General Assembly approved by a majority of votes a declaration that is non-binding on its member states, regarding “measures that should be taken to minimise acts of international terrorism,” defining terrorist acts as those “designed to spread panic among people, a particular group, and specific individuals for political purposes.” 

In 2004, the UN General Assembly approved Resolution No. 1566, which condemned acts of terror and referred to them as acts “committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror, or compel a government or international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act which contravenes terrorism-related conventions and protocols.” However, this declaration remains non-binding on member states because of the absence of a clear decision that would include an implementation mechanism with the goal of reducing international or national types of acts of terrorism.

Special Tribunal for Lebanon

According to the official website of the “ Special Tribunal for Lebanon, ” the tribunal which was created after the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, is considered the first court of its kind that deals with terrorism as a different type of crime, which is described by the UN Security Council as a “threat to international peace and security.” The court applies the definition of Lebanese law on terrorism, considering that it is committed through means that are liable to create public danger, with some of these means being “explosive devices, inflammable materials, poisonous or incendiary products, or infectious or microbial agents.”

According to a decision by the Appeals Chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on 16 February 2011, the list of means used in a case of acts of terror was provided in detail for clarification purposes. The chamber ruled that the “means used in an attack were not dispositive in determining whether an attack is terrorism or simply murder” – but in doing so, under this resolution, the Appeals Chamber had for the first time defined terrorism as an international crime.

Moving back to the content of the aforesaid decision, the chamber had said that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, unlike other international courts, is limited [in its definition of terrorism] to the objective rules stipulated by the Lebanese law on the definition of crimes. The Chamber added that the tribunal will apply the Lebanese law as interpreted and applied by Lebanese courts, “unless that interpretation or application turns out to be unreasonable, leads to clear injustice, or does not conform with international principles and rules that are binding on Lebanon.”

Accordingly, the first legal definition of the elements of a crime issued by an international tribunal in connection with terrorist crimes came as follows:

“[A terrorist crime is (a) an act committed with the intention of spreading panic, whether this act is considered to be a crime according to the provisions of the penal code or not;

[And, it is every act that involves] (b) the use of explosive devices, inflammable materials, poisonous or incendiary products, or infectious or microbial agents.”

In conclusion, the ruling of the Appeals Chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon broadened the definition of terrorist crimes, the means of which are exclusively listed in the Lebanese law on terrorism issued on 11 January 1958. The list, however, does not include attacks committed with machine guns, chemical or biological weapons.

US Definition of “Terrorism”

The laws of the United States have differentiated between “international terrorism” crimes and “the crimes of domestic terrorism,” in Chapter 113-b of the US Codeas follows:

“(1) The term “international terrorism” means activities that –

(A) involve violent acts or 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 to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States; or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which the perpetrators of these crimes operate or seek asylum.

(2) the term “domestic terrorism” means activities that:

(A) 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 to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”

European Union

For its part, the European Union has defined terrorist crimes in the first article of the “ Council Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism ” of 13 June 2002 as acts that “may seriously damage a country or an international organization where these acts are committed with the aim of: seriously intimidating a population, unduly compelling a government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act, or seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or international organisation.”

In the Arab world, individual states are strengthening anti-terror laws as extremist violence is increasing. Ever-broadening measures expand government powers and increasingly limit civil liberties.

“Terrorism” Lists

Despite the lack of a unified definition on international terrorism, the United States, among other countries, have prepared lists of “terrorist” organisations and have imposed economic and political sanctions, as well as banned the citizens and institutions of the respective countries, as well as Third World countries, from economic dealing with these organisations, in accordance with bilateral security and economic agreements.Since 1997, the Bureau of Counterterrorism, which is part of the US State Department, has been publishing names of dozens of organisations labeled as “terrorist organisations.” 

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda were designated as terrorist organisations, as well as several regional organisations linked to them. The al-Nusra Front, one of the armed factions fighting in Syria, was put on the list on 15 May 2014. The list also includes organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated on 8 October 1997. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is part of the Iranian armed forces, was put on the list on 15 April 2019). 

The European Union has adopted an additional list that is independent from the US list.


In summary, the world seems to agree that terrorism is a crime that goes beyond individuals and that is mainly aimed at spreading panic among the people and destabilising countries or regimes. There also is a common agreement between countries on the fact that terrorist organisations use specific means that are dangerous to the people’s lives, including kidnapping and the use of unlicensed or prohibited weapons for committing murder or to cause mass destruction. 

At the same time, the world, and the governments of countries in particular, are divided on the parties that should be held responsible for committing such crimes, and whether the heads of states and rulers — not only individuals — should be held responsible for committing terrorist crimes in their home countries or abroad.