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Difference between War and Terrorism

Difference between War and Terrorism

After the end of World War II, the world’s superpowers came together to find ways to prevent the repetition of the massacre and the loss of millions more lives. The creation of the United Nations and all its mechanisms (as well as all other international governmental organizations and monitoring bodies) aimed at creating a neutral space where peaceful and diplomatic talks could take place. Indeed, since the creation of the UN, we have not seen (yet) other major global conflicts that could compare to WWII for gravity and scope. However, conflicts, civil wars and violence remain widespread. For instance, the six-years-long Syrian conflict has cost the lives of millions people, has further destabilized the precarious balance in the Middle East and has caused an unprecedented wave of migration towards European shores.

To make matters worse, the constant flow of asylum seekers in Europe – and Western countries in general –has fostered the emergence of nationalist and populist movements that promote a close-borders agenda and that identify (almost) all refugees, migrants and asylum seekers with potential attackers and terrorist. The fear of terrorist attacks has further grown after the shooting inside the Bataclan (Paris, November 2015), the cargo running into the crowd in the Promenade des Anglais (Nice, July 2016), the bomb detonated during Ariana Grande’s concert (Manchester, May 2017), and all other attacks to Western cities and symbols.

Indeed, concerns for terrorist attacks and for the spread of terrorist ideals – in particular after the tragedy of 9/11 – resulted in an increase of national security and in the emergence of racist and nationalistic movements. Yet, what do people really fear? Is it just a concern for sporadic terrorist attacks or do we fear that a new war (perhaps WWIII) might be around the corner? Are the ideas of “terrorism” and “war” so far apart or are there any elements in common? Let us find it out.


The word “terrorism” derives from the Latin verb terreo, which literally means, “to frighten.” Today, the term “terrorism” indicates the killing of innocent civilians (and/or members of the government or of specific religious or ethnic groups) by non-governmental organizations. However, in the past, violent or unlawful acts committed by (any) government against its own population were labeled as terrorist actions as well. Sadly, the number of terrorist groups operating in various regions of the world is growing, and the most common terrorist acts (and crimes) include:

  • Kamikaze attacks;
  • Bombings;
  • Kidnapping;
  • Arbitrary killing;
  • Mass killing;
  • Enforced disappearance; and
  • Destruction of historical/religious sites.

Terrorist attacks aim at calling the media’s attention and at creating a climate of fear, suspicion and chaos. Even if it is a serious and urgent matter, terrorism is not (yet) officially defined and criminalized in international law. Since 1920, many efforts were made and several anti-terrorism conventions and treaties were signed and ratified. However, the international community has failed to agree on a universally recognized definition – thus preventing the United Nations and other international organizations from “from sending an unequivocal message that terrorism is never an acceptable tactic, even for the most defensible of causes.”

According to a report of the UN high-level panel on threats, challenges and change, the definition of terrorism should include the following elements:

(a) Recognition, in the preamble, that State use of force against civilians is regulated by the Geneva Conventions and other instruments, and, if of sufficient scale, constitutes a war crime by the persons concerned or a crime against humanity;

(b ) Restatement that acts under the 12 preceding anti -terrorism conventions are terrorism, and a declaration that they are a crime under international law; and restatement that terrorism in time of armed conflict is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and Protocols;

(c ) Reference to the definitions contained in the 1999 International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism and Security Council resolution 1566 (2004);

(d ) Description of terrorism as “any action, in addition to actions already specified by the existing conventions on aspects of terrorism, the Geneva Conventions and Security Council resolution 1566 (2004), that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act”.

Unfortunately, the lack of a unitary definition has negative repercussions on the process of creating comprehensive counter-terrorism strategies. As such, although terrorism is prohibited under international humanitarian law, counter-terrorism measures do not always respect international (or regional) standards. On the contrary, the so-called “war on terror” initiated by George W. Bush in 2003 often entailed (and entails) a concerning degree of violence and disrespect for human lives and international law.


War is defined as a prolonged, organized, armed conflict between two parties – generally two states (or factions in the case of civil wars). According to international humanitarian law – the international legal framework that provides the “rules of the war” – there are two types of conflict, namely:

  1. International armed conflicts, opposing two or more States; and
  2. Non-international armed conflicts, between governmental forces and non-governmental armed groups, or between such groups only. IHL treaty law also establishes a distinction between non-international armed conflicts in the meaning of common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and non-international armed conflicts falling within the definition provided in Art. 1 of Additional Protocol II.

While (legally speaking) no other type of armed conflict exists, one conflict may evolve into another. The promotion of the principles of international humanitarian law is responsibility of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – as the founder of the ICRC (Henry Dunant) created the movement with the sole purpose of ensuring “protection and assistance for victims of armed conflict and strife.”

Indeed, World War I and World War II are the most recent cases of war that dramatically affected Western countries and that shook the entire global order. Yet, throughout the years, war has changed and evolved. In the 17th and 18th century (and even long before then) war was fought with rudimental weapons; in the 19th and 20th century, things changed and weaponry became more sophisticated and dangerous; and today, governments could fight wars and kill millions of people without having one soldier stepping foot on the ground. The newest and most lethal arms that might be employed today include:

  • Ballistic missiles;
  • Nuclear weapons; and
  • Chemical weapons.

Such attacks could cause the destruction of entire cities and could provoke thousands of casualties. In order to prevent the escalation of conflicts and the use of prohibited or extremely lethal weapons, the United Nations and its partner organizations created conventions and treaties such as the Chemical Weapons Convention – entered into force in 1992 and monitored by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Unfortunately, despite the legal prohibitions, the use of chemical weapons by both State and non-state actors has been recorded in several occasions.


Terrorism is one of the main issues discussed in the news today. The fear of terrorist attacks and concerns for the spread of extremist ideas have increased in the last years, following a series of horrific attacks to several European and American cities.

Terrorist acts are often linked to non-governmental, radical, Islamist organizations based in the Middle East. Yet, terrorism is a much bigger problem, and many fear that an increase in terrorist attacks may lead to a war. However, according to the United Nations, terrorism itself “flourishes in environments of despair, humiliation, poverty, political oppression, extremism and human rights abuse; it also flourishes in contexts of regional conflict and foreign occupation; and it profits from weak State capacity to maintain law and order.

In other words, war and terrorism are strictly linked. Terrorist attacks may lead to a war and, in turn, a war can create the conditions for the emergence and spread of terrorist groups. Yet, although both entail violence, death, fear and despair, the two terms indicate different phenomena:

  • The term “terrorism” refers to all attacks perpetrated against civilians and/or governmental agencies committed at the hands of non-governmental organizations, whereas war is fought in an organized manner between states or non-state actors;
  • Terrorism is not clearly defined under international law; consequently, counter-terrorism strategies remain unclear and vague; conversely, war is defined and regulated by international humanitarian law;
  • Both terrorism and war have evolved throughout the years; however, terrorist groups are not legally allowed to possess and use weapons (of any type) whereas governments can legally run armament or disarmament programs;
  • Terrorist groups do not follow laws and regulations nor abide by restrictions and limitations while the rules of the war are clearly defined under international humanitarian law; and
  • Terrorist groups often target civilians and aim at spreading chaos and fear, whereas wars are fought for economic and geopolitical reasons; furthermore, IHL prohibits the targeting of civilians during armed conflict.

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References :

[0]A more secure world; Our shared responsibility, Report of the United Nations High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, available at https://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/terrorism/sg%20high-level%20panel%20report-terrorism.htm

[1]Defining terrorism in International Law, Ben Saul, Oxford Scholarship Online, available at http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199535477.001.0001/acprof-9780199535477

[2]History of the ICRC, International Committee of the Red Cross, available at https://www.icrc.org/eng/who-we-are/history/overview-section-history-icrc.htm

[3]How is the term "Armed Conflict" defined in international humanitarian law? International Committee of the Red Cross, available at https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/article/other/armed-conflict-article-170308.htm

[4]What’s the difference between war and terrorism? NewsOne, available at https://newsone.com/1810005/whats-the-difference-between-war-and-terrorism/


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