What Is Terrorism?

Terrorism can be defined as the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of violence to fill a population of people with fear or to coerce or intimidate a government or society, while pursuing goals that are generally political, religious or ideological. Terrorism often includes the use of extreme violence with the goal of inflicting the most pain and death on the most number of people to accomplish those goals. People who practice this type of violence, called terrorists, often use the innocent citizens of a country in an attempt to make sure that their true targets listen to their message and meet their demands. This means that the people who suffer the direct violence and pain used in a terrorist act, they are not the terrorist’s true targets. Citizens are used as a way of sending a message to the larger population or government of a country, and thus, one can understand terrorism as a violence based communication system that influences an audience much beyond its immediate victims.

While precise definitions of terrorism can vary, there are many similarities among those different definitions and among the perpetrators who commit these crimes that should be noted:

Innocent Victims:  most terrorist acts are planned against unrelated, innocent people who are used to elicit an emotional response (fear) from a wider population. Because the direct victim is not the actual target or goal of a terrorist act, this type of victimization is considered especially senseless and the families of victims often feel “used.” See section titled “Victims of Terrorism” below.

Violence:  acts of terrorism are always violent, or threaten violence, against a particular group of people.

Creation of Fear:  terrorists seek to dominate a population of people or group within society and do so by eliciting fear through violent acts against those populations.

Audience:  terrorists seek media attention through their violent acts and through those acts hope to impress and gain sympathy around the world for their cause. This is one of the reasons that terrorist attacks are rarely random, as the perpetrators need to plan their acts in such a way as to affect the most people both directly and through witnessing the attack.

Political Goals or Motives:  Terrorist groups feel that violence is not only justified but also necessary in order to achieve their political objectives. They believe that foreign governments will not listen to their mission, goals, etc. by simply talking, and wish to intimidate those governments via violent acts into acquiescence.

Types of Terrorist Attacks

Some of the different types of terrorist acts that can be perpetrated will be discussed here. You will notice that all have many of the elements described above. The most common types of terrorist acts include:

Bombing:  Over the past decade, terrorists have been able to develop improvised explosive devices which are cheaper, smaller, and harder to detect then previous models, but can still cause much damage to people and property; thus resulting in their widespread use. Crowded public areas such as train stations or government buildings are examples of common targets for terrorists who use bombs.

Kidnapping or hostage-taking:  Terrorists use kidnapping or hostage-taking to establish a bargaining position with their real target (particular person, government, etc.). By doing this, terrorists gain leverage to acquire more money, release imprisoned associates, or increased media coverage and expansion of their audience. Hostage-taking is used more often than kidnapping, as it demands a confrontation with authorities and forces them to either make dramatic decisions or comply with the terrorist’s demands. The Government of Canada has a policy which does not allow it to pay terrorists ransom money for the hostages they have taken.

Arson/fire-bombings:  Like Improvised explosive devices, arson or fire-bombing is easily done, and is normally committed against hotels, office buildings, or government buildings to portray that the ruling government cannot maintain order.

Hijacking or Skyjacking:  These acts occur when terrorists seize vehicles, its passengers, and its cargo to create a mobile hostage situation. The hijacking of the passenger airplanes on September 11, 2001 are perhaps the most notable and clear examples of this type of terrorist activity.

The above descriptions of terrorist activities are those which are used most commonly. Other types of activities which have the potential for a greater amount of destruction, although rare, are noted below.

Bioterrorism:  This type of terrorism involves the intentional release of biological agents to harm innocent civilians in order to get the attention of the government. An example of bioterrorism can been seen with the use of anthrax shortly after the September 11 attacks; letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to 2 new Democratic politicians and to several media offices, killing 5 people and infecting 17 others.

Cyberterrorism:  cyberterrorism is when terrorists attack computers, networks and the digital information stored within them in order to intimidate or coerce a government or group of people to further their political or social objectives.

Nuclear Terrorism:  This type of terrorism generally embodies all types of terrorism where nuclear weapons are used to achieve the terrorist’s goals. Such things as attacking nuclear facilities, purchasing nuclear weapons, building nuclear weapons or otherwise finding ways to disperse radioactive materials would fall into this category.

Terrorism In Canada

The first major terrorist attack involving Canadian citizens happened in June of 1985, when Air India Flight 182 crashed off of the coast of Ireland. The cause of this crash is widely accepted as an explosion caused by a bomb planted in a suitcase in the cargo area of the plane. It was determined that the attack was likely planned and executed by members of a Sikh militant group, in response to the Indian government’s assault in 1984 on Sikh extremists who occupied the Golden Temple (a sacred Sikh shrine) in 1984. The bombing killed all 329 people aboard the plane, including 270 Canadian citizens.

Since this incident, the next largest terrorist attacks involving Canadian citizens were the attacks on September 11, 2001, where 4 passenger airliners were hijacked by Al-Qaida militants. Two of the planes crashed into the World Trade Centre towers in New York City, one crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and the final plane, which passengers were able to prevent from crashing into its intended target, crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden claimed that the attacks were in response to the United States’ support of Israel, the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, and sanctions against Iraq, all of which were unacceptable because according to his interpretation of the words of the Prophet Mohammed, the Prophet had banned the permanent presence of “infidels” in Arabia. Essentially, through the violent acts against innocent people in the United States (24 victims were Canadian citizens) Bin Laden and Al-Qaida hoped to coerce and intimidate the U.S. government into ceasing their support and presence in Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In the two instances of terrorism described above, there were clearly many Canadian victims and both instances impacted Canadians in major ways. However, Canada as a country has not been the direct target of terrorist activities in the past. Additionally, it might be surprising to learn that with the exception of the United States, Canada has the most active terrorist groups in the world. According to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the reason for this is because of Canada’s close proximity to the United States (which is the world’s most often target country) and also because Canada is open and respectful of human rights and freedoms, making it an attractive place to do business and live.

This is not to say that Canada is totally free from terrorist attacks however, as many Canadian citizens have used violent tactics to get their messages across to the government, businesses, or group people in Canada. Some examples of terrorist threats and attacks within Canada include things like extremists from environmental groups engaging in arson attacks, tree spiking and spraying of noxious substances in public places so as to forestall logging operations, or animal-rights extremists mailing pipe bombs and letters containing razor blades tainted with poisonous substances to scientists.

Canadian Laws Regarding Terrorism

In 2001, in response to the terrorist attacks in the United States, Canada passed the Anti-Terrorism Act which made many amendments to the Criminal Code, the Evidence Act, the Official Secrets Act, and the Proceeds of Crime Act (as well as others) to help the Canadian government combat terrorism. As a result of this Act, it is now a crime to finance, participate in, facilitate, and carry out any terrorist activities. It is also a crime to provide property to terrorist groups and to post hate propaganda on public websites or damage property associated with religious worship. The specific text of offences relating to terrorism can be found in sections 83.01-83.3 of the Criminal Code of Canada (http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-46/page-27.html#h-26). If convicted of a terrorism offence, a person may be imprisoned for up to 10 years for offences such as providing property or financial assistance to terrorists, or for life in prison if they instruct a terrorist act or commit such an act.

The Anti-Terrorism Act also addresses national security concerns and threats by creating new offences to counter intelligence-gathering activities by foreign powers and terrorist groups. It also assists law enforcement with detecting and deterring people who take part in financing terrorist activities, with prosecuting those who do finance terrorist activities, and improving Canada’s ability to cooperate internationally in the fight against terrorism.

With the passing of the Safe Streets and Communities Act in 2012, it is also legislated that victims can seek redress for the loss and damage that they incurred as the result of a terrorist act which occurred after January 1, 1985. The act outlines that victim are able to launch a lawsuit in a Canadian court against an individual or organization that carried out a terrorist attack, or against supporters of terrorism, including a foreign state that the government has listed as providing support to terrorist entities pursuant to the Criminal Code.

Victims of Terrorism

The effect of terrorism on victims can be seen to be different then the effect of other crimes on their victims. Some researchers have theorized that victims of terrorism are seen by society as “more innocent.” As victims of terrorism are not the targets themselves, but are rather used by offenders in order to gain power over another person or country, terrorist victims may also feel more helpless because they often feel that the control they have over their victimization is particularly minimal.

It is important when considering victims of terrorism to know that they cannot all be lumped into one category as “terrorist victim.” There are many different types of victims that are affected by terrorist acts. The Policy Centre for Victims Issues offers a comprehensive breakdown of the different types of terrorist victims that is summarized here:

Direct or Primary Victims:
Those victims that are in the immediate area of the terrorist attack. This group can be divided into those who were physically injured, tortured or killed and those who witnessed the attack or were threatened (near misses) but not physically harmed by the attack. There seems to be agreement in the research literature that the level of psychological trauma is directly linked to the amount of direct harm. Thus, it is most likely that it will be these direct victims who need the most support and assistance in coping with their victimization.

Direct Professional/Volunteer Victims:
People who were at the scene of the terrorist attack as part of their job or as volunteers. This includes police, fire fighters, emergency service workers, and other first responders. Reporters from the media are also included in this group. Most of the people in this group have some form of organizational training and support to deal with difficult experiences or trauma, but may still need further support from victim services.

Indirect or Secondary Victims:
This group includes the family members, friends, co-workers etc. of direct victims. These people are affected by the terrorist attack, the harm done to their loved one, and have to deal with coping with the unexpected changes to their lives. They are also the “natural supports” of the victim (if the victim is still living) and may need outside support from victim services to help them understand their own reactions and emotions, or to help them support the direct victim.

Community or Tertiary Victims:
  This group of victims includes those who may have had their daily routine affected, or have work/school access problems. It also includes people who have been affected by images and reports on television; the media creates additional witnesses to the event and these images can be very disturbing to some people. While these people tend not to be as deeply affected or suffer the same level of trauma as primary or secondary victims, they still may need assistance in coping with what they have witnessed or the changes to their daily lives due to the terrorist act.

Re-victimized victims:
Those people who have been victims of previous terrorist attacks, but are now re-traumatized by a new attack or report of a thwarted attack. These victims are often deeply affected by television coverage of terrorism or documentaries of previous attacks and reminders of the original attack may cause any victim to have difficulties coping. It is often helpful for victims to seek help in managing these potentially re-traumatizing experiences.

Survivor Guilt

Victims other than those who were direct or primary victims sometimes experience what is called survivor guilt. This guilt is often associated with thoughts around why a victim’s loved one was targeted while they were not injured or killed themselves. This type of guilt tends to be associated with depression, confusion about the attack, and generally the impact the attack has had on the victim’s life or the life of their loved one. It is usually beneficial of victims experiencing survivor guilt to seek professional counselling so that they might begin to sort out their feelings and emotions, and cope with what has happened in a more constructive way.


Terrorism is the calculated use of violence, intimidation, and coercion for political, religious, or social objectives. Terrorist commit acts that would bring about much media coverage so that their acts would be witnessed by a maximum number of people, which in turn would maximize the likelihood that their actual target would pay attention to them and comply with their demands. Because the victims directly affected by terrorism are not the true targets of the crime, victims often feel used and experience a different sort of victimization then other crimes. Terrorism does not only effect the people used in the act, but impacts the family and friends of the direct victim, the emergency personnel who work to save direct victims, and also the community in which the attack was perpetrated. Due the fact that most direct victims did not contribute to their victimization in any way and were simply chosen to be used as a means to an end by someone completely unknown to them, those who were not targeted sometimes experience survivor guilt, and find themselves asking why their loved one was chosen but not them. Fortunately, Canada has legislated many laws to combat terrorism since 2001, including affording victims the opportunity to sue terrorists or terrorist states in civil court. For more information on terrorism, please visit the following sources below.

Anti-Terrorism Act, S.C. 2001, c. 41: http://laws.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/A-11.7/index.html

Policy Centre for Victims Issues. Working with Victims of Crime: A Manual Applying Research to Clinical Practice.  Ch. 10, “Victims of Terrorism.” http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/pi/pcvi-cpcv/pub/res-rech/p14.html

Vancouver Sun (May 11, 1991) Portrait of a Bomber. http://www2.canada.com/vancouversun/features/airindia/story.html?id=b9be40db-39e5-4080-9fb7-7e586a751805

Nelson Education. Political Violence. http://polisci.nelson.com/violence.html

Canadian Security Intelligence Agency. Terrorism. http://www.csis-scrs.gc.ca/prrts/trrrsm/index-eng.asp

Terrorism Research. Types of Terrorist Incidents. http://www.terrorism-research.com/incidents/