In FAQ, Violent Extremism

Defining ‘violent extremism’ while problematic, is not as mired in conceptual confusion as its twin cousin ‘terrorism’. In spite of decades of terrorism research, the fact is there is no consensus in the literature regarding a universally accepted definition of terrorism (Sinai, 2007; Drummond, 2002; Schmid & Jongman, 1988).  There are substantive definitional difficulties surrounding the very notion of ‘terrorism’.  Most definitions are ‘drowned in complexity’ (Elzain, 2008, p. 10) with no clear way through the impasse of ‘one side’s terrorist is another side’s freedom fighter’ (Hoffman, 2006).  Moreover, there is the political game of assigning the pejorative nature of the label ‘terrorist’ to one’s enemies and opponents, or to those whose views one simply disagrees with or finds abhorrent (Newman 2006).

As far as definitions of terrorism go the list gets longer every year. In 2008, a European Commission project on ‘Defining Terrorism’ found 165 ‘academic’ definitions and 88 ‘governmental’ definitions of ‘terrorism’ ( 2008).  Schmid in a 2011 publication produced a list of 260 definitions of terrorism.  Moreover, Schmid (2013, p.15) in a recent publication provided a baffling example of the muddled definitional mess when he states, “… the US Government alone maintains some twenty different but simultaneously operative definitions (of terrorism) in its many agencies and departments.”

As a result of this definitional gridlock the international community is forced to fall back on a piecemeal approach by criminalising acts which various state and national governments define as inherently terrorist in nature and use their domestic laws to prevent and punish such acts (Maogoto, 2003).

To find a way through this definitional impasse researchers have sought to draw a conceptual distinction between violent extremism and terrorism in an effort to tame the definitional beast.  For instance, Mroz (2009, p. 23) sees violent extremism as “violence in the absence of reason, or rather, the belief that committing an act of violence will produce benefits that outweigh the cost of human life. Violent extremism is homicide, genocide, fratricide, and, yes, it can also be terrorism.”  Whereas, in contrast, terrorism has a rational purpose to coerce and intimidate a government or a civilian population, or some segment of it, through violence to further some political or social objective.

Saucer, et al (2009, p. 257) regard terrorism as an important subset of the larger class of militant extremists, but distinguish it as follows,

“Terrorism itself, however, differs from militant extremism in being not a broad behavior pattern but rather a method or tactic: the induction of terror (i.e., intentionally creating or exploiting fear through violence, threatened or real, on unarmed civilian persons so as to achieve political objectives, in ways that subvert or ignore the requirements of law; cf. Goldstick, 2002, p. 20; Hoffman, 1998, p. 43; O’Sullivan, 1986, p.5). Although there is some overlap between militant extremism and terrorism, there are instances in which only one of these terms applies.”

Therefore the trend in the literature is to conceptual absorb ‘terrorism’ under the umbrella term of ‘Violent Extremism’ (VE) with its wider encompassing terminology to fit in both right-wing militants, white supremacists and the like, and left-wing ideologists as well as ‘old and ‘new’ forms of terrorism like radical Islamic fundamentalism.  This trend does not solve all of the nagging problems associated with this new label of ‘violent extremist’, as it is still a highly contested notion, but it does offer a ‘softer’ sounding and less derogatory terminology than the label ‘terrorist’.

Hence, the following definition of ‘violent extremism’ presented in the Australian National Counter-Terrorism Committee Framework (Nasser-Eddine, et al., 2011, p. 9) offers a generally standard way in which ‘violent extremism’ is defined as shown in the box below.


Drummond, J. T. (2002). From northwest imperative to global jihad: Social psychological aspect of the construction of the enemy, political violence, and terror. In C. E. Stout (Ed.), The psychology of terrorismA public understanding (psychological dimension to war and peace). Vol.1. Connecticut: Praeger.

Elzain, C. (2008). Modern Islamic Terrorism and Jihad. Occasional Series in Criminal Justice and International Studies, 1-27.

Hoffman, B. (2006) Inside Terrorism. Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Maogoto, J. N. (2003). War On The Enemy: Self-Defence and State Sponsored Terrorism

Melbourne Journal of International Law, 4, 406-438.

Mroz, J. (2009). Lone Wolf Attacks and the Difference between Violent Extremism and

Terrorism. Retrieved June 11, 2010, from

Nasser-Eddine, M., Garnham, B., Agostino, K., & Caluya, G., (2011). Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Literature Review. Edinburgh, Australia: Australian Government, Department of Defence, Command and Control Division, Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO).

Newman, E. (2006). Exploring the “Root Causes” of Terrorism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 29, 749-772.

Saucier, G; Akers, L. G; Shen-Miller, S; Knezevic, G and Stankov L. (2009). Patterns of Thinking in Militant Extremism. Perspectives on Psychological Science(3), 256 – 271. Retrieved August 5, 2011 from

Schmid, A. P. (2013). Radicalisation, De-Radicalisation and Counter-Radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature Review. International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT): The Hague.

Schmid, A. P. (Ed.). (2011). The Routledge handbook of terrorism research. London & New York: Routledge.

Schmid, A. P., & Jongman, A. J. (1988). Political Terrorism, 2nd edition. Oxford: North-Holland.

Sinai, J. (2012). Radicalisation into Extremism and Terrorism. Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies, 19 (2), Summer/Fall.

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