Can Terrorism Ever Be Legitimate?

The difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is a matter of perspective: it all depends on the observer and the verdict of history.

Pentti Linkola, ‘Can Life Prevail?’ 2011

Despite the term being formally defined at the end of the 18th century during the French Revolution’s Napoleonic wars, the use of, what is now described as, terrorism as a method of political change arguably pre-dates this. Historically, terrorism has been used as a method to challenge the authority of existing political orders; from the Jewish Zealots, who rose against Roman Empire and militantly opposed their control of Judea, to the contemporary terrorism of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) that dominate terrorism today.

Applying the word legitimacy to any political concept is problematic. Legitimacy has multiple meanings, one is inherently linked to legality, and the second is related to justification or validity. For the purposes of this discussion and in relation to terrorism, legitimacy will be discussed in the framework of validity and it will therefore be argued whether terrorism is valid and justifiable. Furthermore, the parameters of terrorism to be discussed must also be defined, as the already highly contested concept of terrorism is too wide-ranging and varied to be described as legitimate in its entirety. Terrorism is a subjective concept, defining it is based on the agenda of the observer rather than the actor, and it is primarily “an ideological and political concept” (Pamela L. Griset and Sue Mahan, 2008:3). Each form that terrorism takes is defined by the factors that led to the violent action, such as environment, cause, ideology and aims and as Walter Laqueur (2000:46) states “there is not one but many different terrorisms”. Some of these include older or classic terrorisms like nationalist terrorism and politically motivated rebellion, whereas newer forms of terrorism such as ‘eco-terrorists’ come about in reaction to modern developments in society (Harvey M. Kushner, 2003). One particular distinction within the concept of terrorism is that although states may commit acts of terror and can sponsor terrorism directly through state institutions or indirectly with resources, this is not genuine terrorism. Regardless of which form of terrorism is discussed, the actor will always be “a subnational group or non-state entity” (Bruce Hoffman, 2006:40). This discussion’s terrorism focus will namely be state based terrorism, specifically anti-state terrorism such as liberation terrorism and will use the definition “the threat or use of violent action by groups and individuals to enact a particular political or social aim”. Some prominent terrorist organisation examples include the African National Committee (ANC), the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and its splinter cells. This essay will also discuss particular events, the case of individual anti-state terrorism such as Palestinian Abu Eain and global policy changes that can be seen to have aided the justification and therefore, legitimacy of terrorism.

The ANC, PIRA and the PLO each enacted violence both within their contested territory and across borders in order to further their cause. With each seeking to free and claim independence for their respective states, with the PLO in Palestine, the ANC in South Africa and the PIRA seeking to unite the Republic of Ireland with British controlled Northern Ireland. 

Against the backdrop of the scarred and violent landscape of 1900s South Africa, the ANC had fought against the pro-white consensus with education, economic prosperity and land ownership all dominated by non-native, predominantly white, citizens of South African society, the ANC first led peaceful protest to the gain equality and later end the oppressive regime of apartheid that came to consume the South Africa. In the beginning the ANC was a political organisation that had “remained committed to non-violent resistance, pursuing a policy of peaceful negotiation” (Anisseh Van Engeland, Rachael M. Rudolph 2013:15). The ANC’s development from a peaceful organisation to a violent one was in reaction to the events in Sharpeville in 1960 when during a peaceful demonstration South African “police opened fire on demonstrators” (Anisseh Van Engeland, Rachael M. Rudolph 2013:15). Their escalation to militancy was further endorsed by the government’s illegalisation of all African organisations and the mobilisation of its “armed forces” (Anisseh Van Engeland, Rachael M. Rudolph 2013:15). This escalation led to the creation of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC (James Ciment, 2013). Its manifesto highlights the planned use of “controlled violence, wherein there would be no victims” but a focus on acts aimed at sabotaging the ruling government and its infrastructure (Anisseh Van Engeland, Rachael M. Rudolph 2013:15). The ANC are a prime example of legitimacy through public support. Throughout the decades when their existence and practices were illegal and globally condemned, the community support that their aims and causes received gave the ANC a form of authority to commit legitimate violence. 

The subject of legitimate violence, however, is a contentious issue specifically within security theory and it has been largely influenced by the work of Max Weber, a German sociologist. Weber defines the use of power and violence as inherently state centric concepts, and titles the state as the sole claimant of “legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (Max Weber, 1918:2). The monopoly of violence held by the state ultimately makes power wielded by non-state actors illegitimate. Despite developments in state and security theory these concepts of state power superseding all other power remain strong. While terrorist groups and other non-state entities continue to challenge governing authority as they have always done, states remain the primary focus of power and authority. It can be argued, however, that the role non-state actors play in politics and security holds the role of the state to account. Many elements of political society are seen to hold states and the elites to account, however, as discussed during times such as apartheid in South Africa when global political rhetoric supports oppression and racism groups such as the ANC turn to terrorism to fill the power vacuum created by inequality. The role of these liberation groups regardless of their violent methods is key to both political and social development both intra-nationally and internationally. Ensuring social justice even through violent action such as terrorism can be seen to not only validate these ‘terrorist’ groups’ existence but also justify their means (Carol M. Cusack, 2014).

The role of PIRA after the political restructuring that led to the 1921 creation of the Republic of Ireland was aimed at reunification of the Republic of Ireland with Northern Ireland. PIRA’s conception was largely a reaction to these geopolitical changes that had taken place in Ireland and PIRA were keen to disconnect the country from what they believed to be the oppressive British regime. During the period known as the Troubles in the 1960s and the decades that followed, the activity of the Republicans within Northern Ireland was at its height (MI5 Security Service, 2017). Much like the ANC, PIRA was a group that came about in reaction to the political climate of the period and were using violent means to enact their aims. In attempts to upset the political balance within Northern Ireland, PIRA used many violent methods including bomb attacks and assassinations to ensure a political climate where the reunification with the Republic of Ireland could be achieved. While the methods and strategies of PIRA are comparative to those of the ANC, the dispute within Northern Ireland was hinged on an important religious divide and discord between Catholics and Protestants. This religious element plays a significant role in the calculation of PIRA’s legitimacy. While PIRA’s terrorism was politically justified, specifically in reference to the historical context of Britain’s relationship with Ireland and then the Republic and Northern Ireland, the underlying influence of religious terrorism undermines the validity of PIRA’s cause. Fighting multiple ‘oppressors’ both within Northern Ireland and across in the United Kingdom with different motives for each complicates the argument of terrorism justification when it comes to PIRA’s cause.

For both the ANC and the PIRA, the aims were related. Ensuring equal treatment for the actors and the supporting community within their home territory were the main basis for the actions each group took. The ANC’s escalation to violence, however, was based on the failure of their previous non-violent processes. Unlike terrorist organisations that go onto develop political sectors within their organisations to further their causes democratically; this is how the ANC began. While the ANC was once defined as a terrorist organisation they have later come to be embraced as initiators of political freedom against oppressive and violent regimes. This could be arguably linked to the ANC’s role in South African politics previous to its transition into violence. Seen as a development from non-state actor to in-state player, some terrorist organisations become part of the framework in order to change it from within. The roles that the political wings of both PIRA and the PLO have come to play in democracy after their respective transitions away from violence. Sinn Fein as the political wing of PIRA has been one half of the power sharing government of Northern Ireland since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and from the 1974 Arab Summit, the Palestine Liberation Organisation has been recognised as the “sole legitimate representation of the Palestinian people” (United Nations, General Assembly, 1988:1). The political developments of these terrorist groups into political organisations arguably gives them greater authority within global politics but ultimately undermines the legitimacy they gained as non-state actors who challenged both the actions and role of states through violent means. 

Key to include is the distinction between legitimacy and moral justification. While this discussion can arguably provide terrorism with legitimacy, this legitimacy is first specific to the ‘brand’ of terrorism discussed and second; it does not define terrorism’s violent actions as morally justified (Paul Wilkinson, 1986). It is clear that the use of terrorism as a method in the changing of a political framework often benefits the progression of the terrorist group and as this discussion argues sometimes-justifiable aims, however, to claim terrorism as legitimate could be deemed as politically dangerous. While the distinction between different forms is simple to take in theory, however, in practice the distinction between a worthwhile cause enacted through the method of terrorism and all other forms of terrorism is near impossible. Calculating the aims and motives of a terrorist act is used to target terrorist groups in order to counter them, and as discussed previously judging and justifying motives of terrorists would be based on the agenda and perspective of the observer, who is often the subject of the terrorism. 

Any political changes that have followed terrorist action can be claimed to legitimise the use of terrorism’s violent action, however, the methods that these terrorist groups can vary. The PLO and their associated splinter groups are key examples when discussing varying methods. Hijacking has played a prominent role in the actions of the PLO and their affiliate cells. The most significant examples being the hijacking of a commercial Israeli El Al flight in 1968, unlike previous commercial flight hijackings by other terrorist groups, “this hijacking was a bold political statement” (Hoffman, 2006:63). Seized by three armed terrorists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the El Al flight en route to Tel Aviv, made a strong statement not only was the airline directly associated with Israel but its passengers were taken as hostages to be traded for the freedom of Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel. The actions of the PFLP during the event undermined the state of Israel more directly than a general act of terrorism could have. Destroying infrastructure or killing civilians like PIRA in the Brighton Hotel bombing in 1984, aimed at ending the Conservative Party Conference and ultimately assassinating the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher undermined the security of the subject and created a sense of fear surrounding the safety of other political events. However, the PFLP not only undermined the safety of Israeli citizens, embarrassed the state of Israel that was directly associated with the airline, but also forced the Israeli government to directly communicate and negotiate with the terrorists. This communication element undermines the strength and power of the state that Weber defines so strongly, which ultimately weakens the state itself.

Not only does the success of particular acts of terrorism undermine the power of specific states but as does the role of policy from international institutions such as the United Nations (UN). Although the UN has played a significant role in both the countering of terrorism and the creation of policy surrounding the concept, in 1981 when the UN led a vote that condemned the United States’ judicial decision to extradite Abu Eain back to Israel on the grounds of terrorism. With the UN leading the way in defence of Abu Eain’s involvement in the bombing that took place in Tiberias, Israel, the way terrorism as a method of political discord was viewed was inexplicably transformed. The role of terrorism as a method of political rebellion was seen to be justified by the vote of the UN’s member states, specifically when the 73 nations abstained from voting, as to not influence the view of terrorism in global politics, but the majority had endorsed the terrorism to “combat colonialism, racism and alien rule” by the “use of all available means” (Allan Gerson, 1991:58). This change in rhetoric in international politics, not only undermined the anti-terrorism agenda that nation states and international institutions had sought to create but led to many develops in the study of “the underlying causes of terrorism” (Gerson, 1991:53).

Within this context of terrorism, Mohammad (2005:112) describes terrorists as “activists” and defines this form of terrorism as having a “cause-effect methodology”. With no other ability to change the political landscape or undermine oppressive regimes with direct politics non-state actors are often forced to transition into violence, much like the ANC, seeing terrorism’s violent action as “a rational choice” in political change (Mohammad, 2005:112). The method of the violent action of terrorism in order to achieve their aims reiterates terrorism’s use as a form of political challenge, utilising violence to ensure an era of peace by “ending decades of oppression” (The Arab Spring: Five Years On, Amnesty International, 2017:1)

Terrorism conducted by groups such as the ANC, as a method of political change is arguably ultimately always legitimate. Especially, as this discussion as highlighted, when terrorism is used as a method to enable liberation from oppressive or foreign regimes.  As discussed, legitimacy, does not justify terrorism morally nor does it lend terrorism authority. The methods of calculated violence by the ANC or mass civilian casualties by the PIRA is understood within this essay as valid in their contest for freedom as each organisation understood their aims to be. Lending terrorism’s causes and aims validity therefore classes it as legitimate despite its violent and intimidating means. It is evident that the utility of terrorism as a method of political change and discord can be argued as invaluable. Terrorism’s role in enabling the aims of the terrorist organisations discussed can be described as paramount to the changes that can be made in the political or social framework, much like the ending of apartheid in South Africa. While not all forms of the terrorism in this essay’s focus can be deemed as wholly legitimate, like PIRA, these complications are not related to the lack of political legitimacy but rather to the diverse nature of the group and its multifaceted aims. As discussed the PLO’s splinter cell, the PFLP highlighted the potential gains and political focus that acts of terrorism can command. Through methods such as hijacking and bombing the role of terrorism is undeniably important in the framework of political change, especially when compared to the previously peaceful yet failed activism of the ANC before its transition to violence. Overall, terrorism much like any form of warfare is flawed, however, as this essay has discussed the changes that these terrorist organisations can enable through violent means can be seen to justify and therefore legitimise their role within global politics.

Photo Credit: Ben Rowe


Amnesty International (2017) The Arab Spring: Five Years On. Accessed: October 2017.

Ciment, J (2013) World Terrorism: An Encyclopaedia of Political Violence from Ancient Times to the Post 9/11 Era Published: Routledge 

Cusack, M. C (2014) Sacred Suicide Published: Ashgate Publishing

Engeland, V. A and Rudolph, M. R (2013) From Terrorism to Politics Published: Ashgate Publishing

Gerson, A (1991) Chapter 3: Legitimizing International Terrorism: Is the campaign over? In Terrorism and Politics edited by Barry Rubin Published: Palgrave MacMillan

Griset, L. P and Mahan, G. S (2008) Terrorism in Perspective Published: Sage Publications 

Hoffman, B (2006) Inside Terrorism Published: Columbia University Press

Kushner, M. H (2003) Encyclopaedia of Terrorism Published: Sage Publications

Laqueur, W (2000) The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction Published: Oxford University Press

MI5 Security Service (2017) Northern Ireland, and Terrorism Methods. In: WHAT WE DO, Terrorism. (Accessed: 15 October 2017)

Mohammad, Y. S. A (2005) Chapter 8, Roots of Terrorism in the Middle East: internal pressure and international constraints. In: Tore Bjorgo (eds.) Root Causes of Terrorism: Myths, Reality and Ways Forward. Oxford: Routledge

United Nations, General Assembly Papers (1988) Session of solidarity with the Uprising of the Palestinian People Available at: (Accessed: 8th October 2017)

Weber, M (1918) Politics as a Vocation published in The Vocation Lectures: Science as a Vocation/Politics as a Vocation (2004) Published: Hackett Publishing Company 

Wilkinson, P (1986) Terrorism and the liberal state Published: New York University Press


  1. With having so much content, do you ever run into any issues of plagiarism or copyright infringement? My blog has a lot of completely unique content I’ve either written myself or outsourced, but it seems a lot of it is popping up all over the web without my agreement. Do you know any ways to help prevent content from being ripped off? I’d truly appreciate it.


  2. Nice post. I learn something totally new and challenging on websites I stumble upon every day. It will always be exciting to read content from other authors and practice something from their websites.


  3. you are really a just right webmaster. The web site loading speed is amazing. It sort of feels that you are doing any distinctive trick. Furthermore, The contents are masterpiece. you have performed a great activity in this matter!


  4. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say superb blog!


  5. Everything is very open with a precise description of the issues. It was really informative. Your website is extremely helpful. Thanks for sharing!


  6. Hello, would you mind stating which blog platform you’re using? I’m looking to start my own blog shortly, but I’m having a tough time choosing between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. I ask because your design seems different from most blogs, and I’m looking for something completely unique.


  7. Have you ever thought about adding a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is important and everything. But just imagine if you added some great images or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and videos, this blog could be one of the most effective in its niche. Very good blog!


  8. Hi just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few of the images aren’t loading correctly. I’m not sure why but I think it’s a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different web browsers, and both show the same results.


  9. Amazing blog! Do you have any tips and hints for aspiring writers? I’m planning to start my own blog soon, but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or going for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m perplexed. Any suggestions? Cheers!


  10. I am loving the theme/design of your website. Do you ever run into any browser compatibility problems? A small number of my blog visitors have complained about my website not working correctly in Explorer but looking great in Chrome. Do you have any recommendations to help fix this problem?


  11. I’m incredibly impressed with your writing skills and the layout of your weblog. Is this a paid theme, or did you customize it yourself? Anyway, keep up the excellent quality of writing. It’s rare to see a great blog like this one nowadays.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I used to be searching for this information for my mission. I am not positive where you are getting your information, however, it is a good topic. I need to spend some time learning much more or working out more. Thanks for the excellent info.


  13. Attracctive section off content. I juat stumbled uppon your weblog and inn accession capital
    tto asswert tat I gett actually enioyed account your blog posts.

    Anyway I’ll bee subscribing tto your augment and even I achievement you access consistently quickly.


  14. Nice blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere? A design like yours with a few simple adjustments would really make my blog stand out. Please let me know where you got your design. Many thanks


  15. Hllo my loved one! I wish tto ssay that this articcle iss amazing, grewat written and
    come wuth approximately aall significant infos.
    I’d lie tto see eextra osts like this .


  16. Hello too every body, it’s my first go to see of thiss website; thhis website consists of remarkable andd truly goold
    informnation designed foor readers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s