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Terrorism defined

The Boston Marathon massacre on April 15, 2013 was horrifying. We saw countless scenes of wounded marathoners and their families and friends caught in the blasts, as well as the image of young Martin Richard, the eight year-old victim of this murderous act who was near the finish line to celebrate his dad completing the Marathon, along with his mother and younger sister who were both gravely wounded.

Who is responsible and why would someone do that? Was this an act of terrorism?

In his first remarks delivered the evening of April 15, President Obama did not call it an act of terrorism; but I believe the “omission” was simply the legal scholar in him self-restraining his use of hyperbolic language. In truth, media reports indicate that the FBI is investigating this as a terrorist act – which according to wire reports is defined in US Federal Regulations as "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

To be sure, since September 11, 2001 much has been written on the causes of terrorism. In academia, defining terrorism was never an easy task because of the negative connotation attached to the word; we have all heard the saying that “one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.” As such, many terrorists do not perceive themselves as terrorists. Political terrorism takes many forms, but there are certain characteristics common to all acts of terrorist violence: first, the violence is symbolic and designed to shock and focus attention on a particular problem or grievance; there is an associated agenda.

Second, terrorism is designed to induce a high state of anxiety within the impacted society. It is the weapon of the weaker side, and with little training and minimum investment an individual can cause the kind of chaos we saw in Boston and, counting all levels of government and all the unseen activities that are likely occurring at airports, terminals and such, mobilize billions of dollars of resources for weeks if not months.

Third, although the end goals differ, political terrorism is always employed consciously and deliberately, and the victims are undifferentiated from the target – which, usually, is the government. In the terrorists’ eyes there is no differentiation between the CIA operative remotely guiding a missile drone above the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and those poor souls who were innocently attending a civic event. What is worse though, is that these organizations are unable to directly confront the US military, therefore civilians become the preferred target as they are easier to kill.

Terrorist groups can also be state-directed, state-sponsored or self-sponsored. Iran and Syria are on lists as State-sponsors of terrorism; Al-Qaida offshoots and domestic US groups typically raise their own funds, sometimes by kidnappings and ransoms; “protection” and graft; and sometimes via “generous donor support.”

As of this writing, we don’t know who is responsible. But one thing is certain: if the perpetrators are foreign, the United States will have suffered its first domestic terror attack in almost 12 years. And…let us hope that no one involved has any connection to Canada whatsoever.

Jean-Sébastien Rioux is Associate Director, International Policy and Director, Master of Public Policy program at The School of Public Policy