Definitions are the bane of terrorism analysis, and most are plagued with gaps, ambiguities, and inconsistencies. Even close allies do not agree on definitions of terrorism and which groups should be labeled as dangerous. Often there is an “I know it when I see it” sense of what is good and bad, which in practice is little help for governments, financial institutions, social media companies, or others trying to stop violent extremists. Politics also heavily shapes definitions, with some ideologies such as Islamic extremism receiving far more attention than white supremacy, anti-government extremism, or traditional civil strife. The result is poor discourse, uneven enforcement, different rules in different countries, and a general cynicism that definitions are simply ways for the powerful to marginalize the powerless.
Most debates focus on what counts as terrorism, but there’s another increasingly important definitional challenge presented by a seemingly obvious, but in fact quite difficult, question: What is a terrorist movement? Being formally labeled a terrorist “group” or “organization” is often tied to penalties under law, deplatforming by technology companies, and the denial of financial services, among other punishments.
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