Definition of ‘terrorism’

Published on – November 6, 2019 – 6:00 am
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The Supreme Court of Pakistan has defined terrorism and directed the parliament to review the law to make in clearer and more precise. New definition also clarifies that the ‘design’ of the act, not its ‘effect’ shall determine whether it’s terrorism or not. The judgment said “Terrorism as an ‘ism’ is a totally different concept which denotes commission of a crime with the design or purpose of destabilizing the government, disturbing the society or hurting a section of the society with a view to achieving objectives which are essentially political, ideological or religious. “The international perception is also becoming clearer on the point that a violent activity against civilians that has no political, ideological or religious aims is just an act of criminal delinquency, a felony, or simply an act of insanity unrelated to terrorism.


The Supreme Court of Pakistan has defined terrorism and directed the parliament to review the law to make in clearer and more precise. New definition also clarifies that the ‘design’ of the act, not its ‘effect’ shall determine whether it’s terrorism or not. The judgment said “Terrorism as an ‘ism’ is a totally different concept which denotes commission of a crime with the design or purpose of destabilizing the government, disturbing the society or hurting a section of the society with a view to achieving objectives which are essentially political, ideological or religious. “The international perception is also becoming clearer on the point that a violent activity against civilians that has no political, ideological or religious aims is just an act of criminal delinquency, a felony, or simply an act of insanity unrelated to terrorism.

“This metamorphosis in the anti-terrorism law in our country has brought about a sea change in the whole concept as we have understood it in the past and it is, therefore, of paramount importance for all concerned to understand this conceptual modification and transformation in its true perspective.” In April 2019, the SC said it would deal with the definition of the term and decided to determine some criteria for its application. The observation came when senior counsel Burhan Moazzam Malik drew the attention of a seven-judge SC bench to the travesty of circumstances where cases of terrorism were sent to the military courts, saying he did not see any ATC in Lahore hearing cases that strictly fell within the category of terrorism. The top judged noted with regret that by introducing the Anti-terrorism Act (ATA) the legislators had made a very open-ended law which had only added to the confusion. And though the ATA was introduced in 1997, many amendments were brought to the law in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2013 in which even the definition of terrorism was changed.

Should the courts consider the cases of terrorism on an individual basis by considering the date of occurrence of the offence and comparing it with the definition at the time of the incident, he asked. According to the apex court’s definition, any violence carried out for religious, ideological or political objectives, to spread fear among the government and the masses, to inflict damage to life or property, to fan religious sectarianism and to carry out attacks against the law enforcement agencies or security forces, is terrorism. The judgements also clarifies that the term ‘terrorism’ can be applied to the use of force, under an organized plan, for the realization of religious, ideological or political goals. It can also be applied when, under the plan, terror is struck in the hearts of people and damage dealt to lives and property. The judgment also outlined what offences cannot be viewed as terrorism. The court clearly distinguished in its judgment that acts of violence, such as setting things on fire and extortion, committed under a personal vendetta arising out of enmity or hostility are not ‘terrorism’.

Personal enmity as a result of contempt for a person’s religion is not terrorism. A person’s involvement in an act of violence owing to hostility or personal enmity against the police, army or government employees does not fall within the scope of terrorism, ruled the court. The Supreme Court clarified that “any action constituting an offence, howsoever grave, shocking, brutal, gruesome or horrifying, does not qualify to be termed as terrorism if it is not committed with the design or purpose specified or mentioned in clauses (b) or (c) of subsection (1) of section 6 of the said Act”. The court recommended that the Parliament consider substituting the current definition with “a more succinct one” to bring it “in line with the international perspectives of that offence and focusing on violent activities aimed at achieving political, ideological or religious objectives”.