Understanding violent extremism versus terrorism

Discussions about Violent Extremism and Terrorism are always difficult, as they elicit strong reactions and opinions. In discussing Violent Extremism, and ways that we can help people who might be vulnerable to participation, we are often asked ‘why don’t you just call it Terrorism?’

Well, there are a few reasons why we use the term Violent Extremism:

  • Terrorism is a very loaded, misunderstood and vague term.
  • Violent Extremism describes a broader range of violent activity, including things like racially motivated assault.
  • Violent Extremism is found in many different countries, ethnicities, religions and ideologies.

Violent Extremism

Violent Extremism refers to a “willingness to use unlawful violence by others, to promote a political, ideological or religious goal.”

Violent Extremism explicitly identifies violence as a core element, and refers to all politically, ideologically or religiously motivated violence, including small-scale acts of violence that can play out in a localised setting.

While it is okay to hold certain beliefs (even extreme ones), it is not acceptable to plan, use or explicitly encourage the use violence as a method to further those beliefs.

Violent Extremism does include the major acts of violence commonly labelled Terrorist activity, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, or the multiple attacks of 11 September 2001. However, it is much broader than just acts recognised as Terrorism; and also includes violent protests, and communal violence such as racially-motivated assaults.

What differentiates Violent Extremism from other forms of violence is the motivation. Violent Extremism aims to promote a particular ideology or belief through the use of violence. Some Violent Extremist groups that have operated in Australia include the Australian Nationalists Movement and Jemaah Islamiyah, and individuals have also undertaken illegal acts in Australia to support international Violent Extremist groups such as the Tamil Tigers and the Islamic State.

Peter Knight also perpetrated an act of individual Violent Extremism in Melbourne. The anti-abortion activist murdered a security guard and tried to carry out a more widespread massacre at a fertility clinic in 2001.  He ultimately failed in his bid to kill more people and destroy the clinic, but the combination of ideological goal and the use of violence to achieve it meets the definition of Violent Extremism.

Why don’t we just call it Terrorism?

The meaning of Terrorism has been a source of decades-long debate. Internationally, the United Nations has been unable to agree on a single definition of what it is, and it is unlikely they ever will. In an Australian context, Terrorism has a legal definition within the Australian Criminal Code 2003, and the use of the word Terrorism often has very specific implications for insurance or legal cases.

Terrorism is a vague and complex term that is frequently misused by to make moral judgements, or to support a particular political agenda. Widespread and often inappropriate use of this term has made conversations about the meaning of Terrorism difficult.  For many, the word Terrorism is incorrectly associated only with large scale acts of violence such as bombings or mass murder. Some media also often incorrectly label something an act of Terrorism, even before all the facts are known. People can also use the word Terrorism as a way to gain attention and provoke a response. This has made sensible conversations about what is and isn’t Terrorist activity difficult and sometimes controversial.

Using the term ‘Violent Extremism’ is an attempt to move away from the stigma, misrepresentation and confusion associated with use of the ‘Terrorism’ label and to address all types of violence, large or small, used in an attempt to achieve a racial, ideological or religious goal.

Advice and support

If you would like further advice and support on how best to help someone you care about, contact our Step Together helpline workers.

Last updated:

18 Oct 2023

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