Terrorism: Criminal Behavior vs. Terrorism

You might think that criminals and terrorists represent two different types of violent behavior. Some analysts (theorists) agree, but confusion remains. Explain criminal behavior vs. terrorism.

Some people think that terrorism and criminal violence is the same type of crime, or that at the very least, they have big commonalities.  However, terrorism is not like other types of violence, and therefore, there are basic components and criteria that can be used to distinguish the two.  Dr. David Goldstein (2007) explains the concept further by showing the intricate differences between criminals and terrorists:

(…) the terrorist is often well trained and state-supported. He or she has a specific goal in mind, often more symbolic than opportunistic. On the other hand, it is a fair statement that the “ordinary” criminal is one who seeks opportunistic targets, has little backing, is selfish, lacks discipline and may be deterred relatively easily.

In general, terrorists are assumed to be well trained as opposed to a regular criminal.  Therefore, the propensity for violence and level of destruction can be much greater.  Terrorists are more likely to believe in their cause, so much, that they are even willing to die for it (Goldstein, 2007).  This is very unlike mainstream violence, where for example, the criminal perpetrator runs for cover when being chased by the police, while the terrorist may confront the police with a bomb strapped to his/her chest.

Criminals tend to hide after they commit a crime, but terrorists often like to take credit and bask in the media’s propaganda.  Another factor to consider is the span of attacks of regular criminals and terrorists.  Most criminals operate within the proximity of their hide out, while most terrorists operate within entire countries, and many of them, operate internationally; with hideouts and safe houses in many geographic regions (White, 2006).


Goldstein, D. (2007). Week 3: Religion and Modern Terrorism. Retrieved April 22, 2007, from Boston University, Vista Online Learning Web site: http://vista.bu.edu/webct/
Goldstein, D. (2007). Week 6: A Review and a Look at the Future of Terrorism. Retrieved April 22, 2007, from Boston University, Vista Online Learning Web site: http://vista.bu.edu/webct/
White, J.R. (2006). Terrorism and Homeland Security. (5th Ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth.

Article written by Radek Gadek

Radek holds a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Boston University. He is currently doing consulting work and runs this blog to provide relevant information on criminal justice degrees, colleges and related careers.

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