State terrorism is a form of terrorism committed by the government of a nation-state. This term has attracted some controversy, as it can involve fuzzy definitions and imperfect distinctions between the legitimate use of violence and intimidation and the illegitimate use of such tactics. Some nations such as Iran and Pakistan have been routinely singled out as terrorist states, but the label has been applied to a wide variety of other governments, including nations like the United States and Great Britain.
Terrorism involves the use of violence, coercion, and threats to create instability. The instability in turn can lead to social chaos, a decline in morale, and the collapse of a government or social group. When it is committed by individual actors, terrorism is usually easy to define: a suicide bomber who destroys a school to make a political statement, for example, is a terrorist. However, when one is discussing nation-states, things get a bit more complex.
When a nation undermines the legitimate government of another country, this is often treated as terrorism. If, for example, Country A sends covert troops into Country B to destabilize its government, this could be considered state terrorism, and distinct from a legitimate act of war. Surrogate terrorism, in which one nation supports another's terrorist activities, or contributes support to terrorists active in another country, is another form of terrorism. This is sometimes referred to as “state-sponsored terrorism,” because the nation-state involved takes a hands-off approach while still supporting terrorism.
One of the most famous incidences of state terrorism, the Reign of Terror in 18th century France, involved the use of terrorist tactics by a nation on its own citizens. The French government, struggling for legitimacy in a chaotic nation, attempted to keep the populace subdued with draconian and violent policies. Many dictators use similar tactics to keep their citizens in check and to prevent protesting, although these activities may not always be viewed as terrorism.
Critics of nations which tend to get heavily involved in international politics sometimes accuse these nations of state terrorism. Countries which utilize terrorist tactics to defend themselves or gain political ground may also find charges of state terrorism leveled at them, although the charges can be difficult and finicky to prove. Because there is no clear international legal definition, it is also difficult to get the United Nations involved in suspected cases.
Although it is difficult to pin down what state terrorism is, many people agree that it leads to instability worldwide, and is therefore an issue which needs to be addressed by the international community.