Does the ICC Deter International Terrorism?
Do you believe that the ICC could serve as a deterrent to international terrorism? Discover reasons against this suggestion.

Do you believe that the ICC could serve as a deterrent to international terrorism?

Given the International Criminal Court (ICC)'s current resource situation and the existing understanding of terrorism, I do not believe that the ICC could serve as an effective deterrent to international terrorism.

ICC and terrorism

What is Terrorism?

There are various definitions of terrorism, yet no universally accepted definition exists. This makes it incredibly difficult to prosecute and fight terrorism, presenting an obstacle to global counter-terrorism efforts.

Instead, different nations understand terrorism as it is explained in various conventions and treaties, as well as independent scholars.

The most basic definition addresses three distinct elements.

  • Violence 
  • Non-state actor 
  • Political purpose 

Terrorism is, therefore, the unlawful threat or act of violence committed for a political purpose by a non-state actor.

Both the UN General Assembly and the Security Council have repeatedly condemned international terrorism as "one of the most serious threats to international peace and security."

Why Will the ICC Not Deter International Terrorism?

While some argue that the ICC may effectively deter international terrorism, the following reasons suggest otherwise.

Lack of Definition

First, there is no universally-agreed definition of terrorism which makes it difficult (and near impossible) for the ICC (or any international court or tribunal) to prosecute terrorism as a crime (Wertheim, 2003).

In addition, scholars debate whether international terrorism is a criminal act, thus implicating human rights law, or whether it surpasses the threshold for the violence of armed conflict and should be treated under humanitarian law (UNODC - United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2020).

Possibility of a Political Offence

Second, without a clear definition, certain acts broadly understood as terrorism could be argued as “political offenses” to avoid consequences for terrorist actions. On the opposite end of concerns, it allows alleged offenders to be punished for their political convictions or affiliations rather than alleged behavior (Wertheim, 2003).

With this in mind, introducing terrorism to the ICC jurisdiction makes it difficult to balance fundamental human rights with justice and muddies the waters of the ICC’s safeguards against political charges.

Lack of Resources

Third, the ICC has previously rejected the suggestion that drug trafficking and terrorism be included in its jurisdiction due to its lack of resources which makes it difficult to tackle such a complex crime (Wertheim, 2003). This situation has not changed, and the likelihood of the ICC deterring future terrorists through swift and severe punishment is not an effective reality.

Deterrence and Terrorism

Finally, and perhaps most notable, is that deterrence efforts do not sway the motivation for terrorist acts. When applying the rational choice theory to suicide terrorists, Perry explores a thorough cost-benefit analysis that concludes death offers significant rewards.

The possibility of punishment does not outweigh the benefit of martyrdom, which comes with religious, personal, and social rewards (2015).

What is the Solution to Terrorism?

After addressing the above concerns, there’s a possibility that the ICC could prosecute terrorists and find justice for their crimes. However, I don’t think that the ICC could deter international terrorism. So, what is to be done?

Consider Agnew’s General strain theory which suggests sub-state terrorism is most likely to occur when people experience collective strains that are high in magnitude and affecting civilians, unjust, and inflicted by significantly more powerful “others” (2010). Applying this thought process to international terrorism, it’s possible to deter terrorism by reducing these strains and considering intervening mechanisms between collective strains and crime (Agnew, 2010).

Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Burkina Faso, and Syria are the top five countries with the highest terrorism index in 2021. Consider what these countries have in common — what are the strains, and how can the international community help alleviate these strains?

Another option would be prosecuting select international terrorists under one of the other ICC jurisdictions, such as crimes against humanity. But while this demonstrates an attempt at finding justice, I do not believe it will deter future terrorists.


  • Agnew, R. (2010). A general strain theory of terrorism. Theoretical Criminology, 14(2), 131-153. 
  • Perry, S., & Hasisi, B. (2015). Rational choice rewards and the jihadist suicide bomber. Terrorism and Political Violence, 27(1), 53-80. 
  • UNODC - United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2020, November 13). E4J Global Podcast Series - Episode 6: Counter-Terrorism, Int'l Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. [Video] Youtube. 
  • Vision of Humanity. (2022, October 21) Global terrorism index: Countries most impacted by terrorism. Retrieved March 12, 2023, from 
  • Wertheim, P. J. (2003). Should “Grave Crimes of International Terrorism” be included in the Jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court? Policy and Society, 22(2), 1-21.