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Thursday, 17 November 2011

Why is Terrorism So Hard to Define?

There were many debates concerning extremism prior to 9/11, but it was those watershed attacks that propelled terrorism into the forefront of contemporary consciousness. However, despite such public spotlight there is no concrete, universally accepted definition of terrorism, and they vary from state to state and between law enforcement departments. In a world where national security is of paramount significance, the political and legal need for an agreed upon definition is pressing, for effective counter-terrorism strategies cannot be implemented, guidelines for the prosecution of terror suspects cannot be reached, and international cooperation cannot be strengthened without one.


The definitional problem is an academic and political stumbling block, and an almost impossible issue to rectify. Tucker states that, ‘above the gates of hell is the warning that all that enter should abandon hope. Less dire but to the same effect is the warning given to those who try to define terrorism’. Despite this ominous warning, numerous endeavours have been made to arrive at a definition – Laqueur counted over one hundred attempts, while Schmidt and Jongman added a further nine.

A number of the proposed definitions centre primarily on one of the three aspects of terrorism: the causes; perpetrators; and means of attack, although focusing on a single factor is not adequate as terrorism is multi-faceted, complex, and fluid. The diverse nature of the three elements makes formulating a definition extremely difficult – the challenge lies in making it neither too broads nor too narrow. A number of characteristics repeatedly emerge from the proposed definitions, (namely the threat or use of violence, political ideology, and action against non-combatants), which prompts the question of why the problem of definition still exists if these core factors are so frequently underlined.

Firstly, reason lies in the fact that the generally-understood meaning and application of the word terrorism has evolved over the past two hundred years and continues to do so. Terrorism was initially considered a positive, politically focused and state-sponsored phenomenon, although over time it has become a highly undesirable label associated largely with violent non-state actors, with overt criminal implications.

The language and associations surrounding terrorism also play a major role in why it is so difficult to define. Acts that are labelled as such vary hugely, while the term itself is ‘ideologically and politically loaded; pejorative, implies moral and social, and value judgement; and is slippery and much abused’. Due to its inherently negative connotations, the terrorist label is usually applied to one’s opposition. The term is taboo and carries a ‘massive emotional punch’, and is thus wantonly overused by the media. Resultantly, terrorism has become an umbrella-term for a seemingly boundless spectrum of violent or criminal acts including the Apartheid, rape, and even the behaviour of the illegal loggers who caused flooding in Sumatra in 2003. Journalists also employ hyperbole, including ‘super’ and ‘mega’ terrorism, which is presumably intended to heighted the drama of terrorism, but in doing so, increases the term’s elasticity and exacerbates the surrounding climate of fear and confusion. With no standard definition to curb such promiscuous use of the word, terrorism can essentially means whatever the author desires. This blurs the line between terrorism and other forms of political and criminal violence, and renders the term so broad that its meaning becomes lost. With no apparent boundaries it becomes near impossible to arrive at a definition.

The terrorist label also conjures up various sentiments in different groups. Firstly, aside from a few historical anomalies including Narodnaya Volya, terrorists never admit to being ‘terrorists’, and instead see themselves as (usually) reluctant minorities participating in legitimate struggle, and using the only means they have available to them. PLO leader Yasser Arafat articulated this notion: ‘Whoever stands by a just cause and fights for the freedom and liberation of his land…cannot possibly be called a terrorist’. The majority of active extremist groups also have names that are removed from the violence and negativity that is synonymous with terrorism, and instead highlight their ‘just’ causes.  (See for example the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, and the Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade – all of which feature on lists of international terror groups.)

Neutral names are also frequently used, such as Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), and more famously, Al Qaeda (The Foundation or Base), as ‘they are bereft of all but the most innocuous suggestions or associations’. Victims of terrorism see the perpetrators as criminals with murderous tendencies, while the public view differs again. Although the majority firmly opposes terrorism there is a minority viewpoint that offers sympathy and support, often due to the underdog or ‘Robin Hood’ image presented by an organisation. With such conflicting viewpoints it is no wonder that there is as yet no concrete definition.

The subjectivity of terrorism is unavoidable, and trying to remain objective is a key contributor to the definitional challenge. Owing to the highly reactionary nature of terrorism, viewpoints can easily become clouded due to public response, and the label is easy to attach to groups or individuals. ‘If one party can attach the label terrorist to its opponent, then it has indirectly persuaded others to adopt its viewpoint.’ Choice of terminology could also reveal an author’s allegiances, and to avoid this there is a journalistic tendency to interchange terrorist with guerrilla, fundamentalist or even soldier (amongst others). Rappoport states that, ‘in attempting to correct the abuse of language, for political purposes, our journalists may succeed in making language altogether worthless’. The discrepancy in language also implies that what actually defines terrorism is a personal matter, which leads to the rather clich├ęd aphorisms: ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’, and ‘terrorism is in the eye of the beholder’.

A final reason for the difficulty in defining terrorism lies in the continuous debate concerning whether state, or state-sponsored, terrorism exists, or if it is the specific forte of sun-national groups (as seen in the US department of State’s definition). It is a common belief that States engage in war, while non-state actors participate in terrorism, although this cannot and should not be accepted as an absolute tool of definition as there are a multitude of examples that do not fit the mould. For example, the US National Security Strategy defines terrorism as ‘premeditated, politically motivated violence against innocents’, which by definition encapsulates state atrocities, but which has been condemned as being too broad and too narrow.

Stern proposes that States can unleash terrorism, citing Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds, and the Guatemalan government’s mistreatment of its own citizens. Additionally, the allied raids on Dresden in World War Two were used as a tactic of warfare, but they are nonetheless in keeping with Neumann’s definition of terrorism, although they are never referred to as such. The Holocaust and Rwandan genocide of 1994 are similar – state-sponsored terrorism – although the fact that such events are not categorised as such has led scholars to conclude that States have a monopoly on ‘legitimate violence’. Interestingly, the IRA’s bombing campaign of the 1990s is regularly referred to as terrorism, despite the fact that they issues warnings to civilians revealing the location of bombs so they could avoid harm. Thus the question arises: can acts be defined as terrorism if the violence is not directed at civilians?

It is easy to see from where the definitional problem arises: ‘to define terrorism in a way that is both all-inclusive and unambiguous is very difficult, if not impossible…the search for an internationally agreed upon definition may well be a futile and unnecessary effort’. The search is ongoing, but the innumerable challenges that face it have prompted several academics to question whether a definition is actually needed. Hoffman, for one, suggests that if one cannot be reached then we should at least usefully distinguish it from other types of violence and identify its characteristics that make terrorism the distinct phenomenon of political violence that it is.

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