What is terrorism?

Yesterday President Obama announced that Cuba would be taken off the US’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, to which Cuba replied “thanks, about time“. It shows real progress towards better relations with Cuba, but also raising an interesting question – what does it mean to sponsor terrorism? More importantly, what is terrorism actually? In this adaption of an essay I wrote for university in my first year, I take a lot at how useless this word really is.

President Reagan and the heroic freedom fighters of Afghanistan. Or terrorists. Depends on the decade

The US State Department calls terrorism “Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” The dictionary adds to this: “the unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims” This doesn’t help much though. What is ‘unauthorized’ or ‘unofficial’? Who are ‘noncombatants’?

The first problem with this definition is the problem of “authorisation”. Acts of ‘terrorism’ aren’t authorised and therefore not warfare, but something worse. The question that arises is “Who has the power to authorise acts of violence?” The obvious answer is “governments”, but what happens when this is in breach of international law? In October 2013 Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch analysed US drone strikes in Yemen, and claimed that two certainly violated the rules of war as “they struck only civilians or used indiscriminate weapons [cluster munitions]”. In one of these two attacks 41 civilians were killed by cluster munitions. Nearly every government in the world has agreed to abide by international law, allowing it to govern their actions. If an attack killing so many civilians breaks international law, would that not make it unauthorised and therefore ‘terrorism’?

In the Syrian Civil War as well, the word ‘terrorism’ proves useless. Islamic State is classified as a terrorist group for their brutal attacks on civilians. But as a rebel group, IS has support from one side of a civil war. The government of Syria is also involved in large-scale attacks on civilians, including attacks using chemical weapons and barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. These attacks are committed by a government that has lost the support of a large group of the population. This makes a strong case for these attacks being unauthorised and therefore ‘terrorism’. But states don’t commit terrorism. They only ‘sponsor’ it.

This hazy definition means that the word is basically used to shut down dialogue, and label your enemies. When governments want international or public support for military action, the word ‘terrorist’ is nearly always called into action. Russia in Chechnya, Israel in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, all of them call for support by labelling their enemies as ‘terrorists’. And it works too. As journalist Robert Fisk wrote, “Who would ever say a word in favour of terrorists? What cause could justify terror? So our enemies are always ‘terrorists’”. In 1999 the Russian army surrounded the city of Grozny in Chechnya, and said that anyone who failed to evacuate would be considered ‘terrorists’. A few days later, they started firing ballistic missiles at a city full of the sick and wounded. Terrorists have no right to life after all.

Policy also decides exactly when groups are labelled terrorists. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan numerous Islamic mujahideen groups fought the Soviets in an insurgency. The US strongly supported these fighters with money and weapons, and in 1983 Ronald Reagan called them “courageous Afghan freedom fighters”. When the US and NATO invaded Afghanistan less than 20 years later, many of the forces opposing them were from the same groups and with the same motivations. Yet they were now facing the US, and therefore their actions were condemned as terrorism, just as the Soviet Union had labelled them as such 20 years earlier.

Finally, terrorism is only terrorism when it’s committed against us. In 1983 the US Marine Barracks in Beirut were bombed, killing 241 Marines.This was seen as terrorism, even though the Marines were involved in Lebanon’s civil war, because the victims were not in combat and were on base. Two years later a massive explosion killed 80 civilians and wounded hundreds more in the same city. The target was a Hezbollah cleric (who was certainly ‘in combat’). The attack was authorised by the CIA. This though wasn’t terrorism. It was ‘counter-terrorism‘.

I could keep going with example forever, but the real world consequences of the unclear definition of ‘terrorism’ are clear. It isn’t a matter of linguistics or abstract debate, but a word which is used as a political tool and a weapon – a word that should have no place anymore in our news.


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