A war on terrorism? But what is terrorism?



“Most of the time, if something looks like a terrorist and makes a noise like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist é and we now know what to do about it in terms of what we set out in this resolution.”

These were the words of Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, on Friday 28 September. Acting with unusual speed, the U.N. Security Council had approved a sweeping resolution requiring all 189 U.N. member nations to deny money, support and sanctuary to terrorists.

The legally binding resolution, adopted unanimously on that Friday night, is a significant international response to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. France’s U.N. ambassador Jean-David Levitte, the current Council president, called it “historic” and said it showed the essential role of the United Nations in building a global coalition to fight terrorism. The resolution é U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373 – was introduced and approved by the usually slow Security Council in just over 24 hours, a pace that reflects the widespread support that the United States has attracted in its global campaign to pursue those responsible for the attacks, and any nation that harbours them.

The resolution demands action by all nations against terrorists and allows the Security Council to take measures to restore international peace and security. According to Columbia’s ambassador to the U.N. Alfonso Valdivieso, it also marks the first time that the Council has approved a resolution dealing with a conflict without naming “a single country, society, or group of people”. Under the resolution, all countries must make the “wilful” financing of terrorism a criminal offence, immediately freeze terrorist-related funds and prevent movement of individuals and groups suspected of having terrorist connections. Nations must deny terrorists any “safe haven”.

However, one stumbling block in the UN-sanctioned “war on terrorism” is that Resolution 1373 deliberately does not include a definition of terrorism because member nations have not been able to agree on one. “There is a huge grey area of what is a terrorist,” said one Council diplomat.

Indeed. Despite the bold claim made by Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Jeremy Greenstock, the question of a definition of terrorism has haunted the debate among states for decades. A first attempt to arrive at an internationally acceptable definition was made under the League of Nations, but the convention drafted in 1937 never came into existence. The U.N. member states still have no agreed-upon definition and are unlikely to reach a consensus in the foreseeable future.

This lack of agreement on a definition of terrorism has been a major obstacle to meaningful international countermeasures. Without an international standard that precisely defines acts of political terrorism, international law actually becomes impotent when confronted with terrorist crimes. Cynics have often commented that one state’s “terrorist” is another state’s “freedom fighter”.

In order to cut through the Gordian definitional knot, terrorism expert Alex Schmid suggested in 1992, in a report for the then UN Crime Branch, that it might be a good idea to take the existing consensus on what constitutes a “war crime” as a point of departure. If the core of war crimes é deliberate attacks on civilians, hostage taking and the killing of prisoners é is extended to peacetime, we could simply define acts of terrorism as “peacetime equivalents of war crimes”.

In fact, the unintended é yet positive é consequence of such a definition would be the elimination of the distinction between terrorism by groups and terrorism by governments. The word “terrorism” actually originates from the acts of state terror perpetrated during the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror” (1793-94), when Robespierre and the Jacobins rounded up and executed some 12,000 people deemed é often for the flimsiest reasons é enemies of the Revolution and the new French state.

And, as the Irish politician Conor Cruise O’Brien has written:

“Those who are described as terrorists, and reject that title for themselves, make the uncomfortable point that national armed forces, fully supported by democratic opinion, have in fact employed violence and terror on a far vast scale than what liberation forces have yet been able to attain. The “freedom fighters” see themselves as fighting a just war. Why should they not be entitled to kill, burn and destroy as national armies, navies and air forces do, and why should the label “terrorist” be applied to them and not to the national militaries?”

Nonetheless, the elimination of “state terrorism” is not one of the stated aims of the current international coalition against terrorism. Today’s “war on terrorism” is a war with those individuals or groups who act against states, not the states themselves. In fact, the branding by states of those who challenge their authority as “terrorists” is not a new phenomenon in history. The Nazi Third Reich called its dissenters terrorists; to the British the freedom movement of India was terrorism; to the Apartheid regime of South Africa those who fought for equality as human beings were also terrorists.

Here in Britain, long before the Sept 11 attacks, the Government codified and legitimised this odious conduct in the form of the Terrorism Act 2000. It has tagged any and every act of violence to espouse a political cause (“advancing a political, religious or ideological cause”, as described in the law), even “damage to property” (also as described in the law), as “terrorism”.

Worryingly for Muslims, the law also listed 21 specific organisations as “terrorist”, 16 of which are based in Muslim countries. It is an offence to belong to any of these organisations and the punishment is up to 10 years in prison. Of course, the decision as to which groups are deemed terrorist rests solely with the Government. In recent interviews, former Home Secretary Jack Straw has insisted that this Act is not directed against British Muslims. Yet the 21 proscribed organisations do not include Jewish or Hindu terrorist groups. Mr Straw has also insisted that it is not Hamas that is banned but rather its military wing (“Izz al-Din al-Qassem”), just as the IRA is banned, but not its political wing, Sinn Fein. However, with the wide-ranging powers given to the security establishment, anyone giving money even to the well-known social welfare projects of Hamas and Hizbollah are likely to come under suspicion. In fact, in America, even prior to the Sept 11 attacks, the ‘Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development’, a Dallas-based Muslim charity, had been repeatedly investigated by the FBI regarding its alleged financial ties to terrorism in the Middle East. Holy Land Foundation officials point out that they provide purely humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territories and to refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.

It is thus difficult to avoid the conclusion drawn by historian Frank Furedi, in his 1994 book, ‘The New Ideology of Imperialism’. “Terrorists,” wrote Furedi, “become any foreign people you don’t like. Moreover, terrorism is redefined to serve as an all-purpose metaphor for the Third World, demanding concerted action from the West.”

It is also important to note that during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, the mujahedin groups é like those of Osama bin Laden é which engaged in murderous attacks, often on civilian targets, were usually described by our government and our media as guerrillas or freedom fighters. It is only now that they have directed their hostilities at the USA and its allies that they are called “terrorists”.

Supporters of this so-called war on “terrorism” have argued that such double standards are inevitable and unavoidable, yet the result of these double standards has been to render the term virtually meaningless; one that is useful only for propaganda purposes. As the crusading foreign correspondent Robert Fisk pointed out in his book ‘Pity the Nation’, more than a decade ago: “Terrorism no longer means terrorism. It is not a definition, it is a political contrivance. “Terrorists” are those who use violence against the side that is using the word.”

More recently, the noted authority on terrorism, Brian M. Jenkins, wrote:

“Some governments are prone to label as terrorism all violent acts committed by their political opponents, while anti-government extremists frequently claim to be victims of government terror. Use of the term thus implies a moral judgement. If one group can successfully attach the label terrorist to its opponent, then it has indirectly persuaded others to adopt its moral and political point of viewé Terrorism is what the bad guys do.”