International Terrorism

St. Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great, who asked him “how he dares molest the sea.” How dare you molest the whole world?” the pirate replied, “because I do it with a little ship only I am called a thief. You, doing it with a great navy, are called an Emperor.”

As Naom Chomsky explains, this tale illuminates the meaning of the concept of international terrorism in contemporary Western usage, and reaches to the heart of the frenzy over selected incidents of terrorism currently being orchestrated, with supreme cynicism, as a cover for Western violence.

In the space of an hour, the United States of America faced a sample of the same brand of terrorism that has been inflicted on vast swathes of the world’s population throughout the twentieth century by its own military forces. The destruction of the World Trade Centre, the explosion that racked the Pentagon, and the plane crash near Camp David have left America shocked and on high alert.

The last time the national territory of the US was under attack, or for that matter, even threatened was when the British burnt down Washington in 1814. The outrage and bewilderment is therefore understandable. For decades the US extended its control and domination by killing someone else, somewhere else – it was always others that were getting slaughtered.

The US has been acting in contravention of the Geneva Convention, which states that the civilian population shall not be the object of attack. The deliberate killing of civilians for a political goal is simply terrorism. The atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the millions killed in Vietnam, in North Korea, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Sudan and the South American states of Panama, Nicaragua and Haiti are just some examples.


In the current war against Afghanistan the US claims it has based its attack on international law – the right of self-defense. In fact, this war is illegal. No international or national law or policy legalizes these attacks on Afghanistan. No resolutions of the United Nations’ Security Council or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) could provide a legal justification for these attacks and none do.


The war against Afghanistan violates all international law including the Charter of the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions and the relevant provisions of the eleven International agreements dealing with the suppression and control of terrorism. The attacks by bombing and the use of other military force are war crimes pursuant to the Rome Statute.


The two UN resolutions (1368 and 1373) invalidate the claim that the US response is legal self-defense, and that the Security Council gave a green light to “any means” the US chooses to take.


Resolution 1368, in which the Security Council (not individual nations) said it was “determined to combat by all means threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts, ” and ” expressed its readiness to take all necessary steps to respond to the terrorists attacks of 11 September 2001, and to combat all forms of terrorism, in accordance with its responsibilities under the Charter of the United Nations,” and similar language in 1373.

This language is styled broadly, but the resolution takes pains to note the Security Council’s “responsibilities under the Charter,” which would allow the Security Council to authorize force only under extremely limited circumstances, and when other measures are impossible – and most likely under a UN flag and command.

Also, when the Security Council actually outlined a broad array of means, in 1373, it did not mention force. Instead it ordered member countries to freeze terrorist assets, criminalize the financing and support of terrorists, exchange police information about terrorists, prevent movement of terrorists through increased border controls, and capture and prosecute terrorists.

The time has come for the international community to ask whether it will allow a single nation, albeit a powerful one, to use terrorism as a weapon to coerce smaller and weaker states to submit to its will. Our intrepid President Thabo Mbeki has expressed similar sentiments in his address to the UN general Assembly. He stated “there has to be an understanding that, since we are all faced with a common threat, it is necessary that all of us (determine) what that threat is, what it consists of, and how we should respond to it together.”

Has terrorism become a convenient camouflage to conceal the real motive behind US moves – which is to thwart any attempt by any nation to assert its independence and to pursue aspirations that may be at variance with US policy goals? Is terrorism going to be the new threat emanating from ‘the other’ which the US intends to exploit to the hilt in order to establish its global hegemony?

Terrorism and punishment of the perpetrators of terror should be based upon the sort of solid evidence, which is not influenced by the politics of US foreign policy. To allow a state to mete out its own form of punishment against another state without any regard for the UN Charter or for the values that underlie international law or international relations is to condone terrorism in global politics.

(Mr. Firoz Osman is Secretary of the Media Review Network, which is an advocacy group based in Pretoria, South Africa.)