Definition of the month #03: Terrorism

DEFINITION OF THE MONTH #03 – What are the elements that help defining the concept of terrorism? Is the idea of terrorism itself malleable and ever-changing? This month the challenges that the word ‘terrorism’ confronts us with will be thoroughly analysed. Firstly, a historical background will be provided along with the analysis of the problematic concept of terrorism nowadays. Secondly, the legal framework will be presented. Finally, the example of eco-terrorism will show how difficult it is to fully determine a definition of terrorism.

English

"El Zulo" sculpture by Victor Ochoa (Cartagena, Spain) - Source: Wikimedia Commons

Past and present: no definitions

  • Historical background

Terrorism can’t be fully understood without considering its historical development. As Rémi Baudouï1 (University of Geneva) has claimed, the concept of terrorism has been historically defined on the basis of a very large common denominator: the act of violence. Apart from violence, the other elements that characterise a terrorist action need to be contextualised.2

The word ‘terrorism’ was firstly used in 1795 when the Reign of Terror was initiated by the revolutionary government. The “Terrorists” of the French Revolution employed tactics such as assassination, intimidation and other extra-legal activities. Thus, the experience of France represents a first example of terrorism as close as possible to the modern conception of it since it’s strongly linked with the use of violent acts aimed at creating a climate of chaos and disorder to reverse power structures.3 During the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, many groups of revolutionaries and nationalists were established as radical political theories became extremely common. Europe was particularly affected by these events with Spanish anarchists spreading terror in Andalusia and Italy and France witnessing the establishment of governments inspired by nationalist ideals.4

During the 21st century the merciless World Wars brought violence and death to the everyday life of the population. In the first half of the century, many communities were in fact desensitised by violence and violations of the law of war. In this context, “The major powers' support of resistance organizations using terrorist tactics was viewed as an acceptance of their legitimacy.”5 Terror was becoming a widespread phenomenon in these years and the social acceptance of it became particularly high. It was, however, when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked a plane en route from Tel Aviv to Rome in 1968, that the age of modern terrorism officially began. The aim was a particular one: media coverage. As the founder of the Front, Dr. George Habash observed: “At least the world is talking about us now.” Finally, after the attacks at the World Trade Center, the conception of terrorism changed again. 9/11 completely shattered consequences for international law6 and imposed a real, new vision of terrorism especially when the then President of the United States, George W. Bush, declared that the U.S were officially in a “war on terror.”

 

  • Current conception

Having discussed the development of terrorism during the centuries and having come across different conceptions, how do we define it and interpret it nowadays? Etymologically speaking, the word ‘terrorism’ comes from the Latin term terrere which means ‘to frighten.’ Moreover, according to the Oxford dictionary, ‘terrorism’ is, generally, “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”7 The definition provided by the dictionary is vague but it has a definite negative connotation. That particular conception of the word terrorism, was given by Emmanuel Kant who, in 1798, spoke about a ‘hedonistic’ as opposed to ‘terrorist’ conception of history of humanity. Specifically, the latter view implied a highly pessimistic conception of the human being.8

According to the Dictionary of Political Vocabulary, ‘terrorism’ is defined as “an activity carried out by clandestine and organised groups choosing to carry out violent actions going thus against the political, economic or religious interests of a society.”9 This definition provides a more specific and specialised meaning since it also distinguishes different types of terrorism depending on the motivations behind the act of terror and on the target of the actions. Within the different types of terrorism, there is a common element: the politicisation of the term. In fact, depending on the political point of view adopted, ‘terrorism’ could have different meanings. Thus, there is a fine line between the definition of 'terrorism' and ‘resistance’. For instance, the rebels in Algeria and the Viet Minh in Indo-China were initially defined by the State as terrorists. However, after some time, they were recognised as members of a movement of liberation.10 Another example that shows how malleable the concept of terrorism is depending on the political perspective adopted is the one of the “Brigate rosse.” The affiliates of the Italian radical group stated in an interview in 1973 that they considered themselves to be part of a group of resistance, not a group of terrorists.11

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida has remarked that it’s incredibly important to use the word ‘terrorism’ with the utmost care. 12 Thus, Golder and Williams (University of New South Wales) have noted: “If these disparate acts are to be linked in some way, then they need to be linked by an overarching idea of what we understand by terrorism.”13 The complexity of the issue of defining terrorism was also recognised by the United Nations: “Nations had to come to agreement on a definition of the term “terrorism”, for without a consensus of what constituted terrorism, nations could not unite against it.”14 Thus, there is not an agreed definition of terrorism since it all depends on the point of view adopted and on the political interpretation of the term.

 


Legal framework

  • Development of legal mechanisms

How is the law dealing with this blurred concept of terrorism? If the idea of terrorism in itself is highly confused and easy to be misinterpreted, what is the response of the international law?

The idea of “war on terror” fundamentally changed the way in which legal mechanisms are developed to deal with the issue of terrorism. According to Jackson Nyamuya Maogoto15 (University of Manchester), the legal tools used to deal with terrorism used to be, mainly, extraditions and prosecutions. However, eventually, the U.S. and Israel initiated a new view of terrorism: it started to be seen like a conflict, a war. Thus, terrorists ought to be considered not as criminals but as people trying to jeopardise the system of national security. After 9/11, terrorist actions started to be considered as attacks of war and this shift was significant in the undertaking of different counter-terrorist operations (i.e. no more use of international law but use of force implemented to combat terrorism.) In this sense, the Bush administration promoted the idea of a new type of right to self-defence (i.e. right to be enforced in order to preserve the status quo.) Now, an idea of offensive defence was promoted in order to adapt it to the idea of war on terror.16 Therefore, ‘classic’ self-defence  authorised  resort  to  armed  force  against  military  objectives,  within  the bounds set by international humanitarian law.  Now, however, some states tend to legitimise any kind of violence, even extra-judicial use of nuclear weapons.17

This understanding of terrorism, thus, led to the implementation of particularly harsh measures on suspect terrorists by some states. In this respect, the Security Council of the UN claimed that “States have shown a strong inclination to take suspected foreign terrorist fighters who are returnees into custody and detain them […] However, the legal basis for such measures may not comply with the relevant human rights obligations.”18 They explicitly affirmed that compliance with international law and international human rights law must always be respected.

 

  • Lack of a definition in international law

Legal tools have not only tried to deal with terrorism, but also attempted to define it. The United Nations have been involved in the process of drafting a Comprehensive Convention for a long time. However, “Despite decades of effort, with even greater focus after September 11, attempts to develop a generally accepted legal definition of terrorism have failed.”19 Only sectoral conventions have been provided by the international community so far. The difficulty of providing a legal definition also stems from the fact that the word ‘terrorism’ is widely deployed both in the political and legal discourse and the spheres are often confused. From a legal perspective, Golders and Williams argue that lawyers must seek to describe the concept of terrorism as precisely as possible. If not, one danger is that the powers of the State may extend “very far indeed.”20 Essentially, the system of checks and balances of all powers – legislative, executive and judicial – must be kept intact and endeavoured. So far, international legal scholars have not described terrorism as a concept per se. Instead, they adopted the inductive model by proscribing certain actions such as hijacking as terrorist ones. On a domestic level, however, many definitions of terrorism have been provided by legal provisions. For instance, the United States Congress enacted its own legislative definition; one that jurist Ronald Dworkin has described as a “breathtakingly vague and broad definition of terrorism.”21

It’s been argued that the definition of terrorism within the work of a highly specialised court could help defining the concept in law. As the Italian jurist Antonio Cassese22 has noted, when some states - in particular Algeria, India, Sri Lanka and Turkey - proposed that terrorism should be considered as one of the international crimes to be subjected to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), namely as a crime against humanity, many states  including  the US opposed such proposal. This opposition was justified for four reasons: (i) the offence was not well defined, (ii) the inclusion of this crime would politicise the Court, (iii) some acts of terrorism were not sufficiently serious, (iv) prosecution and punishment by national courts were considered more efficient than by international tribunals. However, the terrorist attack to the Twin Towers has been defined as a crime against humanity by a prominent French jurist and former Minister of Justice, Robert Badinter, by the former UN  Secretary-General  Kofi Annan,  as  well  as  by  the  UN  High  Commissioner  for Human Rights, Mary Robinson. Distinguished international lawyers have taken the same view. In sum, no definition of terrorism has been given in legal terms and there seems to be still a lot of work to do before any concrete agreement will be reached.

 


Future developments: broadening the spectrum?

  • Eco – terrorism

The complexity of comprehensively defining terrorism is furthered by the fact that we’re confronted with new types of acts of violence. In relation to “eco-terrorism”, firstly, it’s important to point out that the State sees space as the real field of action for its activities and for this reason it’s highly protective of the environment.23 Moreover, Pierre-Marie Dupuy24 (Université Panthéon-Assas) has remarked that the space is in a continuous process of definition of itself and that there are many rules (national and international) that change the conception of space itself. Nowadays, we often think about space not only in terms of utilisation but also in terms of exploitation because the environment has gained a dimension of cultural heritage. To sustain environmental causes, some groups have come about as particularly violent because of their actions and others have targeted spaces instead of people focusing on political aims.

In 2001 the FBI named the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) - an organisation that destroys property but directs no violence toward persons - as the “nation’s leading domestic terrorist threat.”25 Furthermore, in Argentina many people protesting against fracking have been marked as terrorists. Nevertheless, it’s highly problematic to define these practices as terrorism. Some requisites like the one of intimidation and fear can be fulfilled, but it’s also been argued that the acts committed could be part of an attitude of civil disobedience. From that point of view, eco-sabotage could have a positive connotation since civil disobedience “has gained broad acceptance as a legitimate vehicle of social change in serious cases of injustice in which lesser means of social change have been exhausted.”26 Once again, the label given to an action completely depends on the point of view adopted and on the particular context. As Steve Vanderheiden (University of Wisconsin-Madison) has noted: “Claims of injustice surrounding acts that are ecologically destructive must be met with the proper critical scrutiny […] but such claims ought not to be dismissed out of hand (as, for example, through the misleading moniker eco-terrorism).”27

 

  • Final considerations

To conclude, there is no clear definition of terrorism, a political term that has been highly exploited for purposes of politicisation. A fundamental problem that is encountered nowadays is, in fact, the biased approach that politicises the term ‘terrorism.’ Moreover, considering the advancement of technology and the large use of the word, the understanding of the concept of terrorism seems to be broadened rather than restricted. As Golder and Williams28 have stated, it could be better to adopt a general definition in international law with specific exceptions at least in favour of advocacy, dissent and industrial action. However, Rémi Baudouï29 has argued that not having a definition set in stone could be helpful since we would avoid the oversimplification of the meaning of the word and the potential facilitation of its exploitation. In sum, there is no clear answer. However, it’s always important to critically assess the term whenever it’s used to fully understand what is meant by it. As Noam Chomsky30 (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has argued: terrorism is what the authorities tell us it is and generally the public opinion is kept within a very comfortable definition of the term itself.

 


1 BAUDOUÏ Remi (2007) “Les défis du terrorisme”, Paris: Ellipses, p. 8.
2Ibidem
3 BAUDOUÏ, Op.Cit. p. 12.
4 BAUDOUÏ, Op.Cit. p. 19.
5 Terrorism Research. Available at: http://www.terrorism-research.com/
6 CASSESE Antonio (2001) “Terrorism is also Disrupting Some Crucial Legal Categories of International Law”, EJIL, Vol. 12, No. 5, 993-1001. Available at: http://www.ejil.org/pdfs/12/5/1558.pdf
7 Oxford Dictionary. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/terrorism
8 BAUDOUÏ, Op.Cit. p. 37.
9 NAY Olivier (dir.), “Lexique de science politique. Vie et institutions politiques”, 2nd edition, Paris : Dalloz, 2011, 600 pages.
10Ibidem
11 BAUDOUÏ, Op.Cit. p. 40.
12 BAUDOUÏ, Op.Cit. p. 35.
13 GOLDER Ben and WILLIAMS George (2004) “What is ‘terrorism’? Problems of legal definition”, UNSW Law Journal, Volume 27(2). In: SSRN. Available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1351612
14 United Nations (2005) “Agreed definition of term ‘terrorism’ said to be needed for consensus on completing comprehensive Convention against it”, 4th Meeting, Sixth Committee, General Assembly. Available at: http://www.un.org/press/en/2005/gal3276.doc.htm
15 NYAMUYA MAOGOTO Jackson (2005) “Battling terrorism - Legal perspectives on the use of force and the war on terror”, New York: Routledge. In: Google Books. Available at: https://books.google.ch/books?hl=fr&lr=&id=WgQHDAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq...
16Ibidem
17 CASSESE, Op.Cit.
18 Security Council  (2016) “Report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat”, United Nations. Available at: http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2016/501&referer=/engl...
19 GOLDER and WILLIAMS, Op.Cit.
20Ibidem
21Ibidem
22 CASSESE, Op.Cit.
23 DUPUY Pierre-Marie, “Droit international public”, 9th edition, Paris : Dalloz, 2008, 880 pages.
24Ibidem
25 VANDERHEIDEN Steve (2005) “Eco-terrorism or Justified Resistance? Radical Environmentalism and the “War on Terror”, POLITICS & SOCIETY, Vol. 33 No. 3, September 2005 425-447. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0032329205278462
26Ibidem
27Ibidem
28 GOLDER and WILLIAMS, Op.Cit.
29 BAUDOUÏ, Op.Cit. p. 59.
30Ibidem

 

MR – Research Assistant at CIPADH 

 

Bibliography

BAUDOUÏ Remi (2007) “Les défis du terrorisme”, Paris: Ellipses. Available at: http://archive-ouverte.unige.ch/unige:24200
DUPUY Pierre-Marie, “Droit international public”, 9th edition, Paris : Dalloz, 2008, 880 pages.
NAY Olivier (dir.), “Lexique de science politique. Vie et institutions politiques”, 2nd edition, Paris : Dalloz, 2011, 600 pages.

Other sources

CASSESE Antonio (2001) “Terrorism is also Disrupting Some Crucial Legal Categories of International Law”, EJIL, Vol. 12, No. 5, 993-1001. Available at: http://www.ejil.org/pdfs/12/5/1558.pdf
GOLDER Ben and WILLIAMS George (2004) “What is ‘terrorism’? Problems of legal definition”, UNSW Law Journal, Volume 27(2). In: SSRN. Available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1351612
JARBOE James F., Domestic Terrorism Section Chief, Counterterrorism Division Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2002. Available at: https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/testimony/the-threat-of-eco-terro...
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Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, “Terrorism.” Available at: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/terrorism/
Oxford Dictionary. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/terrorism
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Terrorism Research. Available at: http://www.terrorism-research.com/
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United States Code, Title 18, Section 2331. Available at: https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/terrorism
VANDERHEIDEN Steve (2005) “Eco-terrorism or Justified Resistance? Radical Environmentalism and the “War on Terror”, POLITICS & SOCIETY, Vol. 33 No. 3, September 2005 425-447. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0032329205278462

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