Why terrorism eludes definition

Indeed the word terrorism is one of the most frequently used terms like any other common offenses

Monira Nazmi Jahan Jun 06, 2020

Indeed the word terrorism is one of the most frequently used terms like any other common offenses. Despite the gravity of the offense and usage of this popular term worldwide, one precise and universal definition remains elusive. There are many reasons behind not agreeing on a precise definition of terrorism. At first, the meaning and notion of terrorism have dramatically changed over time. As the practice of terrorism passed through an extended period, the change in the manner of defining terrorism has been remarkable. 

Terrorism has been interpreted positively in the time of the French Revolution. The reason: the perpetrators were fairly confident in terrorism bringing about the restoration of social order. In this period, state actors exercised and sponsored terrorism more than the sub-state actors do at present. It seems that in the late 1900s, the activities of the anti-monarchists, anarchists, and all sorts of revolutionists were implicated as terrorism, which in turn, led the term terrorism transforming into a different version associated with secessionist movements in the early 20th century. Terrorism took another different angle during the rule of Hitler in Germany and Stalin in the USSR as protest and objection against the oppressive actions of the government.

After World War II, the term terrorism was deflected to intend actions related to the activities of the nationalist, secessionist, and anti-colonialist groups. During the 1980s, the activities of political extremists, radical nationalists, and religious fanatics were deliberated as terrorism. Furthermore, state sponsors of terrorism came into play in this period. At present, terrorism attributes as an evil to humanity and depravity that must be abolished at all cost. After analyzing the historical change about the concept of terrorism, it appears that the term terrorism is often defined from two opposite perspectives.  Some people either relate to the accounts of the perpetrators, or they relate to the accounts of the victims. As a common saying goes, 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.' For example, Surya Sen, popularly known as 'Master Da', was a revolutionary and freedom fighter, who fought against the British rule, but the British Empire considered him a betrayer and terrorist. After that, scholars and experts do not agree on what exactly terrorism is. Therefore, it creates confusion among the minds of students, the general public, and the readers to understand the core concept of terrorism.

Terrorism and guerilla warfare

Moreover, terrorism is somehow similar to other forms of sporadic violence or with unconventional warfare, which often confuses people about the concept of terrorism. Guerrilla warfare or insurgency poses some familiar criteria to terrorism in terms of using weapons, tactics, or not wearing any uniform. However, they have some distinct features such as; guerilla or insurgents are large in number, and they control territory. They establish camps and bases to train their people. Moreover, they fight against the authoritarian government and armed people, unlike terrorists, who target innocent civilians and unarmed people to achieve their demands. It is interesting to note that, despite the clear distinction between guerilla warfare and terrorism, these components interchange their entity with the due course of time. For example, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, was undoubtedly known as the guerrilla group engaged in narcotics trafficking.

Nonetheless, the US State Department classified them as a terrorist group because they used terrorist tactics. Another one is the Hezbollah Lebanese Shia organization, which started as a terrorist entity in 1983 with the bombings of the US embassy in Beirut and with the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut as well. However, with the flow of time, this group grew larger and formed as a  guerrilla force that indeed engaged Israel and Israel Defense Forces, in guerilla warfare in Southern Lebanon during the 1990s. Surprisingly, in the Lebanese cabinet, some members are closely related to Hezbollah, which formed a political power. Thus it is clear that a terrorist organization once is a dominant political force in a country that represents their action not as terrorism but as a resistance movement. 

A definition given by the New York Times can give an idea about the concept of terrorism, and that is, "terrorism seeks to hurt a few people and to scare many people in order to make a point." (NY Times, 1/6/2000). Thus basically terrorism is the unlawful and premeditated use of violence intended to coerce or intimidate a government or civilian population as a means of advancing a religious, political, or ideological cause.

Terrorism is a political issue 

Though it is difficult to define terrorism, there are some core criteria by which terrorism can be understood. First, terrorism entails political motives. Terrorists use premeditated, planned violence against the target population to achieve their political goals from the government. They want to send their message to the target audience and leave psychological repercussions that anyone can become a victim of violence. In contemporary usage, terrorism is referred to as non-state or non-governmental forms of violence. Unlike state terror where the government of a particular state use terror against its citizen.

Then, a terrorist can be a lone wolf, but he has to follow the precise command from an authority or body which poses the same ideology of a particular person. Terrorists do not carry any uniform or badges as an identity of a particular entity because they always try to impose terror on the government being the general public. Their action shows their identity when they target non-combatant, innocent people. Terrorists justify their violence to serve a substantial cause of being a member of an organization or group that motivated, inspired and influenced them to execute the violence against innocents.

Prof. Boaz Ganor, the Founder and Executive Director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) in Isreal, correctly said that "an objective definition of terrorism is not only possible; it is also indispensable to any serious attempt to combat terrorism." Thus, it can be said that while diplomacy is being used to combat international terrorism as an instrument, many states equivocate on a precise definition of terrorism because it may hamper their concept of a 'legitimate' national movement.

Hence, the issue of terrorist versus freedom fighter is not a legal issue; instead, it is a political debate which needs a compact solution. Otherwise, it will continue to motivate people to join terrorism for destructive purposes.

(The author is a Senior Lecturer, Department of Law, East West University, Bangladesh. She can be contacted at moniranazmijahan@yahoo.com) 

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