The definition of terrorism
A new US government report illustrates that any classification of terrorist groups is fundamentally motivated by self-interest, writes Brian Whitaker
* Brian Whitaker
* guardian.co.uk, Monday 7 May 2001 10.12 BST
Decide for yourself whether to believe this, but according to a new report there were only 16 cases of international terrorism in the Middle East last year.
That is the lowest number for any region in the world apart from North America (where there were none at all). Europe had 30 cases – almost twice as many as the Middle East – and Latin America came top with 193.
The figures come from the US state department’s annual review of global terrorism, which has just been published on the internet. Worldwide, the report says confidently, "there were 423 international terrorist attacks in 2000, an increase of 8% from the 392 attacks recorded during 1999".
No doubt a lot of painstaking effort went into counting them, but the statistics are fundamentally meaningless because, as the report points out, "no one definition of terrorism has gained universal acceptance".
That is an understatement. While most people agree that terrorism exists, few can agree on what it is. A recent book discussing attempts by the UN and other international bodies to define terrorism runs to three volumes and 1,866 pages without reaching any firm conclusion.
Using the definition preferred by the state department, terrorism is: "Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant* targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." (The asterisk is important, as we shall see later.)
"International" terrorism – the subject of the American report – is defined as "terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country".
The key point about terrorism, on which almost everyone agrees, is that it’s politically motivated. This is what distinguishes it from, say, murder or football hooliganism. But this also causes a problem for those who compile statistics because the motive is not always clear – especially if no one has claimed responsibility.
So the American report states – correctly – that there were no confirmed terrorist incidents in Saudi Arabia last year. There were, nevertheless, three unexplained bombings and one shooting incident, all directed against foreigners.
Another essential ingredient (you might think) is that terrorism is calculated to terrorise the public or a particular section of it. The American definition does not mention spreading terror at all, because that would exclude attacks against property. It is, after all, impossible to frighten an inanimate object.
Among last year’s attacks, 152 were directed against a pipeline in Colombia which is owned by multinational oil companies. Such attacks are of concern to the United States and so a definition is required which allows them to be counted.
For those who accept that terrorism is about terrorising people, other questions arise. Does it include threats, as well as actual violence? A few years ago, for example, the Islamic Army in Yemen warned foreigners to leave the country if they valued their lives but did not actually carry out its threat.
More recently, a group of Israeli peace activists were arrested for driving around in a loudspeaker van, announcing a curfew of the kind that is imposed on Palestinians. Terrifying for any Israelis who believed it, but was it terrorism?
Another characteristic of terrorism, according to some people, is that targets must be random – the intention being to make everyone fear they might be the next victim. Some of the Hamas suicide bombings appear to follow this principle but when attacks are aimed at predictable targets (such as the military) they are less likely to terrorise the public at large.
Definitions usually try to distinguish between terrorism and warfare. In general this means that attacks on soldiers are warfare and those against civilians are terrorism, but the dividing lines quickly become blurred.
The state department regards attacks against "noncombatant* targets" as terrorism. But follow the asterisk to the small print and you find that "noncombatants" includes both civilians and military personnel who are unarmed or off duty at the time. Several examples are given, such as the 1986 disco bombing in Berlin, which killed two servicemen.
The most lethal bombing in the Middle East last year was the suicide attack on USS Cole in Aden harbour which killed 17 American sailors and injured 39 more.
As the ship was armed and its crew on duty at the time, why is this classified as terrorism? Look again at the small print, which adds: "We also consider as acts of terrorism attacks on military installations or on armed military personnel when a state of military hostilities does not exist at the site, such as bombings against US bases."
A similar question arises with Palestinian attacks on quasi-military targets such as Israeli settlements. Many settlers are armed (with weapons supplied by the army) and the settlements themselves – though they contain civilians – might be considered military targets because they are there to consolidate a military occupation.
If, under the state department rules, Palestinian mortar attacks on settlements count as terrorism, it would be reasonable to expect Israeli rocket attacks on Palestinian communities to be treated in the same way – but they are not. In the American definition, terrorism can never be inflicted by a state.
Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is classified as a human rights issue (for which the Israelis get a rap over the knuckles) in a separate state department report.
Denying that states can commit terrorism is generally useful, because it gets the US and its allies off the hook in a variety of situations. The disadvantage is that it might also get hostile states off the hook – which is why there has to be a list of states that are said to "sponsor" terrorism while not actually committing it themselves.
Interestingly, the American definition of terrorism is a reversal of the word’s original meaning, given in the Oxford English Dictionary as "government by intimidation". Today it usually refers to intimidation of governments.
The first recorded use of "terrorism" and "terrorist" was in 1795, relating to the Reign of Terror instituted by the French government. Of course, the Jacobins, who led the government at the time, were also revolutionaries and gradually "terrorism" came to be applied to violent revolutionary activity in general. But the use of "terrorist" in an anti-government sense is not recorded until 1866 (referring to Ireland) and 1883 (referring to Russia).
In the absence of an agreed meaning, making laws against terrorism is especially difficult. The latest British anti-terrorism law gets round the problem by listing 21 international terrorist organisations by name. Membership of these is illegal in the UK.
There are six Islamic groups, four anti-Israel groups, eight separatist groups and three opposition groups. The list includes Hizbullah, which though armed, is a legal political party in Lebanon, with elected members of parliament.
Among the separatist groups, the Kurdistan Workers Party – active in Turkey – is banned, but not the KDP or PUK, which are Kurdish organisations active in Iraq. Among opposition groups, the Iranian People’s Mujahedeen is banned, but not its Iraqi equivalent, the INC, which happens to be financed by the United States.
Issuing such a list does at least highlight the anomalies and inconsistencies behind anti-terrorism laws. It also points towards a simpler – and perhaps more honest – definition: terrorism is violence committed by those we disapprove of.