Who’s a terrorist?

Published May 18, 2021
The writer is a political economist.
The writer is a political economist.

THE banning of TLP as a terrorist group has produced an oddity. Many liberals oppose this action against an organisation whose vile ideology contradicts liberal tenets as their respect for human rights extends even to groups they oppose strongly.

To grasp why they oppose this labelling, one must first define terrorism. Literally, it means spreading terror as a tactic to achieve a goal. But this would cover psychopaths torturing victims for pleasure; husbands beating wives to exact future docility and extortionists threatening people. These divergent events are serious issues but deserve separate labels. The interest here is on action with political goals.

How does one define such terrorism? The global community lacks a shared legal one. Many analysts see terrorism as “premeditated mass killing of civilians to spread terror as a way to achieve (just or unjust) political goals”. Premeditation and mass murder of civilians are then critical to terrorism. This definition builds on the way entities widely called terrorist, eg Al Qaeda, operate. It helps in analysing terrorism issues broader than the TLP one.

Some say freedom fighters are not terrorists. However, freedom is a goal while terrorism a tactic to achieve it. Not all those who pursue freedom use terrorism (attacking civilians) or even militancy (attacking only armies) as a tactic. Some use peaceful means, eg Jinnah. Even where these may not work, global law, key philosophies and religions say one must still not attack civilians, only armies. So freedom fighters deliberately killing civilians do commit terrorism.

Some say freedom fighters are not terrorists.

States like Israel, India and Pakistan too are accused of state terrorism when they kill civilians while attacking fighters, as now in Gaza. Such action is terrorism if proof emerges, eg in questioning officials or reviewing official records, that the killing of civilians was premeditated state strategy. Suspicion exists but not clear proof yet that premeditation exists for some states. But if civilian deaths occur spontaneously during combat without proof of premeditation, it wouldn’t be terrorism. It may still be war crimes though if proof emerges the state didn’t take due care to avoid civilian deaths. However, the US nuclear attacks on Japan clearly constitute terrorism, in fact the single biggest attacks in modern history, as they involved premeditated killing of civilians despite the goal being to end the war.

TLP protests cause a few seemingly spontaneous civilian deaths. But the state gives no proof they were premeditated, based on un-coerced statements of its leaders or its communication records. Until it does so, it is wrong to call it terrorist. While the TLP shares its ideology with the TTP, their tactics differ. The latter clearly carries out premeditated killing of civilians which doesn’t emerge from open political protests but hidden attacks. However, TLP supporters must not go scot-free, but be charged for specific crime they have committed, eg kidnapping. The laws on these carry stiff individual penalties without letting states ban a whole entity. State elements supporting it must be punished too.

TLP riots were similar to the January attack on the US Capitol in causing death, destruction etc. The perpetrators in the US were not charged for terrorism but specific crimes like murder and arson given lack of proof of pre-planned destruction. The same must happen with the TLP. The fear is that while the entity will be banned as terrorist, individual perpetrators will be absolved of all charges. It would then be odd if the entity is declared terrorist but none of its leaders who committed the acts are convicted of terrorism. This is possible as entities are designated as terrorist first via state administrative action. But individuals can be declared terrorists only via judicial trials with multiple appeals.

The mass civilian deaths terrorists cause is a huge threat that forces states to relax laws to crush them, thus undermining due process. Human rights activists oppose relaxing them too much even for blatant terrorism. To stretch the high-penalty terrorism definition to cover lesser acts that don’t involve premeditated mass civilian deaths is even trickier. Thus, our Anti-Terrorism Act must be revised for its overly broad definition of terrorism. There is no mention of premeditation. It even covers attacks on non-civilians, eg combatants like police and army. It covers situations well short of deaths like causing fear, extortion of money or threatening a public servant. Such lesser acts must be covered under regular criminal laws that give sufficient due process rather than terrorism. Finally, there is nothing about premeditated killing of civilians by state agencies. Thus, there is a big risk the law will be used to stifle political opponents on lesser wrongs while letting state perpetrators of terrorism go scot-free.

The writer is a political economist.


Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2021



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