ONE finds little legal guidance on this knotty question since the international community has yet to develop a legal definition given terrorism’s politically charged nature. Terrorism literally means using terror as a strategy.

This definition would cover psychopaths mutilating hapless victims for immediate pleasure; husbands abusing their wives to exact future compliance; and landlords, criminals and political organisations threatening larger populations in pursuing their divergent goals.

Clearly, this definition is too broad to be useful. These divergent phenomena deserve either different names or at least recognition as sub-types, e.g., psychopathic, family and political terrorisms. Emulating Uncle Sam, I focus here single-mindedly on political terrorism, the most controversial sub-type.

How does one define that sub-type? Unfortunately, even this is not an easy task. My academic peers, as divided as international officials, have generated over a hundred different definitions. Fortunately, most disagreements are over details and semantics. There is some agreement that political terrorism’s core elements include ‘deliberately physically attacking non-combatants in pursuing political goals, even if the goals are just’. This working definition can help in analysing the complexities of political terrorism.

Firstly, are freedom fighters not terrorists? Those deliberately targeting non-combatants would be considered terrorists under this definition. Freedom fighters facing stronger armies often start targeting non-combatants and justify their repugnant means by arguing the justness of their goal. Under this definition though, ends do not justify means. Thus, many resistance movements globally, e.g., in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Colombia, engage in terrorism.

While Uncle Sam may think otherwise, the Mujahideen of the first Afghan war were as much terrorists as those of the second Afghan war since they often targeted non-combatants. However, this is merely a judgment on the means and not the ultimate aims of these groups around the globe. As the ANC’s transformation in South Africa reveals, terrorist groups with worthy goals can win international support by abandoning terrorism. The Arab Spring shows that freedom fighters can dislodge tyrants without not only terrorism but also major violence. Conversely, terrorism has a sorry success rate to date.

Secondly, do states commit terrorism? If they inadvertently kill non-combatants during combat, they do not commit terrorism but they could be guilty of war crimes, an equally serious offence, if they do not follow the international laws for protecting non-combatants during war. Cases where low-level soldiers deliberately target non-combatants would constitute individual terrorism and possibly state war crimes.

State terrorism only occurs when top officials materially support terrorists or order soldiers to deliberately target non-combatants. Thus, the civilian casualties caused inadvertently by the Americans in Iraq during combat cannot be considered terrorism, though some of them may constitute war crimes. However, the torture of prisoners, duly approved by top Bush-era officials, certainly constituted state terrorism as did the Hiroshima bombing, probably the most destructive single terrorist attack ever.

Thirdly, who is responsible for the thousands killed by terrorism in Pakistan? Some people hold the Pakistani and American governments culpable arguing that their policies provoke militants into terrorism. ‘Provocation’ is actually a legal term which can be used to mitigate certain crimes. British women who kill highly abusive husbands while facing further direct trauma can claim provocation in defence, but merely to request a lighter sentence.

Furthermore, they are not given a licence to just kill anyone in retaliation nor can relatives of even murdered women invoke provocation in killing murderer husbands. Given these stringent requirements, can someone from Fata, even if he or she unfortunately loses a non-combatant relative to American or Pakistani army action, justifiably claim provocation if he or she travels all the way to Islamabad or Karachi to exact revenge on non-combatants instead of taking the shorter journey to the perpetrators and courts? Clearly, from a criminal justice viewpoint, legal culpability lies with those planning, executing and materially supporting terrorism.

True, beyond the realms of criminal justice, there is the question of political responsibility. Viewed so, both governments have indirectly contributed to terrorism. However, that political culpability cannot lessen the legal culpability of terrorists. There are more sensible avenues available for protesting bad government policies, such as peaceful protests and courts.

Thus, it is ironic to see a populist Pakistani politician linking terrorism primarily to drone attacks when he chooses for himself instead the legal (and personally safer!) option of peaceful protests against drone attacks.

There are appropriate responses to inappropriate acts and there are inappropriate ones. Those committing inappropriate responses deserve appropriate punishment, like those committing the original inappropriate act. Thus, the only basis for peace with the TTP should be their unconditional surrender and submission to justice.

Finally, is terrorism linked to particular religions? Biased analysts claim that though not all Muslims are terrorists, almost all terrorists are Muslim. Facts easily disprove this misrepresentation. While Al Qaeda has attracted the most attention since it targets the West, highly egregious terrorism has been committed more frequently by others in recent history. Some even committed it in the name of religion, e.g., the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa routinely attacks villages, chopping men’s limbs, killing thousands, raping women in front of their families and keeping them as mistresses.

Others were committed in the name of nationalism and ideology, e.g., the Rwandan, ex-Yugoslavian and Cambodian civilian massacres. However, these barbarisms do not reflect the original teachings of those religions or ideologies, just as Al Qaeda’s barbarism does not reflect Islamic teachings. In Islam, whoever kills an innocent person is though as he killed all mankind. Non-combatants were granted amnesty during the 630 AD Mecca conquest. Sick minds, not religions, produce terrorism. Hence, religious terrorism is an oxymoron which should be discarded.

Thus, an objective analysis of terrorism requires a clear definition, which may not suit major powers. So, under Bush, the American definition degenerated into ‘whoever we consider one’. Second, it must be grounded in facts, not biases. Third, it requires differentiating between immediate and indirect causes. To date, these simple requirements have eluded global policymakers.

The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.


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