Friday, September 29, 2006

Terror and Terrorism

Everyone uses the word “Terrorism” nowadays, without defining it. Each brandishes the word. reasonable statements can trigger debates that become easily heated.

As each follows their own private Jihad or Crusade, there are calls for the United Nations to urgently work on establishing a precise and legally sound definition of terrorism. But little progress was made so far. Today, there is a different definition for each country or group of countries…

International Law: Where it stands:

International law is a bit confused; with more than 109 definitions of terrorism between 1936 and 1981. Essentially, they can be as simple as defining it as “the equivalent of a war crime during peacetime”, to more elaborate definitions. Internationally, the main ones are:

League of Nations Convention (1937):

"All criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public".

UNGA - Res. 51/210 - Measures to eliminate international terrorism (1999):

“1. Strongly condemns all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, wherever and by whomsoever committed”

“2. Reiterates that criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them".

There is no formal international consensus on the matter; and the Europeans and Americans each have their own versions, which not necessarily the same.

Consensus on the Terrorist Act

There are some working definitions, to be sure.

There is some agreement that a terrorist act is distinguished by at least three specific qualities; "Violence, whether actual or threatened", "A 'political' objective", and "An intended 'audience'”.

A consensual definition is likely to be along those lines;

Terrorism" becomes "the threat or use of violence with the intent of causing fear in a target group, in order to achieve political objectives"


"The threat or actual use of violence to create extreme fear or anxiety in a target group in order to coerce it to meet certain political or quasi-political objectives."

Consensus of the Terrorist Actors

Some categorized terrorist actors by the strength of their association to states:
  1. Without state toleration,
  2. support or sponsorship;
  3. With state toleration, but without state support or sponsorship;
  4. With state support, but without immediate state sponsorship;
  5. With state sponsorship;
  6. States

Limits of the Consensus:

This does not address two important aspects: The actions of terrorists who hide within a civilian population, and the disproportionate responses of states to political or military challenges.

What of hiding within a civilian population? This happened to a large extent in Lebanon, with Hezb hiding within civilian areas. In some cases, they provoked Israeli responses that killed civilians. Which of the proximate or immediate cause matters here?

When a State attacks another: Israel also disproportionately targeted centers that had nothing to do with the attacks. While tactically stupid, this may have been because they that Hezb actions were “acts of war” from one nation against another.

It was a mistake of the Lebanese “majority” to try to placate Hezb and get them involved in government. Production targets such as Jiyeh, and logistics such as Manara and the bridges, would then be within this ugly framework, along the slippery slope.

When a State attacks it own people: here the mass muders at hama and Halabja were trumped by state sovereignty. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo created a precedent, but it was not followed up in Darfur.

The Price of Progress:

International law finds itself catching up to technology, and the spread of human deviant ideologies. We find ourselves in a tragic slippery slope, may be a legacy of the industrial age; ever since Sherman’s march to the sea, civilian centers, production facilities, and logistics are all targets with political or military value.

Maybe that is why there is so much debate about the meaning of Terror; humans can done more damage than in the past. Hassan El-Sabbah’s Assassins were fanatical terrorists, inspired by a dreadful ideology, but with the technology of the time, they were limited to targeting single individuals, and focused mostly on leaders who opposed them.

So who's a terrorist?:

Call it what you want; in the end, the blood will always be spilled in increased quantities; thanks to modern technology, damage can be done cheaply and on a wider scale.

We may have been smart enough to develop the most powerful weapons ever, but we are stupid enough to use them.

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