Terrorism; The Question of Definition

However certain the facts of any science may be and however Just the ideas we may have formed of these facts, we can only communicate false impressions to others while we want words by which these may be properly expressed’ A. Lavoisierl Introduction Despite the events of 1 1 September and the ongoing War on Terrorism’ there remains no agreed definition of terrorism. Academics, scientists, military experts, the media, governments and security experts all expound a plethora of definitions2.

Some focus on the methods used, others on the organisations themselves, and others lace the emphasis on motivations and characteristics of individual terror groups. However, despite an apparent world united front, with a few notable exceptions in Iran and Iraq, it would appear that an agreed definition is no closer. If the world is to continue to remain united in the war against terrorism then it must first know what enemy it is fighting against. If they do not know who their enemy is then victory may be impossible.

So why does no clear definition of terrorism exist? In their book Political Terrorism, Schmid and Jongman cite some 109 different definitions of terrorism, obtained primarily from academics in the field. This article will explore the definition of terrorism by discussing the often-quoted statement that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fghter” and the issues this raises; the differing cultural perspectives on terrorism and the rationale behind these differences; before finally arriving at a conclusion on how terrorism might best be defined.

The Difficulty in Defining Terrorism One of biggest obstacles in the quest to define terrorism is the often-quoted statement, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” as it places terrorism along side the struggle of nationalism and guerrilla fghters. This statement may well appear credible if considering groups such as the IRA3 or even the PLO but it would appear not so when looking further a field; the attack on the World Trade Centre is a prime example, as it was not carried out in the name of freedom within the US.

Arguably, it may have been carried out in the name of freedom from the perceived US occupation of Islamic Holy Lands in the Middle East. However, the attacks were allegedly carried out by a group who did not live in a state where the US were involved. The basic differentiation between a guerrilla struggle nd that of terrorism is methods used, and specifically target selection. Guerrilla fighters tend to target legitimate military targets, whereas terrorists are less discriminating and will target civilians; shown to effect in the gas attacks on the Tokyo underground4 and by the attack on the Oklahoma government office building. These attacks were most definitely not carried out in the name of freedom. The terms freedom fighter and terrorist depict many images to many people, or in other words the meaning is in the eye of the beholder. This can be aptly demonstrated by looking at the Northern Ireland situation. Some US citizens see the IRA struggle as one of nationalism and funding has been forthcoming from US based sympathisers. The I-JK position on the other hand is firm; it sees Northern Ireland as part of the UK and will not accept any legitimising of the IRA as a freedom fghting army.

Similarly, much of the world sees the PLO as terrorists who kill and injure innocent Israelis. However, the Arab world sees the PLO struggle as one for freedom, as they struggle to rid their land of Israeli occupying forces. Therefore, it can be seen that defining terrorism is dependant on cultural perspectives, as the manner in hich an armed struggle is defined, either as terrorism or freedom fighting, differs depending upon the definer and the interest or even morals the definer may have6.

In some eyes, terrorism involves making moral Judgement, which means that certain acts of terrorism could be considered morally Justifiable. Yet in the eyes of others no act of terror is Justifiable. Again the PLO can be used as an example of this moral issue. Israel sees the PLO as an illegitimate terrorist organization using morally unacceptable strategies of violence (suicide bombers but one example) to achieve its oals. Equally the Arab nations view the PLO as a political group, using legitimate, morally acceptable and Justifiable violence, not terrorism, to achieve moral political ends7 and the regaining of their territory.

This was well demonstrated by the Arab league in April 1998 when they emphasised that belligerent activities aimed at “liberation and self-determination” are not in the category of terrorism’8. Political Terrorism Politics and terrorism share a number of similarities. Both have developed in response to changes in the international environment. But, the major difference is hat terrorists use violence in order to achieve their political ends. In Southeast Asia, various nationalist and separatist groups use political terrorism as tools to achieve their ultimate goal.

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