Every historical period has its own defining characteristics. For the second half of the 20th century this was the Cold War, a bipolar rivalry between the reigning superpowers of the day – the United States and the Soviet Union. The new millennium has yet to be defined in many ways, but one of its prominent features is the nearly universal fixation on terrorism.
Governments under attack from self-declared freedom fighters, liberation movements and those seeking independence have been quick to label these elements as terrorists. But when governments engage in violence against civilians, can they then be labeled terrorists as well?
Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted definition for the word terrorism. The simple reason for this is the raw politicization of the term, the conflicting ideologies underpinning its usage, the sheer number of cultures and countries sympathetic to the language of resistance and the justification of the use of violence in exceptional circumstances. After decades of failed summits and conventions, the United Nations General Assembly agreed in 1994 to condemn terrorism with the following minimal characteristics:
“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… whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them”.
The language is loaded. Who judges criminal acts, national or international courts? How would one determine the intentions or calculations of supposedly rational actors? What, exactly, constitutes a state of terror? How many people make up the general public (as opposed to a specific public)? And what about political purposes – is this behaviour acceptable for apolitical purposes?
The point of this mental exercise is not to disparage the efforts of the United Nations or to diminish the work that countless others have done attempting to furnish the rest of us with a workable definition of terrorism. No, the point is to demonstrate how different answers to these questions expose conflicting ideas about sovereignty and self-determination. At stake in this unsettled debate are contrasting understandings of nationalism and unity, justice and progress, legitimate resistance and inexplicable violence.
Here are some historical examples. American revolutionaries in the latter part of the 18th century would have been labeled rebels and terrorists under the British Empire by today’s standards. It is also useful to note that one modern notion of “terror” comes to us from the French Revolutionaries’ penchant for the guillotine, a killing machine legitimized by the state’s need to root out remnants of the old regime. In the 19th and 20th centuries, revolutionary Marxists and socialists were branded by many monarchist and republican European states as no-good terrorists and extirpated from the body politic.
Meanwhile, the worldwide trend of decolonization following World War II led the colonial great powers to decry the many independence movements in Asia and Africa as criminals and terrorists. Even today, the line between legitimate resistance and unacceptable terrorism is drawn in sand, not stone.
The world’s sole remaining superpower declared a global war on terrorism in late 2001 when it invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban in response to suicide attacks committed by al-Qaeda on September 11. But terrorists are active in dozens of countries on several continents, and the United States is not at war with every single one of them. It is a well-known fact that the United States funded, trained and armed al-Qaeda when they opposed the Soviet Union’s ill-fated invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, even being featured in Sylvester Stallone’s 1988 Hollywood blockbuster Rambo III as freedom-loving rebels.
It may seem like peculiar reasoning when the United States delists one dissident group from its Foreign Terrorist Organization list, allowing it to operate, fundraise and establish contacts openly on American soil, only to add another with a similar strategy: to oust a dictatorial regime. In 2012 the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK) was delisted after years of intense political lobbying on behalf of its struggle against the Iranian government, while a rebel group fighting an ever-more savage government in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, was designated as a terrorist group because of its indiscriminate bombing of civilians, extreme Islamic ideology and organizational links to al-Qaeda. What can explain the United States’ divergent approaches to what seem to be similar cases of anti-government terrorism?
Perhaps the answer lies in their tactics. While the Syrian rebel group boisterously claims responsibility for massive blasts which kill dozens and wound hundreds of government sympathizers, the Iranian MEK renounced the use of all forms of violence in 2001. But how important are these monikers anyway? It is widely understood in the region that the MEK has received covert support from clandestine intelligence agencies for years while still officially a “terrorist” organization. So the move to delist is mainly symbolic.
Similarly, Jabhat al-Nusra receives no support from the United States or other major governments as it stands, so calling them terrorists deprives them of no material benefits. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true; al-Nusra has grown in credibility and notoriety on the Syrian street as a result, only serving to increase its influence relative to rival revolutionary militant groups. Witness the law of unintended consequences in one of its finest performances.
In the end, what defines a terrorist is not as important as who defines terrorism. The United States wields disproportionate power in in its role as a leader in world diplomacy, military might and global institutions. As a general rule of thumb, not every country agrees with American decisions, policies or leadership. When the United States decided to invade Iraq in 2003, several countries vociferously objected. Many governments similarly rally against American hegemony in their spheres of influence, with rivals like Russia and China leading the charge. This leads to the interesting question of whether or not terrorist proxies will become the new fronts in the future great power wars.
During the Cold War, capitalism versus communism was the defining ideological struggle, and rebel groups in developing countries received international support from one or the other superpower in their contest for power. While great power wars can never be ruled out completely, they are more and more unlikely as globalization fosters further economic and technological interdependence.
However, terrorist groups could potentially be coopted to serve the interests of one great power at the expense of another. One example of how this policy works is evident in Iran’s guidance of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas against the state of Israel. Similar allegations are made against Israel in the way that it targets nuclear scientists working inside Iranian facilities for assassination with the help of the previously mentioned MEK.
Time will tell how these groups choose to wield their influence and what effect it will have on international politics, but they can no longer be ignored as irrelevant simply because they are technically non-state actors. It is clear enough from the after-effects of 9/11 that terrorism is now a defining characteristic of global politics in modern times. As France gears up for robust intervention in Mali, for example, Islamist militants in the African country’s north fighting the French-backed government have vowed to target French citizens as a result. States need to recognize this threat to the international system for what it is and pool their resources to mitigate the danger.