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The Issue of Defining and Preventing Terrorism


By Basil Hijazi, New Age Islam

(Translated into English by New Age Islam Edit Bureau)

19 January 2018

Almost every day we hear news about terrorist and terrorist attacks. It is a truly global phenomenon. The question arises; what do the politicians and media mean by terrorism when they mention this term? While defining this term, do all of them talk about the same thing? In modern times, how did the media and the politicians define it? Are they playing an active role to prevent terrorism? Are they telling the truth?

It is immensely important to understand the definition of terrorism and its essence from the perspective of the politicians and researchers, especially when this subject causes controversies between the media and the politicians, creating the feeling of isolation, uncertainty and contradictory in the Muslim community. It is therefore essential to understand what is meant by this term and why? Does it have any justification? Is it an effort to achieve higher human goals, such as peace and happiness for the world? Or is it merely fulfilment of some minority agenda? On the other hand, many countries are confronted with terrorism. This creates questions; why do the terrorists adopt this method? Are they on the right path? What is the solution for this issue? Are the governments and countries of the world playing their role in preventing terrorism or not?

Science of prevention of terrorism is still new. To understand this topic, it is very important to know the places of the world where the terrorist activities are taking place. What is the history of terrorism? How is the term “terrorism” used? Why does it not have a consistent definition? And why does it need to have a consistent definition?

If we look at the 2011 terror map, it seems that among the countries most affected by terrorist activities are Afghanistan, then Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria and then Russia. The countries that have suffered least from terrorism are the Latin American Countries, China, Europe and America.

Although most of the world's countries are not suffering from terrorism, they are at the top in preventing and establishing agenda to fight terrorism. The global organizations such as the United Nations and the NATO have also kept the matter of preventing terrorism in their top agenda.

The non-governmental terrorist elements practice violence against governmental targets; which is not a new process. In the eleventh century, the group called “Assassins” killed politicians and military leaders for the formation and retaliation of the front.

In the modern history, David C. Rapport has distinguished four waves in terrorism:

1.       The Anarchist movement or wave started in Russia in 1880s and spread to other parts of the world. This used the new technologies such as the telegraph and mass media. One of its main organizations is Russian organization Narodnaya Volya, whose members killed, amongst other important figures, Alexander II and American President William McCain McKinley.

2.       The Anti-Colonial wave started in 1920s, and it can be described as a struggle for self-determination against British Empire. This wave used guerrilla tactics (hit and run tactics). So it was hard for the powers to deal with this wave. The people of this wave described themselves as “freedom fighters” rather than as terrorists. Among the most well-known organizations of that wave are the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) – a group of Algerians, and Irgun, a militant Zionist group.

3.       The third wave of terrorism is what David Rapaport calls the New Left Wave. This wave started in the late 1960s. It was first of all driven by Vietnam's war. And then in the developed world including Western Europe and North America, the formation of many organizations began, such as the Weather Underground, a group of students from North America, the RAF of West Germany, the Red Brigades of Italy, and Japan's Red Army. These organizations saw themselves as vanguards for the victims of the Third World. The PLO of Yasser Arafat is also one of such organizations. In order to achieve their goals and put pressure on the governments, these organizations utilized various techniques, such as hostage takings and hijackings.

4.       The fourth wave, according to Rapoport, is the Religious Wave that started in 1979—the year of Islamic Revolution in Iran. The year Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan was also the year of the storming and occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. During this Wave many Islamic, Jewish, Sikh and Christian organizations were formed. For example, one of such organizations killed the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 in Tel Aviv. A Japanese Christian organization ‘Aum Shinrikyo’ released the nerve gas ‘Sarin’ in Tokyo's subway, killing 12 people, severely injuring 50 and causing temporary vision problems for nearly 5,000 others. The modus operandi of these religious groups includes assassinations, hostage takings and suicide attacks. The organizations preferring suicide attacks on the large scale include the Lebanese militant Shiite organization called Hezbollah, Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers and Al-Qaeda.

According to Rapport as mentioned above, there are four waves of terrorism. That each lasts about a few decades, and then they might be still there but attract a lot less sympathizers and supporters and gradually disappear completely. That makes us think: are we in the fifth Wave or in the continuity of the fifth Wave? Are we living in the world after September 11, 2001 or was it the event of the last Wave? And is the “Arab spring” a new wave?

It is noteworthy that what is now called “terrorism” was called something else in other times. For example, the assassination of the US President William McKinley in 1901 by the hand of an Anarchist was termed merely as “Assassination”. Despite the fact that the Oxford Dictionary defines that terrorism is the unofficial and unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. After all, there is no unanimously agreed-on definition among the scholars, politicians and researchers of the world. The question arises, but why? The Swedish scholar Alex P. Schmid describes four basic reasons that are creating difficulties in defining terrorism;

1.    Schmid opines that terrorism is a contested concept, because in the first point of view, terrorists are fighting for freedom, while in other perspectives, they are just terrorists, such as Yasser Arafat, Abdullah Ocalan, Che Guevara and Osama bin Laden.

2.    The second reason is related to delegitimisation and criminalization of certain groups and actions. For example, the US list of terrorists and organizations is different from the UN list that also does not match with the EU list.

3.    The third reason is that there are many types of terrorism, each with a different form and manifestation. On the ideological basis, Europol has categorized the terrorist organizations into five kinds: 1) religiously-inspired organizations, 2) Ethno-nationalist and separatist, 3) Left-wing and anarchist, 4) Right-wing, and 5) Single-issue.

4.    The fourth reason is that this term has undergone a lot of changes in the more than 200 years of its existence. After the French Revolution, the term ‘terrorism’ was originally used in 1795 to describe the works of Jacobins Club Des of Maximilien Robespierre. At the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, the meaning of ‘terrorism’ underwent a transformation and was commonly used to describe violent acts committed by non-state or substantial entities against a state.

Now the question arises, why should we continuously look into attempts to arrive at generally accepted definition of terrorism? Edwin Baker Bakker provides us with a number of reasons, as follows:

1. We need a definition for arriving at successful International cooperation in the fight against terrorism. We need to have some level of agreement. Who are we fighting? What constitutes a terrorist group or not?    

2. For Improvement in judicial proceedings.

3. From a legal perspective it is necessary to have agreement on what is terrorism and what not. It might be very tempting for some governments of a more authoritarian nature, to use the label of terrorism against the specific units of society. A lack of a proper definition is what the Human Rights Watch calls an invitation to abuse or the risk of abuse.

4. For Improvement in research on topic of terrorism and its prevention.

Under the leadership of Kofi Annan (1997 - 2006), the United Nations tried to arrive at a kind of unanimity about the definition of terrorism. He tried to reach consensus about a definition that reads that any action constitutes ‘terrorism’, if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act. By this definition Kufi Annan mainly tried to give a moral message that terrorism is unacceptable and that it does not have any justification. However, this definition failed to gain support from all members of United Nations. Not all states saw this definition as a sound basis for moving forward. Some countries believed that some types of terrorism are justified, such as terrorism against state-terrorism, and terrorism against foreign occupation.

In such a situation, how to treat with the state terrorism? Some researchers and politicians, including Edwin Bakker, believe that it is better to define terrorism so as to include violent acts committed by non-governmental elements in order to achieve political goals. But in the case of states committing terrorism against their own citizens or neighbouring nations, it would be better to cope with them on the basis of the international laws.

In order to get academic definition of terrorism, Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman, in 1988, sent a questionnaire to the famous researchers and scholars and asked them to write the definition of terrorism. Again in 2011 Alex made the same effort and found that the definition of terrorism consists of following twelve core components:

1.       It should say something about a doctrine and /or practice of violent action

2.       It should refer to the context in which terrorism is employed as a tactic

3.       It should contain the concept of physical violence or the threat thereof

4.       It should say something about threat-based communication processes

5.       It should mention that terrorism instils fear, dread, panic or more anxiety

6.       It should say something about the direct victims

7.       It should point at the fact that the direct victims are not the ultimate target

8.       It should say something about the perpetrators

9.       It should mention that terrorism is predominantly political

10.     It should refer to the intent of facts of terrorism

11.     It should contain the motivations to engage in terrorism

12.     It should mention that terrorist acts form part of a campaign of violence

Although there is no unanimously accepted definition of terrorism, there is some level of consensus that this is the way or method used by the non-governmental or governmental elements in order to achieve specific goals. The use of power is not a goal but a part of tricks. Furthermore, spreading fear for terrorist actions is more important than murder. The direct victims of the terrorist act are those who are watching this act. By broadcasting reactions based on exaggeration, Media and politicians help terrorists spread fear. Terrorism leaves a huge impact on social and international relations, economy and politics.



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