This Essay was written by Allyson Mitchell, School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR), George Mason University, in December 2012.
This piece was prepared as part of the S-CAR / Beyond Intractability Collaborative.
Hilmi Ulas acted as a peer reviewer on this piece.
Modern day warfare has altered the guidelines of war and changed the way combatants fight; conflicts have been relocated from the classic battlefield location to populated urban centers, into the daily lives of civilians. This has a tendency to blur the boundaries between civilians and hostiles in a combat environment. The global war on terror has allowed not only U.S. policy, but also the foreign policies of many nations, to reach far beyond the traditional rules of engagement in war in order to fight "terrorism" wherever countries deem fit.
Unfortunately defining terrorism is just as hard as understanding it. Although there is not a universally accepted definition of terrorism, most explanations typically involve key criteria such as: violence, a psychological impact and fear, political goals, deliberate targeting of noncombatants, and unlawfulness or illegitimacy. Terrorism has been around since history has been recorded, from biblical citations to the pattern of political terror surrounding Julius Caesar. However the first verified event to expose the politicized use of the term terror was "The Reign of Terror" coined during the French Revolution and directed at the French government for killing thousands of suspected enemies of the revolution (1793-1794). Terrorism has clearly changed since then: See the list below for various definitions of terrorism and take note of not only the inclusions, but also the possible exclusions within each definition. Notice, for instance, the specificity of the language within each U.S. definition: words like "premeditated", "political or social objectives", and "unlawful".
State Department definition, Title 22 of the U.S. Code, Chapter 38, Section 2656f(d)(2): "Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."
FBI definition: "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."
Defense Department definition: "The unlawful use of violence or threat of violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies. Terrorism is often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs and committed in the pursuit of goals that are usually political." (JP 3-07.2)
Boaz Ganor's (Executive Director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism) definition: "the intentional use of, or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims."
Tal Becker, former legal advisor to the Israeli Mission to the UN, affirms "If we define terrorism not by what one does, but what one does it for, we legitimate the deliberate targeting of civilians for certain causes."
Noam Chomsky, American linguist and political critic, adopted his definition from a U.S. Army Manual: "the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature...through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear."
At first glance all these definitions appear clear and concise; however, in reality, defining terrorism has presented nations with serious challenges. Just look at all the ways the different branches of the U.S. Government are defining terrorism. The State Department definition requires "politically motivated violence...by subnational groups or clandestine agents," failing to include national governments as possible agents of terrorism. This is likely a purposeful omission; for once an individual or entity is deemed a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), it becomes illegal for any U.S. citizen to support that FTO. Hence, naming a government as an FTO would disallow any foreign policy initiatives between the U.S. and that government. It would also have monumental impacts at the individual level; making it unlawful for U.S. reporters, or any American, to speak with citizens of that FTO designated nation.
Another interesting point is that the term non-combatant is not defined, but a disclaimer is added to the annually-issued Country Report on Terrorism stating that non-combatant "is interpreted to mean, in addition to civilians, military personnel (whether or not armed or on duty) who are not deployed in a war zone or a war-like setting" By clarifying the term in this way, it substantiates the claim that the State Department definition of terrorism does not include actions taken against military personnel while in theater. The DoD and FBI definitions do not separate out deployed military members. This means that when a car bomb is detonated outside a U.S. military compound in Afghanistan and kills two American soldiers, the DoD and FBI could claim this is an act of terrorism, but the State Department would not. Also, the Department of Defense's definition includes religious and ideological objectives as well as the threatened use of force, which leads one to believe that under this definition, threats alone can be deemed acts of terrorism. It should also be recognized where the emphasis is placed in each of these definitions: while the State Department emphasizes motives, the DoD emphasizes goals, and the FBI emphasizes methods. It is important to understand each definition because each agency approaches terrorism in a different way. As one can imagine, such differences in approach can lead to differences in implementation, which is seen as confusing both to the American public, and also the international community.
"...any act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act."
Although the longest, the United Nations' definition is arguably the broadest and mostly serves to individualize the act, which, like the State Department, disregards nations as possible agents of terrorism. At the time the declaration was registered in April 2002, 132 of the 180 parties had signed the resolution. What is most interesting about the United Nations Declaration made by the General Assembly, is not necessarily the definition itself, but the 'declarations', 'reservations', 'understandings', and subsequent 'objections' made by the parties (See Appendix). Take notice how Yemen did not sign the declaration on the basis that, as a nation, it did not want to relay the impression that it was recognizing Israel's existence. Many of the countries signed the declaration, but not before declaring that it did not apply to them because they were unbound for one reason or another. Egypt and Jordan both signed with reservations that their countries do not believe acts of national armed struggle against foreign occupation should be deemed terrorism. As one can see, reaching an agreeable definition of terrorism is no small feat, as terrorism itself is a highly emotive subject. It stirs up immense emotions and reactions "because it combines so many aspects of the human experience — psychology, philosophy, military strategy, religion (at least in some cases) and history" to name a few. And in all cases, defining the act can lead to action; labeling an act a "terrorist act" will result in the appropriate punishment set forth by that nation's laws even if the perpetrating nation does not define the act in such a way.
Unfortunately, there are no physical characteristics that portray the image of a terrorist. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that a terrorist fits into a specific economic level, family structure, or political status. More often than not, civilians end up with attachments to such extremist organizations due to extraneous circumstances. During conflict situations, when state institutions fail to provide basic human needs, such as security, food, shelter, and work, for its people, "power is diffused — and exerted through informal or incoherent means". When this happens, rebel groups, who have strong internal support networks, are the organizations that come in to pick the pieces. Extreme mistrust of a government can lead many civilians to join tribes and rebel factions, like Al Qaeda, in order seek out alternative means for basic human needs. Consequently, people suffering from deprivation more frequently turn to terrorist organizations.
As field researcher Karina Korostelina explains, "Deprivation occurs when people feel that they cannot improve their condition under the current state of affairs". Although it is near impossible to pinpoint a terrorist using individualized traits, underlying socioeconomic conditions can create a breeding ground for recruitment into terrorist organizations. Paul Pillar mentions, "Scholars who have examined the origins of subnational political violence in general have pointed to the need to consider the perceived deprivation and other grievances that provide motives for violence, as well as the calculations and political opportunities of dissident leaders who mobilize such discontent, to understand better when and where violence breaks out". However, feelings of deprivation are derived from an individual's perception of the situation, which makes it more difficult to objectively identify a person as a terrorist because two people can feel very differently about the same situation. Neuroscientist Jeffrey Victoroff warns, "Rational choice theories cannot predict idiosyncratic responses. Policy recommendations that predict deterrence of terrorist acts are only as valuable as their capacity to anticipate the extraordinary variability and adaptability of humans".
There may not be a scientific explanation for what makes people turn to terrorism, nor is there an explanation for what makes people selfless or altruistic, but it appears that when individuals feel content and in control of their own lives they are more receptive to making less violent choices. Allowing citizens the availability of choices whether they are financial, political, or social will encourage a more fulfilling lifestyle. Therefore, confidence in democratic systems and empowerment of all people is perhaps the best answer to preventing terrorism.
Israel signed with following declarations: "Pursuant to Article 2, paragraph 2 (a) of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, the Government of the State of Israel declares that in the application of the Convention the treaties to which the state of Israel is not a party shall be deemed not to be included in the Annex of the Convention.
Pursuant to Article 24, paragraph 2 of the Convention, the State of Israel does not consider itself bound by the provisions of Article 24, paragraph 1 of the Convention. The Government of the State of Israel understands that the term 'international humanitarian law' referred to in Article 21 of the Convention has the same substantial meaning as the term 'the law of war'. This body of laws does not include the provisions of the Protocols Additional to the Geneva Convention of 1977 to which the State of Israel is not a party."
Egypt signed but made the following declarations and reservations: "1. Under article 2, paragraph 2 (a), of the Convention, the Government of the Arab Republic of Egypt considers that, in the application of the Convention, conventions to which it is not a party are deemed not included in the annex.
2. Under article 24, paragraph 2, of the Convention, the Government of the Arab Republic of Egypt does not consider itself bound by the provisions of paragraph 1 of that article.
Without prejudice to the principles and norms of general international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions, the Arab Republic of Egypt does not consider acts of national resistance in all its forms, including armed resistance against foreign occupation and aggression with a view to liberation and self-determination, as terrorist acts within the meaning of article 2, paragraph 1, subparagraph (b), of the Convention."
Jordan signed but declared: "1. The Government of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan does not consider acts of national armed struggle and fighting foreign occupation in the exercise of people's right to self-determination as terrorist acts within the context of paragraph 1(b) of article 2 of the Convention.
2. Jordan is not a party to the following treaties:
A. Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, adopted in Vienna on 3 March 1980.
B. Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, done at Rome on 10 March 1988.
C. Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf, done at Rome on 10 March 1988.
D. International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, adopted in New York on 15 December 1997.
Accordingly Jordan is not bound to include, in the application of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, the offences within the scope and as defined in such Treaties."
United States signed with the following reservation: "(a) pursuant to Article 24 (2) of the Convention, the United States of America declares that it does not consider itself bound by Article 24 (1) of the Convention; and
(b) the United States of America reserves the right specifically to agree in a particular case to follow the arbitration procedure set forth in Article 24 (1) of the Convention or any other procedure for arbitration."
"(1) EXCLUSION OF LEGITIMATE ACTIVITIES AGAINST LAWFUL TARGETS. The United States of America understands that nothing in the Convention precludes any State Party to the Convention from conducting any legitimate activity against any lawful target in accordance with the law of armed conflict.
(2) MEANING OF THE TERM 'ARMED CONFLICT'. The United States of America understands that the term 'armed conflict' in Article 2 (1) (b) of the Convention does not include internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence, and other acts of a similar nature."
With regard to the declaration made by the Jordan upon ratification:
"The Government of the United States of America, after careful review, considers the statement made by Jordan relating to paragraph 1 (b) of Article 2 of the Convention (the Declaration) to be a reservation that seeks to limit the scope of the offense set forth in the Convention on a unilateral basis. The Declaration is contrary to the object and purpose of the Convention, namely, the suppression of the financing of terrorist acts, irrespective of where they take place or who carries them out.
The Government of the United States also considers the Declaration to be contrary to the terms of Article 6 of the Convention, which provides: "Each state party shall adopt such measures as may be necessary, including, where appropriate, domestic legislation, to ensure that criminal acts within the scope of this convention are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature.
The Government of the United States notes that, under established principles of international treaty law, as reflected in Article 19 (c) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a reservation that is incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty shall not be permitted.
The Government of the United States therefore objects to the Declaration relating to paragraph 1 (b) of Article 2 made by the Government of Jordan upon ratification of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism. This objection does not, however, preclude the entry into force of the Convention between the United States and Jordan."
Cuba signed and declares: "The Republic of Cuba declares, pursuant to article 24, paragraph 2, that it does not consider itself bound by paragraph 1 of the said article, concerning the settlement of disputes arising between States Parties, inasmuch as it considers that such disputes must be settled through amicable negotiation. In consequence, it declares that it does not recognize the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice."
Yemen omits signature initially with the following reservation: "The Government of the Republic of Yemen has ratified the Convention ... subject to reservations to the following articles:
(a) Article 2, paragraph 1(b);
(b) Article 24, paragraph 1.
The accession of the Republic of Yemen to this Convention shall in no way signify recognition of Israel or entry into any relations with it."
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Victoroff, J. "The Mind of the Terrorist: A Review and Critique of Psychological Approaches." Journal of Conflict Resolution 49, no. 1 (January 2005): 3-42. doi:10.1177/0022002704272040.
3, no. 4 (2002): 287-304. doi:10.1080/1561426022000032060.
According to this theory, individuals are motivated by their personal wants and goals and are driven by personal desires. Since it is not possible for individuals to attain all of the various things that they want, they must make choices related to both their goals and the means for attaining those goals. Individuals must anticipate the outcomes of alternative courses of action and calculate which action will be best for them. In the end, rational individuals choose the course of action that is likely to give them the greatest satisfaction.
Use the following to cite this article:
Mitchell, Allyson. "Terrorism Defined." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. December 2012 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/terrorism-defined>.