Terrorism Defined

Recently, I participated in a discussion about the definition of terrorism. Actually, the discussion was based on an uninformed opinion that terrorism is ill-defined and subject to personal interpretation.1 Specifically, the common saying of “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”2 was invoked to counter any factual information regarding the legal definition of terrorism. This post is an attempt to provide information on the United States’ legal definition of terrorism, why an international definition doesn’t exist, how nation-states become legitimate (thus their “rebel” leaders and fighters are not terrorists), and the evolution of terrorism.

United States’ Legal Definition of Terrorism

22 United States Code, Chapter 28, paragraph 2656f (d) defines “terrorism” as: (1) the term international terrorism means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than 1 country; and (2) the term terrorism means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents. Furthermore, 18 United States Code, Part 1, Chapter 113B (Terrorism), section 2331 states that “international terrorism” activities mean (A) involve acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum. Terrorism is not an ill-defined term, and even if you don’t have a basic understanding of law, you can still comprehend that there is a legal definition of “terrorism.”

Equating the Founding Fathers to Terrorists, and How Nation-States Become Legitimate
Arguably, the Founding Fathers were a government in rebellion that requisitioned, funded, and directed an army (led by General George Washington) that may be considered a guerilla force. However, the majority of Continental Army forces were uniformed, thus one of the defining terms for “guerilla” is that they don’t wear recognizable uniforms, and often blend into the environment or population, does not fit the Continental Army.3 While guerilla forces may violate a specific historical era’s “rules of war,” they do strike legitimate military targets. The Continental Army not only engaged British forces,4 but the Continental Army (in most instances) wore recognizable uniforms, and the Founding Fathers executed their command of this army in a manner that fell within the “rules of war.” This idea that the Founding Fathers and their army were terrorists is further repudiated by the international recognition of America as a legitimate Nation-State at the end of the American Revolution.
The crux of the legitimate Nation-State lies within the idea of “political legitimacy.”5 Some sources of political legitimacy are consent, beneficial consequences, and public reason and democratic approval. Christian political philosophy of “consent” was replaced in the 17th century with a different view of “consent.”  Hugo Grotius, in On the Law of War and Peace, stated that “But as there are several Ways of Living, some better than others, and every one may chuse which he pleases of all those sorts; so a People may chuse what Form of Government they please.” Beneficial consequences is the idea that legitimate political authority is founded on the principle of utility. Finally, public reason (Kant in the house!) and democratic approval are supposedly the third source. Those who willingly submit have to approve (through reasoning) of the political legitimacy of their government. This third source may be forced, however, through governmental coercion and force.
Once political legitimacy has been established, a sovereign state exists. The definition of a sovereign state is “a specialized type of political organization characterized by a full-time, specialized, professional work force of tax-collectors, soldiers, policemen, bureaucrats, and the like that exercises supreme political authority over a defined territory with a permanent population, independent from any enduring external political control and possessing a local predominance of coercive power great enough to maintain general obedience to its laws or commands within its territorial borders.”6 Truly, legitimate sovereign Nation-States are not only internally recognized, but the international community of Nation-States recognizes them.
International Legal Definition of Terrorism
International organizations such as the United Nations are voluntary, however, there is significant incentive for sovereign Nation-States to seek not only recognition from these organizations, but to utilize the international organizations in a manner that benefits the Nation-State. Like international organizations, there is the concept of international law and “while there is no one, specific body of international law, the term is taken to mean the collection of treaties, customs, and multilateral agreements governing the interaction of nations and multinational businesses or nongovernmental organizations.”7 All of these treaties, customs, and multilateral agreements are voluntary (with benefits). As with these voluntary agreements, there has been an identification for a need for defining “terrorism.” For example, the United Nation has identified that an “agreed definition of term ‘terrorism’ said to be needed for consensus on completing comprehensive convention against it.” However, Nation-States do individually define “terrorism” as shown with the above U.S. legal definition.
Evolution of Modern Terrorism
Regardless of the absence of an international legal “terrorism” definition, the United States does define it, and international terrorism has evolved. While clean categories are impossible, it is easy to identify an evolution of modern terrorism categories (political and religious) that appears to grow from the independence-driven terrorism, to political terrorism, to the modern idea of radicalized Islamic terrorism. These categories apply to international terrorism, American domestic terrorism8 is not being discussed.
Independence-driven and political terrorism are part of a historical era that saw the rise of former colonies seeking, and gaining, independence. The Algerian War (1954-1962) is a prime example of independence-driven terrorism. Algerian nationalists conducted a bombing campaign against France that ultimately led to Algerian independence. Political, or ideological terrorism was primarily seen during the late 1960s, 1970s, and the 1980s, and was seen, at times, as a proxy war between the West and the Soviets. Specifically, the use of surrogates such as the Red Army Factions in Europe. Additionally, during this time there was politically-motivated terrorism relating to Palestine, Israel, and other Middle Eastern countries. Arguably, this was also religiously-motivated terrorism, but the foundational argument, or issue, was the engagement of State-sponsored terrorism. Terrorists and terrorist organizations were used as “tools” to satisfy, or implement, political policy of individual states.
The rise of religious and radicalized terrorism was an outgrowth of the political terrorism of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, such as the Islamic fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Radicalized Islamic terrorism is a modern phenomenon that engages non-state actors with no clear political agenda other than punishing “non believers” and the “West.” Terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda claim to seek a new caliphate, however, there seems to be no real political purpose behind their attacks other than a desire to respond to what al-Qaeda (and its loosely-organized partners) see as an assault on the world’s Muslim population (“Body of Believers”).
Unlike pornography, one doesn’t have to wait to see terrorism to know if it exists or not. Nor does the legal definitions of terrorism (based on sovereign Nation-State law) leave much room for personal interpretation. Finally, the idea of political legitimacy and the idea of sovereignty do not necessarily lend themselves to an argument of “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” International consensus doesn’t have to exist for sovereign Nation-States to act in accordance to their laws. Terrorism is defined. 

1. This uninformed individual attempted to compare how personal views on “beauty” with personal views on what is “terrorism.” It was basically an argument full of tangents and unconnected points.

2. Boaz Ganor, Executive Director, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, states “The statement, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” has become not only a cliché, but also one of the most difficult obstacles in coping with terrorism. The matter of definition and conceptualization is usually a purely theoretical issue—a mechanism for scholars to work out the appropriate set of parameters for the research they intend to undertake. However, when dealing with terrorism and guerrilla warfare, implications of defining our terms tend to transcend the boundaries of theoretical discussions. In the struggle against terrorism, the problem of definition is a crucial element in the attempt to coordinate international collaboration, based on the currently accepted rules of traditional warfare.”

3. Exceptions to this would be that wily Swamp Fox Francis Marion.

4. And their Hessian mercenaries… again different historical era and the its “rules of war.”

5. Go here for a fantastically detailed discussion of “political legitimacy.”

6. Source. Interestingly, a territory or Nation-State built by conquest in which one culture, one set of ideals and one set of laws have been imposed by force or threat over diverse nations by a civilian and military bureaucracy may not be enduring. Nation-States are ephemeral and originate and disappear with the stroke of a pen (e.g. the end of the USSR, Dec. 25, 1991).

7. Source. Traditionally, international law consisted of rules and principles governing the relations and dealings of nations with each other, though recently, the scope of international law has been redefined to include relations between states and individuals, and relations between international organizations.

8. For example, bombings of abortion and Planned Parenthood clinics, white supremacy attacks on religious and ethnic minorities, and anti-state/tax activities. However, one could argue that these types of domestic terrorism follow into the categories of religion (extremist Christianity activities) and political.


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