Problems defining terrorism

Since the attacks in New York and Washington, "international terrorism" has again been high on the political agenda: the United States and its allies see it as the "new threat of the 21st century", and the media report almost daily on the progress of the "Anti-terror campaign" whose end does not seem to be in sight. The US is currently targeting Iraq.

Terrorism is just as little a new phenomenon as it is a clearly defined phenomenon: it existed long before it was given a face by Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the attacks ", hastily put on the political agenda and the subject of public discussion has been.

"There are no sidelines"

Since September 11, terrorism and the fight against it have been used to determine political position: here the defenders of civilization, there international terrorism and the states that support it. One of the most ardent advocates of this view of the world is the American President: Shortly after the attacks, George W. Bush clearly marked the front lines in the coming conflict with the words "With us or with the terrorists". And his Secretary of State Colin Powell said: In the fight against terrorism, "no country has the luxury of being on the sidelines; there are no sidelines".

The term itself remains difficult to define: whether in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, between the Basque underground organization ETA and the Spanish government: wherever there are bloody disputes over land, ideology or religion , the conflicting parties accuse each other of terrorism, without which there would be a consensus.

Search for the definition

From the point of view of politics, there is therefore a great need for a clear – and therefore criminally relevant – definition. Shortly after the attacks, the United Nations unanimously passed a resolution obliging all member countries to cooperate in the fight against terrorism. The very different political interests of the member states, however, prevented a common definition. Take the Middle East conflict, for example: some Arab states wanted the Intifada and the Palestinian suicide attacks against Israelis to be seen as an uprising against an occupying power and consequently refused to apply a terrorism convention to these cases.

Not only different political interests, but also the very different manifestations and internal mechanisms of terrorism make a definition difficult. The motives for and the emergence of terrorism are mostly based on regional causes and therefore cannot be categorized easily. For example, it is difficult to compare ETA’s "freedom struggle" for an autonomous Basque country with religiously motivated Islamist terrorism.

The political positioning of terrorism is similarly problematic: the common assumption that one terrorist is the other freedom fighter tacitly identifies terrorism as politically left and progressive. However, this is by no means the case. It was only in February of this year that the FBI issued an urgent warning against right-wing extremist terrorist activities in their own country.

Terrorism expert and historian Walter Lacquer states: Terrorism is not an ideology, but a strategy that can be pursued regardless of one’s position in the political spectrum.

 Terrorism as a strategy of weakness

Which categories could be used to define terrorism? In most cases it aims to change the existing situation. The acts are systematically planned and – in contrast to the terror that can be carried out by dictatorships – are committed by extra-state groups. Measured against the strength of the state, these are weak, so that they cannot seek an open confrontation and therefore have to operate underground. If terrorism appears at first glance to be evidence of brutal power, it is in reality a strategy of weakness that is intended to provoke an overreaction of the – supposedly – inhuman state.

Terrorists operate outside of the democratic consensus. In democracies, the state alone has the monopoly of force, violence against bystanders is outlawed – at least on paper – and there is a fixed legal framework for its use. Terrorist violence, on the other hand, comes unexpectedly and hits bystanders. Not so much the attack itself, but its supposed arbitrariness and brutality create a climate of fear. "It can hit any of you anytime, anywhere," is the terrorist message.

EU adopts definition of terrorism

The European Union (EU) applied similar criteria when its interior and justice ministers agreed in December 2001 on a common legal framework for dealing with terrorism. However, the ministers could not agree on an exclusive definition either. Rather, they formulated a series of criminal offenses, which can also, but not only, be of terrorist origin.

In general, acts are cited that "intend to seriously threaten a population or to force authorities or an international organization to do something or not to do something, or to admit the fundamental political, constitutional, economic and social structures of a country or an international organization destabilize or destroy ".

In addition to murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, robbery or possession of weapons, the list of possible terrorist acts also includes the threat of "serious damage to state or public facilities, a transport system, an infrastructure, including an information system, a platform fixed in the ground, cause a public place or private property, which can endanger human life or cause considerable economic damage ".

Criticism from human rights organizations

While the heads of state and government praised the agreement as a major step towards the uniformity of legal norms, human rights organizations warned that such a broad definition of terrorism could criminalize citizens who simply exercised their right to freedom of expression. It is true that the EU agreement provides that fundamental civil rights such as freedom of expression must not be compromised. Nevertheless, the ATTAC organization fears that this "obviously excessive definition" could also be applied to politically unpleasant groups.

Definition necessary

A criticism that does not seem entirely unfounded. With its attempts at definition, politics moves on a narrow line. On the one hand, no state can afford inaction if its citizens are the targets of hatred and violence. On the other hand, any necessary definition must be narrow. This is the only way to ensure that the "fight against terrorism" does not lead to a war in which international and civil rights are no longer respected.

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