|The oft-repeated statement 'One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter' reflects genuine doubts about what constitutes 'terrorism'. Sir Adam Roberts surveys the ever-changing definition of terrorist activity, including mass murder of civilians exemplified by the events of September 11.|
The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11 confirmed that terrorism had acquired a new face. Terrorists were now engaged in a campaign of suicide and mass murder on a huge scale. Previously it had been possible to believe that there were limits beyond which even terrorists would not go. After the thousands of deaths on September 11, it was evident that at least one group would stop at nothing.
'...terror is often at its bloodiest when used by dictatorial governments against their own citizens.'
Terrorism was not always like this. Its history is as much European as Middle Eastern, and as much secular as religious. Far from being wilfully indiscriminate, it was often pointedly discriminate. Yet there are some common threads that can be traced through the history of terrorism. What happened on September 11 was a sinister new twist in an old story of fascination with political violence.
'Princip could not believe that the assassination had triggered the outbreak of world war...'
During the 19th century terrorism underwent a fateful transformation, coming to be associated, as it still is today, with non-governmental groups. One such group - the small band of Russian revolutionaries of 'Narodnaya Volya' (the people's will) in 1878-81 - used the word 'terrorist' proudly. They developed certain ideas that were to become the hallmark of subsequent terrorism in many countries. They believed in the targeted killing of the 'leaders of oppression'; they were convinced that the developing technologies of the age - symbolized by bombs and bullets - enabled them to strike directly and discriminately. Above all, they believed that the Tsarist system against which they were fighting was fundamentally rotten. They propagated what has remained the common terrorist delusion that violent acts would spark off revolution. Their efforts led to the assassination of Tsar Alexander II on 13 March 1881 - but that event failed completely to have the revolutionary effects of which the terrorists had dreamed.
In the half-century after the World War Two, terrorism broadened well beyond assassination of political leaders and heads of state. In certain European colonies, terrorist movements developed, often with two distinct purposes. The first was obvious: to put pressure on the colonial powers (such as Britain, France, and the Netherlands) to hasten their withdrawal. The second was more subtle: to intimidate the indigenous population into supporting a particular group's claims to leadership of the emerging post-colonial state. Sometimes these strategies had some success, but not always. India's achievement of independence in 1947 was mainly the result, not of terrorism, but of the movement of non-violent civil disobedience led by Gandhi. In Malaya, communist terrorists launched a major campaign in 1948, but they failed due to a mixture of determined British military opposition and a programme of political reform leading to independence.
'In some cases governments became involved in supporting terrorism, almost invariably at arm's length...'
How did certain terrorist movements come to be associated with indiscriminate killings? When in September 1970 Palestinian terrorists hijacked several large aircraft and blew them up on the ground in Jordan but let the passengers free, these acts were viewed by many with as much fascination as horror. Then in September 1972 11 Israelis were murdered in a Palestinian attack on Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games at Munich. This event showed a determination to kill: the revulsion felt in many countries was stronger than two years earlier.
'...the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza...was an exercise of violence against which counter-violence was legitimate.'
A justification offered by the perpetrators of these and many subsequent terrorist actions in the Middle East was that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (which had begun in 1967) was an exercise of violence against which counter-violence was legitimate. The same was said in connection with the suicide bombings by which Palestinians attacked Israel in 2001-2. In some of the suicide bombings there was a new element which had not been evident in the Palestinian terrorism of 2 or 3 decades earlier: Islamic religious extremism.
'very few people apart from the Russian Tsar-killers have actually called themselves terrorists'
Can the huge variety of forms of action be categorized under the single label of 'terrorist'? The term is contentious: very few people apart from the Russian Tsar-killers have actually called themselves terrorists. Yet there are some common factors that can be detected behind the many changing faces of terrorism. First, it usually has an unofficial character, claiming to be the result of an upsurge of public feeling. (Of course many governments secretly instigate or support it.) Second, terrorism is based on a naïve belief that a few acts of violence, often against symbolic targets representing the power of the adversary, will transform the political landscape in a beneficial way. Third, terrorism has become increasingly involved in attacking innocent civilians - often with the purpose of demonstrating that the state is incapable of protecting its own people. Fourth, terrorists generally underestimate the strong revulsion of ordinary people to acts of political violence.
Thus the main emphasis at the UN was on limited practical measures. In a series of 12 international conventions drawn up between 1963 and 1999, particular terrorist actions, such as aircraft hijacking and diplomatic hostage-taking, were prohibited. As the 1990s progressed, and concern about terrorism increased, the UN General Assembly embarked on discussions about defining and outlawing terrorism generally. Its Legal Committee issued a rough draft of a convention, which:
Reiterates that 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 are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be used to justify them.
'Is it reliance on terror that truly distinguishes a movement from its political opponents?'
There are still disagreements between states about this draft convention. Even if it is eventually agreed, there is a difference between agreement on the general principle of outlawing terrorism and its application to particular facts. The labelling of individuals and movements as 'terrorist' will remain complicated and highly political. Two key questions arise: (1) Is it reliance on terror that truly distinguishes a movement from its political opponents? (2) Even if parts of a movement have employed terrorist methods, is 'terrorist' an accurate description of the movement as a whole, made up of many different wings, and employing many different modes of action?
'...ANC's use of violence had been discriminate and had constituted only a small part of the ANC's overall strategy.'
The facile and oft-repeated statement 'One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter' reflects genuine doubts about the term. In the past there have been strong disagreements about whether certain movements were or were not terrorist: for example, the Jewish extremist group Irgun in Palestine in the 1940s, the Viet Cong in South Vietnam from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, and the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s onwards. Famously, in 1987-8 the UK and US governments labelled the African National Congress of South Africa 'terrorist': a questionable attribution even at the time not because there had been no violence, but because the ANC's use of violence had been discriminate and had constituted only a small part of the ANC's overall strategy.
Terrorism and International Order by Lawrence Freedman et al. (Routledge and Kegan Paul for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1986)
The Terrorists: From Tsarist Russia to the O.A.S by Roland Gaucher (Secker and Warburg, 1968)
The Age of Terrorism by Walter Laqueur (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987)
Terrorism and the Liberal State (2nd edition) by Paul Wilkinson (Macmillan, 1986)
The Assassins by Bernard Lewis, Oxford University Press, April 1987
The Day that Shook the World by the BBC News Team (BBC Books, 2001)
Social Science Research Council [http://www.ssrc.org/sept11/] , New York. See section on 'After September 11: Perspectives from the Social Sciences'
United Nations [http://www.un.org/terrorism/] , New York. See section on 'UN Action Against Terrorism'.
Published on BBC History: 2002-08-27
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