posted on Sep, 20 2009 @ 06:46 AM
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.
There is a further common factor - the tendency of terrorism to become endemic in particular countries and regions. Started by the Left, it has been
continued by the Right, and vice versa. Started in a nationalist cause, it is then employed in resistance to the resulting state. Started to cleanse
society of corruption and external control, it continues in support of the drug trade and prostitution. If violence becomes a habit, its net effect
can be to prevent economic development, to provide a justification for official violence, and to perpetuate existing patterns of dominance and
Since there are common factors, it ought to be possible to define terrorism. In the 1960s the UN General Assembly embarked on an attempt to do this.
Initially little progress was made, partly because many states were reluctant to go far along the road of outlawing terrorism unless at the same time
the 'causes of terrorism' were addressed. Other states saw this approach as implying that terrorism was a response to real grievances, and thereby
insinuating that it was justified.
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.
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?
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.
The new face of terrorism as mass murder is significantly changing such debates. The extremism of the September 11 attacks has led to a strong
international reaction. As a result, none of the 189 member states of the UN opposed the USA's right to take military action in Afghanistan after the
events of September 11, and none has offered explicit support for Al-Qaida. While there remain numerous concerns about the direction of the US and
international moves against terrorism, and it is too early to say that the new face of terrorism is on the retreat, it is not too early to hazard the
guess that, by engaging in crimes against humanity, the new face of terrorism may have contributed to its own eventual demise.
Find out more
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, New York. See section on 'After September 11: Perspectives from the Social Sciences'
United Nations, New York. See section on 'UN Action Against Terrorism'.
About the author
Sir Adam Roberts is Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and a Fellow of Balliol College. His books include
Documents on the Laws of War - 3rd edition edited with Richard Guelff (Oxford University Press, 2000)