What is terrorism?

What is terrorism?
7 min read
16 Apr, 2018
Comment: Broad and shifting definitions of 'terrorism' have given states free rein to act with impunity, writes Zohra el-Mokhtari.
The shooting at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris killed 12 [Getty]
This is the first article in the series 'France and Tunisia's war on terror'. Read the introduction here. 

What is terrorism? French, Tunisian and international legislation has not provided a clear definition of the word, and the UN struggles to define a concept that has meant different things to different people. So how is it possible to fight something that is so vaguely defined?

Countries including France, Tunisia, Israel and the United States have often used the concept of "war on terror" without giving it much explanation.

On 9 January 2016, while paying homage to the victims of the 2015 attack in the French supermarket Hypercacher, Prime Minister Emmanuel Valls repeated the phrases he had used in November 2015: "Those enemies who attack their co-citizens deserve no explanation. Because explaining would be the beginning of forgiveness."

More recently, after the attacks that took place in Aude (though no longer prime minister), he pleaded for "a ban on Salafism". Like other presidents and prime ministers across the world, the former head of the government wants to eradicate terrorism without ever providing an explanation or definition for what it is.

A changing definition

The word "terrorism" appeared in France during the 1789 Revolution. It referred to the Regime of Terror (September 1793 - July 1794) during which the republican movements, encouraged by Robespierre, opted to use violence. The aim was to "defend" the Republic against the enemies of the revolution.

This was the beginning of a period when the use of terror attacks for political purposes multiplied in France, notably against the last king of France Louis-Philippe I, which killed 18 and injured 22.

This shows that, paradoxically, terror contributed to the foundations of the Republic, even though the state itself is founded on the universal values of liberty and equality.

Later, terror attacks by colonisation supporters in France proved extremely deadly. Historian and far-right specialist Anne-Marie Duranton notes in her book Le Temps de l'OAS (At the time of the Secret Army Organisation [SAO]), that attacks attributed to the SAO tallied "12,299 explosions with plastic, 2,546 individual attacks and 510 collective attacks for a total of at least 2,200 deaths".

The more confused a concept is, the easier it to manipulate for opportunistic ends

Since the Algerian war and the bombing of the Strasbourg-Paris train in 1961 by the SAO which killed 28, the attacks in Paris and St Denis in 2015 have been the deadliest. They were claimed by IS (Islamic State).

In Arabic, terrorism, "al-irhab" is a word derived from the verb "arhaba" which means "to scare", "to frighten" or "to terrorise". While it has been linked to Islam, it does not appear in the Quran. Outside of specific contexts such as self-defence or wars between armed organisations, attacks on someone else's life (as well as suicide) are strictly forbidden by this religion.

And yet, Islam and Muslims have been collectively accused to be responsible for the attacks. Many NGOs have condemned the violation of their fundamental rights.

French criminal law failed to prevent it, in part because the definition of terrorism in the criminal code lacks precision. It defines it as a group of actions intended to "gravely disrupt public order by intimidation or terror".

In other words, the intention is enough to characterise terrorism. But the notion of public order is also quite vague and has changed over time. According to Thamy Ayouch, a professor at the Universite Diderot III in Paris, this threat can be used to eradicate "any and all dissident thought and all political opposition".

International conventions too, have struggled to give a legal definition to terrorism. 

The Geneva convention of 1937 adopted by the League of Nations at the initiative of the French government was the first attempt at normalisation. It defined it as the totality of "criminal acts against a state whose goals or natures are to provoke terrors in targeted persons or in the public". It did not garner enough ratifications before the start of World War II and never came into effect.

In more recent history, no event is more key to understanding the shifting goalposts than the 11 September attacks.

They have had a long-lasting impact on the collective consciousness and international relations, allowing George W. Bush and his supporters to illustrate the concept of the "clash of civilisations", and use the old "if you're not with us, you're against us" refrain to divide the world in two categories.

International conventions too have struggled to give a legal definition to terrorism

This post-September 11 war rhetoric has been used to legitimise wars, such as the one in Iraq against Saddam Hussein, their old ally now turned "terrorist”. While the Security Council's resolution 1373 adopted on 28 September 2001, in the wake of the attacks, recognised "the natural right to individual and collective self-defence", it still did not provide a definition of the "terrorist acts" against which this right can be used.

Terrorism or resistance? 

First proclaimed in France's 1789 Declaration of the rights of men and citizens, "rebellion against oppression" was reaffirmed in the preamble to the 1948 Universal Declaration as the "last resort against tyranny and oppression".

This principle is the basis and purpose of many armed liberation movements such as the African National Congress (ANC). That the ANC and Nelson Mandela were classified as "terrorists" by the United States until 2008, shows that the use of this term is above all contextual and political.

Many states - including France, Great Britain and Israel - supported the apartheid regime against the ANC, before paying homage to Nelson Mandela's courage and praising his fight against the regime. 

Many countries nowadays still use terrorism as a justification for crimes against civilians

Many countries nowadays still use terrorism as a justification for crimes against civilians.

Syria's Bashar al-Assad has claimed that bombings of civilian populations were legitimate because they were meant "to rid Aleppo of terrorists".

As for Israel , whose "model of the fight against terrorism" is praised in France, it has used it to justify its terror actions, targeted assassinations and a disproportionate use of military force and power during its war operations with what Israeli leaders systematically call, "Palestinian terrorism".

But pro-Israel supporters perpetrated terror attacks in order to found the "Jewish State". One of them, Irgun, introduced terrorism to the region at the end of the 1930s and committed the biggest terrorist attacks in Palestinian history when it blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem where the British headquarters were located on 22 July 1946, killing 91 and injuring 46.

One of the participants, Menahem Begin, became head of the  Israeli government from 1977 to 1983. As has happened elsewhere, nations were accused of both "state terrorism" and of feeding terrorism.

This post-September 11 war rhetoric has been used to legitimise wars, such as the one in Iraq

The Egyptian example is relevant, too: The current president is accused of having ordered "probable crimes against humanity" by Human Rights Watch. On 14 August 2013, security forces killed around 1,000 civilians protesting in support of elected president Mohamed Morsi and against the army coup. 

In Tunisia, "terrorism" is a relatively recent phenomenon, unlike in France. The earliest terror bombings on records are those of Sousse and Monastir on 2 August 1987. They were attributed to the Organisation of Islamic Jihad and injured 13.

The legal vacuum mentioned earlier gave states a lot of freedom to act as they pleased, and contain any attempt at opposition, and that is precisely what Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali did.

There was no legal break after the ousting of the ex-president, but these laws was no longer in effect by 2015, the year when the deadliest attacks in Tunisian history hit the country.

At that point, the fight against terrorism became a national cause and new legislation seemed necessary. This came to fruition with the law of 7 August 2015, "relating to the fight against terrorism and the repression of money laundering".

With its "excessively vague and ambiguous" definition, this law has been called a "Patriot Act" by NGOs who have warned against the dangers it represents.

For Jaques Derrida, "the more confused a concept is, the easier it to manipulate for opportunistic ends". He singled out the example of Algeria, asking "When does terrorism stop being condemned as such, and start being praised as the only means to a legitimate fight?

"What about the other way around? Where can we draw the line between the national and the international, the police and the army, a 'peace-preserving' intervention and war, terrorism and war, the civilian and the military on a territory and within structures that maintain the defence and offence powers of a society?"

These questions remain as pertinent as ever, and with no definite answer, no clear definition and no long-term political strategy, the war against groups who claim to support that ideology will never be won.

Zohra El-Mokhtari is an editor and contributor at Orient XXI. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Rozah_P

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.