What Is Terrorism?

In late autumn 1974, the Irish Republican Army began a bombing campaign in England. In October bombs exploded in two pubs in Guildford, killing 5 people and injuring 65 others. Some six weeks later two more bombs exploded in pubs in Birmingham. Twenty one people were killed and nearly two hundred were injured. Few would disagree that all the incidents were acts of terror. Following the Birmingham bombings, the British Government rushed through Parliament the Prevention of Terrorism Act, providing new powers to the police, port officials and the Secretary of State, and radically curtailing people’s civil liberties. Four people were subsequently convicted for the Guildford bombings and six people for the Birmingham bombings. All had been interrogated and abused over many days before they signed confessions. After spending 14 and 16 years respectively in prison for crimes they did not commit, with their lives ruined, the convictions against them were quashed and they were all released. These ten people had experienced terror at the hands of the police, followed by the terror of wrongful conviction and imprisonment. The boundary line between the prevention of terrorism and the terror of prevention had become blurred, illustrating only too well the difficulties of trying to answer the question: what is terrorism?

This essay first describes some of the problems of trying to define “terrorism,” taking the view that “terrorism” is used to describe “violence” that is “political” but is only selectively used to depict some such instances. Then it argues that the continued use of the term is creating the very phenomenon that we are attempting to prevent. In conclusion, it is posited that, while there is a very real threat of political violence, the current responses are disproportionate, leading to widespread erosion of civil liberties and human rights. Examples from the war in Northern Ireland will be used to illustrate the argument, as this is both my area of expertise and it provides a context from which policy and lawmakers can learn—however, this is by no means to suggest that all instances of political violence are the same.

The first problem with the term is the notion of terror and whether or not it should be central to the concept of terrorism. Its origins can be traced back to the eighteenth century when the new French state, following the uprisings of 1789, used organized and systematic terror to deal with its enemies. The specific aim was to cause extreme levels of fear among opponents. Many would argue that terror must be a key component to any definition of terrorism. Anyone who has been in a pub or city centre when a bomb, placed by the IRA, has exploded understands only too well the feeling of fear and panic. Similarly, anyone who has been informed by the police that they were on an Ulster loyalist hit list understands the feelings of constant and unremitting fear and expectation.

Few, therefore, would disagree that the purpose of many acts or attempted acts of political violence is indeed to cause terror. But there are many different circumstances in which people experience terror that are never defined as terrorism. For example, the daily personal violence experienced by women in abusive relationships is not defined as terrorism but by the quaint expression “domestic violence,” although in quantitative terms domestic violence does much more harm, measured by death and physical injuries, than terrorism. Moreover, as Richard English, an expert on the IRA and author of an excellent recent book, Terrorism: How to Respond, has asked: “is the deliberate creation and use of terror actually more central to what we usually consider terrorist violence than it is to other kinds of politically related, violent acts?” He points out that the “Shock and Awe” assault on Iraq in 2003 would have been far more terrifying that an ETA or IRA bombing. Moreover, he suggests that there is much more to terrorist forms of violence than just terror. Propaganda, political mobilization, and destruction of economic structures, for example, are all significant. The word terrorism fails to capture these broader dimensions of political violence and distorts an understanding of the different forms of the phenomena we are trying to understand.

The second problem with the term is its ambiguity. This can be seen in its highly selective usage during the conflict in Northern Ireland. The political violence perpetrated by the IRA was always labeled as terrorism by the British government. Yet identical types of violence by loyalists were seldom given the same label. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Secretary of State had the power to ban selected organizations. The IRA was banned but the main loyalist paramilitary organization, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), which was responsible for the murder of hundreds of Catholics, was not banned until 1992—twenty four years after the conflict started. The security services were also responsible, either directly or indirectly, for many acts of terror leading to the deaths of hundreds of people. Yet their behavior and activity was never labeled as terrorism. Similarly, IRA members, but not UDA members, who committed violent acts were always labeled terrorists. Time also adds to the confusion: people once labeled terrorists in Northern Ireland are now called politicians following the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

Research suggests that there are now over one hundred different definitions of terrorism. Most countries have their own definition and even within the same country, various sections of government define the phenomenon differently, as for example in the United States. Definitions also shift with time. In the United Kingdom, the Prevention of Terrorism, Act of 1974 defined terrorism as: “the use of violence for political ends, and includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public or any section of the public in fear.” It failed to define what was meant by violence or political ends and could easily embrace, for example, violent activity on a picket line of striking miners. In 2000 the 1974 definition was replaced by a much more complex one, covering five sub-sections in the legislation. Instead of elucidating the notion, the new lengthier definition is even less clear.

A third problem with the definition is that it generally excludes any reference to violence perpetuated by states. Although the word terrorism has its origins in the activities of the French state, the term has been increasing used to cover only the activities of non-state actors. As Alexander George pointed out in his book Western State Terrorism: “terrorism is so often presented as the anti-thesis to the liberal state thereby suggesting that liberal states are incapable of supporting or engaging in terrorism.” The empirical evidence, however, suggests otherwise. For example, the United States has long supported, sponsored, and perpetrated terrorist incidents around the world in support of its imperial interests, leading Noam Chomsky to describe it as “a leading terrorist state.” The trail of terror, including murder, torture, rape, kidnapping, and the overthrow of elected governments, in which the United States has been involved either directly or indirectly over the years, is well-documented and makes it a nonsense to restrict the notion of terrorism to simply non-state actors. More importantly, this history of state-inspired terror is crucial to any understanding of the political violence directed towards the United States.

Similarly, many of the activities of the police and security forces in Northern Ireland could easily be captured within the term terrorism: the use of five interrogation techniques, which many considered amounted to torture, on a selected number of people picked up during internment in 1971; the shooting dead of 14 unarmed civilians following an anti-internment march in Derry in 1972; the activities of a South Armagh gang, which included security forces personnel, who were involved in bombings and assassinations in the mid to late 1970s; or the assaults by the police on suspects during prolonged interrogation.

Much of this government-instigated terror, however, was overshadowed by the violence that emerged in the new security strategy introduced in the early 1980s. Without any public or parliamentary debate, and on the basis of a document prepared by a senior official in the secret services (MI5), the Thatcher government changed the focus of policing in Northern Ireland from the prevention and detection of crime to the gathering of intelligence. The recruitment and use of informers became the sine qua non of policing. At the same time, the Army, through what was euphemistically called the Force Research Unit, expanded its use of agents. By the late 1980s there was widespread collusion between the security forces and assassins in both the IRA and UDA, leading to the deaths of many innocent people, Protestant and Catholic, creating terror in both communities. This then was a terror in which the state took a part, both against and alongside those labeled “terrorists.” The rule of law was secretly and systematically subverted in the belief that the means justified the ends.

A fourth problem with the term terrorism is that it is so emotionally charged and pejorative that it is difficult to have a rational debate about the risk and harm stemming from political violence. The issue is further compounded by the fact that many people working in the police and security services, as well as politicians, have a vested interest in distorting and talking up the risk. This is shown in John Mueller’s excellent book Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them. As he points out, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since 1960, including 9/11, is about the same as the number killed in the same period by severe allergic reactions to peanuts, by lightning, or by road accidents caused by deer. In addition, since then it is estimated that probably more Americans have lost their lives on the roads than were killed with the collapse of the twin towers — their deaths caused by a decision to drive rather than to fly. None of this empirical detail, however, has prevented the United States from going to war in two countries and spending billions of dollars on the “war against terror.”

A final characteristic of the notion of terrorism is its discursive aspect. It functions ideologically to reinforce and reify the existing structures of power in society, as Richard Jackson has pointed out. It disguises the role of states and particular political elites globally. There is a shared set of assumptions about the definition, the nature, causes and responses to what is labeled as terrorism. This “knowledge” legitimizes the “war on terror” and its associated policies of regime change, military expansion in new regions, torture, and extraordinary rendition. Moreover, it provides the justification for the expansion of national security, the introduction of extraordinary legal powers, and the development of a panoptic surveillance system, of which Jeremy Bentham would have been proud. It also produces a quiescent and obedient population.

Further, the discursive nature of the term terrorism actually creates the very phenomenon that it ostensibly seeks to end—political violence against liberal states. The terrorism discourse, as Joseba Zulaika and William Douglass point out in their brilliant book, Terror and Taboo (written five years before 9/11), provides powerful cultural frames and narratives with which to understand the phenomenon. By defining many different and disparate politically violent groups together under one label, a relationship is established where none may have existed in the past. The label itself enhances the status of every minor group and encourages the further use of political violence. The enemy, “al-Qaeda,” has been constituted as “the other,” making it easy to capture under its umbrella a whole range of acts of political violence which have very different motivations and contextual features, but all supposedly coordinated by a man in a cave who gave up using a cell phone years ago. The term “Axis of Evil” has extended the umbrella to include the PLO, Fidel Castro, the Sandinistas and more recently Iran and Yemen. A further discursive turn occurred with the use of the adjective Muslim or Islamic in front of the term, creating dozens of suspect nations, thousands of suspect communities, and millions of suspect individuals.

There is nothing in new appending an ethnic or racial description to terrorism. During the troubles in Northern Ireland journalists and some academics used the term “Irish terrorism.” The detention process for many started with a form stamped with the words “Irish Suspect”—a term sufficiently ambiguous as to which is the noun in the phrase—that a police officer could either consider the individual in racist terms or the whole of the Irish race. At UK airports and ports Irish people were separated out from other passengers for checking with signs that stated “Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland passengers this way,” further increasing the general public’s suspicion of Irish people. Security experts are now arguing that the same procedures should be introduced at all airports for Muslims.

All the evidence from the thirty-year war in Northern Ireland shows that discriminatory practices, the “dramatization of evil,” and the demonization of the “other,” created widespread anger and resentment among those affected. Irish people and people of Irish descent began to see themselves as “different,” and their sense of being Irish was strengthened in the wake of the rising levels of suspicion. The impact on some was more dramatic. As a consequence of being defined, abused, humiliated, and segregated out for special treatment, many young men and women joined the IRA and became the very object of the discursive constructions.

This brings us to issue of responding to political violence. Now that there is widespread acceptance of the term terrorism, notwithstanding its vagueness, ambiguity, and dangerous discursive characteristics, it has become all too easy for the authorities to introduce more and more counter-terrorism measures, which curtail fundamental democratic rights of freedom of movement, speech, and protest. Significantly, there appear to be no limits to the expansion of these countermeasures. After each atrocity or, more typically, after each security breach, the measures are ramped up.

For example, following allegations that a group of British men had planned to build bombs using liquid explosives disguised as beverages, a ban, as millions know, was introduced on liquids of more than 100ml in hand luggage. This led to one of the biggest seizures of property in the history of modern society with thousands kilograms of drink, cosmetics, perfumes, shaving gels, and mousse being taken from travelers on a daily basis. Similarly, following the arrest in December of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is accused of attempting to blow up a plane as it came into land at Detroit airport, full-body scanners are to be introduced at airports.

But this development is already being questioned. Some security experts are predicting that soon the suicide bomber will have the bomb sewn inside his or her body with miniature wires under the skin which can be detonated by needles. The logical response to this potential threat will be for all passengers to be strip-searched to check for recent surgery and anything that might be concealed in body orifices. But the experience of Northern Ireland is instructive again. There, strip-searching and forced visual examinations of bodily orifices in the jails was commonplace, but the searches failed to detect many items, and miniature radios, lighters, and tobacco were all smuggled in.

Zygmunt Bauman, one of the most perceptive and original thinkers of our time, argues that we now live in a new political economy—a political economy of uncertainty that has developed as a result of globalization and the freeing up of financial, capital, and trade powers, against a backdrop of growing polarization of wealth, income, and life chances within and between countries. While billions of poor people live a life of certainty in poverty, their vast presence creates uncertainty among those in work, making redundant the traditional and costly disciplinary apparatus.

The political economy of uncertainty boils down essentially to the prohibition of politically established and guaranteed rules and regulations, and the disarming of the defensive institutions and associations which used to stand in the way of capital and finance becoming truly sans frontières. The overall outcome of both measures is the state of permanent and ubiquitous uncertainty which is to replace the rule of coercive law and legitimating formulae as the grounds for obedience (or, rather warranty for the lack of resistance) to the new, this time suprastate and global powers.

The mobilization of the concepts of “terrorism” and “counter-terrorism” further reinforces the levels of uncertainty and produces more compliance and ever greater erosion of civil liberties and human rights. Insecure individuals are in no position to act collectively and oppose “counter-terrorism” measures. On the contrary most people are in support of them precisely because they believe erroneously that it enhances their “security” and paradoxically helps reduce their growing levels of uncertainty. In the meantime, liberal democratic states with all their checks and balances against the abuse of power are being steadily transformed in exactly the ways that those who perpetrate political violence wish to achieve.

The main conclusion of this essay is that while the threat from political violence is real, we should stop using the word terrorism and instead use the concept of “political violence” to cover acts of violence within clearly defined political contexts—whether by states or others. In addition, we should rely solely on the substance and processes of the ordinary criminal law to deal with those who are involved in perpetuating acts of violence. Extraordinary measures only serve to create an extraordinary sense of injustice and increase anxiety. Finally, contrary to what Alan Dershowitz argues, we should begin to address the specific underlying causes which give rise to the various different types of political violence. This must include dealing with structural inequalities which exist in the world between rich and poor, and finding solutions to the many ethno-religious conflicts without the resort to unilateral military force. If any lesson is to be learnt from the Northern Ireland peace process, it is that for a resolution to occur, it is essential to convince the protagonists that there are other more effective means of achieving justice than through the use of violence.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • Lumpers versus Splitters: A Pivotal Battle in the Field of Terrorism Studies by Max Abrahms

    Max Abrahms cautions against lumping together all groups found under the terrorist label. Not all political violence is alike. Significant differences exist, he argues, between terrorists who target civilians and those who attack military targets. The former tend not to achieve their stated political goals – and this is a usable message for governments wishing to protect their populations. If terrorists don’t achieve their political objectives when they attack civilians, we should ask what other motivations they may have, and address those as well.

  • Democracy and Prosperity Aren’t Cure-Alls by Risa Brooks

    Risa Brooks casts doubt on the correlation between democracy and terrorism prevention, and likewise the correlation between prosperity and terrorism prevention. We commonly observe terrorist organizations with political wings or allied political parties, for example. And many terrorists are well-educated, middle-class individuals. Further, many very poor societies have little terrorism to speak of. Addressing the root causes of terrorism is a noble goal, but these causes may be so idiosyncratic or so driven by small group dynamics that we can’t easily reach them via public policy.

  • The Semantics of Terrorism by Paul Pillar

    Paul Pillar makes the case for clarity of terms in the debate over terrorism. He first argues that this area of public policy is especially burdened by loaded language. He next proposes a definition of the word terrorism on which he thinks he and Paddy Hillyard can agree. Finally, he suggests that labels for various violent acts may work to obscure the difficult issues underlying them. If so, we should return to these fundamentals, and agree to put debate over the labels aside.

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