Terrorism in Modern Times

Terrorism is difficult to define. It is also an emotionally laden term. How it is viewed or perceived depends on who the perpetrator is and who is at the receiving end. Although terrorist activities can be criminal; but not all criminal activities is terrorism. There is a generally perception or believe that the actions of a state — in pursuit of its national and international security objectives — can not be considered terrorism. This is a fallacy because, states, in the pursuit of certain national security objectives do indeed cause egregious bodily harm; and in most cases their actions can lead to lose of innocent civilian lives and the destruction of property.

Organizations such as the Al Qaeda, HAMAS, and other non-state actors engage in terrorism in order to achieve certain political objectives. There are ideological differences among terrorist organization hence their diverse objectives; however, there is a common and familiar pattern to their modus operandi: killing, kidnapping, maiming and destruction of property. Sometimes, these acts are committed in reaction to the behavior or pronouncement of a nation state; while at other times, such heinous acts are committed in self-defense in reaction to the brutality of states or dully constituted authorities.

In the 1970s and 80s, while terrorism was commonplace in Europe, the United States, perched between the Pacific and the North Atlantic Ocean, was largely isolated from international terrorism. In recent times and in an era of crude and suitcase bombs, biological weapons, and suicide-bombers — America is now racing to protect itself from being a sitting target. To supplement its offensive and defensive measures against terrorism, she has had to create new government parastatals like the Department of Homeland Security.

Not all groups that attempts to exert fear in the minds of a targeted population are terrorist groups. Some are nationalists groups or freedom fighters. For instance the African National Congress (ANC) and the Zimbabwe Africa National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) were considered terrorist groups by both the Apartheid regime of South Africa and the minority-settler regime of Zimbabwe. However, both groups were nationalist movements fighting for the political emancipation of the majority and indigenous population of their respective countries.

Generally however, when people think of terrorist organizations what comes to mind are organizations such as the Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS), the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), National Liberation Army of Uruguay (TUPAMAROS), the Al Qaeda, the Separatist Basque Movement, the Shinning Path, the Irgun Zeva’I Le’umi (IRGUN) movement of pre-independence Israel, and so on and so forth. These groups are considered the prototype terrorist movements.

The United States of America, in pursuit of its national security and foreign policy interest have had cause to engage in overt and covert operations (terrorism) in places like Chile, Argentina, Zaire, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama and a host of other countries. In such cases, covert operation (terrorism) then becomes an instrument for perpetuating national security policies. Britain, France and the Old Soviet Union also engaged in extrajudicial activities in the Middle East and in their former colonies and satellite states. China is notorious for its illegal activities against the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people.

Everyone — states, non-state actors, fringe groups and individuals all engage in terrorism if it suits their purpose. What then is terrorism? Who then is a terrorist? One of the better and more encompassing definitions of terrorism was provided by Jack P. Gibbs (1989). However…

“At the international level, there is no universally accepted definition of ‘terrorism,’ hence no international crime of terrorism. Rather, there are treaty provisions aimed at containing aircraft hijacking, criminal acts against the safety of civil aviation, prohibited acts against internationally protected persons including diplomatic agents. Besides being imprecise and ambitious, the term “terrorism” is emotionally charged as demonstrated by the cliché, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter'” (D’Amato, 1994).

Crenshaw (1995) provides the historical concept of terrorism; the causal relationship between terrorism and its political, social and economic environment; and the impact of terrorism on the targeted or wider audience. Cronin (2003) posited that terrorism is the threat or use of seemingly random violence against innocents for political ends by a non-state actor. Terrorism, she claims, is aimed against empires, colonial powers; and the US-led international system marked by globalization. Cronin also suggested that there are two trends in modern terrorism: the hyper-religious motivation of small groups of people; and the much broader enabling environment of bad governance, non-existent social services, and poverty that punctuates much of the developing world.

Does globalization foster conflicts, resentment and terrorism? Audrey Cronin seems to think so and so posited that globalization facilitates terrorism. Mousseau, 2003 and Norberg-Hodge, 2002 both echoed this point.” As suggested by Hoffmann (2002):

Globalization, far from spreading peace, thus seems to foster conflicts and resentments. The lowering of various barriers celebrated by Friedman, especially the spread of global media, makes it possible for the most deprived or oppressed to compare their fate with that of the free and well-off. These dispossessed then ask for help from others with common resentments, ethnic origin, or religious faith. Insofar as globalization enriches some and uproots many, those who are both poor and uprooted may seek revenge and self-esteem in terrorism…”

The ultimate acquisition for terrorists and rogue states would be weapons of mass destruction and their ability to use it (Koblentz, 2003). Another area of concern is the purchase of biotechnology for the purpose of terrorism. Although nuclear weapons or even smart bombs are not easy to come by; but biotechnological capacity is increasing and spreading rapidly. The United State, according to John Mintz and Joby Warrick of the Washington Post Newspaper (November 8, 2004):

“Remains woefully unprepared to protect the public against terrorists wielding biological agents despite dramatic increases in bio-defense spending by the Bush…the consequences of a big biological strike could be especially catastrophic and rapid advances in science are placing the creation of these weapons within the reach of even graduate students…”

The twenty-first century is shaping up to be just like the twentieth century. We are today confronted with mass migration, global health challenges like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, jingoism and xenophobia, proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. Old problems are new again. The United State has, as one of its policies, refusal to negotiate with terrorists and terrorist organizations; and has also engaged in covert operations to dislodge, maim and kills terrorists wherever they might be found. These policies has brought about two unintended consequences: innocent civilians, especially women and children, are getting killed in villages and in hamlets in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere; the world is now more dangerous, not safer, since the advent of the “war against terrorism.”

There have been suggestions that (1) America should do more to signal its friendly intentions; and (2) push for greater democracy and political liberation around the world. Now, whether these suggestions would yield dividend is hard to tell. What would probably yield dividends is for the United State to negotiate with certain groups of terrorist and non-state actors; and to also effect a change in some U.S policies. For instance, America’s policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian crisis must change. The popular perception and perhaps the reality on the ground is that the United State has never been impartial in and has overtly and covertly supported the State of Israel to the detriment of the legitimate wishes and aspirations of the Palestinians.

The perception is that the White House have lied, betrayed, cheated and misled not just the Palestinians but also the world community in conducting meaningless peace summits and peace treaties when she has no real intention of bringing to fruition the Palestinians aspiration of statehood. In all, the State of Israel has the right to live in peace, security and prosperity. The State of Israel has the inalienable right to coexist peacefully with her Palestinian and Arab/Muslim neighbors. No reasonable person would deny that fact which has basis in national and international law. But she must not realize her dreams at the expense of her neighbor because the Palestinians too have the right to Statehood, to peace and security and prosperity.

The “war against terrorism” is not a war that can be won without a shift in official U.S. policies. Not only must be the U.S. be honest in her dealings with the Israelis and the Palestinians, the U.S may have to negotiate with certain rogue states and with certain terrorist organizations. In addition, she must internationalize the war on terrorism instead of going it alone. These steps have to be taken before progress can be made in the war against terrorism. All these can be done without compromising the national security interest of the United States. That we have a definitional problem with “terrorism” is beside the point. The point is that this international scourge has to be well managed; and this can only come about if there is a shift in U.S. foreign and domestic policies.

1. Crenshaw, Martha, ed., Terrorism in Context. Penn State University Press, 1995
2. Cronin, Audrey Kurth. “Behind the Curve.” International Security, Vol. 27, no. 3, Winter 2002/03, p.30-58
3. D’Amato, Anthony. International Law Anthology. Anderson Publishing Company, New York 1994
4. Gibbs, Jack P. “Conceptualization of Terrorism.” American Sociological Review, Vol. 54, no.3, June 1989, p.329-340
5. Hoffmann, Stanley. “Clash of Globalization.” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 81, i4, July/August 2002, p.104
6. Koblentz, Gregory. “Pathogens as Weapons.” International Security, vol. 28, no. 3, Winter 2003/04, p.84-122
7. Mintz, John and Warrick, Joby. “US Remain Unprepared for Bioterror Attack.” Washington Post Online, www.washingtonpost.com accessed November 7, 2004
8. Mousseau, Michael. “Market Civilization and its Clash with Terror.” International Security, Vol. 27, no. 3, Winter 2002/03, p.5-29
9. Norberg-Hodge, Helena. “Globalization and Terror.” Ecologist, Vol. 31, i10, December 2001/January 2002, p.36


Written by
Sabella Ogbobode Abidde
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