The definition of terrorism has eluded numerous analysts hence exposing the inadequacies of security forces, moral philosophers, psychologists and theologians alike. Rebels, insurgents, separatists, guerrillas, insurrectionists, freedom fighters, fundamentalists, cults… are all these terrorists?
Over the last 20-30 years the UN has approved 13 Conventions which attempt to eliminate terrorist activity, culminating in a broad Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS) approved in 2006. In this GCTS, the UN vaguely resolved to “strongly condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes.” The UN is yet to find a wording which distinctly explains this resolve.
Lack of an agreed definition of actions said to be terrorism; has given a leeway to unscrupulous governments to quickly label dissent or political opposition as terror. The vagueness in the definition of terror has been used to compromise freedoms of the majority. For instance, though the UN definition does not mention religion or race as ingredients of terrorism; the US and its Western allies have adopted these parameters to label any person practising Islam religion and is of Arab or Cushitic extract, a terrorist.
This is why at one time at a US airport a Kenyan Minister of Arab facade was subjected to undiplomatic security search while juniour officers in the delegation the minister was leading; were spared the humiliation because of their skin colour and apparently their religion.
The absence of a clear definition of terrorism blocks the possibility of referring terrorist acts to an international court, as for genocide and war crimes. It leaves individual countries free to outlaw any activity which they choose to classify as terrorism, perhaps for their own political convenience. This gave fodder to the US administration of former president Bush to conjure in the public mind a link between the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center and the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.
Related to the ambiguity of the vocabulary of terrorism is the widely misused and non-defined UN Charter phrase: “threat to world peace and security”. Great powers have invaded countries on the pretext of “threat to world peace and security”
Article 39 of the UN Charter requires the Security Council to determine whether there is breach or threat to peace. “Threat to International security and peace” is too broad hence susceptible to imprecise definition and misuse by great powers in the UN.
Sample these: in 1992, UN Security Council resolution 733, defined the Somali situation as a threat to international peace and security; UN resolution 1070 in 1996, identified as threat to peace the failure by Sudan government to extradite criminals who attempted to assassinate Egypt’s President Mubarak; Libya’s failure to denounce terrorism was seen as threat to international peace and security.
However the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was not a threat to international peace and security, but Arabs’ entry into Israel in the 1948 Middle East war was immediately termed a threat to international peace and security. This is just how arbitrariness has been used to advance selfish interests of the West in the guise of fighting terrorism.
It is ironical that enormous budgets are committed to security against the ideology of terrorism when numerous lives are lost to preventable disease and hunger in poor countries. In the US since 2001, the homeland security budget for 2009 was $44 billion, just to assuage the country’s collective fear, about terrorism
It is argued that a definition of terrorism without mention of just cause needs to navigate the history of the struggle of national liberation movements fighting colonial or oppressive regimes; all were called terrorists. The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya was branded a terrorist group and Kenyatta (founding president of Kenya) and other freedom fighters were adjudged terrorists and convicted by the British Government.
Another convicted “terrorist”, Nelson Mandela, wrote in his autobiography: “the hard facts were that 50 years of non-violence had brought people nothing but more repressive legislation, and fewer rights”. Countries from Africa and the Middle East see terrorism as a just cause especially in the struggle against oppression, injustice and erosion of their culture.
For example, the effort of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – to reunite the northern and southern counties of Ireland – was never regarded as a just cause by the UK government instead named an act of terrorism. Likewise, since long years of internal violence in Sri Lanka concluded in 2009 with the obliteration of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) a group defined as terrorist; to date the political fate of the Tamil minority remains uncertain.
Can one for instance call al-shabab a terrorist group or a group radically resisting Western civilization? Or is it a group of novices attempting to get cultural identity; a psychological search to know who they are?
In Europe, there are suggestions that young Muslims from immigrant families suffer identity problems in reconciling differences between western lifestyles and their upbringing; this group is a fertile source of destructive radicalism.
Global Jihad: On the flipside, is this phenomenon called terrorism a case of clash of civilization (cultures)? Simultaneous bomb attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 followed by the 9/11 tragedy in 2001 heralded this globalisation of terror. These attacks were traced to al-Qaeda group headed by Osama bin Laden. Its ideology is shaped by the belief that Islam and natives’ culture are being degraded and humiliated by “western” values. The group in particular detests Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are close allies of the US.
The plight of the Palestinians has bolstered al-Qaeda’s goal to expel Americans from Muslim lands and dismantle pro-US Middle Eastern governments, especially Israel.
By claiming that terrorism is a Christian and Muslim clash of civilisations, the Americans reinforced rather than undermined al-Qaeda ideology, uniting rather than exploiting the deep divisions within Islam.
This extreme global jihad (armed struggle) of Sunni Islam adopted by bin Laden is said to be inspired by an Egyptian radical, Sayyid Qutb. The epicentre of global jihadism may be the Taliban insurgency.
Some scholars have argued that the ideology of al-Qaeda has no known link to a just cause and Islam teaching. The Holy Koran teaches that the killing of innocent humans is a crime and that suicide is unacceptable; it shares core values of peace and tolerance with the world’s major religions. It can therefore not be fathomed how these terrorist groups find a ready supply of followers, the jihadis. Suicide bombing tact, pioneered by the Tamil Tigers, has been central to al-Qaeda missions and now adopted by the Taliban.
The influence of Islamic education under indoctrinating leaders who often advocate extreme views which “radicalise” students into beliefs contrary to mainstream Islam, need attention. For example, in Indonesia a number of terrorists belonging to the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) group have been identified as alumni of religious schools known as pesantrens. In the UK attendance at the radical Finsbury mosque has been traced to a radicalized proportion of known terrorists.
Counter terrorism: In the absence of a comprehensive UN treaty, national criminal laws and bilateral arrangements remain the basic tools of counter-terrorism. Led by the US Patriot Act, such laws have encroached on freedom of speech and association, prolonged detention without trial, erosion of established rights and intrusion on standards of privacy.
The UN Global Strategy declares that countries which are “conducive to the spread of terrorism” are those characterised by “violations of human rights, ethnic, national and religious discrimination, political exclusion, socio-economic marginalization, and lack of good governance.”
The US invasion of Iraq without UN endorsement fulfilled al-Qaeda accusations of western interference in Muslim territories. The US qualified as a terrorist by violating provisions of the Geneva Convention for the treatment of prisoners of war through torture and illegal detention. There are camps at Bagram in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay in Cuba; this have come to symbolise the loss of moral authority of the US and other Western countries attempting to stem terrorism. Equally governments around the world have boldly engaged impunity against political opponents, ethnic minorities and separatist movements, in the name of counter-terrorism or national security.From Tibet to Tehran, Colombia to Chechnya, the state monopoly over violence has been exercised to instill fear of impending terrorism into populations so as to remain in power.
Under mounting pressure from human rights and his own Special Rapporteurs, the UN Secretary-General presented a report to the General Assembly in 2008 titled “The protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.”
Currently remote hope lives because on his first day in office in 2009, President Obama announced his intention to close the Guantánamo Bay. In his speech at Cairo University he began with a greeting of peace, spoken in Arabic, before rejecting the language and values of his predecessor. However a majority of Muslims now dismiss Obama as a sweet talker who wants Muslims to go to sleep as its opponents plan to attack. Words do not break bones action is what is eagerly expected from the US talking president.