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Terrorism: Security and Ambiguity
(Released May 2002)

  by Tyrone Nagai  


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After the September 11th attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., the U.S. Army enlisted the help of Hollywood's top action screenwriters and directors - including the writers of Die Hard and McGyver - to conjure up possible scenarios for future assaults. While this may seem unorthodox, the next major terrorist attack will probably come in a form as unexpected as the one we witnessed on September 11th (Homer 61). Whether it is perpetrated by an asymmetric threat or a rogue state using a weapon of mass destruction remains to be seen. Here, the purpose is not to gaze into a crystal ball; instead, the aim is to sketch the debate on definitions of terrorism, discuss the methods of counterterrorism, and analyze the consequences of counterterrorism.

Definitions of Terrorism

Academic discussions of "terrorism" begin by explaining that a universally accepted definition of the term still eludes scholars and government officials. Sharryn Aiken has suggested that the words "terrorist" and "terrorism" are nearly meaningless as a legal category (Aiken 65). The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia deplored "the lack of any precise definition of the term 'terrorism' as a major hurdle in determining when illegal, sanctionable terrorist activity had occurred" (Ross 82). One survey of leading researchers uncovered 109 different definitions (Takeyh 70). So many exist that a mere compilation of these would form a fair-sized book (Qadir 333).

The term "terrorism" first emerged to describe a period of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, in which the Jacobins unleashed a campaign of repression that resulted in thousands of people being tortured, imprisoned, and guillotined (Aiken 54). In this context, T. H. Mitchell states that "terrorism was perceived as an unspeakable crime - the product of moral depravity and madness" (see Defining the Problem in D. A. Charters, ed., Democratic Responses to International Terrorism, 1991). Hence, terrorism was coined to indicate a state's brutal treatment of its citizens. During the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, the term became increasingly politicized (Aiken 54).

This politicization reveals the power of semantics in demarcating the moral and ethical parameters of a conflict. For some, the definition of terrorism includes both state and non-state participants, but excludes acts motivated by revenge (Qadir 334). For others, the definition encompasses only "subnational groups or non-state entities" (Dishman 44). A poignant illustration of the murky nature of the term rests in the fact that the U.S. State Department, U.S. Department of Defense, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) all employ different definitions (Johnson 895). The primacy of the U.S. State Department in international affairs has caused its definition to gain widespread acceptance: "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience" (Donohue 35).

Equally important, the definitional ambiguity of terrorism is intensified by the rhetorical power of the word "terrorist," which causes governments to apply the term according to political preferences (Falkenrath 150). No country wants to admit to terrorist actions or support of terrorist groups, yet many states, including the U.S., have been involved with or have lent support to groups considered by other countries to be terrorists (Donohue 19). At the heart of the matter is that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter (Aiken 58). J. Zulaika and W. Douglas ask, "What can we make of the fact that terrorism has become such a shifty category that yesterday's terrorists are today's Nobel Peace Prize winners?" (Terror and Taboo, 1996). Likewise, Zulaika and Douglas argue that the use of terrorism as a conceptual category, in lieu of a universally accepted definition, must be seen for what it is: a highly charged political position embedded in the particularity of a given cultural, social, and tactical context.

Despite debate over the definition, core characteristics of the term are agreed upon within the literature. These include the use of threat and/or violence, the existence of political motive, the selection of targets who are representative of a target category, the aim of terrorizing, the goal of modifying behavior, the use of extreme or unusual methods, and the use of terrorism as an act of communication (Monaghan 256).

Methods of Counterterrorism

Just as attempts to define terrorism generate political controversy, the debate over the necessity and appropriate reach for antiterrorist legislation in the U.S. stems from disagreement over what constitutes terrorism and when it exists (Michel Wieviorka, Foreword to The Making of Terrorism n.1, 1993). There are just as many ways to prevent terrorism and to bring known terrorists to justice as there are motivations behind terrorist acts. Possible state responses to terrorism include political and diplomatic measures, economic measures, overt military action, covert military action (e.g., intelligence operations), and law enforcement (Malvesti 85-86).

Retired U.S. Army Major General William Nash voices concern that the U.S. is viewed by the world as represented by a military force rather than as a democratic, free-market, rule-of-law nation. He also intimates that national security in the 21st century is far more political, economic, and social in nature, and the security aspects are more nonmilitary, than ever before ("Reinventing War" 43). The tenacity and longevity of groups such as the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), Irish Republican Army (IRA), and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are reminders that military-backed counterterrorism alone is not likely to eliminate the threat. Conversely, progress on the political front can go a long way in reducing violence (Johnson 911).

The growing gap between the world's haves and have-nots exacerbates the problem of terrorism (Talbott 75). For example, in Pakistan and to some extent Afghanistan, the bulk of the people who enter madrissas (religious seminaries) that provide military training for terrorists are from a disadvantaged class; parents find it convenient to send their children there because they know the children will be housed, fed, clothed, and educated (Qadir 338-9). Victims of the modern world view Osama bin Laden as a combination of avenging angel and Robin Hood (Talbott 75). It has been said, "Terrorism is the half thinking man's conditioned reflex to sustained oppression and lack of personal empowerment" (Qadir 333). Countering terrorist activities with military operations will not be successful without addressing global economic inequality (Talbott 75-6) and peacekeeping itself is an issue of post-conflict development ("Reinventing War" 43).

Nevertheless, Strobe Talbott, former deputy Secretary of State, points out that the September 11th suicide pilots, for the most part, did not come from the world's desperate and aggrieved. He states that their fanaticism, like bin Laden's, was nurtured in privilege and in individual madness (Talbott 75). If this is the case, then is military reaction the solution? In order for the U.S. to deploy military forces in response to a terrorist act, six criteria need to be met: a relatively immediate, positive perpetrator identification; perpetrator repetition; direct targeting of a U.S. citizen working in an official U.S. government-related capacity; the fait accompli nature of the incident - i.e., already accomplished and irreversible in nature; flagrant anti-U.S. perpetrator behavior; and political and military vulnerability of the perpetrator (Malvesti 100).

U.S. Senator Richard Selby, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, blamed the September 11th tragedy on inadequate intelligence funding, a dearth of Arabic-speaking agents, and insufficient international intelligence-sharing and cross-border cooperation (Sprinzak 72). John Deutch, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Jeffrey H. Smith explain that the model of U.S. intelligence was created in a different era for solving a different problem. The National Security Act of 1947 produced the CIA, which was envisioned to deal with enemy states during the Cold War. The result was a collection of organizations based on distinctions of domestic vs foreign threats, law enforcement vs national security, and peacetime vs wartime. The FBI is responsible for the former, while the intelligence community, including the CIA and others, is responsible for the latter. This fragmented approach makes it possible for one intelligence agency to have information before a terrorist attack, but to be unable to share and synthesize in time to avert the attack (Deutch 64).

Terrorist attacks pose a unique challenge to states in that they are both a law enforcement and a national security issue, simultaneously a criminal act and an act of war. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the U.S. military from engaging in civilian law enforcement activities, and many argue that military training for local police and firefighters to handle (weapons of mass destruction) terrorist incidents falls into this category (Quillen 55). Two dominant models have been developed to address this dilemma in Israel. The war model regards terrorism as an act of revolutionary warfare, whereas the criminal justice model regards it as a criminal act. The war model places the response to terrorism in the hands of the military, encouraging the armed forces to use all its power to quash terrorist action. The criminal justice model accords the police with the responsibility to respond to terrorism, and its actions are naturally restrained by the states criminal legal system (Pedazhur 3).

Consequences of Counterterrorism

If the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, that of antiterrorism is to terrorize more (Qadir 333). In many ways, counterterrorist efforts must be viewed on balance because they often involve fundamental alterations to civil liberties, policies toward ethnic minorities, international relations, and the economic system. Prudence must be exercised to avoid using counterterrorism as a blanket justification for victimizing innocent people (Aiken 127), and C. B. Keely and S. S. Russell urge the use of caution to prevent the perpetrators from winning by making "us" like "them" (see Asylum Policies in Developed Countries: National Security Concerns and Regional Issues in A. Simmons, ed., International Migration, Refugee Flows and Human Rights in North America: The Impact of Free Trade and Restructuring, 1992).

A struggle between civil liberties and the vulnerability to terrorism often develops during the genesis of counterterrorist measures. This clash is seen in the debate over passenger profiling, roving wiretaps, surveillance, tracking systems, and immigration. Policymakers entertain proposals to erode posse comitatus; repeal assassination and torture prohibitions; use criminal informants; introduce military courts, indefinite detention, and identity cards; and widen powers of information gathering (Donohue 48). The more aggressive the selected model of counterterror, the more likely that democratic foundations will be sacrificed during the process (Pedazhur 22). Paul Wilkinson writes that the primary objective of counterterrorism should be the protection and maintenance of the rule of law and liberal democracy (Terrorism and the Liberal State, 1986), but arguments in favor of secret evidence and classified deportation proceedings speak not of an open, liberal, democratic society, but of one cloaked in secrecy (Donohue 48). One must also consider the words penned by Thomas Jefferson: "A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will deserve neither and will lose both" (Ross 122).

Incursions into civil liberties via stringent counterterrorist law also risk alienating ethnic minorities within the U.S., and subjecting them to disproportionate and degrading security checks and procedures, which marginalize them even more (Donohue 48). For example, the perception of Arabs as terrorists in the U.S. has come to dominate the public imagination. Larry B. Stammer and Somini Sengupta eloquently describe the common perception: "Words and images run together like watercolors on a child's easel - Arabs, mosque, terrorist, Muslims, extremists - making it hard to tell where one began and the other left off" (see Muslims Enter American Mainstream, Los Angeles Times, 6 April 1993). This almost reflexive association became ingrained during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and the Persian Gulf War in 1991 (Whidden 2849). Complicating matters for Arabs in the U.S. is that a number of overseas organizations that sponsor terrorists also fund religious and charitable projects; Hamas operates orphanages, old-age homes, hospitals, women's clinics, religious colleges, sports clubs, kindergartens, vocational schools, and even a match-making service (Whidden 2873).

In addition to the sacrifice of civil liberties and the mistreatment of ethnic minorities, U.S. counterterrorist actions can have a profound influence on enemies as well as allies abroad. The Organization of the Islamic Conference's declarations regarding the September 11th attacks condemned the violence as being opposed to the tolerant message of Islam; reaffirmed the need to hold an international conference on rejecting terrorism in international relations; suggested that the focus on the U.S. should not cause the international community to ignore state-sponsored terrorism in Israel; and expressed concern over the death of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, territorial integrity of Afghanistan, and targeting of any other Islamic or Arab state under the pretext of fighting terrorism (Takeyh 70-1). Though the attacks on September 11th reduced the priority of developing a national missile defense (NMD) or theater missile defense (TMD) ("Reinventing War" 33), it is widely believed that the creation of a NMD/TMD will trigger a new arms race, especially with Russia and China, and strain relations with Europe (Ahrari 83-100). In terms of deterrence, its effectiveness in the post-Cold War era remains to be seen ("Reinventing War" 34).

Modern societies such as the U.S. face a cruel paradox: Fast-paced technological and economic innovations may deliver unrivaled prosperity, but they also render rich nations vulnerable to crippling, unanticipated attacks (Homer 52). The total cost of the September 11th attack in lost economic growth and decreased equity value around the world could equal $1 trillion, and the cost of the attack was probably a few hundred thousand dollars, so the economic multiplier is close to a million fold (Homer 58-9). Possible changes that would reduce U.S. economic vulnerability to terrorism include greater use of decentralized, local energy production and alternative energy sources (e.g., small-scale solar power); increased autonomy of local food production networks; and increased supplies of raw materials and parts so that firms can continue production when these inputs are interrupted. These changes would decrease economic efficiency, but the extra security of more stable production networks could far outweigh the costs (Homer 52).

Though it would be easy to introduce this last paragraph with "in conclusion," it would be premature to do so. In closing, the intent of this work is to provide a glance at the meaning and politicization of the term "terrorism," to explicate the different means of countering terrorism, and to probe the implications of counterterrorist efforts. With U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, ostensibly to fight a war on terrorism, as well as renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians, where each side alleges terrorism by the other, the definitions of terrorism and the methods of counterterrorism take on even greater importance in the quest for peace. Much work needs to be done before terrorism is concluded.


1. Ahrari, M. Ehsan. "'Rogue States' and NMD/TMD: Policies in Search of a Rationale?" Mediterranean Quarterly, 2001, 12, 2, spring, 83-100.

2. Aiken, Sharryn J. "Manufacturing 'Terrorists': Refugees, National Security and Canadian Law - Part 1," Refuge: Canada's Periodical on Refugees, 2000, 19, 3, Dec, 54-127.

3. Deutch, John, and Smith, Jeffrey H. "Smarter Intelligence," Foreign Policy, 2002, 128, January-February, 64.

4. Dishman, Chris. "Terrorism, Crime, and Transformation," Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 2001, 24, 1, January-February, 44.

5. Donohue, Laura K. "In the Name of National Security: U.S. Counterterrorist Measures, 1960-2000," Terrorism and Political Violence, 2001, 13, 3, autumn, 19-48.

6. Falkenrath, Richard. "Problems of Preparedness: U.S. Readiness for a Domestic Terrorist Attack," International Security, 2001, 25, 4, spring, 150.

7. Homer-Dixon, Thomas. "The Rise of Complex Terrorism," Foreign Policy, 2002, 128, January-February, 52-61.

8. Johnson, Larry C. "The Future of Terrorism," American Behavioral Scientist, 2001, 44, 6, February, 895-911.

9. Malvesti, Michele L. "Explaining the United States' Decision to Strike Back at Terrorists," Terrorism and Political Violence, 2001, 13, 2, summer, 85-100.

10. Monaghan, Rachel. "Single-Issue Terrorism: A Neglected Phenomenon," Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 2000, 23, 4, October-December, 256.

11. Pedahzur, Ami, and Ranstorp, Magnus. "A Tertiary Model for Countering Terrorism in Liberal Democracies: The Case of Israel," Terrorism and Political Violence, 2001, 13, 2, spring, 3-22.

12. Qadir, Shaukat. "The Concept of International Terrorism: An Interim Study of South Asia," Round Table, 2001, 360, July, 333-9.

13. Quillen, Chris. "Terrorism with Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Congressional Response," Terrorism and Political Violence, 2001, 13, 1, 55.

14. Ross, Susan Dente. "In the Shadow of Terror: The Illusive First Amendment Rights of Aliens," Communication Law and Policy, 2001, 6, 1, winter, 82-122.

15. Sprinzak, Ehud. "The Lone Gunman," Foreign Policy, 2001, 127, November-December, 72.

16. Takeyh, Ray. "Two Cheers from the Islamic World," Foreign Policy, 2002, 128, Jan-Feb, 70-1.

17. Talbott, Strobe. "The Other Evil: The War on Terrorism Won't Succeed Without a War on Poverty," Foreign Policy, 2001, 127, November-December, 75-6.

18. Whidden, Michael J. "Unequal Justice: Arabs in America and United States Antiterrorism Legislation," Fordham Law Review, 2001, 69, 6, May, 2849-73.

19. "Reinventing War," Foreign Policy, 2001, 127, November-December, 33-43.

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