Tag Archives: War on Terror

Terrorism is Terrorism? How Communication Exacerbates the Definitional Problem

Why is terrorism so difficult to define? {Department of War Studies, King’s College London}


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A definition of terrorism is arguably one of the woolliest concepts of modern discourse. Its manifestations arrive from a complex mosaic of compounding issues that affect any real brevity in assessing it. Since 9/11 it has been promoted to the forefront of most political agendas and yet no definitional consensus has followed. In the second presidential debate for example, Mitt Romney lambasted President Obama for not calling the attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi a terrorist incident, of which Obama took 14 days to finally call it such. The interim Libyan leader in comparison described it as an act of criminal violence. Politicians and subsequently media organisations have been careless, imprecise and sloppy in labelling incidents as acts of terrorism. This essay will therefore, scale back from the larger definitional debate and acknowledges that issues will be omitted. However, by arguing that terrorism is wrapped up in political motivations and rhetoric in tandem with the rise of modern communication, ultimately has a greater impact in understanding why terrorism is so difficult to define.

A Definitional Overview

To argue with clarity, the first logical step is to assess why terrorism is so important to define. Since 9/11 the word ‘terrorism’ has increasingly become intertwined in today’s society, and is synonymous in creating powerful images of violence, self-sacrifice and catastrophe. However, are we any closer in understanding what constitutes it? There are many academics and professionals who not only struggle to grapple with a definition, but utterly refute any notion of needing one. Walter Laqueur, perhaps the most prominent in this category, argues that a definition “does not exist nor will it be found in the foreseeable future.” Additionally, Jeremy Waldon and George Fletcher, in separate works, acknowledge that there are too many questions and not enough answers. Both seem to deviate from any real conclusion and believe the best possible course in understanding terrorism – is to know it when you see it.

The British Ambassador to the United Nations also shares this argument. In a post 9/11 speech he shunned the attempts of a definition by stating, “let us be focused about this: terrorism is terrorism… What looks, smells and kills like terrorism is terrorism.” However, if terrorism is taken as a transnational issue and not a single state-centric paradigm, to simply say every terrorist attack has characteristics that are obvious in all instances and consistently the same, is not only trite, but affects any sort of successful counter-terrorism strategy. Therefore, if terrorism is a global affair encompassing many different countries, a definition is vitally important to understand and ultimately combat it.

It is fair to argue that a definition is imperative in combating terrorism. However, coming to that conclusion is not an easy feat. Alex Schmid has become a cornerstone in the definitional debate and arguably places significance on “anxiety-inspired methods” which are implied on victims “generally chosen… (targets of opportunity).” He interestingly includes state-actors within his definition, which further adds weight to the necessity for a classification, because it can separate who or what are committing the acts. In a direct response to Schmid, Weinberg et al conclusively found no room in their definition for psychological effects and place politics as the primary reason behind terrorist strategy. Bruce Hoffman also asserts the importance of politics and views it as the key tool in understanding terrorists modus operandi. However, viewing a terrorist group in the sole constraints of politics reveals only a partial picture, as ignoring religious or ideological motivations limits the scope of analysis. John Horgan moves away from the idea of politics by putting explicit importance on the psychological use of ‘terror’, which in his words “removes part of the mystery” in understanding terrorism.

The use of terror is vitally important in assessing an attack because, as John Mueller identifies, it breaks down the moral criminal code that almost all populations abide by. Thus, understanding the potential method and targets not only helps polarise state and non-state actors but also allows a better degree of understanding of what the potential aims of a group are. There is arguably not one definition to use and it is fair to say that the scattered academic radar adds more uncertainty to how terrorism is defined. Nevertheless, if a definition is used, it does enable a set of parameters to be implemented allowing terrorist activity to be assessed.

The Misuse of ‘Terrorism’

The understandable academic ambiguity around the manifestations of terrorism is one that will continue, however, it is arguably not the basis of why terrorism is so hard to define. The way the word is used in its entirety by political apparatuses and influential individuals has a far larger footprint in misguiding the real meaning and use of terrorism. Ian Lustick’s thought provoking book ‘Trapped in a War on Terror’ portrays this argument and crucially identifies how terrorism became the Bush administrations political foundation. Patriotic fist pumping speeches that hark back to old veteran sentiments helped legitimatise policy-making decisions and misalign people’s perceptions of what terrorism actually is. There is perhaps little to dispute with this argument especially when assessing Bush’s clay footed notion of fighting a ‘War on Terror.’

Other hazy statements seem to be in abundance when terrorism is assessed and the idea of an attack to have a ‘look and feel of terrorism’ seems to be the optimum phrase when there is no uniformity concerning a violent attack. The blurry platitudes imposed by state echelons is unrelenting and is further compounded by the systematic use of “apocalyptic alarmism” whereby a top down smothering of scare tactics is employed – specifically in the United States. Homeland Security for example, not only portrays the threat of terrorists having the capability of CBRN weapons but also the ability to use those weapons “from home and abroad.” The imprecise and often inaccurate statements seem to have other motives. Fred Kaplan, in The Guardian, believes “policies will gain maximum support if they are linked to the war on terrorism.” Therefore, if terrorism is bound up in political drives for public support it begs a very serious question whether it is possible to separate truth from fiction and thus provide an accurate definition.

Communications Unique Role

Government’s apparent manipulation of the subject nature of terrorism is compounded by mushrooming nature of globalisation and the subsequent rise of modern technology, which in Manuel Castells words has created a “new communication space” where “power is decided.” The expansion of ideas to previously untouched parts of the world and the connection of disparate communities to their home nation has created a complex dichotomy that Sir Richards labels as a “global network of grievances.” The rapid expansion in technology, and the explosion of social media sites has arguably transformed opinions and debates into a virtual, informational space. This, allows people to move “rapidly and seamlessly” within a virtual world. David Betz has aptly labelled this as Web 2.0, in which all vectors of society can interact simultaneously, and subsequently, the public are no longer passive spectators but an active cog in the informational world.

Modern technology has therefore now provided an unprecedented platform to move messages horizontally across an archipelago of national and international borders. If the message is incorrect or misleading it can have exponential consequences by smattering the population with distorted information. In that respect, a political message is increasingly becoming a media message and has the ability to influence all spheres of society instantaneously. However, on the other hand, the role of modern technology also means people can circumvent not only traditional state controls but also contrived information. This is evident with General Sir David Richards’ summary of technology where he argues modern communications “are way beyond the state’s ability to control without threatening all the other functions of that state.” However, this works on both feet and allows governments to wield a certain degree of autonomy in the use of modern media processes. Therefore, as David Kilcullen argues, the ends and means of developing sources of information have a paucity that makes it very hard to distinguish origins or accuracy.

A government message is thus now instantly input into the media and the subsequent outlets play a significant role in shaping how it is defined. If terrorism is put through these many different communication filters, the outcome is a kaleidoscopic mesh of compounding definitions. They are connected to public opinion, leader personality and the usual platitudes around foreign policy. John Horgan therefore argues, to assess terrorism in its definitional entirety; a movement away from the media process is vital. However, with governments increasingly using the term in its haziest context and media being completely associated with political issues, this arguably is not possible and subsequently affects coming to terms with a definition of terrorism.


To conclude, this essay has focused on a very selective variety of sources and is not by any means conclusive in bringing the definitional debate to a finish line. It has specifically focused on the US government’s role due to its unique place in combating terror and an investigation into other nations could lead to a very different argument. However, misinformation imposed by any government can arguably filter down into everyday life and is further exacerbated by the role of modern communications. This ultimately gives a larger footprint and further muddies the water in trying to come to terms with an accurate definition of terrorism.


Photo Credit: bixentro

Was The Killing Of Osama Bin Laden Justified Under International Law?

Answering the question strictly in the affirmative or negative states two things: (1)  International law justifies assassinations. (2)  The United States was unjustified to kill Osama bin Laden in international law.


Neither of these concrete statements is acceptable. What should be asked is if the killing of Osama bin Laden could be justified in international law. In this case, yes. First, international law is ambiguous and broad in its language and text alone, thus is often left open for interpretation by States. This process is further complicated with the many different scholarly traditions of international relations and war, battling to determine worldly conduct and perception in a cookie-cutter mold. For this reason, the law on the use of force and self-defense under the United Nations Charter is one of the most contended areas in international law. Jörg Kammerhofer states that because international law itself is not clearly established, then what the law calls for is uncertain, and such uncertainty manifests itself in the law of use of force and self-defense. Under Chapter VII, Article 51, it states that the Charter cannot prohibit the use of force in the sense of self-defense, and allows a State to engage in self-defense in an armed attack. Kammerhofer notes that the lack of words in Article 51 often confuses States what actions are considered just and legitimate. Without any clear historical understanding of the origin or inception of the Article, the content or scope of self-defense law is left to be a vehicle for the institution’s objectives ‘in its concrete condensation within the positive legal realm of the Charter.’ What is considered ‘self-defense’? An ‘armed attack’? What constitutes as a legitimate victim and attacker? These questions may seem quite technical, but it is absolutely imperative to clearly define these terms to determine any legal breach of international law. For instance, ‘armed attacks’ can be interpreted by States as isolated, indubitable, aggressive actions. But others may believe that self-defense ensures effectual security of the State, and thus infers that an ‘armed attack’ means the relationship between the State and the enemy in its entirety. There are instances of historical conflicts such as Pakistan and India, China and India, and North and South Korea, where both sides insisted they were the victims; there is no international system established to legally and adequately determine sides. Even further, contemporary scholars particularly question if an attacker can be perceived as a State or a non-State actor. The United States falls under the latter.

Even for the argument that an ‘armed attack’ is majorly considered to be in the form of an isolated action of aggression, some scholars state that self-defense is not limited to cases of armed attacks in that fashion. They claim that the intent of Article 51 was to incorporate all of the rights of self-defense that existed within the customary international laws at the time the Charter was drafted. Moreover, the International Court of Justice noted that the right of self-defense under Article 51 ‘simply recognized a pre-existing right of customary international law.’ The use of military force may be legally utilized against terrorists even if an armed attack has not occurred because of the notion of customary right of self-defense. An example of a basis that permits the use of force under customary international law is the protection of the people of the State. Richard Lillich, and others, supports the claim that the use of force is legitimate in order to protect the State’s nationals, and refers to 188 cases in which the United States has attempted to protect its nationals ‘by the use of contingents ashore.’ With this observation, it would then be correct to state that military force may be used against terrorists if they pose a threat to a State’s citizens in the absence of an armed attack.

It is, however, recognized that such an argument about Article 51 is not a widely accepted interpretation, particularly in reference to the Nicaragua case where the International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated the right to self-defense against an aggressive Statemay be used in the light of an exclusive occurrence of an armed attack. But the ICJ was particularly vague in its jurisdiction about the legitimate use of force against non-state actors. In the DRC v. Uganda (2005) case, the ICJ ruled that Uganda did not have the right to use force against Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in self-defense because the terrorist actions by anti-Ugandan rebels are not attributable to the DRC. But it surprisingly failed to specifically address if Uganda did not have the right to use force specifically against the anti-Ugandan rebels, the non-State actors, considering it was a prominent legal and political issue in this ‘War on Terror’ era. To further the ambiguity, the ICJ completely overlooked the issue, and stated that ‘there is no need to respond to the contentions of the Parties as to whether and under what conditions contemporary international law provides for a right of self-defence against large-scale attacks by irregular forces.’ Such discretion then continuously makes international law unclear to definitely state if it is justifiable or not to use force against non-State actors.

Others criticized that the US breached international law in its action because it trespassed into the territory of Pakistan, and therefore violated Pakistan’s sovereignty. Kimberley Trapp notes how the ICJ also overlooks the matter of the use of force in terms of self-defense against non-State actors that are located within another State’s territory. Article 2(4) of the Charter forbids ‘the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any stage.’ For a State to enter another State’s territory without permission and use force within that State, regardless of the target, is surely then a violation of international law. The violation of territorial integrity in order to target a non-State actor within the host State’s borders can be excused under the ‘customary law elements of a legitimate exercise of the right to self-defense.’ She introduces the customary requirements of ‘necessity’ and ‘proportionality. ‘Necessity’ questions if the use of force is a necessary action in the present circumstance, and ‘proportionality’ addresses the need for defensive action, but tailored action, so that the use of force is properly adequate and not abundant. If the victim State believes that the host State could do more to decrease the threat of armed attacks from the non-State actor within its territory, than the use of force by the victim State is not necessary. But if the victim State believes that the host State is either unwilling or incapable of reducing the threat, depending how much it values its own security, the victim State is left to take the risk of trespassing into the host State and use limited and targeted force against the non-State actor; in this case, Osama bin Laden. But in contravention, Israel was denied to use the ‘necessity’ and ‘proportionality’ argument when Israel bombed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s headquarters in Tunisia in response to the PLO’s terrorist attack against its citizens in Cyprus back in 1985. Israel strongly claimed Tunisia was well aware of PLO’s terrorist activity and was unwilling to place preventive measures, and thus used its own force, not against Tunisia, but particularly against the PLO. The UN Security Council did not investigate Israel’s claim about targeting non-State actors, stating that actionable self-defense may only be used in the instance of an armed attack by Tunisia. Like in the DRC v Uganda case, ‘acquiescence in terrorist activities was evidently rejected as a basis for attribution’.

Things have drastically changed since 1985. It is quite possible to state that international law – codified law – gradually took on the elements of common law over time, where its text is more so inferred by the international community through precedence and norms. This is due to the slow process of reformatting the codified structure to fit the continuously changing modern perceptions.  In the beginnings of the UN in 1945, international law was more modest in terms of content and applications. Over the years after many drastic events, international law slowly began to incorporate a wider range of subjects without fully assessing what the official definition of these novel concepts are in order to make official amendments to treaties. Major international organizations and agencies cannot even agree on a definition for something seemingly as basic as ‘terrorism,’ but its concept is understood overall; thus, terms such as these are left in limbo in international law. As Friedrichs states, ‘it is precisely the absence of a legal definition of terrorism, that makes it possible for the hegemonic power… to determine the international public enemy on a case-by-case basis.’

It was much more controversial to the international community to blow up Gaddafi’s compound in Libya than it was shooting bin Laden in the head. Bin Laden was not a head of a recognized State, nor was he a civilian. The attack on bin Laden was seen just because he played an essential non-state military role in waging war directly against America. The US searched high and low for a decade for this one person, risking its status and security as an economic, political, and military world power. They finally succeeded. Does international law condone hunting and slaying down high-class enemies, rather than capturing them and putting them on trial? Do American values permit retribution in spite of due process? Regardless of the black and white text of the law, in some cases, they do.