What is Terrorism and How to Fight It?

Dr. Tariq Rahman

Terrorism is defined as the use of violence without warning at places of one’s own choosing in order to achieve political aims. There are other such definitions too and all of them refer to acts such as the hijacking of aircrafts, detonating bombs in public places, indiscriminate firing upon civilians, derailing trains, demolishing buildings, releasing dangerous gases in public places and so on. In short, the definitions refer to the use of violence so as to induce terror in the public by agents other than states. When states are involved the key element is of secretiveness and lack of ultimatum. The state sends its secret agents, whom it never owns if caught, without a formal ultimatum or declaration of war and these agents commit terrorist acts in the enemy country. When states are not involved the key element are still secretiveness and lack of ultimatum. In this case certain covert groups or organizations commit terrorist acts either in the target country or against its interests anywhere in the world.

These definitions are only partly correct. They are correct insofar as the use of violence to induce terror among non-combatants is a phenomenon which should be labeled. It should have a name to be rightly condemned, abhorred and eradicated and if ‘terrorism’ is the name given to it then one need not quarrel with it. What is wrong is that this definition comes from the powerful. Basically this definition implies that the use of violence by states against their own people and the people of other countries is justified or belongs to a more acceptable category of violence called ‘war’, ‘defence’ or ‘national interest’. Intelligence agencies do put bombs into each other’s cities which kill civilians. States do not accept that such acts of sporadic violence caused by their intelligence agencies are ‘terrorism’. However, if pressed, they might reluctantly accept that these are terrorist acts. They would, of course, justify them in the name of some great ideal---the integrity of the nation, the cause of freedom and the honour of their citizens etc. However, if a state declares war against another state and then uses, let us say napalm bombs or nuclear weapons against its cities killings hundreds of thousands of people, would it be called ‘terrorism’? According to the narrow definition given by states: ‘No’. According to my definition: ‘Yes’.

In my opinion, in the modern world, all uses of forces, except purely in self defence i.e to save one’s self from imminent death, is terrorism. This means that starting a war (an attack or the initiation of hostilities) are exercises in terrorism. The armed forces which move into the borders of another state, no matter on what pretext, are committing a terrorist act. Their movement kills people, traumatizes them, dislocates them and injures them. This is the essence of terrorism no matter who commits it. Those who oppose the invaders are, of course, acting in pure self defence as long as they throw the invaders out of their country. If, however, they throw them out and then chase them into their country or whenever else they may be located then the vengeance-seekers become terrorists in their turn. Making demands for justice or even separation from a state is justified as long as force is not used. However, if the state suppresses this struggle for autonomy or rights then the state become the terrorist. In such cases the freedom fighters can target the military forces of the state but not ordinary men, women and children. This definition of terrorism would, of course, be rejected by all the militaries of the world as well as all states.

            This however, would be the only definition which could make the world safe from all kinds of terrorism. It is needed nowadays more than ever before because the power of ancient and medieval armies was very less. Moreover, air power and weapons of mass destruction were missing. The age of terror began with modern inventions: dynamite, aircraft, nuclear weapons, chemical weapons and biological weapons. These inventions have increased the killing capacity of human beings beyond anything the ancient and medieval armies ever dreamt of. Secondly, they have made everyone unsafe no matter where they are and however apolitical or innocent they are. The dynamite has been in use for more than a century and a half by all kinds of individuals and groups who feel, or really are, transgressed against and cheated. The aircraft has been used for both wars of aggression, which is my opinion are terrorist acts, and acts of hijacking and, recently, ramming against buildings in America. The latter, of course, are regarded as terrorist acts by everybody. Nuclear weapons have only been used in Japan in 1945. As the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor first this is normally called an act of war by most people. Personally, since a large number of civilians died and others were injured and traumatized and since the war could have been ended without these casualties, I think this too was an act of terrorism. As for chemical weapons, Sarin gas has been used in Tokyo and the world is dreading the day terrorists lay their hands on biological weapons. In short, science has increased the power of both construction and destruction but one can destroy in seconds what it takes years to construct.

            Science is here to stay. So, if we want to combat terrorism we would have to understand what causes it. As for wars of aggression, dominance or conquest, the basic philosophy of the nation state is to blame. The United Nations was meant to keep the nation-states in check but it is dominated by some of the most powerful nation-states. If aggressive wars are to be really outlawed all states should have equal decision-making powers and the idea of sovereignty should be subordinated to the idea of human security. This is a tall order but so is the ending of terrorism. In this matter it is upto the United States to take the lead in renouncing war as a tool of foreign policy as Japan did after World War II. If any state actually moves its armed forces into any other the U.N.O---which should really represent all, repeat all, states---should move against it. Military power should move out of the nation-state and into the international arena. This new U.N.O should no longer be dominated by only five permanent members or by the U.S.A and Europe.

            The other type of terrorism, the one which most people call ‘terrorism’, is generally a product of policies which are unjust or are, at least, perceived to be ‘unjust’. Among the trouble spots are Palestine, Kashmir, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Philippines and places in Latin America, Africa and Europe. While it is obvious that there cannot be a policy which will satisfy everyone, it should be conceded that with a sincere desire to redress grievances some of those who are forced to resort to ‘terrorism’ will be pacified. Terrorism is probably one response, albeit of a very tiny minority of people, to psychological, economic and political violence. Consider the fate of the German Jew or the Palestinian Arab who is abased, held in contempt and hated because of what he is. This is psychological violence. Consider all those poverty stricken people of the Third World who are deprived of food, clothes, means of transport and self-respect even when they slave away night and day. This is economic violence. Consider the fact that some struggles for autonomy and freedom are crushed while others are called heroic. This is political violence. Some people react to these forms of violence with indiscriminate violence. Sometimes they seek to get their protest registered. In such cases they take responsibility for their action or give indications as to why they have done what they have done. In rare cases, as on 11 September in the U.S.A, they do not only want to protest in order to change things. They are outraged because, in their view, great violence has been done to them and theirs and all they want is vengeance.

            The world should understand that if it is to combat terrorism then it should first define it so as to include state terrorism, whether overt or covert and whether declared or otherwise, in the definition of terrorism. Then it must first make policies towards dissenting groups just and fair and remove causes of frustration and anger. In this context a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian problem by persuading Israel to abandon some of its advanced positions in Arab areas comes to the mind. A peaceful solution of the Kashmir issue too would be necessary. Other conflicts, such as in Ireland, could also be addressed and solved. Along with this a real effort to ban nuclear, chemical and biological weapons should also be underway. That would a real war against terrorism and not a terrorist attack against specific targets or countries.