Terrorism is without a doubt one of the most elusive and contentious terms in the political lexicon, and the question “what is terrorism?” is situated at the centre of most discourse on terrorism. The existence of multiple definitions of terrorism highlights the indefinite answer to this question and reveals the profound influence of power dynamics in the application of such labels. In many ways, the meaning and significance of terrorism is constructed and determined by the subjective viewpoint of whoever defines it at any given time, which fluctuates depending on the socio-political conditions in which they live, as well as their frame of reference.
Why does this matter?
Terrorism’s lack of comprehensive meaning has not only hindered the possibility for a more analytical and dispassionate approach, but its apparent malleability as a concept has created a vacuity for actors (state and non-state alike) to define what terrorism is according to their unique political and tactical involvements in both the international and internal arena.
In this way, government bodies and associated terrorism academics are selective about what constitutes terrorism, producing terrorist activity and publicity in a way that functions to serve Western state interests. As Saul (2006) duly states, “the more confused a concept, the more it lends itself to opportunistic appropriation”.
The Global Terrorism Database (GTD), for example, defines terrorism as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by non-state actors to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation”. The GTD, which is maintained by the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, notably excludes the significant violence and terrorism that is committed by governments and state militaries, reflecting the selective processes, social biases and power-relations associated with specific interpretations of terrorism.
State-terrorism and the Contra War
Taking a more analytical approach highlights the bias and subjectivity rooted in mainstream perceptions of terrorism supported by Western states and exposes the harmful implications of such a narrow, restrictive conceptualisation of terrorism.
To use a historical example, the Contra War in Nicaragua under the Reagan administration (1981 -1989) is a prime example of U.S. control over the labelling of state-terrorism, which was alternatively defined as “internal defence” and “counter-insurgency” for the purpose of containing the spread of communism. The Contras were a U.S.-sponsored paramilitary group who were armed, trained, and financed by the U.S. to combat the revolutionary left-wing Frente Sandinista Liberación Nationale (FSLN) guerrillas, using tactics such as murder, rape, mutilation, kidnapping, and destruction.
This supposed U.S. counterinsurgency was described euphemistically by the government as “coercive diplomacy”, yet if terrorism is indeed defined as “the threat or actual use of illegal force and violence”, then why are these acts not labelled as such when committed by the state? Accordingly, Richards states, “one danger is that if terrorism is not so clearly defined, the powers of the state may extend very far indeed”.
During this time, the Reagan administration was involved in a propaganda campaign in an attempt to portray the Contras in a positive light, while covertly funding and encouraging them to use terrorist tactics. This labelling (or non-labelling) of terrorism by the state functioned to align with state-endorsed definitions of terrorism, and these state-sponsored acts of terrorism are described by Chomsky as “a form of low-intensity conflict that states undertake when they find it convenient to engage in war without being held accountable for their actions”. This served to legitimise the actions of U.S. state-sponsored groups and undermine the civilian population and victims of terrorism in Latin America, as well as grant the U.S. acquiescence and detach the state from explicate acts of terrorism.
What implications does this have for wider society?
Despite the West being the main source of terrorism in recent years, it has managed to deflect the terrorist indictment onto its victims, through construction of semantics that serve its ends, which is largely supported by opinion forming circles (namely the mass media). The Western model of terrorism views the West as an innocent target and victim of terrorism and maintains the view that it only responds to others’ use of violence.
It is clear that power dynamics and subjectivity are heavily entrenched in the usage of the term terrorism. It is frequently used as a pejorative epithet, and its subjective usage has become a notable impediment to achieving a universal definition of the term. The termsterrorism and terrorist hold intrinsically negative connotations and are laden with condemnation that is usually applied to one’s adversaries, seeking to delegitimise their political motives. Hence, the decision to label an organisation or individual as terrorist is an inherently partisan undertaking — definitions of terrorism are entirely dependent on who defines them, who controls these definitions, and why such definitions are used.
The realisation that self-interests and strategic objectives of the state are entangled in mainstream conceptions of terrorism is of paramount importance, and there are countless modern-day parallels to the above example of the Contra War. Most interpretations of what terrorism is are produced by and for the dominant, rendering both victims of state-terrorism and oppressed communities powerless in the construction of alternative discourses.
The powerful (namely the state) are arguably the most responsible for actions of political violence, but if they maintain purchase on foreign policies and intellectual resources that shape and establish dominant discourses on terrorism, they will do so in their own favour, which affects wider society in both explicit and covert ways.
- Chomsky, N. (2003) Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
- Global Terrorism Database (2018) Available at: https://www.start.umd.edu/research-projects/global-terrorism-database-gtd
- Greene, A. (2017) “Defining Terrorism: One Size Fits All?” in International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 66 (2). pp. 411-440.
- Richards, A. (2013) Conceptualising Terrorism. London: UEL Research Repository.
By Molly Wallace