Categories
Questions

What is Terrorism?

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. 



References

  • 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

Categories
Thoughts

Uncertainties of a Beacon of Democracy in Africa

BBC Radio is one of my favourite channels. I love the phone-in-sessions especially World Have Your Say and other personal stories about overcoming difficulties. As I write this piece, I cannot but recollect a BBC Sports program about a certain period of the African Cup of Nations. In that session of the BBC Sports program, there were jokes about the African countries. And this was how the joke went: all African countries meet at a pub and they display their manliness by requesting a smorgasbord of strong drinks. When it was Ghana’s turn, in a quiet voice like that of a child, it said, “Can I have a glass of milk?” This of course set off a round of raucous laughter among the panelists.

The juxtaposition of Ghana to a child, in my view is not necessarily a denigration. It portrays Ghana as pure and innocent. Qualities which sum up the stage Ghana finds herself in several decades surrounded by countries of which have fallen into the very pit of hellish civil war. The kind which Dante would have been proud to use in his “Inferno”. Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Togo; countries that are the immediate neighbours of Ghana have always experienced one form of altercation or another but not Ghana. The consequences of the Liberian civil war exist in Ghana in the form of the Liberia Camp, occupied by refugees who have went through the psychological and emotional trauma of war, refusing to go back to Liberia after two decades. Just as some Liberians found Ghana to be a haven, the children I teach from Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Lebanon, etc. see Ghana as a haven of peace. Ghana indeed has been the most peaceful place in the African continent.

This is not to say Ghana has never had challenges. Like all Africa countries, Ghana has been marked by the indoctrination of European colonialism but has weathered it quite well. Despite that Ghana has not felt the serrating and the destructive effect of the underbelly of civil war (which have been felt by the Rwandans, or Nigerians with Boko Haram, to name but a few). Thus, the comparison of Ghana to a child is apt, an innocence of the devastating nature of civil war.

My fear however is that this child is gradually losing her innocence, the consequences would not be pleasant, thus the trepidation and uncertainties. In 2016, Ghana elected a new political party, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) with Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo as its flagbearer. The previous governing party, National Democratic Congress (NDC) led by John Dramani Mahama, was booted out of office because of the reported canker of corruption. Prior to its election, the then opposition party (NPP) which went on to win the 2016 election, fervently promised to drastically deal with corrupt politicians and act of corruptions. Upon its assumption of office, nothing has changed much, except some would say corruption is at its very peak. Perhaps the words of a Special Prosecutor for corruption, Martin Amidu, (appointed to prosecute all involved in corruption in politics and the economy) that his employer is the “mother serpent of corruption” affirms the horrifying state the country faces.

During the rule of Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo, there were rumours and videos of civilians being trained in military warfare. This was reported by private media. The civilians trained in military tactics were called the Delta Forces. During the 2020 election, it was soon to become apparent why the Delta Forces were recruited and why the government appointed his relatives to the positions of the Electoral Commissioner, the justices, and key functions (who could have put a stop to any fracas the country experiences) in government. Indeed, for four years (2016-2020), the ruling government led by Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo was playing a game of chess with rules the opposition (NDC) was not aware of. The result leading the opposition (NDC) to having their hands being tied, effectively being handed a checkmate.

The civilian militia, Delta Force, had a role to play in the 7th December 2020 election. It is alleged it stole and burnt ballot boxes at opposition strong-hold and put into force other skirmishers which resulted in the death of nine people of which the media reported. This is unheard of in the history of Ghana’s elections. The justices appointed by the government shows clear nepotism and their necessity in the election is clear. The current opposition (NDC) who have disputed the 2020 election are faced with challenging the result of the election in front of judges appointed by the ruling government. On the 6th of January 2021, the Members of Parliament had to propose and vote for a Speaker of Parliament, when the ballot papers were being countered, a member of the incumbent NPP government, tried to do away with ballot papers cast, to have a person of their (NPP) choice as the Speaker of Parliament. To some this is just a confirmation that that the incumbent government led by Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo, rigged the 2020 election. And the very public figures who previously, could have expressed their views concerning the errors in the election have their hands tied, because they have been appointed by the government in several positions and therefore one cannot bite the hand that feeds it. Indeed this is almost admirable; it took foresight, effective planning and the ability to believe in one’s own lies to make this possible.

As a confirmation of the unease the country is experiencing, a movie, “Freedom and Justice” by a Ghanaian actor, dancer, musician, Kobby Rana was banned from its 25th December 2020 debut. A trailer of the movie portrays almost effectively, the corruption that has brought about the snail-pace or even a halt to the progress and development of the country. A country which gained independence at the same period as the likes of Malaysia, to use a comparative measure of development. With all that is occurring, the consequence is an undertone of unrest and uncertainties. Can Ghana continue in the midst of the lies, armed civilian militias (at the detriment of trained and qualified security officers), a disputed election, a government that practices Machiavellian and mafia-like tactics?  Will Ghanaians be willing to unify as the newly sworn in government of the Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo hopes for in his inauguration speech? Is this beacon of democracy in Africa losing its glow?

by Ali I. M.