Some Final Thoughts on Terrorism

Over the past considerable amount of posts, I’ve focused on a topic that has interested me for quite a while, terrorism. It was a big part of my National Security class I took last year and I though I would follow up on some interesting and hopefully insightful research. But now after some consideration, I want to focus on other topics; constitutional law, economics, and foreign policy to name a few prominent ideas that I have in my head.

But first, I wanted to share some final thoughts that I had on terrorism; primarily what it is and how do we solve it (if we can). The War on Terror has been the era in which I grew up and am still growing up in. I’ve lived through 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and now over the past few years, a wave of terrorism in the west conducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

What I find interesting is how violent attacks are categorized, as after some major attack, the police often tell the public that they “will not rule out terrorism” as something that motivated a particular attack. But what separates terrorism from other acts of violence? One could say that a terrorist attack is one that intends to create fear to achieve a political, religious, or some ideological aim, but in the field of terrorism studies, the definition is much more vague.

In a historical context, the term “terrorism” can trace its linguistic roots from the French word “terrorisme” which comes from the Latin word “terror” (great fear).[1] As Myra Williamson notes, “During the reign of terror, a regime or system of terrorism was used as an instrument of governance, wielded by a recently established revolutionary state against the enemies of the people. Now the term “terrorism” is commonly used to describe terrorist acts committed by non-state or subnational entities against a state.”[2]

Simon reported in 1994 that there are at least 212 different definitions of terrorism across the world, with 90 of them being used by governments and other institutions.[3] Several years previously, Schmid and Jongman compiled over 100 academic and official definitions of terrorism to identify shared components, and discovered the following:

(1) Concept of violence: 83.5% of definitions
(2) Political goals: 65%
(3) Causing fear and terror: 51%
(4) Arbitrariness and indiscriminate targeting: 21%
(5) Victimization of civilians/noncombatants/neutrals/outsiders: 17.5%.[4]

What this shows is that there are some elements that one would think should be shared by many definitions (like the bottom two on the list above), but are only a minority concept in the vary array of definitions. It is because of this loading of conceptual problems that a totally accepted definition is non-existent.

To give one instance of conflicting definitions, in Israel/Palestine, a public opinion poll conducted in December 2001 surveyed Palestinian reactions to two events of what are widely called terrorist acts. 98.1% of the Palestinians surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that “the killing of 29 Palestinians in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein at al Ibrahimi mosque in 1994” should be called terrorism, while 82.3% of the same respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that “the killing of 21 Israeli youths by a Palestinian who exploded himself at the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium” should be called terrorism.[5]

In the post-9/11 world, the challenge of producing a coherent definition arguably worsened and still persists to this day. Alex Schmid’s two editions of books (published in 1084 and 1988) trying to find a coherent definition of terrorism all but brought success as he was still searching for a broadly accepted and reasonably comprehensive explication.[6] In 2011, Sshmid ended up updating his definition using 12 distinct points, chiefly among them being that “terrorism refers, on the one hand, to a doctrine about the presumed effectiveness of a special form or tactic of fear-generating, coercive political violence and, on the other hand, to a conspiratorial practice of calculated, demonstrative, direct violent action without legal or moral restraints, targeting mainly civilians and non-combatants, performed for its propagandistic and psychological effects on various audiences and conflict parties.”[7]

Attempts to define “terrorism” on an international scale has made little process. In briefing the Australian parliament, Angus Martyn explained that in the 1970s and 1980s, the U.N. attempted to develop an accepted comprehensive definition of terrorism, but it failed primarily due to differences of opinions about “the use of violence in the context of conflicts over national liberation and self-determination.”[8] As a result of the above-mentioned factors, international law professor Ben Saul wrote in argument for an all-encompassing definition of “terrorism”, saying that “If the law is to admit the term [terrorism], advance definition is essential on grounds of fairness, and it is not sufficient to leave definition to the unilateral interpretations of States. Legal definition could plausibly retrieve terrorism from the ideological quagmire, by severing an agreed legal meaning from the remainder of the elastic, political concept.”[9]

But what can we, as a community of people, governments, etc., do to stop terrorism? History tells us that terrorist groups have ended in several ways. Jones and Libicki did a study of all the active terrorist groups they could find between 1968 and 2006, of which were 648, where as of 2006, 136 splintered and 244 were still active. Of the 268 that ended, 43% converted themselves to non-violent political actions, the mot famous case being the IRA after the Good Friday Agreement), with 40% taken out by policing and intelligence services, victory of the group occurring 10% of the time, and the remaining 7% ending due to military force.[10]

Researcher Audrey Cronin lists three further primary ways that terrorist groups end, which are as follows:

(1) Capture or killing of a group’s leader (Decapitation)
(2) Group implosion or loss of public support (Failure)
(3) Transition from terrorism into other forms of violence (Reorientation)[11]

What is interesting and important to note with the Jones and Libicki study is that, when it comes to a group’s ending via military force, it is most effective when the group is an insurgency; large, well armed, very lethal, well organized.

Their quantitative analysis found several interesting findings, including the following:

(1) Religious terrorist groups take longer to eliminate than other groups. Approximately 62% of all terrorist groups have ended since 1968, but only 32% of religious terrorist groups have ended.
(2) Religious groups rarely achieve their objectives. No religious group that has ended achieved victory since 1968.
(3) Size is a significant determinant of a group’s fate. Big groups of more than 10,000 members have been victorious more than 25 percent of the time, while victory is rare when groups are smaller than 1,000 members.[12]

In today’s age, as the Global Terrorism Database shows, (numbers are for 2015, data for 2016 has not been produced yet), 7 out of the top 10 deadliest terrorist groups are motivated by radical Islam (ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, al-Shabaab, Houthi extremists, al-Nusrah Front, and the Sinai Province of ISIS). Indeed, many of these most lethal attacks and attacks in general are against other Muslims, but ISIS and these other radical Islamic groups brushes them aside as (1) hypocrites and not true Muslims and (2) people who vote in the democratic process that ultimately authorizes what they call the “War on Islam.”[13]

But what is the best way to deal with these groups? In the case of ISIS (including its Sinai Province), western journalist turned hostage John Cantlie, writing for the ISIS English-language magazine Dabiq, wrote that negotiation is possible and “a truce with Western nations is always an option in Shari’ah law.”[14] In the editor’s note of another article dealing with the same subject, which was also written by John Cantlie and stressed negotiations and what he argues as the inevitability in accepting ISIS as a legitimate state, ISIS has noted that “a halt of war between the Muslims and the kuffar [non-Muslims] can never be permanent, as war against the kuffar is the default obligation upon the Muslims only to be temporarily halted by truce for a greater shar’i interest.”[15] But ISIS also gave another option, saying that they if one does not submit to the authority of Islam by becoming Muslims, they can submit “by paying jizyah, for those afforded this option, and living in humiliation under the rule of the Muslims.”[16]

In essence, ISIS cannot be negotiated unless it is on their terms, this also, in part, includes Boko Haram, known as their West Africa Province (Wilayat Gharb Afriqiyyah), although they have since mid-late 2016, the group split after ISIS appointed Abu-Musab al-Barnawi as the new leader of the wilayat. Its former leader Abubakar Shekau refused to accept al-Barnawi’s appointment and the group split.[17] From what I could gather, apparently this non-ISIS related faction lead by Shekau has been at least willing to negotiate, in the case of the releasing of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014.[18]

Peace negotiations with the Taliban[19], al-Shabaab[20], and Houthi extremists[21] have made some progress by varying degrees, they have all had some difficulties along the way due mostly to regional/local politics and the demands of some groups. It should be noted that al-Nusrah Front was dissolved earlier this year and was renamed as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, whose position on negotiations with the Syrian government would be akin to, in their words, “suppress[ing] the revolution and crown[ing] the butcher [Assad].”[22]

In essence, it is possible to negotiate with these groups, but the success or failure of such negotiations remains to be determined, while there should be other options on the table should they fail.

[2]: Myra Williamson, Terrorism, War and International Law: The Legality of the Use of Force Against Afghanistan in 2001 (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2013).
[3]: Jeffrey Simon, The Terrorist Trap (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994).
[4]: Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman, Political Terrorism: A New Guide to Actors, Authors, Concepts, Data Bases, Theories, and Literature Amsterdam, NL: Transaction Books, 1988).
[6]: Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism: Second Edition (New York City, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006).
[9]: Ben Saul, “Defining ‘Terrorism’ to Protect Human Rights,” Sydney Law School Legal Studies Research Paper, No. 08-125 (2008).
[11]: Audrey Cronin, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Universty Press, 2009).
[14]: Dabiq, Issue 12
[15]: Dabiq, Issue 8
[16]: Dabiq, Issue 15


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