Commentary Magazine


Topic: definition of terrorism

What is Terrorism, Anyway?

Rich Richman and Jonathan Tobin are both correct to lambaste the Obama administration’s exclusion of Israel, first from the global counter terror forum in Turkey, and most recently from the most recent counter-terror forum in Spain. That Obama and Clinton would allow the exclusion of any democracy and victim of terrorism does a great deal to legitimize the very terrorism that the White House says it is against.

Still, any counter terrorism conference is a sham until diplomats and policymakers actually come to an agreement on what terrorism is. This past April, I gave an address to the Counter Terror Expo in London in which I tried to address the problem:

Terrorism is a tactic of choice for state sponsors and rogue groups when its ability to achieve political aims outweighs the costs. The lack of consensus over the definition of terrorism complicates the fight against terrorism. A 1988 study found 100 different definitions of terrorism used by professionals. More than two decades later, Alex P. Schmid, editor of Perspectives on Terrorism, compiled 250 definitions. In many ways, terrorism’s definition parallels U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1973 quip about pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define [obscenity]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”

The chance that diplomats will ever agree at a round table on a definition of terrorism is between zero and nil.

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Rich Richman and Jonathan Tobin are both correct to lambaste the Obama administration’s exclusion of Israel, first from the global counter terror forum in Turkey, and most recently from the most recent counter-terror forum in Spain. That Obama and Clinton would allow the exclusion of any democracy and victim of terrorism does a great deal to legitimize the very terrorism that the White House says it is against.

Still, any counter terrorism conference is a sham until diplomats and policymakers actually come to an agreement on what terrorism is. This past April, I gave an address to the Counter Terror Expo in London in which I tried to address the problem:

Terrorism is a tactic of choice for state sponsors and rogue groups when its ability to achieve political aims outweighs the costs. The lack of consensus over the definition of terrorism complicates the fight against terrorism. A 1988 study found 100 different definitions of terrorism used by professionals. More than two decades later, Alex P. Schmid, editor of Perspectives on Terrorism, compiled 250 definitions. In many ways, terrorism’s definition parallels U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1973 quip about pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define [obscenity]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”

The chance that diplomats will ever agree at a round table on a definition of terrorism is between zero and nil.

Too many countries continue an a la carte approach, in which they condemn all terrorism except when conducted in pursuit of causes for which they agree. But, then again, there is no reason beyond the State Department’s peculiar culture that the goal of the United States should be to convene other parties and hash out a definition through discussion.

Many countries still seek U.S. counter-terrorism assistance. Take Turkey: It seeks U.S. help against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it calls a terrorist group, yet it bends over backwards to legitimize and assist Hamas simply because Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agrees with Hamas’ platform and goals. Before the United States gives an iota of assistance to Turkey, it should force Turkey to enshrine in Turkish law a standard definition of terrorism, for example, that “terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians for political gain.” If Turkey acquiesces to such a definition, then it would have to stop treating Hamas as anything other than a terrorist group; if it does not, then perhaps Turkey is more a terror sponsor than a terror victim and so should be un-deserving of U.S. assistance.

The same holds true for any number of other states. If Pakistan wants anti-terror assistance, then first it should have to agree to a no-nonsense definition that gives no flexibility to the myriad terrorist groups that it now supports. Iran wants assistance against Jundullah and Baluch terrorists? Well, then, it must forever dispense with its “legitimate resistance” nonsense that it uses to justify the most violent terrorist campaigns.

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have tried to transform America into a global follower. It is time to once again become a global leader. If we do that one state at a time, then we can have far greater affect in the diplomatic fight against terrorism than any fleeting photo opportunity at an international conference will bring.

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