Defining Terrorism

“Terrorism” may be the most important, powerful word in the world right now. In the name of doing away with terrorism, the United States is bombing Afghanistan and talking about possible attacks elsewhere. Political leaders from many countries are at once declaring support for the new U.S. war and seeking to re-name their own enemies as “terrorists.”

According to polls, many people in the U.S. believe that war on the al’Qaeda network is justified in retaliation for the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. The defined enemy of the U.S. military campaign has not, however, been just the people responsible for the September 11 attacks, but “terrorism” in general. The U.S. has declared a “War on Terrorism”–a war which also includes as enemies, as President Bush has made clear since his first public address on the afternoon of the 11, “all those who harbor terrorists.” What exactly do these words, “terrorism” and “harboring,” mean? What definitions are we using?

Legal definition: seeking international consensus

The difficulty of answering this question was stated concisely in a recent New York Times article: “immediately beyond al’Qaeda, the high moral condemnations of global terrorism rapidly become relative, and the definition blurred.” The international community has been actively seeking consensus on the definition of “terrorism” for many years, to no avail.

Twelve separate international conventions have been signed, each covering a specific type of criminal activity ? seizure of airplanes, political assassination, the use of explosives, hostage-taking, etc. Broad ratification of these treaties has been difficult to achieve; and the more fundamental issue of creating a comprehensive, binding international convention against terrorism has been set aside, after repeated efforts, as practically unresolvable. As the UN puts it, “the question of a definition of terrorism has haunted the debate among States for decades.”

One of the points of heated contention in this debate has been whether the term “terrorism” should apply to the actions of States in the same way that it applies to the actions of non-State groups. It’s easy to see why this question would be so contentious: whatever one’s overall view of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, for example, it’s pretty easy to admit that unjustifiable acts of terror and murder have been committed by both sides. Should the two sides be held equally accountable, even though one is an already-recognized State and one is a national liberation movement? These kinds of questions have been repeatedly raised ? as will be described below ? not only in regard to the Middle East but in regard to State-sponsored acts of terrorism throughout the world.

Since international consensus has been so difficult to reach, for the purposes of this brief discussion of terrorism and “harboring” I’ll use the U.S. FBI’s definition: “Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” How does such a definition line up with the goals and strategies of the emerging “War on Terrorism”?


How does a definition of terrorism, such as the FBI’s, get applied? Who has the authority to judge what counts as “terrorism” and what doesn’t? Is there a level playing field, internationally, for the persecution of terrorists?

A recent comment made by Syria’s Information Minister, Adnan Omran, frames these problems in a provocative, yet also precise and urgent, way: “The Americans say either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. That is something God should say.” The original title given to the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan ? “Operation Infinite Justice” ? seems to confirm Omran’s concern. President Bush has indeed stated, in his address to Congress, that “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make: either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Is our government in fact equating its judgments, policies, and military actions with the meting out of God-like “infinite justice”? If so, what kind of moral blamelessness do we ground such authority in?

A brief review of some U.S. political and military interventions over the last few decades reveals just how far we are ? sadly, tragically ? as a nation from having the kind of virtue and integrity required to wage such a war with a clear conscience and certainty of purpose. Following the FBI definition, our government has repeatedly, in country after country, used “force or violence” “unlawfully,” “to intimidate or coerce a government, [a] civilian population, or [a] segment thereof,” in order to achieve “political or social objectives.” I will mention only a few examples.

Terrorism and “harboring” of terrorists by the U.S.

U.S. intervention in Nicaragua provides an astounding, but by no means extraordinary, example. First, some background: by 1934, when the authoritarian Somoza regime was established, the U.S. had already occupied the country militarily on at least four different occasions, established training schools for right-wing militia, dismantled two liberal governments, and helped to orchestrate fake elections. In 1981, the CIA began to organize the “Contras” ? many of whom had already received training from the U.S. military as members of the Somozas’ National Guardsmen ? to overthrow the progressive Sandanista government. In other words: the CIA “harbored,” recruited, armed and trained the Contras, in order to “coerce” and overthrow a government, and terrorize a people, through violent means (“in furtherance of political [and] social objectives”). U.S. intervention went well beyond “harboring,” however, in this case. In 1984, the CIA mined three Nicaraguan harbors. When Nicaragua took this action to the World Court, an $18 billion judgment was brought against the U.S. The U.S. response was to simply refuse to acknowledge the Court’s jurisdiction.

Another striking example of U.S. terrorist activity was the bombing of a suburban Beirut neighborhood in March 1985. This attack ? which killed 80 people and wounded 200 others, making it the single largest bombing attack against a civilian target in the modern history of the Middle East ? was ordered by the director of the CIA (William Casey) and authorized by President Reagan. Another U.S. attack on civilians, the 1986 bombing of Libya, is listed by the UN’s Committee on the Legal Definition of Terrorism as a “classic case” of terrorism ? on a short list that includes the bombing of PAN AM 103, the first attempt made on the World Trade Center, and the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building.

Other instances of U.S. support for, or direct engagement in, terrorist acts include:

overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government in Chile in 1973–leading to widespread torture, rape, and murder by the military regime, and the termination of civil liberties extensive support for a right-wing junta in El Salvador that ended up being responsible for 35,000 civilian deaths between 1978 and 1981 assassination attempts, exploded boats, industrial sabotage, and the burning of sugar fields in Cuba the training of thousands of Latin American military personnel in torture methods at the School of the Americas providing huge quantities of arms–far more than any other nation– to various combatants in the Middle East and West Asia and massive support, in funds and arms, for Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians.

The rationale provided for many of these interventions ? in those case where a rationale was in fact provided ? was the “war on Communism.” This often served as an alibi, however, for the protection of economic interests: unrestricted access to oil and other natural resources for U.S.-based (and other “First World”) corporations. Double standards

U.S. officials successfully pressured the UN to impose sanctions on Libya for its initial refusal to extradite Libyan agents implicated in the PAN AM 103 bombing; but they (U.S. officials) have consistently refused to extradite U.S. citizens ? all of whom have ties to the CIA ? charged with acts of terrorism in Costa Rica and Venezuela (including blowing up a Cuban airliner in 1976). We have provided no support for attempts to bring Augusto Pinochet (the Chilean military dictator responsible for the atrocities described above) to justice ? probably not only because our own government was so heavily involved in his rise to power but also because the prosecution of such an obvious State-terrorist would open the door, legally, for the likes of Henry Kissinger and Oliver North to be tried for having ordered terrorist acts.

The double standards at play, the hypocrisy and bad faith involved, in calling for the world to decide whether it is “with us” or “with the terrorists” should by now be fairly evident. To use President Bush’s terms, our nation has — tragically — in reality championed “Fear” and suppressed “Freedom” in a great many countries, for millions of people. We have been directly responsible for acts of terrorism, and for the “harboring” of terrorists, on an almost unimaginable scale in terms of human death and the creation of fear. When Green Berets trained the Guatemalan army in the 1960s ? leading to a campaign of bombings, death squads, and “scorched earth” assaults that killed or “disappeared” 20O,000 — U.S. Army Colonel John Webber called it “a technique of counter-terror.” This comment can serve as a reminder and warning for us now–not that there are not real terrorist threats to our national security, but that we have to be incredibly careful about how we define terrorism, who defines it, and what tactics are used to uproot it. There is something truly chilling, as the Syrian Information Minister pointed out, in the apparent consensus within the United States that we stand for “Freedom” and all that is “Good” in the world, and that we are somehow entitled and equipped to mete out “infinite justice.”


As most of us have read at some point in the last few weeks, our current attacks on the Taliban and al’Qaeda are complicated, politically and morally, by our military and economic support for the Mujahideen war against the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s. We provided over $7 billion in arms and funds, plus training supplied through the Pakistani intelligence agency. The lesson: lines of distinction between “Good” and “Evil” are dramatically more blurred and complex than President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, and most voices in the media seem to want us to think. U.S. funding, training, and supply of arms? literally, U.S. harboring of terrorists ? were a crucial part of what enabled the Taliban to come to power in Afghanistan. This is what military analysts call “blowback.”

A less frequently discussed but equally important instance of blowback is the U.S. role in Iraq. Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. actively supported Iraq as an ally against Iran and as a potentially profitable future source for raw goods and market for exports. Though the U.S. government was clearly aware of Saddam Hussein’s extermination of Kurds and his development of military and chemical weapons capacity (there is ample documentation of the extent of U.S. leaders’ knowledge ), the U.S. continued to support Hussein’s government with billions of dollars in export credit insurance. This situation only changed when U.S. oil access was threatened (by the invasion of Kuwait). Up until then, no matter how extreme the fiscal duplicity, military build-up or outright genocide committed by Hussein’s regime, U.S. officials urged “hard-headedness” and a recognition of Iraq’s strategic and economic importance as an ally. Again, this brief outline of a piece of recent history complicates the current situation enormously: how can Hussein be “Evil” and “a terrorist,” and we “Good” and the world’s defenders of “Freedom,” if we funded him through many of the atrocities he’s committed, fully conscious that he was committing them? As with Afghanistan, a short memory on our part, together with a preference for black-and-white thinking, are likely to prove responsible for yet more suffering and violence now and down the road.

The situation in Iraq is perhaps more complex and tragic than any other, in terms of the U.S. role past and future. U.S.-imposed sanctions (almost every country in the UN opposes them) against Iraq have so far led to the deaths of approximately one million people. Two Assistants to the Secretary-General of the UN responsible for humanitarian aid to Iraq have resigned in protest, calling the sanctions “genocide.” Our government is waging a methodical, hugely violent, daily war against the people of Iraq ? attacking civilians in numbers that grotesquely dwarf the horrific tragedies of September 11th. When asked in 1996 what she felt about the deaths of 500,000 children caused by the sanctions, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright replied that it was “a very hard choice,” but, all things considered, “we think the price is worth it.” (It is worth pausing here, for a moment, perhaps, to try to take in the reality of such a statement.)

Language’s dangers

In a world of such extreme violence, hypocrisy, and moral ambiguity, we need to be careful about whom we listen to, whom we believe, and whose wars we fight.

The term “War on Terrorism” has been quickly picked up by political leaders seeking to advance a host of different agendas domestically and internationally. The phrase is likely to be with us for some time (Secretary Rumsfeld has described the war as “sustained, comprehensive, and unrelenting”), used as the justification for all sorts of military, political, and economic interventions abroad ? not to mention the removal of civil liberties at home.

Some examples of international uses:

Russia has been seeking, since September 11, to cast Chechen rebels as terrorists, and Georgia as a terrorist-harboring State, in order to legitimate its use of violence in those two arenas. In mid-October, the U.S. sent military advisers to the Phillipines, to assist the government in what it describes as a campaign against Muslim “terrorists.” A Heritage Foundation report named Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, and Libya as States which need to be “put on notice . . . that they will not escape America’s wrath if they continue to support international terrorism.” Colombian army officials switched, within just a few days of September 11, from calling the FARC and ELN rebels “narcoguerrillas” to calling them “narcoterrorists.” Francis X. Taylor, head of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Counterterrorism, recently stated that these Colombian groups will “get the same treatment as other terrorist groups,” including “where appropriate — as we are doing in Afghanistan — the use of military power.” The ongoing U.S. policy toward Colombia — “Plan Colombia” — involves chemical warfare, just what we fear so greatly now in this country: crop-duster planes spray broad-spectrum herbicides onto the Colombian countryside and the people who live there, leading to widespread illness, displacement, and hunger (as a result of the destruction of food crops). Ariel Sharon has stepped up campaigns against Palestinians. The Israeli Cabinet, in blunt and ominous language, has issued statements like the following: “Failure to meet these demands . . . will leave us no choice but to view the Palestinian Authority as an entity supporting and sponsoring terror, and to act accordingly.” China is expected to use the justifying rhetoric of the “War on Terrorism” to further crack down on Uighur Muslims, Tibetans, and Taiwan.

Final remarks

On October 4, Amnesty International published a report on the tightening of security in the wake of September 11. In the report, Amnesty observed that “some of the definitions of terrorism under discussion are so broad that they could be used to criminalize anyone out of favor with those in power.” We must be careful with definitions; we must know what we mean. When asked to define “terrorism,” Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the British diplomat charged with leading UN efforts to combat terrorism, replied: “What looks, smells, and kills like terrorism is terrorism.” It is, simply, not that simple. Such oversimplifications and appeals to “obviousness” are not only inaccurate but profoundly dangerous, as the Amnesty International report suggests. And clear delineation of definitions will become increasingly complicated and difficult to achieve over time, as more governments and special interests seek to advance the policies they favor by calling them “attacks on terrorism.”

Who are we, the United States, in the end, to tell the world what Good and Evil are, after our history of unlawful violence, double standards, and outright engagement in acts of terrorism? President Bush’s explanation for anti-U.S. sentiment — “These people can’t stand freedom” — is ludicrous, deplorable: it grotesquely misrepresents the realities of current world politics and the history of 20th century U.S. foreign policy. In light of that history, and of the fact that the definition of “terrorism” has been debated without resolution for decades, it is our responsibility as U.S. citizens and as human beings to think carefully, long and hard and well, about this war, to notice and question each use of the word “terrorism” that we come across and to educate ourselves, and one another, about the reality of suffering in the world in which we live–its causes, and ways to uproot them. CP

Phillip Cryan works for the Pesticide Action Network of North America, challenging U.S.-funded “Plan Colombia” aerial herbicide fumigations in Colombia. He received a BA in English from UC-Berkeley. He is part of the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement and the Zen Hospice Project.He can be contacted at

SOURCES: “Definitions of Terrorism,” The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, l on October 9, 2001; “The algebra of infinite justice” by Arundhati Roy, on October 17, 2001; “Democratic Gains Falter With Tighter Security in Central Europe” New York Times October 4, 2001; “America Strikes Back: Looking Ahead” by Kim R. Holmes, The Heritage Foundation, October 8, 2001; “International Terrorism” by Stephen Zunes, on October 15, 2001; “A Growing List of Foes Now Suddenly Friends” New York Times October 5, 2001; “Iraqgate: Saddam Hussein, U.S. Policy and the Prelude to the Persian Gulf War, 1980-1994,” Digital National Security Archive, on October 15, 2001; “Legal Definition of Terrorism,” GA: Legal Committee, on October 9, 2001; “Conventions Against Terrorism,” The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, on October 9, 2001; “The Challenges of Alliance With Russia” New York Times October 5, 2001; “Terrorist Threats Against America,” testimony by Francis X. Taylor to the Committee on International Relations, on October 11, 2001; “U.S. Interventions in Latin America” by Mark Rosenfelder, on October 15, 2001; “Lessons from History: U.S. Policy Toward Afghanistan, 1978-2001” by Reyko Huang, Center for Defense Information Terrorism Project, on October 15, 2001; “U.S. May Use Military in Hemisphere” Associated Press October 16, 2001; “Defining ‘Terrorism‘” by Nick Cooper, on October 15, 2001.