Nandita Haksar | 23 APRIL, 2015
Who is a terrorist?
During his recent tour of Germany, Prime Minister Modi expressed his concern over the growing spread of terrorism and its changing character. He called for a comprehensive global strategy to deal with this global challenge, in which India and Germany could work together. He pointed out that in the coming days there would be need to increase international cooperation in this area.
The Indian Prime Minister said the world must aim to isolate countries that promote terrorism and harbour terrorists.
Modi also called on the United Nations to pass a resolution defining terrorism on its seventieth anniversary which falls this year.
No one seems to have noticed the irony of the fact that there is a war against terror which has touched almost every part of the globe; the total external costs for the global war on terror as of the end of 2008 approached a staggering $900 billion. The human costs defy description. Let us look at the statistics relating to the impact of the war on terror on Iraqi children.
In the 1970s, Iraq was one of the best countries in the Middle East and North Africa to be a child; since the occupation in 2003 every year, around 35,000 infants die before reaching their first birthday.
The war on terror goes on and on; but the international community has yet to arrive at a definition of terrorism.
Who is the Terrorist?
The official timeline for the war on terror usually begins with September 11, 2001. The official version of the events is that on that the attacks on New York’s Twin Towers, the Pentagon and one which was meant for Washington which was diverted by passengers was planned and executed by al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden himself denied any involvement in the attack till 2004 when he admitted to being behind the attack.
From the start there were many people who believed that the attacks were backed by the Saudis or the American states. Several documentaries were made, including Loose Change which raised serious technical questions by mechanical engineers, experts and eyewitnesses to bolster the case.
While it is easy to dismiss these conspiracy theorists, it is impossible to dismiss the fact that al-Qaeda was an organization fully backed, financially and politically by the USA.
The Saudis and the Americans had backed al-Qaeda and other Islamic groups engaged in resisting the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. US aid to the insurgents fighting the Russians was the biggest CIA operation in its history. It is estimated that the USA gave $5 billion direct aid matched dollar by dollar by the Saudis and the level of arms and equipment peaked at 60,000tonnes per year by the 1980s.
If al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks on the Twin Towers then do the Saudis and Americans not have to held responsible for creating this terrorist organization?
In fact throughout the Cold War the West, especially Britain and the USA continued to collude with Islamic militants. It was their major ally and weapon to fight communists. In 1993 British Foreign Office report entitled Islamic Fundamentalism in the Middle East observed:
“Fundamentalism does not pose a coherent and monolithic threat to Western interests in the way that Communism once does. It is not supported by a Superpower. Its appeal in Western countries is confined to Muslim minorities and the threat of subversion is, in the UK at least, minimal. Dealings with extreme fundamentalist regimes would be highly unpredictable but not necessarily unmanageable.”
The International Institute for Counter Terrorism founded in 1996 brought out a paper on the difficulties of defining terrorism. It pointed out that academicians, political scientists, security experts, and media persons had come up with a variety of definitions of terrorism and there were at least 109 definitions that could be documented.
The paper gives an example of the problems of defining terrorism by quoting an exchange by Ned Walker, Assistant to the Undersecretary and Lee Hamilton chairman of the subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East-under the auspicies of the Committee on Foreign Affiars at the House of Representatives-on the background talks between the USA and the PLO:
Hamilton: Well, how do you define terrorism, do you define it in terms of non-combatance?
Walker: The State Department definition which included in the terrorism report annually defines it in terms of politically motivated attacks on non-combatant targets.
Hamilton: So an attack on a military unit in Israel will not be terrorism?
Walker: It does not necessarily mean that it would not have a very major impact on whatever we were proposing to do with the PLO.
Hamilton: I understand that, but it would not be terrorism.
Walker: An attack on a military target. Not according to the definition. Now wait a minute; that is not quite correct. You know, attacks can be made on military targets which clearly are terrorism. It depends on the individual circumstances.
Hamilton: Now wait a minute. I thought that you just gave me the State department definition.
Walker: Non-combatant is the terminology, not military or civilian.
Hamilton: All right. So any attack on the non-combatant could be terrorism?
Walker: That is right.
Hamilton: And a non-combatant could include military?
Walker: Of course.
Hamilton: It certainly would include civilian, right?
Hamilton: But an attack on a military unit would not be terrorism?
Walker: It depends on the circumstances.
Hamilton: And what are those circumstances?
Walker: I do not think it will be productive to get into a description of the various terms and conditions under which we are going to define an act by the PLO as terrorism.
War, Peace and Terrorism
Classical international law deals with two generic situations: war and peace. In peace times people are divided into law abiding citizens and criminals. The latter are dealt by the police and under the criminal justice system.
In a war people are divided into civilians and combatants. Combatants were people in the uniform of national armies. Israel wants non State actors who are involved in resistance to be designated as combatants.
However, today a substantial part of the armed forces occupying parts of West Asia, including Iraq are recruited by the corporations training private armies or mercenaries. The world’s most powerful mercenary army is the Blackwater company founded in 1997 by Eric Dean Prince, a former US Marine officer. Blackwater’s guards fatally shot 17 civilians in Nisour Square in 2007. Weeks before the shooting , the State Department began investigating the security contractor’s operations in Iraq. But the inquiry was abandoned after Blackwater’s top manager there issued a threat: “that he could kill” the government’s chief investigator and “no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq.”
The question is whether the acts of the Blackwater guards can be characterized as terrorism?
United Nations and Terrorism
If the war against terrorism officially started after the September 11 attacks why then did the USA start collecting statisitic on terrorist incidents from 1968 and why did it introduce metal detectors at airports from 1970? Why did it press the United Nations to pass a resolution on terrorism almost three decades before the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York?
It was in 1972 that the General Assembly placed terrorism as a major concern for the United Nations system. It set up an Ad Hoc committee to define terrorism. From the beginning there was a division between the Western countries and the Third World countries who had emerged as sovereign states after centuries of colonial rule.
The Third World countries wanted to make a distinction between terrorism and national liberation movements like the Palestinian struggle for liberation and the African National Congress’s struggle against apartheid.
The Third World countries continued to press for a definition of terrorism which would exclude peoples’ resistance to foreign occupation, aggression, colonialism, hegemony aimed at liberation and self-determination in accordance with the principles of international law.
The Western countries continued their attempts to criminalize resistance and in 1977 The European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism was passed. The word terrorism was used in the Preamble but never used in the Act itself.
Twenty years later, in 1997 the United Nations Secretary General drew attention to the Declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism. From then on the debate moved on from attempts to define terrorism to the need to combating an undefined terrorism.
And the war on terror has succeeded in wiping out international human rights standards which were set after decades of struggles. The world is now seeing an unprecedented role of intelligence agencies playing a role in law enforcement; and these agencies operate with virtual impunity.
Much of what is called terrorism is resistance to foreign occupation and domestic repression. It is a protest against foreign policies which justify wars and discrimination and injustice at home. Terrorism cannot be defined legally because it is a political problem.
In this context the old adage that one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist still holds.