A Definition of Terrorism — or Lack Thereof

by Wayne White

A major obstacle in the way of sorting through to an internationally acceptable definition of terrorism — largely intentional violence against civilians — was the incredibly broad definition that effectively evolved as acceptable, or necessary, among quite a few prominent governments involved in the course of the titanic hostilities of WWII (which included war against broad civilian urban population centers).

Early on, the US tried to avoid involvement in what Germany, Japan and Great Britain especially had been doing: mass area bombings of enemy urban areas (later to be joined by widespread vengeful Soviet brutality administered more directly against civilians on the ground once the Red Army reached German territory). Given the failings of the American Norden bombsight in actual combat as well as powerful cross-winds encountered over Japan that disrupted bombing from high altitude, even such more focused bombing killed large numbers of civilian “collateral” casualties or proved ineffective against the intended militarily strategic targets. So, late in the war in Europe and over Japan, the US also resorted to mass area bombing, culminating in the atomic attacks against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One difference between many potential post-WWII parallels and so many of the ones with which we grapple today is that during 1939-1945 these acts of what might as well be called mass terror against civilians were carried out in the context of formally declared wars in an era in which the concept of “total war” had been recognized — and expanded — by combatants on both sides as needed to “break” both modern industrial and pre-modern societies. And then during the Cold War, worse still, the concept of Mutually Assured (Near Total) Destruction (MAD) that excepted no one from a theoretical nuclear exchange was accepted, albeit a bit reluctantly, by the US, USSR and many of their allies as a way of war (once again on the part of recognized governments).

Since 1945 there have been relatively few declarations of war, and some that are declared continue for long periods in a militarily somewhat surreal state (in which decades can pass without significant state-on-state hostilities). Instead, they often become mainly sort of glaring contests punctuated, in many cases, by either occasional brief outbreaks of limited hostilities or violence through non-state surrogates (typically countered by conventional military firepower).

One problem (among others) that has bedeviled perceptions of “who is a terrorist” in the course of many decades of non-State actors carrying out violence against civilians is the tendency on the part of many (which I believe is misplaced) to fall into the one-dimensional stereotype of considering mayhem committed against civilians actually or believed to be co-located with so-called non-state “terrorists” or “terrorist elements” (or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when the latter are targeted mistakenly) on the part of an uniformed military operating strike aircraft, artillery, drones, or whatever genre of professional weaponry, as not also being terrorism (often because those passing judgment sympathize with the nation state fielding that military and its particular definition of terrorism in specific cases). Many of them also involve resistance to occupation, oppression, or both in one context or another.

An example of the US government wrestling with a country-specific definition of terrorism vs. legitimate resistance was that of the military arm of the Algerian FIS waging guerrilla war against an authoritarian regime that had illegally canceled a final round of parliamentary elections specifically to prevent the FIS from legitimately winning a hefty plurality in the early 1990’s. For years until the emergence of and then dominance of what all considered terrorist groups (the GIA & GSPC), with the Intelligence Community and the State Department in the lead, the USG shunned the brutish Algerian Pouvoir (or junta), considering FIS attacks against military columns, installations & patrols as well as the national police as legitimate resistance to tyranny (a position at variance with that of France at the time).

Since then, of course, there have been many more of these agonizing quandaries since 9/11 especially (and most largely unresolved to anything like near universal satisfaction). And so it goes with no reasonably common definition of “terrorism” and vast numbers of civilians inevitably caught in the middle.

Photo: A B-29 over Osaka on 1 June 1945.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.