PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — In the previous article of this two-part series, the history of “terrorism,” as the term was applied over the ages, was examined to evaluate its eventual development into today’s common usage. The question we tried to answer was, “What constitutes ‘terrorism’?
What spurred this discussion was an article written by Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, urging politicians to cease calling Hamas “terrorist”, but instead refer to it as the more legitimate “enemy.”
A second question, perhaps the one more pertinent to Yehoshua’s view, is “What are the consequences of labeling groups as ‘terrorist’?”
This article will examine both the negative and positive consequences of such a label.
The Delegitimizing Effect of “Terrorism”
Defining terrorism is useful in understanding what constitutes terrorism and when we can label an organization or act as “terrorist.” But it fails to give insight into the consequences of such labeling. This has become important now, as many terrorist organizations—as identified by foreign governments—now govern their own territories.
A report conducted by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) states three points concerning contemporary terrorism. First, the label of “terrorism” can dehumanize a conflict and encourage disproportionate force in violation of humanitarian laws. Second, the label can block necessary aid to a region controlled by “terrorism.” Finally, many terrorist organizations transform into legitimate political movements.
The ODI cites the Algerian War as a key historical example of how a war was brutalized by “terrorist” labeling.
From 1954 to 1962, France fought the Algerian anti-colonial group known as the National Liberation Front. The FLN routinely employed terrorist tactics to gain independence from France. These included massacres and abductions of French nationals and Algerians sympathetic to the French government.
French authorities refrained from calling the conflict a war, however. Instead, it was a rebellion, spurred on by bands of criminals. The FLN was a “terrorist” organization. This labeling was an attempt, as the ODI report states ”to criminalise the Algerian opposition (reducing their actions during conflict to merely criminal acts).”
This opened up the opportunity for the French to use excessive measures. Concentration camps in France detained nearly a quarter of the Algerian civilian population, and aid to Algerians who were uninvolved in the war became increasingly difficult as the French imposed strict counter-terrorist restrictions.
Finally, only when Algerian independence looked inevitable did France finally legitimize the opposition, negotiating with them to end the war.
The State Department & Boko Haram
Of course, labeling an organization as “terrorist” does not always produce such negative consequences of aid inaccessibility and human rights abuses. In the case of the United States government, designating a group a Foreign Terrorist Organization allows for the use of often vital counter-terrorist restrictions.
Specifically, restrictions include a halting of any funds to the FTO or any of its affiliates. Such sanctions help to financially isolate FTOs and stigmatize their actions, encouraging other countries to do the same.
In November 2013, John Kerry and the State Department officially designated Boko Haram an FTO, but the decision for some was a long time coming.
Glenn Kessler, however, in a Washington Post article, revealed the intricacies of Boko Haram’s FTO designation.
Boko Haram is a militant Islamist organization that operates in northern Nigeria; it opposes and fights what it perceives as the wrongful Westernization of the country. Its mark on Nigeria has been violent, and the group earned infamy most notably for its kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls in April.
When the State Department first considered designating Boko Haram an FTO in 2011, Nigerian authorities—as well as academic experts of the region—opposed the undertaking. They believed that the label would only give international credibility to the organization in the eyes of other radical terrorist groups. Moreover, much needed humanitarian aid would cease to arrive due to the funding restriction FTO designation causes.
The situation was further complicated by the known human rights abuses of Nigerian military and police forces. By the Leahy Law, the U.S. government is unable to arm and assist forces known to be in violation of international humanitarian law.
Yet, Robert P. Jackson, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, stated to Congress, “In retrospect, we might have done it earlier.” Sanctions may have hurt humanitarian aid, some believe, but earlier designation would have mounted pressure on Nigerian authorities to crack down on both Boko Haram and internal problems.
The kidnapping in Chibok was successful for Boko Haram in part because of slow-to-respond Nigerian forces, who were notified of the pending kidnapping four hours before it occurred.
The Case of Gaza
Returning to Yehoshua’s request of refraining from labeling Hamas as a “terrorist” organization, it is easy to see his concerns: the label can delegitimize the enemy, thereby delaying negotiations (as seen in Algeria) and brutalizing war conditions.
Many claim Israel has used disproportionate force during this Gaza war, killing a great number of civilians. If true, it may be a result of the “terrorist” label that such asymmetric violence has been rationalized.
Israeli authorities, however, have insisted that the loss of civilian life was unintentional and largely due in part to the use of Palestinians as “human shields” by Hamas forces. Israel, unlike Hamas, has warned people of impending attacks before they occur. But according to humanitarian organizations like Amnesty International, there is no evidence that Hamas has made deliberate use of “human shields.”
No doubt, Hamas is guilty of atrocious human rights abuses during this war, having targeted mostly civilians with rocketfire. But, as Yehoshua seems to point out, if Israel truly wants to disarm Hamas—or at least put an end to the conflict—Hamas must be legitimized in some way beyond the scope of the narrow “terrorist” label.
– Shehrose Mian
Sources: NY Times 1, NY Times 2, NY Times 3, New Republic, Public Intelligence, NPR, Foreign Policy, Inquisitr, US Embassy, Foreign Affairs, BBC, Amnesty International, ODI, Washington Post, The Daily Beast