Defining “Terrorism”: The History of the Term


POTOMAC, Maryland — Prominent Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua recently wrote an article, published by The New Republic, entitled, “Israel Should Call Hamas an Enemy, Not Terrorists.”

Yehoshua believes that Hamas’s desperate display of violence is the result of frustration in its political delegitimization by the Israeli government. Granting Hamas the status of an enemy versus that of a band of terrorists would allow real negotiations to take place and make a permanent ceasefire in Gaza an attainable goal.

The novelist cites historical examples:

Jordan, upon Israel’s establishment in 1948, bombarded the newborn country with artillery fire. Yet the Arab nation was not perceived as a terrorist state, but a legitimate enemy—one with which Israel could negotiate a ceasefire. In 1949, with the help of the United Nations, such a peace agreement was reached.

Syria and Egypt follow similar lines, he continues. In the 1960s, both countries pronounced clear goals of effecting Israel’s destruction. Syrians attacked northern Galilee, and Egyptians crossed the border to fight Israeli settlements. Yet Israeli politicians, Yehoshua argues, painted such acts as those committed by legitimate enemies, not by terrorists. Negotiations were sought out and armistices and ceasefires were reached.

Whether Yehoshua is correct in his assessment—that Hamas should be considered a legitimate organization—or not, it is important to examine two questions his article describes:

First, when does a label of “terrorism” apply?

And second, what are the consequences, both positive and negative, of labeling an organization as “terrorist”?

This article will focus on the first question: what constitutes “terrorism”? Such a question requires a quick overview of the history of the term and its development.

The United States Department of Defense offers a fairly exhaustive definition of terrorism as it is used today: “The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious or ideological.”

This definition remains intentionally broad to cover the ambiguous nature of terrorism and its various forms.

“Terrorism” as a word was first used by French counter-revolutionaries when describing the oppressive tactics used by the new regime in 1793 following the onset of the French Revolution. Citizens who opposed the revolution were swiftly guillotined and executed for their dissent during this period known as the “Reign of Terror.”

But this brand of terrorism conforms to contemporary terrorism only in name. French terrorism of that time more resembled an oppressive regime than today’s terrorists whose violence aims not to maintain or gain territory but to further political, religious or ideological agendas.

Such organized terrorism finds its roots much earlier between the 11th and 14th centuries when the secret sect known as the Assassins earned notoriety for their role in assassinating prominent political figures in what is now Iraq and Iran (as an interesting aside, this group also serves as a loose historical background for the popular video game series Assassin’s Creed). Their motivation resided in the political and religious aspirations of Assassin founder and leader Hassan-i Sabbah, who identified as a devout Ismaili.

Fast forward to the 19th century, and terrorism has differentiated into many strains and varieties.

In 1878, Russian revolutionaries formed Narodnaya Volya (translated as “People’s Will”), a terrorist group bent on subverting the authoritative rule of the tsars. Three years later, they succeeded in killing Tsar Alexander II. But the assassination also led to the group’s demise, as they were hunted down and hanged by Russian authorities.

Similar groups flourished in the next couple decades, claiming the lives of many prominent figures such as French President Sadi Carnot, King Umberto of Italy and of course Archduke Franz Ferdinand. These terrorist organizations often espoused anarchist philosophy, but most—if not all—discriminated in choosing their targets. Civilians were left untouched.

That changed after World War II when terrorist groups—often those of ethno-nationalist nature that fought European powers in a quest for self-determination—began to target civilians indiscriminately.

During the 1940s, the British Mandate of Palestine played host to several Zionist militant groups that employed terrorist tactics to drive British forces out of the territory and attack Arabs. Most notably, the Irgun was responsible for the controversial bombing of the King David Hotel, killing 91 people and wounding 46 more.

In 1948, the group partnered with Lehi, a similar organization, in committing what’s known as the Deir Yassin massacre: about 107 inhabitants—including women and children—of the small Palestinian village were killed.

The decades following Israel’s statehood in 1948 saw the founding of several Palestinian militant groups—most of which embraced the new terrorist tactic of indiscriminately targeting civilians. These include Fatah (responsible for the Munich Olympics massacre of 1972), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, factions of the PLO and eventually Hamas in 1987.

This proliferation of terrorist organizations is not unique to the Middle East.

In 1969, the separatist Front de libération du Québec bombed the Montreal Stock Exchange. Bloody Friday, in 1972, was an operation of car bombing conducted by the Provisional IRA in Ireland.

The list goes on: the West German Red Army Faction, the radical American Weather Underground, the Japanese Red Army, the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, etc.

By the 1990s, however, terrorism had assumed a distinct personality, one filtered by a radical and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. This Islamism spawned Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, all of which became synonymous with suicide bombings on civilian populations.

Whether any of these groups are now or were politically legitimate is a question separate from the fact that they have used terrorist tactics to further their cause, be it liberation or religiously motivated insurgency.

In other words, the common American rhetoric of “our terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” is overly simplistic and implies mutual exclusivity. But a terrorist group can be fighting for freedom; their motivations or goals do not cease to exist with the adoption of terrorist tactics.

At the same time, a terrorist organization may not be fighting for freedom at all. This makes terrorism undeniably hard to define and elusive in its meaning, for it exists in so many forms and is often reduced to noncombatant violence by today’s pejorative use of the term.

– The Borgen Project

Sources: New Republic, Public Intelligence, NPR, Foreign Policy, Inquisitr, Foreign Affairs, US Embassy, BBC, NY Times, NY Times 2, NY Times 3, Amnesty, ODI, Washington Post, The Daily Beast


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