GEOG 128
Geography of International Affairs

Defining Terrorism


Revolutionaries or Terrorists?

Throughout history, the world has known political violence and war. For centuries, political and religious thinkers from many traditions have wrestled with two key questions. When is the use of force acceptable? What principles govern how force may be used? These two questions are central to something known as just war theory.

These two questions and the concepts of just war theory may also be useful in considering terrorism. In past debates about terrorism, some have suggested that one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. Are these terms merely labels that have to do with whether one agrees or disagrees with the cause? Or, is the distinction based on more concrete and objective grounds?

Today, just war theory underlies much of accepted international law concerning the use of force by states. International law is explicit about when states may use force. For example, states may use force in self-defense against an armed attack. International law also addresses how force may be used. For example, force may not be used against non-combatants. Despite these laws and norms, there are those who oppose the use of violence under any circumstances. For example, this commitment to non-violence led Mohandas Gandhi to build a movement of national liberation in India organized around the practice of non-violent resistance.

Over the years, the international community has been working to better define the rules of war. The Geneva Conventions established in the aftermath of World War II introduced new internationally accepted regulations on the conduct of war between states. These rules protect non-combatants, govern the treatment of prisoners of war, prohibit hostage-taking, and respect diplomatic immunity.

In addition, the concept of proportionality - long a part of just war theory - has gained new importance as the weapons of war have become increasingly destructive. Proportionality argues that it is wrong to use more force than is necessary to achieve success.

After the Second World War, the use of violence in struggles for self-determination and national liberation fueled a new aspect of the debate on legitimate use of force - the differences between freedom fighters and terrorists. For example, newly independent Third World nations and Soviet bloc nations argued that any who fought against the colonial powers or the dominance of the West should be considered freedom fighters, while their opponents often labeled them terrorists.

Following the violence at the 1972 Munich Olympics, U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim called on the General Assembly to discuss measures to prevent terrorism. Waldheim's suggestion provoked furious debate over the nature of terrorism and the role of armed struggle in national liberation.

...all liberation movements are described as terrorists by those who have reduced them to slavery. …[The term] terrorist [can] hardly be held to persons who were denied the most elementary human rights, dignity, freedom and independence, and whose countries objected to foreign occupation. - U.N. Ambassador from Mauritania Moulaye el-Hassan

Critics countered that this argument was misleading because it failed to consider the issue in its entirety. What mattered was not the justness of the cause (something that would always be subject to debate) but the legitimacy of the methods used. The ends, they argued, could not be used to justify the means.

State Terror?

During the U.N. debates on terrorism, some argued that the methods of violence used by states can be morally reprehensible and a form of terrorism.

...the methods of combat used by national liberation movements could not be declared illegal while the policy of terrorism unleashed against certain peoples [by the armed forces of established states] was declared legitimate. - Cuban Representative to the U.N.

By the late 1970s, significant portions of the international community (though not the United States) had decided to extend the protection of the Geneva Convention to include groups participating in armed struggle against colonial domination, alien occupation, or racist regimes; and to those exercising their right of self-determination. The significance of this change is that it seemed to extend legitimacy to the use of force by groups other than states.

The events of September 11 and the subsequent war on terrorism have led us to consider important questions concerning the use of force. When is force justified? What is a terrorist? How does a terrorist differ from a freedom-fighter? Who decides?

The excerpt above highlights what Flint explains—that “the definition of terrorism is, at best, contested and, perhaps more fairly, unclear” (p. 191). Nonetheless, Flint uses the table on p. 193 to discern three important geographic elements of terrorism. First is the symbolic nature of terrorist actions in targeting particular places or buildings. Second, the goal of terrorism is to expand the geographic scope of a particular conflict in a manner that (they hope) benefits their cause. Third, terrorists claim to be performing political altruism—they believe they are speaking for or serving a marginalized or oppressed group.

Furthermore, the PBS excerpt highlights the challenge of representing terrorism—labeling some people or actions “terrorist” and others “non-terrorist”. Here, Flint highlights the scale of analysis… if only a few people or actions are identified to be terrorist, then that is a sub-national scale and absolves or excludes state-sponsored violence from being seen as “terrorist”.

Four historic waves of terrorism:

  • 1st wave: (1880-1914) motivated by the piecemeal political reforms of the Russian Tsar hoping to preclude more radical and revolutionary change.
  • 2nd wave: (1920-60) dominated by the political geography of the ending of imperialism, or decolonization, and the establishment of nation-states.
  • 3rd wave: (1960-90) maintained a nationalist anti-colonial agenda, with an ideological twist—nationalist groups who saw the project of decolonization and national self-determination as incomplete and unfair resorted to terrorism.
  • 4th wave: (1990-present) period of religious terrorism, though still motivated by intersections with nationalism.

Going back to the text (pp. 197-202), be familiar with the evolution of terrorism, their goals, strategies, and actions through these four historic waves.

To Read

Please read the following articles before completing the blog assignment.

Geopolitical Analysis Blog Post 4A

Please visit the Lesson 6 Module in Canvas for a detailed description of the assignment, including due dates and submission instructions.