War on Terror or Terror Wars: The Problem in Defining Terrorism

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The definition of terrorism has emerged as a central focus of power politics and propaganda. Differential and ideological posturing, the absence of boundaries of conflict and fixed enemies, messages of fear, legal narratives, and creating, remaking and reconfiguring judicial reality have a profound tendency to make terrorism a never-ending battle. As Foucault suggests, "... knowledge, power, oppression and resistance always circulate around one another, alternately feeding off and nourishing one another." (2) The ultimate goal of law is to maintain justice by facilitating human dignity and worth, while defining substantive aspects of rights and duties of individuals and nations in the international legal context. Law then lays out procedural arrangements to realize those substantive rights and duties. The ultimate goal of politics is to obtain or maintain power within the legal and constitutional framework of a nation. When a group of people, a government, or a nation instills terror to obtain or maintain power, terrorism exists; even though such terror, particularly when used by governments, is molded within a framework of legal or other justifications. Terrorism is a psychological phenomenon, with criminal acts being used to fight for political power or to maintain a political status quo. This particular characteristic of terrorism and the techniques employed to eliminate it, create a narrative, on a normative scale, that threatens the potential for global consensus in defining terrorism. At the same time, domestically, governments willfully scare the populace into uncritical and unquestioning faith in governmental actions. Powerful countries replicate this approach on an international level.


The employment of terrorism is an age-old practice. (3) However, the term terrorism Was first used in English in 1528. (4) It was subsequently used in France to describe the political violence of the Jacobian Party. (5) After the Second World War, peoples in the colonized countries initiated self-determination movements to flee their nations from state occupation and terrorism. (6) This struggle focused in particular on the state terrorism of colonial powers. (7) Similarly, the advent of the Cold War initiated ideological confrontations and tensions in which ideology-based terror was employed by both sides, simultaneously creating or provoking rebels and supplying money, training and weapons for use against the opposing ideology-based government. (8)

At present, the violence that uses terrorism as a tactic includes not only state-sponsored regimes of fear, but also a religious ideology-based terrorism that calls for securing and protecting sacred lands and sacred religious and cultural practices. (9) The fatwa declared by the 1998 World Islamic Council, of which Bin Laden was a co-author, can be considered an ideology-based statement of terrorism translated into action on September 11, 2001. (10) This fatwa calls for "kill[ing] Americans and their allies--civilians and military ... in order to liberate the Al-Aqsa [Jerusalem] Mosque and the Holy Mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out all of the lands of Islam ... and plunder their money wherever and whenever ... and launch the raid in satan's U.S. troops and Devil's supporters allying with them...." (11) The 9/11 event, a recent example of ideology-based terrorism, established state and non-state terrorist activities and forced the world to ponder once again the nature, meaning and understanding of terrorism. With 9/11 came fluctuations in the political agenda of powerful nations and oppressed groups, (12) artificially manufactured, ideologically motivated or naturally evolving to address internal or external political situations.

Terrorism remains a nebulous concept for the international legal system mainly because it has no acceptable definition. (13) In the absence of a definition, there is a free and open tendency for the persons using the term, whether states, organized groups or scholars, to define it as suits their purposes at the moment, leading to uncertainty as to how to fashion a legal structure to address terrorism. …