New Terrorism or New Perceptions? Some Observations regarding Changing Views on Terror
Hough, Michael, Strategic Review for Southern Africa
In this article, the concept of new or seemingly new perceptions regarding terrorism is analysed, with specific reference to the United Nations, the United States and recent South African anti-terror legislation. Whereas much of the recent literature has focused on the 'new' characteristics of terrorism itself, the aim here is to also investigate changed perceptions of the phenomenon. In some views, the so-called 'new terrorism' is in fact not new, but certain interpretations and perceptions regarding terrorism have in fact undergone significant changes, including the definition of terrorism itself.
Since the 11 September 2001 incidents in the United States of America (US) and the escalation of terror attacks in Iraq, numerous articles and comments have addressed these issues, described by some as the 'new terrorism'. Others argue that some of the basic trends had, however, existed previously, and were now only receiving more attention or becoming more pronounced.
The aim of this article is to explore a number of these issues, particularly those pertaining to an apparently changed perception or view of the phenomenon of terror. These include changes regarding certain components of the standard definitions of terror, with specific reference to motives and certain forms and targets of terror; the continued relevance of an overall political motive; the continued relevance of the so-called 'national liberation movement' designation; the broadening of the scope of non-combatants targeted by terror attacks; and the distinction between transnational, international and domestic terror. For purposes of this article, and given the scope of issues addressed, it is obviously not intended to provide an extensive analysis of each of these issues, but rather to provide an overview of changed perceptions in each case.
2. NEW PERCEPTIONS OR NEW TRENDS?
Although this article is about seemingly new perceptions regarding terrorism, and not about new trends in terrorism, it is argued that even the latter seems to be at least partially based on perceptions and some disregard of history. In this regard, the main trends associated with the 'new terrorism' after the events of 11 September 2001, are that terrorists now operate transnationally and in loosely organised networks; that they are largely motivated by religious extremism; that they aim at mass casualties and specifically attempt to obtain weapons of mass destruction; and that targeting is indiscriminate and not selective. However, it has been pointed out that continuity between the 'old' and the 'new' terrorism exists to the degree that the distinction between the two is open to serious questioning. Terrorism can only be described as 'new' if historical research clearly shows that it has not occurred previously, or if a new historical interpretation is provided. (1)
While it is clear that the selection of targets and the increasing tendency towards political-religious motivations do represent certain changing trends in terrorism, continuities exist and caution has been expressed regarding generalisations about trends in terrorism based on particular attacks such as the World Trade Centre bombing. (2)
3. THE POLITICAL OBJECTIVE OF TERROR AND RELATED MOTIVES, AND THE STATUS OF 'NATIONAL LIBERATION MOVEMENTS'
In keeping with the standard definition of terror, Wilkinson states that terrorism is "the systematic use of coercive intimidation, usually to service political ends". Innocent civilians are often killed or injured in terror attacks. (3)
The US Code defines terrorism as meaning "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents". (4) This significantly does not include either domestic or international terror committed directly by the agents of the state itself, although certain countries continue to be designated as 'state sponsors' of terrorism by the US State Department. …