Global Rebels: Terrorist Organizations as Trans-National Actors

By Richardson, Louise | Harvard International Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Global Rebels: Terrorist Organizations as Trans-National Actors


Richardson, Louise, Harvard International Review


LOUISE RICHARDSON is Associate Professor of Government at Harvard University.

The widespread usage of the term terrorism, in many contexts, has rendered the word almost meaningless. Today, its only universally understood connotation is so pejorative that even terrorists don't admit to being terrorists anymore. A glance at current usage reveals child abuse, racism, and gang warfare all incorrectly described as terrorism. Thus, if terrorism is to be analyzed in any meaningful way, it must be readily distinguishable from other forms of violence, especially other forms of political violence. In this article, terrorism is defined as politically motivated violence, directed against non-combatant or symbolic targets and designed to communicate a message to a broader audience. The critical feature of terrorism is the deliberate targeting of innocents in an effort to convey a message to another party. This particular characteristic differentiates terrorism from the most proximate form of political violence: the irregular warfare of the guerrilla. While it could certainly be argued that states engage in terrorism, this article focuses on non-state actors: terrorist movements.

Although terrorism is most often targeted against domestic political structures to effect political change, this article focuses on the international connections between terrorists. Political scientists coined the term trans-nationalism when they realized that the prevailing state-centric paradigm could not adequately explain the extent and impact of international interactions. Trans-nationalism denotes the interplay between non-state actors--international interactions not directed by states. On the other hand, trans-governmentalism refers to relations between sub-units of governments not controlled by the national executives.

US Perceptions of Terrorism

The United States tends to see terrorism less as a trans-national force and more as an international one. More specifically, the United States generally perceives international terrorism as deliberately directed by governments, usually against US targets. In the 1980s, the notion of an extensive, covert Soviet conspiracy to undermine the West prevailed. Today, the prevailing image is that of the radical Islamic fundamentalist following instructions from Middle Eastern capitals. International terrorism, therefore, is seen as state-sponsored terrorism, and state-sponsored terrorism, like terrorism more generally, is something only the bad guys do.

In response to public concern about state-sponsored terrorism, the US State Department is required to report annually to Congress on the patterns of global terrorism and to list the states considered sponsors of terrorism. Congress then imposes trade sanctions on the designated states. Currently, there are seven states on the list: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. This list, of course, is a political instrument and reflects far more than the extent of state-sponsored terrorism. The economies of Cuba and North Korea, for example, ensure that neither government is in any position to promote, much less fund, international terrorism. Indeed, in 1995, the North Korean government repudiated terrorism and any support for it. The two governments remain on the list, ostensibly for providing a safe haven to terrorists, but more likely because domestic pressure from Cuban voters in Florida and alliance relations with South Korea make their removal politically difficult.

A more objective assessment of the evidence suggests that the use of terror as an instrument of foreign policy might not be the exclusive domain of expansionist communists or mad mullahs. Even impeccably liberal democracies might engage in such action. In the 1980s, however, the firmly held belief was that the United States faced a deliberate and dedicated cadre of communists under orders from Moscow to undermine the West. Among the staunch proponents of this view were President Reagan and his Secretary of State, Alexander Haig. …

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