Understanding Terrorism: A Semantic Conundrum

Although academics have agreed on a common definition for the word “terrorism,” the term’s heightened political and emotional connotations have prevented a general agreement on what constitutes terrorist behaviour. International collaboration is the only way to combat international terrorism, according to scholar Alex P. Schmid, but governments around the world have resisted adopting a legally enforceable definition of terrorism because different legal systems and government organizations utilize different definitions of the term. The likelihood of successfully combatting international terrorism is thus diminished if said collaborators cannot agree on what they ought to be combatting.

“Criminal law has three functions: to restrict behaviour, to stop it, and to show society’s disapproval of the wrongdoings,” Carlos Diaz-Panaigua, who oversaw the talks for the proposed United Nations Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, said in 2008. “In the case of terrorism, the symbolic, normative function of prosecution is particularly significant. By making terrorist activities illegal, society displays its disgust with them, brings about social shame and stigmatizes those who carry them out. Additionally, because these beliefs are internalized, criminalization may eventually act as a deterrent to terrorism by establishing and re-inforcing certain norms.”

But before terrorism can be made illegal, it must be defined – and the world can’t agree on what that definition ought to constitute. “The international community has never been able to come up with a widely agreed-upon, exhaustive definition of terrorism,” Angus Martyn wrote in a briefing document for the Australian parliament in 2002. “The United Nations’ attempts to define the word in the 1970s and 1980s failed mostly as a result of disagreements among its members over the use of violence in battles for national liberation and self-determination.” Indeed, the debate was in force in 1899, the year in which the rules of war were originally codified, when disagreement between minor nations and the Great Powers over whether francs-tireurs (ed. lit. “free shooters”; irregular guerrilla military formations) should be deemed legitimate fighters or illegitimate combatants subject to execution upon capture forced the creation of the catch-all Martens Clause.

There are several reasons why there is no universal agreement on what constitutes terrorism, not the least of which is that terrorism is such a “complex and multifaceted phenomenon.” The term has been used so widely to describe such a variety of events that, in the words of researcher Louise Richardson, it “has … nearly become meaningless.” After a review of 73 distinct definitions in 2004, only five common characteristics were found – and those characteristics omitted any mention of victims, fear/terror, purpose, non-combatant objectives, or the criminal nature of the techniques utilized.

The political and legal subjectivity in the term’s usage also has inherently negative overtones. The word is typically used to describe one’s foes, rivals, or others with whom one disagrees and would rather not engage. Thus, the decision to classify someone or a group as a “terrorist” becomes nearly inescapably subjective, dependent on whether one supports or opposes the individual, group, or cause in question; if one empathizes with the victim of the violence, the act is terrorism, but if one identifies with the offender, the act is sympathetic and thus is not terrorism. (Many news outlets (including Reuters) avoid calling actors “terrorists” due to these sorts of considerations, instead preferring less accusatory terms like “bombers” or “militants.”)

The implications of such semantic confusion are dramatic.

“What the Pakistanis are doing, they are playing a fantastic shell game. They have this narrative called good Taliban versus bad Taliban,” Bill Roggio, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of the Long War Journal, said during a joint meeting of the House Committee of Foreign Affairs regarding Pakistan’s role in the fight against terrorism. “The good Taliban is any group that the Pakistani likes and those are groups that don’t attack the Pakistani State. These are groups that carry out Pakistan’s foreign policy… And the bad Taliban, they are the ones that fight the Pakistani State. They are the ones being targeted in the Shawal Valley, in North Waziristan. When the Pakistanis go after these groups, they pretend that they are going after the Haqqani Network or the Mullah Nazir Group or the Afghan Taliban, but they are not.”

“You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them to only bite your neighbour,” 2011 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concluded.

We can also see the normalization of semantically-confused “terrorism” in the nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, which Oslo, Norway awards to “the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses.” But lately, the nominees have largely been recognized for standing against the current Russian administration. In 2021, the Prize was awarded to Dmitry Muratov, the chief editor of top independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. (Russia revoked the Gazeta’s print license less than a year later.) Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Belarusian opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and Russia’s jailed opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny topped TIME Magazine’s list of favourites to win in 2022, and the award was ultimately given to Belarusian human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski, Russian human rights organization Memorial, and the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties. Europe declared Russia a state sponsor of terrorism in 2022 because of its war on Ukraine. Because the Peace Prize is becoming both politicized and Europe-centric, Europe’s subjective understanding of “terrorism” is prioritized over the award’s true scope.

The impacts can be further observed in the Financial Action Task Force (F.A.T.F.), an inter-governmental organization which designs and promotes policies and standards to combat financial crime. Several strategically important nations around the world (with large populations, large G.D.P., developed banking and insurance sectors, etc.) collectively work together to watch for and blow the whistle on global terror financing and money laundering, but the organization’s task list is gradually transforming into a Western soft power weapon. For example, the F.A.T.F. has barred Russia from participating in future projects. At a press conference in Paris, F.A.T.F. chair T. Raja Kumar said the move is a response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Such developments are steadily diminishing international compatibility and co-operation, leading to incompetency and a lack of concentrated effort towards combatting terrorism. As the nations drift further apart, framing any scenario as “terrorism” as a pejorative challenges our ability to integrate. The ability to work together is necessary for the world to make any sort of meaningful collective action. Therefore, in order to avoid escalating the confusion of “terrorism” by comprehending each other’s military actions in those terms, the world must learn to describe and compartmentalize events under terms which do not contribute to the overgeneralization – and thus, meaninglessness – of “terrorism.”

Vishwas Grover
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