XXI Century Challenges (I): Terrorism And Asymmetric Warfare


Since 2000, acts of terrorism have proliferated throughout the world and there has been a change in the trends of terrorism. For example, according to the last Global Terrorism Index (GTI) report from the Institute for Economics and Peace, since the beginning of the century, terrorist activity has increased radically. The report concluded that the death toll caused by terrorism has risen from 3,329 in 2000 to 32,685 in 2014. The study presents a shocking increase in deaths caused by terrorism. However, the numbers also imply that there is a rapidly expanding trend between the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 to the highest recorded level in 2014.Throughout the globe, the media has dedicated a large share of their programming and pages to terrorism. Yet, what is terrorism? Does the public have a clear understanding of what terrorism is? There is a tendency to label terrorism as any violent act that the majority of society does not approve of, but this is a misleading concept. Therefore, this report tries to deliver a clear idea of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare by attempting to develop a more precise conceptualization of the main and current topics in the international landscape. Despite the attention terrorism has captivated worldwide in recent years, there is not an operative definition of terrorism. Throughout the years, a long record of definitions for the word has appeared, but the international community has not agreed upon a definition. As such, there is no legal consensus or a legally binding definition for what terrorism is. On the other hand, terrorism has been typified as asymmetrical warfare, which is a good starting point to understand the complexity of the concept.

Asymmetry implies the absence of a common basis for comparison regarding capabilities, such as quality or operational terms. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines asymmetrical warfare as the myriad of unconventional strategies and tactics adopted by a force when the military capabilities of belligerent powers are not simply unequal, but are so significantly different that they cannot make the same sorts of attacks on each other. Although it is not a novel concept, its origins are uncertain. However, Herodotus pointed out that the use of these tactics in 6th Century BC, when the powerful Persian army of Darius I was confronted by the Scythians. History reveals a large number of conflicts where asymmetrical warfare was employed. For instance, the extended use of this type of warfare occurred during the Roman Empire. In ancient times, battles were rather rare, instead asymmetric actions proliferated. Another example is the Peninsular War after Napoleon’s invasion of Spain that coined the concept of Guerrilla warfare. In modern times, colonial powers often found resistance and liberation movements through these type of tactics and strategies. Moreover, a recent paradigmatic use of asymmetrical warfare is the ill-famed Vietnam War.

By taking a deeper look into these conflicts, it is possible to illustrate what symmetrical war encompasses. While there is not a checklist of asymmetrical warfare doctrine, the main types deployed throughout history are the following: guerrilla warfare, insurgency, and terrorism. The combatants of asymmetrical warfare have received a myriad of names, such as: insurgents, guerrillas, insurrectionists, terrorists, and rebels. Currently, the term ‘terrorist’ has, in many cases, overcome the rest of them. The different types of asymmetric warfare are robustly associated. Civil and guerrilla wars are closely linked to various aspects of international terrorism. Terrorism aims to raise the profile of the cause and in many cases the propaganda eclipses the deed, creating an escalation effect. For instance, ISIL inflicts more deaths on the battlefield than through terrorism, but the group uses terrorism to maximize media exposure so as to further the atmosphere of fear. This supposes a methodological use of terror, which is, sort of, a method of mental colonization. Terrorism comes from impossibility to exercise power over the people, so it is used to impose ideas over the people. Therefore, terrorism is employed by groups that do not have real power, either militarily or politically.

Nowadays, international terrorism appears at the top of any list of global concerns. Within the top five searches, Google’s list of trends regarding global issues last year includes the following: Charlie Hebdo, Paris, and ISIS. This clearly implies that there is a global concern about terrorism at an international level. The question is: Why isn’t there an approved definition of terrorism by the UN? Angus Martyn, an Australian MP hit the nail on the head in 2002 by saying the following: “The international community has never succeeded in developing an accepted comprehensive definition of terrorism. During the 1970s and 1980s, the United Nations[‘] attempts to define the term foundered mainly due to differences of opinion between various members about the use of violence in the context of conflicts over national liberation and self-determination.” Comparatively, it is possible to define a terrorist act, but not terrorism itself. Nevertheless, the Global Terrorism Index roughly defines terrorism as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.” On the other hand, some scholars see a larger concept of terrorism, including economic or other actions, assuming that if there is economic war, there is economic terrorism.

It is well known that the roots of terrorism has its origins in the French revolution. Robespierre’s reign of terror coined the word as an attempt to subdue, by terror, the enemies of liberty. During this historical time, terrorism was a state action. Nazi and Fascists regimes during the XX century brought back the connotation of state-sponsored violence and terrorism. Today, the idea of terrorism is most often used as an attack against an existing political order or government. The development of the idea of terrorism is what hampers the consensus for its definition. Meanwhile, the dichotomy between legitimate and illegitimate uses of state violence, along with the famous quote “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” exemplify that terrorism is a subjective term. Former President of The United States of America, George W. Bush declared war on terror after the 9/11 attacks, and recently François Hollande used a similar approach after Paris attacks. However, the term ‘war’ seems inappropriate since it is not possible to ensure that terrorism has a real and enforceable meaning at this time, and it is not narrowly defined. Consequently, this opens the possibility to manipulate the term, depending on the involved party’s interests, which can be detrimental to human rights, civil liberties, stability, and peace.