Friday, February 17, 2006

The Definition of Terrorism

In an exceedingly interesting decision, an Italian appellate court has upheld the acquittals of three men accused of charges of international terrorism. Specifically, the men were accused of recruiting suicide bombers to strike against US soldiers in Iraq. The Italian judges held that the men could not be convicted as terrorists because terrorism involves "acts exclusively directed against a civilian population. The recruitment of volunteers in Iraq to fight against the Americans cannot be considered under any circumstance terrorist activity" Naturally, the decision has enraged ministers of the Italian government, leading the Justice Minister to apologize to victims of terrorism, and would certainly produce a similar reaction in the US, if anyone paid attention.

Is there something inherently wrong with the appellate court's ruling? Interestingly, I have been discussing this very question with my class The Politics of Terror here at the University of Puget Sound. If the concept of "terrorism" is to have any analytic meaning whatsoever, one must be able to distinguish "terrorism" from "not terrorism." After all, the word "terrorism" inherently means the illegitimate or illegal use of political violence, as opposed to the legitimate or legal use of the same.

If attacking soldiers occupying your country is not legitimate or legal, then there is no way in which political violence can be acceptable. To deem something legitimate is not to approve of it. I am a supporter of the war in Iraq and most certainly would prefer that the insurgents do not succeed. But that doesn't mean that I believe they are not justified in their actions. Terrorism must be defined by the means used to pursue a political goal, not the goal itself. A group pursuing a terrorist goal can use both legitimate and illegitimate means to pursue its goal. When Iraqi insurgents attack US soldiers, it's legitimate; when they attack schools or mosques, it's terrorism.

One caveat: the men acquitted by the Italian court were North African. In my mind, this changes things slightly...it's a matter of "standing." I'm not so sure if people not directly impacted by the occupation should have the "right" to legitimate political violence. If Sunni Iraqis are attacking US troopsin hopes of overthrowing the new regime and returning to power, fine. But I'm not so sure the definition works for outsiders more interested in causing chaos than creating a political alternative.

10 comments:

t'su said...

The standing point is an interesting one. Although the Africans aren't directly affected, perhaps their participation could be analogized to defense of a third party, a self-defense claim of sorts.

Seth Weinberger said...

Perhaps, but why does anyone not directly affected have a "right" to legitimately use violence in response to an action? If I'm not harmed, I have no right to act. Also, it's important to note that the third party in this case -- al Qaeda or other Islamic fundamentalists -- do not have a goal commensurate with an understanding of "guerrilla" warfare. That is, they are not seeking to replace one government with another, nor are they seeking to protect their own rights. Rather, they seek simply to cause chaos and undermine the nascent Iraqi government. Al Qaeda and the other foreign fighters (as distinct from the Sunnis) do not claim to be fighting on behalf of the Iraqi people. That seems to be an important distinction.

stefan moluf said...

If a person or entity is not directly affected by an action, and therefore has no right to act in response, does this not make the invervention in Kosovo not only illegal (which is debatable) but also illegitimate?

If you distinguish between the stated goals of the various groups invovled, then does it all come down to semantics? If al-Qaeda wanted international legitimacy under this definition, all they would have to do is declare their intent to defend the Iraqi people from an American invasion.

It would seem to me that you have to consider the moral authority of the actor (internationally recognized democracy vs. terror network), the stated intentions of the actor (eliminate a regional threat and liberate and oppressed peope vs. establish Islamic rule by force), and the result of the action (reconstruction & security vs. intentional targeting of civilians) to determine the legitimacy of a third-party actor.

Otherwise, I agree that Iraqi resistance is legitimate, but not productive or good.

Seth Weinberger said...

Mr. Moluf:

You are conflating two distinct concepts here; whether these men should have been acquitted and whether this idea of standing has relevance in international law. The North Africans were arrested under Italian domestic law; thus the legal distinctions and definitions are exceedingly important. The men were acquitted because the law was interpreted to mean that their actions were of a guerrilla nature and not terroristic. However, standing is relevant in domestic law and my point is that I do not believe that third-parties necessarily have the same relationship to political violence as do aggrieved parties. So no, it doesn't just all come down to semantics in the international sense, because for international law, it's all about legitimacy.

Furthermore, as to your Kosovo example, the NATO intervention is most definitely "illegal" under international law. But international law has no force; thus, legitimacy becomes more important than it is in domestic law. The international community believed that the Kosovo intervention was both good and legitimate, thus it is legitimate. But that wouldn't hold up in a court of law.

Finally, your standards for judgment are purely relative. Why do the actions of a democracy inherently have more legitimacy than those of a terrorist group? Why are US intentions better than those of al Qaeda? All this does is define good as what we like and bad as what we don't. That provides no intellectual traction. You've also again conflated two concepts in your point about the result of the action: the result of a suicide bomb is not the intentional targeting of civilians.

Seth Weinberger said...

Mr. Moluf:

You are conflating two distinct concepts here; whether these men should have been acquitted and whether this idea of standing has relevance in international law. The North Africans were arrested under Italian domestic law; thus the legal distinctions and definitions are exceedingly important. The men were acquitted because the law was interpreted to mean that their actions were of a guerrilla nature and not terroristic. However, standing is relevant in domestic law and my point is that I do not believe that third-parties necessarily have the same relationship to political violence as do aggrieved parties. So no, it doesn't just all come down to semantics in the international sense, because for international law, it's all about legitimacy.

Furthermore, as to your Kosovo example, the NATO intervention is most definitely "illegal" under international law. But international law has no force; thus, legitimacy becomes more important than it is in domestic law. The international community believed that the Kosovo intervention was both good and legitimate, thus it is legitimate. But that wouldn't hold up in a court of law.

Finally, your standards for judgment are purely relative. Why do the actions of a democracy inherently have more legitimacy than those of a terrorist group? Why are US intentions better than those of al Qaeda? All this does is define good as what we like and bad as what we don't. That provides no intellectual traction. You've also again conflated two concepts in your point about the result of the action: the result of a suicide bomb is not the intentional targeting of civilians.

t'su said...

Regarding that point that third-parties necessarily don't have the same relationship to political violence as do aggrieved parties, thus their standing becomes problematic:

Could it be the case that the Africans subjectively perceived it likely that they, as members of the same conservative muslim community (which I assume is the case), would themselves likely come under attack, and therefore by attacking in defense of another they may thus simply claim self-defense?

Alternatively, I wonder about the prosecutability of Italian domestic solicitation of homicide laws, if any.

Seth Weinberger said...

t'su:

Of course they can claim it, and I guess the merits of the claim would depend, in this case, on Italian law. But under the concept of "standing" as understood in US law, it would not. If "standing" is to have any real application and meaning, only directly aggrieved parties can claim harm.

nicolnichcov said...

Legitimacy and Terrorism
Legitimacy in terrorism does not exist because terrorism is inherently illegitimate. If military targets are selected, guerrilla warfare is what is happening. The "Insurgency" in Iraq is multifaceted though. The guerrilla-style attacks have struck American troops, Iraqi citizens, police, and international agencies. The only "legitimate" target among those listed would potentially be the Americans. But this is only true if the Iraqi's insurgents saw their mission to rid the country of the occupiers and to “liberate” themselves from the our “liberators.” My issue with this is that on a countrywide scale, the insurgency that is attempting to undermine the interim President and the creation of a democracy is primarily made up of young, unemployed, and disillusioned youth. Extremism and radical Islamists have warped their comprehension of anyone’s legitimacy. Few if any fight for a political agenda. Worse yet, is the foreign influence of jihadists who recognize the area as a major theatre for the engagement of anything and anybody. So while it is true that certain cells may be legitimately attacking Americans in the eyes of analysts they are also satisfying the tacit machinations of foreign influences who seek nothing other than a victory through an American withdrawal. The ensuing chaos if this were to occur is unfathomable. The sovereignty issues associated with the acquittal of the three North African terrorist abettors is surprising to me. The acquittal is absurd; it vindicates those who aid terrorists on multiple levels, from fundraisers, to recruiters, to Bin Laden.

Seth Weinberger said...

Nic:

First, you're right that "terrorism" is inherently illegitimate. That's the definition of terrorism: the illegitimate and illegal use of political violence. But that doesn't mean, and can't mean, that all political violence is illegitimate and illegal. It has long been accepted that fighting against an occupier is a legitimate use of violence; there is a right to revolution and military targets are legitimate. Even the Department of Defense makes a distinction (which it seems unwilling to apply in Iraq) between guerrillas, insurgents, and terrorists (http://www.usma.edu/dmi/IWmsgs/
Insurgents-vs-Guerrillas-vs-Terrorists.pdf) and it certainly seems that Iraqis attacking US troops fits the definition of a guerrilla or insurgent. Don't confuse legitimizing with acceptance or approving.

There is, or at least should be, no question that when Iraqis attack US soldiers or when Palestinians attack Israeli soldiers in Gaza or the West Bank, that it is not terrorism. Now, of course, this does not mean that the US or Israeli soldiers can't defend themselves; it does mean that the insurgents should be no more subject to legal prosecution than US soldiers are when captured in war.

Your points about the goals of the Iraqi insurgency are good ones, and I discuss that a bit in comment #2 above.

emergency disaster preparedness said...

I definitely don't think terrorism is illegitimate. It's awful that it comes to that, but as a way of being heard under oppressive regimes, I definitely see it as a way of getting your ideas heard.