A New Definition of Global Terrorism

Essay, 2013

10 Pages

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International terrorism and the rise of non-state combatants have altered the parameters of global conflict in the last decade by creating a class of soldiers who are impervious to the traditional targeting methods used in conflicts such as WWII and the Gulf War. These changing circumstances necessitate a reevaluation of the common theoretical frameworks used to address global conflict and cooperation, such as realism, and the just war framework. The ramifications of enemies that cannot be defined as easily contained within state borders poses a new and unparalleled threat to the international political system; therefore, past frameworks must be analyzed in order to ascertain whether they still have relevance in describing the behavior of states and the nature of warfare. I will examine the effects of non-state combatants on international stability and state sovereignty through the lens of realism, and I will argue that without redefining the terms of conflict and updating or altering our theoretical frameworks we will help perpetuate and empower terrorists. I will argue that we must redefine terrorism itself in a way that maximizes international cooperation and strengthens global networks, and reconceptualize or replace the dominant realist theoretical framework, in order to meet the threat of global terrorism.

Global terrorism, even a decade after 9/11, continues to endanger peace and security, threaten trade and challenge the power of states. The World Economic Forum states that, “…over 10 thousand victims and billions of dollars in costs were attributed to terrorist violence globally in 2012, from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Somalia to Yemen” (Global, 2013). The report continues to state that counter-terrorism efforts have been met with an adaptation to changing realities by terrorist organizations. Even with the killing of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda has managed to survive through regional affiliates that have learned to operate more independently. In addition to the familiar threats, new shadow groups such as the Haqqani Network, Boko Haram, and Al Shabaab in Somalia have emerged. The case of al Shabaab in Somalia demonstrates how easily terrorism can transform into insurgency, which results in greater costs to local communities. Further complicating matters, new attacks from domestic cells have forced authorities to refocus their attention on internal threats. Some of these internal threats take the form of “Lone wolf” attacks by individuals, which exploit weaknesses in modern society, such as the Merah case in France and the Brevik killings in Norway. Increased hyperconnectivity in the modern world has also increased the risk of cyberterrorism and cyberwarfare. In conclusion, the report finds terrorist networks are growing and utilizing other criminal organizations related to drug trafficking, and maritime piracy in order to exact huge tolls on many fragile states, and continually threaten international security (Global, 2013). Terrorism is the biggest threat to modern society and the moral norms of our age, which clearly necessitates a change in the dynamics of global governance.

In order to discuss possible changes to the methods used by the international community to counter terrorism, we must first define what we mean by ‘terrorism.’ Creating an internationally acceptable definition of terrorism is the first step toward improving international cooperation on the issue. Some scholars, such as Rory Conces, define terrorism as, “an act of violence or a threat to use violence against noncombatants for the purpose of exacting revenge, intimidating, or otherwise instilling fear to advance a political or social agenda” (Conces, 87). While this definition has been widely accepted by many, defining terrorism with an emphasis on the political or social aspect can also be viewed as a futile attempt by state actors to understand terroristic acts as a part of the established international political system, which is especially ineffective when dealing with non-state actors who move and act without regard to state borders. Defining terrorism as an act of political significance also poses immediate problems due to the large number of diverse political ideologies within the international community. A definition of terrorism that relies on political motivation is reflective of an unorganized attempt by the leadership of nation-states to combat terrorism using primarily the international cooperation of their military and intelligence communities, which occurs mostly between states with similar political ideologies. Soldiers and spies are effective at finding and killing terrorists, but in order to wage an effective global campaign against those who violate the moral norms with regard to combat we need an international system of judicial cooperation that can empower a wide array of agents and ensure prosecution is not futile and hampered by notions of state sovereignty and political alignment.

If the current definition of terrorism is problematic, then what definition should be used in order to maximize cooperation? Marcello Di Filippo proposes a definition based on several internationally accepted aspects. First, there must be a, “…serious violent action against essential rights of civilians…” which includes rights such as the right to life, physical integrity, personal freedom, and basic dignity (Di Filippo, 561). Second, the primary objective of the act must consist of the intention to spread terror, which implies engaging in acts that lead individuals to feel insecure about their lives and basic rights. Finally, there must exist a criminal organization capable of putting into practice a series of actions of such violence (Di Filippo, 561-562). Di Filippo emphasizes the attack on basic rights of the civilian as the defining characteristic of terrorism because it is the single characteristic that violates all accepted norms of conflict, regardless of motivation, and thus is capable of unifying the international community. Political or social objectives have little to do with the proposed definition; the international community should combat terrorism from a perspective emphasizing the protection of basic human rights and not one that focuses on intent. Di Filippo clarifies this point with the claim, “According to the core meaning here advocated, terrorism becomes an absolute notion that is no longer linked with the preservation of a state system (and its governing bodies), but focuses on safeguarding the protection of innocent individuals and the interests of victims, and on the human values that these subjects embody” (Di Filippo, 547). This focus on the preservation of human life has important implications for increasing global cooperation, especially since, “The fact of devaluing the very essence of a human being, undefended and innocent is the object of immediate condemnation by the international social conscience, which constructed a relevant part of its legal system after World War II around the primacy of basic human rights” (Di Filippo, 544). This definition of terrorism that Di Filippo proposes, and I accept, is not merely an invention of a detached scholar, but the consolidation of a multitude of definitions that have arisen in recent years from the international community. The international consensus that terrorism is an unacceptable way of waging war is not derived from a dislike of violence or killing per se, but is rooted in the inhuman way that terrorists harm innocent victims. This further reinforces an apolitical definition of terrorism, since, “… if civilians are killed or taken hostage on a random basis, the picture does not change that much if the criminal actor is a politically motivated group or a profit-minded criminal association” (Di Filippo, 542).

The redefinition of terrorism along the lines of human rights protection creates several problems for the realist theoretical framework, primarily because it redefines national interest as global interest. Without accepting that international institutions need to be empowered, and condemning any attack on civilian populations as an attack on the entire international community, terrorists will continue to be empowered. In recent years, terrorism has reached a level of complexity that clearly shows the limitations of the state oriented response, which has been preferred to an overall strategy based on international cooperation. Additionally, terrorist acts have reached a degree of seriousness that has forced members of the international community and public opinion to realize the high cost of poorly drafted anti-terrorist strategy. The public and state leaders are now fully aware that, terrorism, “… has ceased to be a phenomenon confined mainly to certain territories or political questions, and has assumed the features of a globalized criminal activity able to reach and hit any state and any population” (Di Filippo, 535). With this in mind, scholars have realized that, “Realist policy-makers…need to begin the long, arduous task of reconceptualising not only the foundations of their national interests but also the process by which authentic foreign policy can be formulated and implemented” (Conces, 115). This rethinking is essential, specifically since, for terrorists the entire Western globalized international system is the subject of attack, and as Ayse Zarakol points out, “…with each subsequent wave of terrorism since the nineteenth century (and with each expansion of the international society), system-threatening variants of terrorism have made a stronger comeback, each time less willing to compromise with principles of Westphalian legitimacy” (Zarakol, 2336). Terrorists do not distinguish between their enemies based on state lines, and as globalization grows so will the number of possible targets. Therefore, in order to combat this threat we must abandon a self-interest oriented approach, and combat global terrorists with a unified global network. If the waves of terrorism will continue to become stronger with every resurgence, then we must be prepared to respond with an equal increase in unified strength and resolve.

Realism, in all of its variations, revolves around the concept that the international system is anarchic by nature, and thus the possibility of wars between great and major powers is their main focus. Mohammed Nuruzzaman aptly points out that, “No political realist has ever written, even for the sake of theoretical ruminations, about the possibility of an actual war between the most powerful state in the international system and a nonstate actor, a transnational organization representing some radical objectives that sharply contradict the values and interests of the most powerful state” (Nuruzzaman, 244). This lack of applicability to the modern conflict has not gone unnoticed, and theorists have struggled to envision a new framework for dealing with the new environment. Some have argued for the adaptation of the just war paradigm, which utilizes historic criteria for engaging in warfare, such as proper authority, just cause, right intention, and the establishment of a just peace. In addition to three prudential criteria, this includes last reasonable resort, reasonable chance of success, and proportionality (McCready, 465). While the just war paradigm attempts to circumvent the individual national interest that realism dictates should be the driving cause for military intervention by calling upon commonly held perceptions of justice, it still fails to do this in a manner that emphasizes international cooperation and the creation of a global front against terrorism. Therefore, currently the gap remains between dominant theoretical frameworks and the requirements for a successful counter-terrorism campaign.

To an extent, the reshaping of the dominant realist theoretical paradigm has already begun to take shape within American foreign policy. Libya has shown that, “…a new tendency has fractured America’s long-held realism in the Middle East. How these states conduct their internal affairs and treat their citizens will be taken into account as the United States determines its alliances, shifts its loyalties and considers its interests. No country has ever conducted its policy solely on the basis of humanitarian considerations, but…they are poised to exercise more influence over decision making than ever before” (Gvosdev, 16). The invasion of Libya began with an explicit claim that there were no concrete American interests that were at threat, instead,” …the Obama team embraced Qaddafi’s treatment of his population as the central rationale for the operation” (Gvosdev, 1). The United States has set a modern precedent for military action based on concerns of basic human rights, instead of the more common justification of national security. While the invasion of Libya itself might be complicated by issues such as American imperialism or forced democratization, this paradigm shift, if applied to global terrorism, provides an unparalleled opportunity for global cooperation on the basis of the preservation of human rights. The redefining of terrorism without an emphasis on political intent opens the door to treating terrorism as an issue related to the consistent violation of global human rights, and as such can be fully addressed with the proper international cooperation similar to that of the multilateral operation in Libya. If we can put aside our realist perspective in Libya, what prevents us from putting aside the same framework when dealing with global terrorism?

In conclusion, possible targets for terrorists will continue to increase with the growing interconnectivity of global trade and diverse societies, which will lead to the issue becoming one of an even greater global significance. Currently, realism dictates that personal national interests specifically relating to nation-states should structure military intervention and political cooperation. Therefore, the global response to terrorism has been fragmented and cooperation in counter-terrorism activities has primarily involved the actions of individual states with similar foundational ideologies. This approach has proven to be ineffective and has in reality empowered terrorist organizations by creating a scenario where a weak alliance of self-interested states is faced against a unified non-state global enemy. In order to address this blatant disadvantage, we must first redefine terrorism, and then implement a response to this threat that is reflective of this new definition. The international community must redefine terrorism following Marcello Di Filippo’s model, as a serious violent action against essential rights of civilians with the intention to spread terror, through engaging in acts that lead individuals to feel insecure about their lives and basic rights, by a criminal organization capable of putting into practice a series of actions of such violence. Once terrorism is construed in a manner that removes political intent, the door will open for international cooperation based on the preservation of basic human rights. Next, the international community and individual states must put aside realist objections, as they did in Libya, and recognize the preservation of basic human rights as a legitimate cause for military intervention. This will create not only a unified front that can respond in unison to defeat terrorists globally, but will also allow for terrorists to be addressed utilizing the existing legal framework for prosecuting war criminals and those who commit crimes against humanity. Issues stemming from state-sovereignty are no longer the primary threat that faces the global community, terrorist organizations have surpassed the limitations of state-borders to pose a real threat to the lives and wellbeing of innocent civilians all over the globe; therefore, we need to respond in kind and abandon our realist preconceptions of power in order to respond effectively.


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A New Definition of Global Terrorism
Seattle Pacific University
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Terrorism, Warfare, Political Cooperation, War on Terror, Libya, Realism, Just War
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Zach von Naumann (Author), 2013, A New Definition of Global Terrorism, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/298373


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