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To Win the Fight against Terrorism, Nations Must Be Inclusive, Fair, Just

There are a hundred definitions of terrorism in many international treaties and conventions but there is no universally accepted idea of what it really is.

By Rizal G. Buendia


Less than two months after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 on 3 July 2020, otherwise known as Republic Act No. 11479, effectively supplanting the Human Security Act of 2007 or Republic Act 9372, the country was rocked by another terrorist attack in Jolo, Sulu in Southern Philippines on 20 August 2020. The Jolo dual bombings killed 15 people  and injured 75 others.

A day after, the Abu Sayyaf (“father of the swordsmith”) Group (ASG), which adopted the name Islamic State East Asia Wilayah (ISEAW) in 2014, claimed responsibility for the attack. Taking on the appellation “Islamic State,” the ASG has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)/Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It is assumed that “local grievances, historical animosities and feeling of injustices” have led the ASG to resort to “terrorist” acts.

The ASG together with other ISIS/ISIL militants was likewise involved in the five-month-long armed skirmish with the Philippine security forces in Marawi, Lanao del Sur that commenced on 23 May until 17 October 2017. Apart from its engagement with the ISIS/ISIL extremists, ASG has developed its links with Al-Qaeda and the Jemaah Islamiyah.

Unlike other armed Muslim movements in the Philippines – the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – the ASG is considered a “terrorist organization.” The MNLF and MILF view the ASG with consternation and dismay. The MNLF had given tacit support to the AFP military action against the ASG while the MILF renounces its activities and calls it a group of bandits that have given Islam a bad name.

Global terrorism and international response

Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, an Al-Qaeda operative and the mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City, exemplifies today’s globalized terrorism. Yousef’s engagement with ASG started in 1994, a year after his arrest in Pakistan. He trained ASG members in the use of explosives and thus established a foothold in the region.

Terrorism came to be regarded as a universal phenomenon with the simultaneous airplane suicide attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and in Pennsylvania (the plane crashed before hitting its target) on 11 September 2001. Known as the 9/11 attack, close to 3,000 civilians were indiscriminately killed and over 25,000 injured, cutting across 80 nationalities.

The next day, on 12 September, the United Nations’ Security Council (UNSC) issued Resolution 1368 that condemns the attack and considered it as an “act of international terrorism, a threat to international peace and security.” This was followed by the UNSC Resolution 1373 on 28 September 2001 which encouraged UN member states to share their military and police intelligence reports on terrorist groups in order to thwart international terrorism, ensure that terrorist acts are “established as serious criminal offences in domestic laws and regulations,” and inhibit the commission of extremist acts by exchanging information between and among states in “accordance with international and domestic law and cooperate on administrative and judicial matters”. Subsequently, the Security Council’s 15-member Counter Terrorism Committee [CTC] was created to oversee the implementation of the said Resolution as well as to enhance the capacity of member states to fight terrorism.

In terms of death due to terrorism, the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) estimates that in 2017 26,445 people died from terrorism globally out of 56 million who died; every 2000th death – 0.05 percent — was from terrorism. In the past decade, it was appraised that average number of annual deaths was 21,000; in 2010 global death toll was approximately 7,827 and 44,490 in 2014.

Cognizant of the soaring cases of terrorist-related violence in several countries, the United Nations, through its General Assembly, unanimously adopted the Plan of Action in Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) on 24 December 2015. The Plan recognizes that extremism is a function of several factors, including among others:  a lack of socio-economic opportunities; marginalization and discrimination; poor governance, and violations of human rights and the rule of law; prolonged and unresolved conflict; and radicalization in prison. It argues that if the drivers of extremism and radicalism were substantially addressed, the threat of terrorism would subside. Hence, if governments governed in a more inclusive, fair and just manner, terrorists have no cause to advance.

Defining terrorism

The broad and divergent interpretations on what constitutes a terrorist or extremist act continue to baffle social scientists, politicians, and security experts. Some definitions focus on the terrorist organizations’ mode of operation while others emphasize the motivations and characteristics of terrorism, the modus operandi of individual terrorists, etc.

The statement, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” which stresses that all depends on the perspective and the worldview of the one doing the defining,has become not only a cliché, but also one of the most difficult obstacles in coping with terrorism. In the struggle against terrorism, the problem of definition is a crucial element in the attempt to coordinate international collaboration. Unfortunately, the study of terrorism and political violence has been characterized by the deficiency of generalizable theory and methodology.

There are over 100 different definitions of terrorism in the many international and regional treaties and conventions on international terrorism. There exists no single acceptable definition of terrorism. Even the UN’s PVE Plan of Action does not only have a definition of either terrorism or “violent extremism” but prefers not to define it and gives the states the prerogative to define it in accordance with the precepts of international law and human rights.

The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) for instance defines terrorism as “acts of violence by non-state actors, perpetrated against civilian populations, intended to cause fear, in order to achieve a political objective.” The definition excludes state-initiated and sponsored violence (state terrorism) and open armed conflict between opposing armed forces, even if they’re non-state actors. The ambiguity in the term makes it hard to delineate the line that separates terrorist acts from acts of civil society that advances lawful dissent within the purview of defending democratic socio-economic, political and cultural rights.

The prevalent definitions of terrorism lead to difficulties, both conceptual and syntactical. It is not surprising that alternative concepts like guerrilla movements, national liberation movements, resistance movements, freedom fighters, and others, are generally used to describe and characterize the activities of terrorist organizations.

Ensuing studies on terrorism and extremism have sought to fill in the absence of a universal definition by advancing three criteria for what constitutes a violent extremist/terrorist actor: (1) trans-national reach; (2) decentralized operations; and (3) ideological opposition to the very values and structures of international society.[viii] Having this kind of criteria featured in the UN’s PVE Plan, the term “terrorism” would not only be delimited and demarcated, but also helped to decouple it from any single religion, creed, colour, ethnic group, or any identifying mark.

Terrorism a social movement?

What is clear however is that terrorism is a form of contentious politics which can be analysed within the perspective of social movement – loosely organized group of people who are committed to a particular goal, particularly social and political. Goals pertain to institute social and political change. Social movements have been generally described as “organizational structures and strategies that may empower oppressed populations to mount effective challenges and resist the more powerful and advantaged elites.”

Terrorist groups are transnational social movement organizations just like Al-Qaeda, ISIS/ISIL, Abu Sayyaf and other similar type of transnational terrorist groups. Evolving perspectives on transnational collective action, radicalization, repression, cycles of contention, militancy and diffusion of tactics have significant bearing not only in understanding international terrorism but also social movements which are advancing socio-economic and political reforms.

In the case of Islamic fundamentalists, they are devoted to Islam, committed to jihad (“Holy War”) and profoundly motivated to “free the world from infidels.” Their souls yearn for the day where the “other world” would reward their “sacrifices and heroism” in an everlasting paradise. Their so-called fanaticism and zeal have their own reasons that liberal rational thought or conceived market interest will not succeed in fathoming.

Al-Qaeda and ISIS/ISIL have aligned their demands and grievances with the local Islamist movement, specifically the ASG, which has advocated for the establishment of a “purely Islamic government” through “Jihad Fi-Sabil-lillah” (Islamic war) to end “oppression, injustice, capricious ambitions, and arbitrary claims impose on the Muslims.” A former Philippine senator confirmed that the root causes of terrorism in southern Philippines are “poverty, illiteracy, bad governance, and non-enforcement of the rule of law.”

These issues are fundamentally legitimate concerns of social movements.

Expression of identity

As argued, terrorism is a subjective concept and nebulous term that is to be defined on a specific political context. Given its ambiguity, the contesting forces of terrorism and counter-terrorism are battles that are most effectively fought in one’s mindset. In spite of its subjectivity, the rise of terrorism in the post-cold war era was a product of objective oppressive political and social structures emanating from homogenizing effects of liberal free market economy and democratic notions that primarily benefited western economies. The global dominance of global capital precipitated global disparity and inequity between the rich and poor countries.

The resurgence of ethno-nationalist and religious extremist movements asserting ethnic, political, economic, and cultural rights manifested through terrorism, insurgency, and civil war against the state and the world are therefore expressions of identities that need to be recognized if indeed the principles of pluralism and democracy have to thrive. Finally, it is reasonable to conclude that world terrorism can be addressed in the long-term by sustained, organized, and systematic manner of bringing the world back to the marginalized, destitute, neglected people. These are issues advanced by transnational social movements.



The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pinter Politik.

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