Can terrorism ever be a legitimate and effective means of pursuing political goals

In politics there are many ways to implement change, in a democracy it is possible to change the existing system through elections, lobbying and petitioning. In a more authoritarian regime more extreme measures may be required to bring about change, such as a revolution or coup d’etat. However, when these methods are not possible or fail, many groups are left with terrorism as the only way to achieve their political goals. Most of these groups believe that their struggles are valid and their methods are necessary even though their attacks bring almost uniform condemnation from the international community.

Before it is possible to examine how legitimate or justifiable terrorism is as a political tool it is vital to first find a working definition of it and to also see what the political aims are of those that use it often are. Smaller groups and organizations usually use terrorism when they believe there is no other way to achieve their aims. When a group are too small to effect change in a democracy or are not powerful enough to overthrow a totalitarian government either because they lack widespread support or because the regime is too strong then terrorism is often seen by the group as a justifiable means to pursue their goals.

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As well as a tool used by people against a state, terrorism is also a tool employed by certain governments to create a climate of fear and to therefore encourage obedience to their regime. Terrorism has been employed by a number of political regimes in this way, especially in the 20th century, which saw such brutal regimes as Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. However, experts are usually reluctant to class this as the same sort of terrorism conducted by ETA or Al-Qaeda.

The vast bombing campaigns of Germany and the dropping of two nuclear weapons by the US in WWII can also be seen as examples of state terrorism. Countries like North Korea, until recently Iraq, and many South American military dictatorships have all been involved in terrorist acts, not to mention notoriously terrorist states like Libya and Syria. Nevertheless, as Bruce Hoffman states, ‘such usages are generally termed ‘terror’ in order to distinguish that phenomenon from ‘terrorism,’ which is understood to be violence committed by non-state entities.

Therefore we will concentrate on act of terror performed by, as Bruce Hoffman phrases it ‘non-state entities’. Although terrorism is not by any means a recent creation and despite its occurrence in almost every part of the world it still escapes a solid definition. The main reason for this is that its hard to write a neutral definition of terrorism without examining the context in which it takes place, as one much-quoted saying goes, ‘one mans terrorist is an other mans freedom fighter’.

The fact that the word ‘terrorism’ also has such negative connotations also makes a universal definition harder as most terrorists would never describe themselves as such, preferring terms which they believe represent their chosen cause, such as ‘freedom, liberation, justice, revenge, resistance or self-defense’. The recent increase in the use of the word ‘terrorism’, especially by the media has led to more confusion as to what is actually means.

The term ‘terrorism’ has become a widespread term used to describe everything from bombings and assassinations to the ‘massacre of civilians by a military unit’ and the ‘poisoning of produce on supermarket shelves’. As Bruce Hoffman states, ‘Few words have so insidiously worked there way into our everyday vocabulary’ as terrorism has done. Most governments and agencies believe that many acts of violence, which are reported by the media to be acts of terrorism, are actually not.

Even within a single country there will often not be a uniform definition of terrorism across the various agencies involved in dealing with it. In the US for example the FBI, Department of Defence and the State Department all have different working definitions of terrorism. Many experts in the field are doubtful that a definitive definition of definition is possible, as Walter Laqueur writes ‘Even if there were an objective, value free definition of terrorism, covering all its important aspects and features, it would still be rejected by some for ideological reasons’.

What most definitions do agree on however is that terrorism is the unlawful use of violence usually against non-combatants to further their political objectives and more often than not is intended to influence an audience. Therefore this is what will be used when defining terrorism in this essay. Another problem when trying to answer such a question as this is the ambiguous nature of the word ‘legitimate’. For the terrorists their legitimacy comes from the unwavering belief that their cause is significant enough to warrant a few civilian casualties, whether their beliefs be rooted in religious fanaticism or political ideology.

For the nation at the receiving end of these attacks their belief in the illegitimacy of the attacks is often based on local or international law. For the purposes of this study the latter will be used as this allows us to examine different terrorist organizations in a more objective manner. Therefore ‘legitimate’ will be taken to mean anything complying with international law, also known as the ‘Law of Nations’. This obviously rules out the traditional terrorist acts such as murder and kidnap.

Even those who claim to be soldiers fighting a legitimate war do not escape this law as they usually break the accepted international rules for war, as we will cover later. One of the world’s most infamous terrorist organizations is the Muslim fundamentalist group known as Al-Qaeda. Responsible for the worst terrorist atrocity in history as well as many less dramatic but equally brutal acts, Al-Qaeda are probably the best argument for the terrorism being an illegitimate political tool.

Although they are primarily religiously motivated, many of Al-Qaeda’s objectives are political, such as the fight against ‘communism, capitalist countries such as the United States, their former backer, corrupt Arab regimes, and expansionist Israel. ‘. To see why they present one of the best examples of the illegitimacy of terrorism it is important to briefly examine their history and objectives. In September 2001 America was the victim of the worst terrorist attack ever seen.

Over three thousand people were killed when two passenger planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan and many more were killed when two more planes went down, one into the Pentagon in Washington. Immediately blame was placed on a well-financed Muslim group known as Al-Qaeda, their leader, Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban, a fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan. Together they had set a new level for international terrorism and had sparked a new global fight against terrorism. Al-Qaeda started as a recruiting office in Afghanistan designed to recruit young Muslims to fight against the invading Soviet forces.

Created in 1979 they soon recruited a young but very wealthy fanatic called Osama Bin Laden. Convinced of the their cause Bin Laden began to finance the expansion of the Al-Qaeda group. Whilst their organization was growing Bin Laden recruited thousands of members from Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Yemen, Pakistan and Sudan. By 1998 Osama Bin Laden along with other followers started to create the infrastructure of what would become the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. By this time they had all the elements of a very dangerous terrorist group.

They had a large number of highly motivated, highly trained members, each believing they were fighting in a justifiable Jihad against oppressive Muslim governments and the US. They had a considerable arsenal, including high-tech weapons such as anti-air craft missiles. There finances were extremely secured thanks to Bin Laden’s wealth and their successful drug trade in Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda also had their own private militia, the oppressive fundamental Islam rulers of Afghanistan, the Taliban. It would no less despicable but perhaps more understandable if Al-Qaeda had remained active solely in the Middle East.

However, it is their eagerness to attack countries thousands of miles away and their involvements in Islamic conflicts in countries like Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Algeria, Somalia and Sudan that make them seem even more detestable. As a group originally formed to fight an invading force they have evolved into a global organization intent on destroying the west and most of the Middle East. Their belief that they are legitimate soldiers (they declared war on the US in 1996) does nothing for the validity of their methods as their primary targets seem to be civilians, be they business people in New York or tourists in Bali.

Therefore Al-Qaeda does seem to be a good case for the illegitimacy of terrorism. Their objectives seem impossible, such as waging war or ‘jihad’ against America (even an attack on the scale of 9/11 does nothing to damage a superpower of over 275 million people), and are carrying out painstakingly planned attacks on civilians. They could argue that their methods are the only way to achieve their aims but the mass murder of thousands of civilians does little to support the legitimacy of their claims. All terrorists believe that they are fighting for a just cause and that it is a lack of resources that force them to use terrorist methods.

Indeed, many groups regard themselves as soldiers fighting a war against those who oppress them. They are keen to downplay the tactics they use as forms of terrorism, instead preferring to insist that they are forced to use different strategies and tactics because they are fighting a larger, superior equipped state army. The belief that they are soldiers can be seen by the way 10 IRA prisoners killed themselves on hunger strikes in the 1980’s after their ‘special category status’ was almost ended. This shows the terrorists conviction that they were soldiers, as they were willing to die rather than be regarded as common criminals.

However, calling themselves soldiers as opposed to terrorists does little to legitimize their actions. In theory, if not always in practice, war is governed by a series of international laws. The Geneva Conventions rules out many of the activities associated with terrorists, acts such as targeting non-combatants, taking hostages and mistreating prisoners of war. Based on this anyone using these methods is waging terrorism, not war. A report produced by the UN takes this thought even further, defining terrorist outrages as ‘peacetime equivalents of war crimes’.

From these definitions and the examples given it seems like terrorism can never be a legitimate political tool. Even if it is accepted that they are soldiers fighting a war they are still using methods deemed illegal by international law. It is not as simple as that though. As yet we have only looked at those terrorists who have committed outrageous atrocities in order to gain what appear to be pretty unachievable aims and objectives. However, there have been groups throughout history that although have used terrorist methods, have been fighting against harsh regimes and dictatorships.

This however leads to the question, can there really be mitigating circumstances for perpetrating acts of terrorism? When looking for harsh, oppressive regimes, Britain is not one of the first countries that spring to mind. However, for hundreds of years this is exactly what it represented to many of the countries that formed the British Empire. The wave of nationalism that rapidly formed in many of these countries after WWI, and especially after WWII, presented itself in forms of violence that can be described as terrorism.

Along with France, Britain bore the brunt of this nationalist inspired terrorism from many of its colonies, such as Kenya and Malaysia. Perhaps the most striking feature of this form of terrorism was its success, the countries involved with this anti-colonial, nationalist objectives actually achieved their goals against what was still the most powerful empire in the world. However, Britain’s most enduring problem with anti-colonial, nationalist motivated terrorism still remains to be the troubles in Northern Ireland.

Ireland’s relationship with England has been a long and bloody one. For hundreds of years the Irish had suffered at the hands of English landowners and religious turbulence and the creation of Northern Ireland after the Irish War of Independence 1919-1921 only led to a new age of political struggle and bloodshed for the Irish. The British Government thought that this settlement would satisfy the increasingly violent guerilla attacks on British troops by the IRA, at that time led by Michael Collins.

However, these terms proved unacceptable to many members of the IRA and soon the group split into two factions, those led by Michael Collins who supported the new treaty and those opposing it, led by Eamon de Valera. Those who followed Collins formed the basis for the Irish Free State Army and those led by Valera became known as the ‘irregulars’, against the new independent government. Even after the IRA was declared illegal in 1931 and 1936 it continued to grow in strength and carried out a series of bombing in England in 1939.

The IRA continued to try and campaign for the unification of Ireland for several years but was hindered by a lack of support from Catholics in the north. This changed in the late1960’s when Catholics in the north began to campaign for equal rights concerning housing, voting and employment. The resulting violence against the demonstrators- largely ignored by the predominantly Protestant police force- led to a resurgence of violence from both sides as the IRA moved in to protect the threatened Catholics.

To this day Northern Ireland still remains a contentious issue for all involved and despite many attempts at reconciliation, in particular the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, violence still plays an important part of Northern Irish politics. This of course is an extremely brief overview of the extremely complex and historic problems that Northern Ireland suffers from but is important in explaining how a terrorist group can have understandable motives for attacking even a seemingly democratic government. However, its still does not prove that terrorist methods are acceptable, as civilians still remained targets.

So far we have only looked at those terrorist organizations that consider non-combatants, or civilians to be fair victims. However, this has not always been the case, throughout history there has been groups that have selectively chosen their victims and some that have gone to great lengths to avoid what we would call ‘collateral damage’. Narodnaya Volya (NV), a 19th century revolutionary organization carefully chose their targets and planned their attacks to avoid innocent casualties, often compromising the mission rather than causing collateral damage.

Like most terrorist organizations NV believed that the Tsarist rule of the time left them with no other choice than terrorism to force ‘political reform and overthrow the Tsarist autocracy’. Even older terrorist organizations also tried to avoid injuring civilians by targeting those they directly opposed, such as the Zealots and the Sicari, Jewish groups during the time of the Roman occupation of the Middle East. They too favored selecting individuals victims, often Romans or the Jews who collaborated with them.

These attacks were less about scale and more about sending a message to the Roman ruler as the attacks usually took place in full daylight and often on important religious holidays. Through history terrorism has evolved from its early forms when religion was the only justifiable motive to where it is today where motives can be religious, like Al-Qaeda, political like the Red Army Faction or the Brigate Rosse, or territorial, such as ETA. What all of them share is a willingness to sacrifice civilian lives for their causes.

However, terrorism can never be a legitimate tool of political change even though sometimes it can be an effective one. The very nature of terrorism itself prevents it from being a legitimate tool. Without getting dragged down into semantics, the very word ‘terrorism’ denotes illegitimacy. Every writer on the subject who has tried to find his or her own definition of terrorism had labeled it illegitimate. Walter Laqueur labeled it the ‘illegitimate use of force to achieve a political objective’ and James M. Poland goes on to describe it as ‘premeditated, deliberate, systematic murder’.

Although in some cases you can appreciate what has driven a certain group to resort to terrorism, whether it is the Sandinistas fighting an authoritarian rule or the Tamil Tigers struggling for recognition in their own country, it is still clear that the tactics used by terrorism only prolong and increase the suffering. Even those groups like the NV are dangerous organizations as the political instability their actions can cause can have devastating effects, such as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the Black Hand that led to WWI.

All terrorists have some ethnic, political, social, or religious justification for the acts they commit. To really assess whether or not something is justifiable and legitimate there must be some kind of basis for the justification. However, most terrorist acts seem just as illegitimate whether that judgment is based on international law, or simply most people’s sense of morality. Therefore it is fair to say that if an act is considered legitimate, it is not usually considered as terrorism.