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Defining the Limits of Terrorism Are We Terrorized

25 Jan 2016

Defining the Limits of Terrorism Are We Terrorized

25 Jan 2016

The end of 2015 and the start of 2016 was witness to several incidents of violence perpetrated in a variety of settings, using a diversity of weapons, against different kinds of targets.  Yet, in spite of these differences, all were quickly reported as acts of terrorism.  Using the definition of terrorism employed by the Global Terrorism Database, this article will compare four recent acts of violence, some of which test the boundaries of commonly held definitions of terrorist violence.  We will consider the following incidents:

1.)  Ten tourists are killed in Istanbul, by an improvised explosive device

2.)  A police officer is wounded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by an individual armed with a pistol

3.)  A man is shot entering a Paris police station wearing a fake suicide vest, brandishing a knife

4.)  A man and a woman kill fourteen in a mass-shooting in San Bernardino, California

One risk in defining “terrorism,” is that the definition can be subjected to rhetorical manipulation; labels provide useful cues for people to construct a response to something about which they have little concrete information.  The label “terrorism” can be a powerful political tool and has been wielded adroitly by all kinds to governments to advance a wide range of political agendas.  Presently, for example, both the Syrian and Russian governments call anyone who opposes the regime of Bashir al-Assad, “terrorists,” though many contest that label.  Context is the best antidote to definitional manipulation.  Only by putting incidents of terrorism into their unique context, and applying consistent criteria can they be properly understood and responded to.  Applying a politically charged term like “terrorism” requires a steady approach and analytic clarity.

The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) counts incidents of terrorism by employing the following definition: “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by non-state actors to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.”  Recognizing that the definition of terrorism is contested, the managers of that database later revised their definition to allow users of the database to selectively apply certain criteria of a definition to fit their own understanding of the phenomena they are researching.  This revised definition begins with an, “intentional act of violence or threat of violence by a non-state actor,” which contains the following criteria:

  • The violent act was aimed at attaining a political, economic, religious, or social goal;
  • The violent act included evidence of an intention to coerce, intimidate, or convey some other message to a larger audience (or audiences) other than the immediate victims; and
  • The violent act was outside the precepts of International Humanitarian Law.

These three criteria can be selectively applied according to a researcher’s own definition of terrorism.  At its broadest construct this contains some elements that would be hotly contested.  For example, many researchers would contest the “non-state actor” requirement, by arguing that states have and frequently still do employ terrorism to meet their own political objectives.[1]  However, many elements are consistent with the most common definitions: violence (threatened or actual), a political objective, coercion or intimidation of an audience beyond the immediate victims, and some sense that the act violates international law or norms, such as the intentional targeting of non-combatants.  This article will employ the GTD definition at its broadest construction.

Comparison of Terrorist Acts

In Istanbul, on 12 January a 28 year old Syrian wearing a suicide vest detonated his explosives in a group of tourists, killing ten.  The group had gathered in Sultanahmet Square to visit the historic Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.  Blame was quickly directed at Daesh, but no claim of responsibility has been made as of this writing.  Daesh is a reasonable suspect, however.  In October of 2015, Daesh took responsibility for killing over 100 at a rally in Ankara, claiming it as retribution for Turkish actions against Daesh in Syria.  Similarly, a group of Turkish volunteers were killed by a suicide bomber in Suruc, Turkey, near the Syrian town of Kobane.  Analyzing the Istanbul tourist attack using the GTD definition, it meets all four criteria for terrorism; it was violence to further a political/religious objective, was meant to intimidate or coerce an audience beyond the immediate victims, and it violated international law or norms by targeting unarmed, unaware non-combatants.

In contrast, on the 7th of January a single gunman attacked an on duty Philadelphia police officer.  The officer was wounded, but managed to shoot his assailant, who was apprehended and questioned.  Identified as 30 year old Edward Archer, the assailant claimed during police interviews that he was acting in the name of Islam, saying, “I follow Allah.  I pledge my allegiance to the Islamic State and that’s why I did what I did.”  Philadelphia police commissioner related that Archer, “believed that the police defend laws that are contrary to the teachings of the Quran,” and therefore sought to kill the police officer.  Measuring this incident against the GTD definition and criteria produces mixed results.  Actual violence was used to further a religious objective, namely to stop or punish the police for enforcing laws that are supposedly un-Islamic.  However, it is unclear if this incident was meant to intimidate or coerce others; it seems that Archer’s intent was to kill a police officer or multiple officers, but it isn’t clear if he intended his act of violence to have a coercive or fear-inducing effect on a remote audience.  Secondly, attacking an armed security officer is not typically understood to violate international norms about the use of lethal force, but there are complicating circumstances.  Archer was not a “combatant” in the traditional sense, and the officer posed no threat to him, so firing on the officer likely does violate international norms.

On the same day, an ocean away, a man wearing a fake explosive belt, wielding a knife was shot dead outside a Paris police station.  According to a French prosecutor, the man shouted “Allahu Akbar” (Arabic, “God is greatest”) before he was killed.  He was carrying the flag used by Daesh, and also carried a hand-written document that claimed responsibility for the attack and linked it to deaths in Syria.  The police shot the man from a distance because he appeared to be wearing an explosive belt; this devise was later discovered to be a fake, containing no explosive material.  The incident occurred on the one-year anniversary of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices, during which twelve people were shot dead by a team of attackers claiming they were avenging insults to Islam.   In this case, a threat of violence was apparently made to advance a political or religious aim.  Its timing and the rhetoric used suggests that the perpetrator intended to coerce, intimidate or cause fear in a wider audience.  This specific act (brandishing a knife, wearing a fake explosive device) probably did not violate “international humanitarian law,” or violated international norms about intending to kill non-combatants.  Clearly, by wearing a fake explosive device, the attacker had no intent to indiscriminately target civilians; though by brandishing a knife he intended some level of violence.

Finally, in San Bernardino, California, approximately sixty miles east of Los Angeles, a husband and wife team shot over a dozen people at a community center.  The attackers were armed with civilian versions of the U.S. military M-4 assault rifle and pistols.  They were killed by police after a pursuit a few hours after the attack.  A search of their home uncovered several hundred rounds of ammunition and improvised explosives.  Though their motives were unclear immediately after the attack, investigators later learned that the two had pledged their support for Daesh in on-line social media.  The couple was found to have ties to other “radicalized” individuals and to other plots to commit violent acts in the Los Angeles region.  It remains unclear why they chose to strike when and where they did, and no claim of responsibility or justification for their specific act of violence has been uncovered.  In this case, a violent act was committed, clearly violated international norms about targeting civilians, and it probably was in aid of some larger political or religious objective, but how the act of violence was connected to that objective is not immediately clear.  Indeed, the shooting was initially considered an incident of work-place violence, with their motive a complete mystery.  It is hard to definitively connect this specific act of violence with coercive intent because there is no way to determine what the assailants wanted the audience to their violence do in response.  For sure, people were frightened by the attack, but terrorism is typically understood to cause fear in order to change behavior; in the San Bernardino shooting incident, the coercive element is missing or at best not well understood.


Figure 1:  Analyses of terrorist incidents using the GTD definition – Click to enlarge


Analyzing Terrorism in Context

The analyses of these four incidents are summarized in Figure 1, above.  Each of these incidents were immediately labeled “terrorism” by media and official sources and each evinces at least some elements of the GTD definition.  Only one incident clearly contains all four elements: the bombing in Istanbul on 12 January.  The other three fall short in some respect.  Where the three partially congruent incidents fall short is whether or not those violent acts were intended to have an effect beyond the immediate victims of the violence and whether or not the act violated international norms.

Terrorist incidents are “supposed” to follow a typical pattern: a violent act is followed by a claim of responsibility, which includes a political demand.  Many acts of terrorism in the past year seem to fit that pattern.  The Paris Charlie Hebdo attack, the attacks at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and at a beach resort in Tunisia; the Eid al-Fitr violence in Baghdad, the October bombings in Ankara, and the November 13 Paris attacks, all followed the familiar pattern.  Still many do not, in the so-called “lone wolf” attacks or those “inspired” by distant conflicts, often the only person who could unravel the precise intent of their actions is killed in the process, the shooter in Chattanooga, Tennessee, or the assailant in Ottowa, Canada, for example.  Absent clear evidence, one is left to either assume that all acts of public violence are intended to intimidate or coerce others, or to simply ask the question, “are we terrorized?”  However, being terrorized and being threatened are different things, the origins of which emanate from different sources.  We can be terrorized by mediated violence; an endless barrage of images of carnage and destruction visited on remote populations brings terror into our own space without ever actually threatening our own safety and well-being.  Being threatened involves both the will and means of one who wishes to visit violence upon us; absent one or both, a threat cannot be considered credible.

When faced with incidents of terrorism about which one may know either a lot or very little, the best strategy for internalizing that information may be to place it in context.  Political Scientist John Mueller has consistently maintained that the threat of terrorism is over-hyped; for a person living outside an active war-zone, the probability of being killed in a terrorist incident is far lower than being killed in an automobile accident, being struck by lightning, or by a food allergy.[2]  According to the GTD, eighty percent of the world experiences almost zero incidents of terrorism per year, while just thirty-one countries, or roughly fifteen percent of the world, account for nearly three-quarters of all the attacks listed in the database.[3]  This means that terrorism is highly unevenly distributed, being localized in a few places, while most of the world experiences very little.

Putting terrorism in this geographic context leads one to conclude that outside a select few countries of the world, the probability of falling victim to terrorist violence is low.  Yet, all states are obliged to both seek to secure their citizens from harm, and ensure that they feel secure when they are, in fact, terrorized.  In another piece, I will explore the conditions under which people feel terrorized and address the perplexing problem for political leaders to indicate concern about a terror threat balanced against the need to not overly panic the population, which may then pressure them to over-react.  The December San Bernardino mass shooting was quickly characterized in popular media as, “the worst terrorist incident on U.S. soil since 9/11.”  Comparing the loss of nearly 3,000 people in a single day of violence to the tragic loss of fourteen lives only serves to confuse the issue.  The appropriate response to the attacks of September 11, 2001 is very different from how the U.S. government will respond to the San Bernardino shooting, or from how the Turkish government may respond to the bombing in Istanbul.  Acts of violence may very well terrorize populations, and politicians and pundits may exaggerate (or even diminish) threats for their own purposes, but this need not necessarily be so.  Putting acts of terrorism in context allows for an objective assessment of threat and for responsible authorities to develop a realistic, effective response.

[1] For example, see: Stohl, M., and Lopez, eds, 1986. Government Violence and Repression: An Agenda for Research, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

[2] For a thorough exposition of his argument, please see: Mueller, John.  2006.  Overblown: How politicians and the terrorism industry inflate national security threats and why we believe them, New York: Free Press

[3] LaFree, Gary, Laura Dugan & Erin Miller.  2015.  Putting Terrorism in Context: Lessons from the global terrorism database, New York: Routeledge

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