Recent events in Kenya and Nigeria appear to support the view that terrorism remains as dangerous and prevalent as it seemed after 9/11. Yet this perception relies upon some quite rash assumptions. For example, what is terrorism, actually? If you give this question some serious thought, it becomes apparent that the term is full of confusion. Politicians perpetuate – and exploit – this ambiguity; causing greater harm by diverting attention away from issues which really do need to be addressed.
When people talk of ‘terrorism’ now, they are typically describing non-state subversive groups using violence to spread fear and achieve a specific political aim. That has not always been the case.
The term ‘terrorism’ was (probably) first used on a large scale to refer to actions of the state itself – specifically the Jacobin government of post-revolutionary France. In mid-nineteenth century Europe, it was used to refer to targeted political assassinations. These were far from universally condemned and the label ‘terrorist’ was often worn with pride. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that the term really acquired its modern meaning.
Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram would seem to fit the ‘modern’ concept of terrorism. The attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi callously used innocent shoppers as instruments in communicating a message about hostilities in neighbouring Somalia. It was chosen as a venue because it was popular with foreign expats and likely to therefore attract the attention of the international media. Similarly, the recent attacks in Nigeria (including the killing of 50 at an agricultural college in Yobe State) were all the more shocking for their choice of targets – defenceless students and children.
The fact that these militants have grossly miscalculated in their choice of methods is clear from the results which have actually come about. Kenya’s government has not announced any plans to withdraw from Somalia. And the Nigerian government is not to be found cowering under desks and inviting Boko Haram to come in and introduce a national Islamist curriculum. Rather, they have responded by bombing Boko Haram camps and making arrests. This demonstrates not just the futility of the actions of the ‘terrorists’, but also a depressing truth about the inevitable response. Violence will be met with further violence.
Responsibility for the ensuing cycle of violence lies not only with the ‘terrorists’, however. A more or less deliberate trend has been the politicians’ lazy use of the word ‘terrorist’ to describe people and phenomena that we all ought to be afraid of – without really understanding who they are or what they might do (let alone why). Groups as dissimilar as the African National Congress, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the IRA, Basque separatists, and the pathetic Angry Brigade (a small British anarchist group in the 1970s) all get thrown into the same category.
The coalition government perpetuates the confusion over ‘terrorism’, sometimes for political ends. A couple of weeks ago, the Home Secretary Theresa May warned that an independent Scotland would be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks than if it remained in the United Kingdom.
The real evil here is that this over-simplification and vagueness rules out any chance of constructive dialogue and an examination of underlying grievances – if any. It is Us vs. Them. As Tony Blair put it in 2006: “This is not a clash between civilizations. It is a clash about civilization…a struggle between democracy and violence.”
Some prominent academics suggest that ‘terrorism’ should be abandoned in its entirety. This will not happen in practice, but what would be welcome is a more careful and contextualised approach.
Terrorism should be understood as a tactic – available to any actor – and one or even several acts of terrorism should not necessarily result in attachment of the label ‘terrorist’ and all that that entails. For example, there is much support for the claim that the carpet bombing of Dresden was an act of terrorism, but few would seriously claim that Britain and the United States are ‘terrorist’ states. Where acts of ‘terrorism’ are identified, these should then be examined in their specific contexts – religious, psychological, cultural, political, strategic – and properly and systematically addressed as such, rather than taking the glib approach that all ‘terrorists’ and acts of ‘terrorism’ are the same.
It may be that, in many cases, underlying causes are irrational and cannot be addressed, but the damaging and lazy use of the ‘T’ word ensures that opportunities to prevent further innocent deaths are missed as a result. The distressing and depressing cycle of violence will not be broken in this way.
This article represents the author’s own views and not necessarily those of any organisation with which he is affiliated.