Terrorism uses violent action to create fear in the societies targeted; it is not new, and neither is it exclusive to radical Islamic groups. Through the reaction of Western states, which have made it a major preoccupation since the attacks of September 11, 2001, attempting to exploit anxiety, terrorism often results in a withdrawal from the rule of law in democratic countries and a reinforcement of repressive policies in authoritarian regimes.
Historically the word “terrorism” refers back to the regime established under the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. During the 19th century, though, the meaning shifted to designate a specific form of political violence.
Politically contingent definition
The definition of terrorism is a matter of debate – one person’s terrorist is often another person’s freedom fighter. For the Nazis, resistance fighters under the Occupation were “terrorists”; similarly, the US authorities and media have systematically labeled as terrorists the rebels attacking US forces in Iraq after 2003. Although there have been attempts at definition – by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005, for example – no international consensus exists on the concept, and rival definitions can be used in order to include (and discredit) the actions of particular groups and exclude those of others. Logically enough, no movement describes itself as “terrorist,” and most groups described in this way reject the label.
Nonetheless, a legal definition remains necessary, especially when a government adopts specific “anti-terrorist” legislation to deal with the risk of terrorist actions – which might involve longer detention times, more limited defense rights and harsher sentences. Under the French law of 1996, an act counts as terrorism if it is “committed with the intent (…) of seriously disturbing public order through intimidation or terror.” This definition is fairly subjective (with respect to identifying what “disturbs public order,” for example) and inapplicable in many situations, conflict situations in particular. Actions that fall within the traditional sphere of acts of war, or should be defined as a political assassination (like that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914), can thus be labeled as terrorism in order to discredit the perpetrators.
Diverse definitions and affiliations
Despite this diversity and subjectivity, some elements of definition nonetheless emerge. Terrorism is not an ideology. It is a violent mode of action that inspires anxiety (“terror”) and is generally used in the context of an asymmetrical relationship (weak attacking strong). The direct targets of the violence (generally civilian) do not necessarily correspond to the primary objectives (unlike an act of war or a political assassination) because the aim, via media coverage of the violence, is to create a climate of fear and insecurity among those who are direct and indirect witnesses. The immediate victims of the violence can be chosen at random (opportunistic targets) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) within a target population (a community or religious group, for example), and serve to send out a message. The September 11 attacks were particularly effective less for the number of fatalities (nearly 3,000) than because the whole world witnessed them (on television) and felt itself targeted.
Comment: The map provides a very contrasting view of global terrorism over the course of the past 20 years. The main victims of attacks (in terms of numbers killed and monthly frequency of attacks) are the populations of “failed” states, who are exposed to conflict and recurring violence in its multiple forms. The Global Terrorism Database is a compilation of different databases produced successively since 1970 by two US private security agencies and two university research centers on security (Universities of New Haven and Maryland). It is compiled from real-time recording of incidents and from retrospective research, and uses a broad definition of terrorist acts.
For terrorists, maximizing the number of victims is not as important as sowing fear throughout society. Their goal is for the violent acts to generate an aftermath of social, legal and political chaos in order to weaken the states or societies targeted. In the 1970s, this was the vision of extreme left terrorist groups like Germany’s Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof Group), who thought that the government’s tough anti-terrorist stance would reveal the supposedly fascist nature of German power to everyone. Today’s Islamic State (IS) organization has the same goal: seeking to set non-Muslims against Muslims in order to fracture Western societies via a latent civil war, while simultaneously delegitimizing national political authorities by proving them incapable of fulfilling their primary function, that of ensuring their citizens’ security on their own territory.
Terrorism has existed for many years and has never been exclusive to Islamist groups. Other groups claiming religious affiliations have also used these methods (the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum sect in 1995, terror campaigns waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army [LRA] in Uganda, bomb attacks and assassinations of Arab civilians by the Irgun in Mandate Palestine, etc.), as have small far-left and far-right groups (especially in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s) and nationalist movements like the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in Northern Ireland, ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna) in the Basque country, the FLN (National Liberation Front) during the Algerian War, the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) during the 1970s and 1980s, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, etc. All regions of the world, then, are impacted by the actions of terrorist groups, whether they are part of a local, regional or global struggle. Although media coverage is especially intense when Western societies are targeted, the vast majority of terrorist attack victims are located in countries of the South, especially in those affected by war (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, etc.).
Comment: The diagram shows how numbers killed by terrorist attacks in large regions of the world evolved between 1970 and 2016. The Middle East and North Africa are the areas most affected by this spasmodic mass violence, which has considerably increased over the most recent period. The change is quite similar in sub-Saharan Africa and verging on it in Western Asia. The Global Terrorism Database is a compilation of different databases produced successively since 1970 by two US private security agencies and two university research centers on security (Universities of New Haven and Maryland). It is compiled from real-time recording of incidents and from retrospective research, and uses a broad definition of terrorist acts.
Abuses of the fight against terrorism
The label “terrorist” is highly stigmatizing. It signals a lack of legitimacy, allowing governments to apply legal rules different than those of ordinary criminal justice, based on a unilateral decision. The fight against terrorism can serve as a pretext for a hardening of certain political regimes, as in Russia (with respect to the Chechens) or China (with respect to the Uyghurs). In democratic countries, it can lead to the restriction of civil liberties and the use of procedures condemned by international law: introducing exceptional legal regimes (state of emergency), violation of the Geneva Conventions, unlawful surveillance, use of torture, abductions and secret prisons, etc. In the wake of September 11, most Western governments adopted – without stirring public protest – legislation undermining civil liberties (such as the Patriot Act in the United States). This trend was confirmed in Europe following the attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 and in Brussels on March 22, 2016.
- Violent confrontation between armed groups over values, status, power or scarce resources, in which the aim of each party is to neutralize, weaken or eliminate their adversaries. This organized, collective, armed violence can be undertaken by states (via their national armies) or by non-state groups; it can bring several states into opposition (interstate war) or occur within a single state (civil war). The former, progressively codified within a legal framework, have become rare, while the latter, today primarily caused by state institutional failure, are tending to become more international in scope, to last over time (sometimes decades) and to be extremely devastating, especially for civilian populations.
- Notions that appeared in the late 1970s on the political science, denoting the development of identity, a sense of belonging, and allegiance on ethnic, linguistic, religious, or sociological grounds, aside from or even against the state and the social contract it is supposed to guarantee. Contemporary globalization is profoundly altering the role of states and individuals, as well as the complex relationships between the universal and the particular, thus opening up spaces for multiple forms of communitarianism to emerge.
- The state is a political system that is centralized (unlike the feudal system), differentiated (from civil society, public/private space), institutionalized (institutions are depersonalized), territorialized (a territory whose borders mark the absolute limit of its jurisdiction), that claims sovereignty (holding ultimate power) and that bears responsibility for ensuring its population’s security. In public international law, the state is defined as a population living on a territory defined by borders subject to a political authority (the national territorial state).
- Islamism refers to various currents of thought based on a political interpretation of Islam, providing both a blueprint for its institutions and a guide for action. Contemporary Islamist movements generally view themselves in oppositional terms, drawing energy from their critique of institutions that are corrupt or incapable of fulfilling their promises, especially in the human development sphere (as with the parties inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood movement, for example). Yet Islamism should not be seen only through this narrow prism: diverse interpretations of the founding texts of Islam (the Quran and the Sunnah) have seen them mobilized for causes that are conservative in nature (Saudi Arabia) as well as revolutionary (Iran).
- There is no universal understanding of the notion of religion, nor is there any clear distinction between a religion and a sect. Generally speaking, a religion is a system of beliefs that makes a distinction between the sacred and the profane, manifested in a set of ritual actions that give reality to this distinction. Individuals may be described as religious if they practice or claim to belong to a religion, or if they have made religion their profession and devoted their lives to it.
- Attitude or political doctrine in which a social group asserts the primacy of national interests and the right of forming a sovereign nation. Nationalism can take the form of a struggle for independence and for “the right of peoples to self-determination” which can be irredentist (annexation of territories sharing the same culture and/or language), separatist (constitution of a new state on the margin of an existing one) or anti-imperialist (struggle against a colonizing power). It can also become hegemonic when based on an ambition to extend the influence and interests of a nation and its state(s) beyond existing borders (reunification, quest for security and/or power, xenophobia, etc.). Nationalist movements are diverse in nature: they can be identified across the political spectrum, evolving in accordance with specific historical contexts. When tinged with populism, nationalism produces a “national populism” combining the primacy of the national interest with a call for people to contest existing elites.
- political regimes
- In common usage, this term refers to a state’s political institutions, whereas the broader notion of political system includes the various political and social actors operating within them (political parties, trades unions, media, voluntary organizations, voters, etc.). The many criteria for differentiating between political regimes vary from one author and period to the next, tending to increase over time in number and sophistication (number of leaders, procedures for appointing the government, degree of separation between the legislative, executive and judiciary authorities, relations between government and governed, etc.).