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Thursday, 20 September, 2001, 21:09 GMT 22:09 UK
What is terrorism?
Few people would dispute that last week's attacks in the US were acts of terrorism, but defining the term is a controversial issue says BBC diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason
The European Union is speeding up legislation designed to make action against terrorism quicker and more effective across its 15 member states.
After the devastating attacks on New York and Washington the talk is of waging war on terrorists, bringing them to book by one means or other and dismantling the networks now operating in many countries.
Hardly anyone disputes that flying an aircraft full of passengers into the World Trade Center was terrorism of the worst kind. But the outrage has tended to obscure the fact that there is still argument about what the word covers.
In other contexts, the debate about who is a terrorist and who is a freedom-fighter is not dead.
Only a few EU countries have defined terrorism in law. One is Britain - the Terrorism Act 2000 is the largest piece of terrorist legislation in any member state.
The Act says terrorism means the use or threat of action to influence a government or intimidate the public for a political, religious or ideological cause.
The action involved includes serious violence against people or danger to life, a serious risk to public health or safety, or serious damage to property.
The proposal drawn up by the European Commission includes a wider range of specific crimes under the heading of terrorism. The list includes murder, kidnapping, seizing public transport, releasing contaminating substances and interfering with computer networks.
Instead it says that terrorism is a deliberate attack by an individual or a group against a country, its institutions or its people - with the aim of intimidating them and damaging or destroying their political, economic or social structures.
This dry but sweeping definition does not specifically cover the possibility of terrorism being carried out by states. Nevertheless, it is a crucial and controversial issue.
The United States officially classifies seven states as sponsors of terrorism - Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, North Korea and Cuba.
Earlier this year, an alleged Libyan intelligence agent was convicted by a Scottish court in the Netherlands of carrying out the Lockerbie airliner bombing.
On the other side of the equation, many Arabs accuse the Israelis of terrorism in their behaviour towards the Palestinians.
Israel indignantly dismisses the charge. It has argued, long before George W Bush, that it is fighting a war against terrorists itself.
To a modern way of thinking, some historical acts of war could not be justified now.
Both the Nazi blitz on London in World War II and some of the British and American bombing of German cities in response used terror to try to break the spirit of the people. Both failed.
The common European definition of terrorism does not venture into this minefield. Nor, more surprisingly, does it distinguish between attacks on civilians and on members of the security forces.
Yet this distinction is one that most people would make. You would get wide agreement across the world that innocent civilians or bystanders should not be targeted - as opposed to being killed inadvertently in an attack on the military.
Middle East question
Applying that criterion to the Middle East, Yasser Arafat's security forces firing on Israeli soldiers would not be terrorism; but a suicide bomber blowing himself up on a bus or in a market-place would be.
The Palestinian Islamic group Hamas disagrees. Its spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, justified attacks by his followers by saying they were indigenous people who were struggling to liberate their land.
Sheikh Yassin's basic argument is the old freedom fighter's one - provided the cause is just, you are entitled to use whatever methods are necessary. In short, the ends justify the means.
Furthermore, to Hamas not all civilians are innocent. Its line is that all Jews that have settled in Palestine - defined so as to exclude Israel - are targets and should be killed. Most of the world would reject that mindset out of hand.
But other groups fighting for a homeland or independence have adopted similar methods in conjunction with guerrilla warfare.
One example is the repeated use of suicide bombings in public places by the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. They have also attacked Sinhalese villages in areas they regard as their own.
One effect of the New York and Washington attacks has been to prompt a number of governments to remind the United States of the problems they face with people they class as terrorists.
The Russians recalled the number of times they had insisted that the rebellion in Chechnya was a manifestation of international terrorism, partly inspired by people like Osama Bin Laden.
The Chinese demanded American understanding for their attempts to stamp out Muslim separatists in the western region of Xinjiang
And the Spaniards said the war against terrorism should cover all terrorists, including the ETA group which uses car bombs and shootings to pursue its demand for an independent Basque state.
"Terrorist" is a handy word of abuse for your enemies. As such it is often loosely used or misused.
But there is more consensus now that indiscriminate attacks on civilians are intolerable, however the crime is described.
Even if the definition is elusive, most people think they know terrorism when they see it. And they saw it in lower Manhattan on 11 September 2001.
20 Sep 01 | South Asia
14 Sep 01 | Americas
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