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Thursday, 20 September, 2001, 21:09 GMT 22:09 UK
What is terrorism?
T-shirt on sale in Israel
Palestinians argue that Israel is guilty of 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.

"Terrorist" is a handy word of abuse for your enemies. As such it is often loosely used or misused

The proposed measures include a European arrest warrant to replace extradition procedures, and a common definition of what terrorism is.

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.

Perennial debate

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.

Specific list

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.

anti-ETA protest in Madrid
Spain wants the war on terrorism to include ETA
But the proposed EU legislation does not define the motives of terrorists - political, religious or ideological.

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.

Changing times

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.

Iran is one of seven states which the US lists as terrorism sponsors
By contrast, he said, the attacks on the United States had no clear aim and were perpetrated by invaders. Some other Palestinian groups refrain from armed action outside what they regard as the territory of Palestine.

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.

Fair game

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.

Everyone's problem

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.

Kashgar, Xinjiang
China is trying to stamp out Muslim separatism in Xinjiang
ETA should not be excluded, they said, on the grounds that it was less fanatical than the group responsible for the attack on the World Trade Centre.

"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.

Legal academics Martin Dixon and Prof Rick Kirgis,
from Cambridge University and Washington and Lee University, discuss current anti-terrorism law


Political uncertainty






See also:

20 Sep 01 | South Asia
14 Sep 01 | Americas
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