The Definition of Terrorism

August 17, 2007

By Lieutenant General J.E. Denis Perera

There are various interpretations given on “Terrorism” by the media and by some individuals. However, Sri Lanka has not given an official interpretation of “Terrorism” even in the “Prevention of Terrorism” Act. The U.S. Department of Defence and the FBI, for instance define terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The U.S. State Department, on the other hand  uses the definition contained in Title 22 of the United States Code, viz:-“The term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. The term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country. The term “terrorist group” means any group practicing, or that has significant subgroups that practice international terrorism.” It is not difficult to see from the above set of definitions that the state is responding to a precise version of terrorism. The inclusion of and the corresponding exclusion of certain words in these definitions only reinforce the state’s concern with the immediate, the purpose being to respond, even to retaliate violently, should such an event come to take place. The definitions only go to empower the state to be selective with a certain amount of maneuverability in dealing with the issue. It may be further noted that the U.S. definition does not consider the possibility that terror may be a state activity and not something that is simply “state sponsored”. This allows the U.S. to formulate a definition of terrorism without itself being charged with engaging in it. In this respect the collective position of the South Asian states is an interesting one. When the SAARC Regional Conference on the Suppression of Terrorism was approved on 4th November 1987, it refrained from the task of defining terrorism. The Convention simply noted that “the Heads of state or Government of SAARC agreed that the cooperation among SAARC States was vital if terrorism was to be prevented and eliminated from the region”. Furthermore, to placate the extra-national but regional concerns of some of the key members, the Convention also noted that “violence” that is regarded as a “political offence” or “an offence inspired by political motives” will not come within the purview of the Convention (Article 11). But that was 1987. On January 6th 2004, that is, following the U.S. led “war on terrorism” and the military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, the SAARC members signed an Additional Protocol on the Suppression of Terrorism which, while making an effort to curb money laundering and the financial support base of the terrorists, makes explicit the meaning of terrorism(Article 4):“Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this additional protocol if that  person  by any means, directly or indirectly, unlawfully and willfully, provides or collects funds with the intention that they should be used or in the knowledge that they are to be used , in full or in part, in order to carry out: Any….act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing an act.” Once again “terrorism” is defined keeping the state immune form the blemish of its own terror. Violence is otherwise “legal” so long as it is carried out under the cover of the reason of the state. But if this is the voice of the state, the protagonist, then there is no reason to doubt the response of the antagonist. Interestingly, such response at times comes in the form of violence and terror – indeed, the very means that have contributed to its subjugation.  

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