Can a terrorist be defined by gender, ideological beliefs, class, age, Religious affiliation, dressing, the technique in which they use to commit the act of terror or is it from a persona perspective or an organization/grouping/region perspective? Hard as it may sound, conceptualization of the term terrorist is of necessity lest we brand groups or individuals as terrorist yet they are not, or miss to label one as we intensify the fight against terror.
Who is a terrorist? This is one of the 21st century fundamental questions that all security agencies and actors, States and International organizations such as the United Nation (U.N), the Africa Union (A.U) and the likes, are still grappling to define. Is a terrorist defined by gender, ideological beliefs, class, age, Religious affiliation, dressing, the technique in which they use to commit the act of terror or is it from a persona perspective or an organization/grouping/region perspective?
The Collins English dictionary attempts to define a terrorist as a person who uses violence, especially murder and bombing, in order to achieve political aims or a person who employs terror or terrorism, especially as a political weapon. However, with such a general conceptualization, how then do you profile a terrorist? Or what traits do he or she possess to affirm they are indeed terrorist? Or how do you distinguish the rebels and freedom fighters who use violence to achieve political gains Vis-a-vie a terrorist individual?
Philosophical as it may sound in conceptualizing the term terrorist, its definition is of necessity lest we label groups or individuals as terrorist yet they are not, or miss to label one as we intensify the fight against terror.
When modern acts of terror began in Russia in the 1880’s then moved to Western Europe, the Balkans, and Asia as David Rapoport stipulates the progression, terrorist as a person, represented all the gender dimension. However, with time the minds of the global citizenry shifted and the male gender was placed on top of the food chain when it came to committing acts of terror.
Most if not all Security agencies listed the male gender as the main perpetrators of terror on their most wanted terror watch list. Individuals like the anarchist Leon Czolgosz who assassinated the 25th President of the United States (U.S.) in 1901 was amongst them, others were individuals who took part in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania which killed 224 people and injuring more than 5,000, the 19 men who hijacked four U.S. commercial airliners on September 11, 2001 and diverted them towards at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, the World Trade Center in New York and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania killing approximately 2,977 people.
The attacks were orchestrated by the deceased Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Subsequently, other terror attacks carried out in different countries were mostly done by the male gender. However, before we label the male gender as the terrorist, the dimension shifted. Female perpetrators of terrorism who initially were viewed as spies or brides to individuals perceived as ‘terrorist’ emerged in the modern age of terrorism. Individuals like Samantha Louise Lewthwaite or popularly known as the ‘white widow’ is among the world’s most wanted terrorism suspects. She is named as one of the suspects who mastermind the June 24, 2012, grenade attack in Jericho bar in Mombasa, Kenya that killed three people and injuring 25 others. Thus, with these gender complexities, who then is a terrorist?
Scholars and security actors involved in demystifying who a terrorist is, for decades believed that acts of terrorism were perpetrated by uneducated, uncivilized and impoverished individuals. For instance after the 9/11 attack in the U.S., the then President George W. Bush was quoted saying, “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.” His wife Laura Bush emphasized the point saying, “A lasting victory in the war against terror depends on educating the world’s children.”
However, in a study of 250 Palestine militants and their associates who were involved in the Palestinian cause in the 1990’s by one of the United Nations relief worker in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Nasra Hassan, exposed the new discourse of the increasingly wealthy middle class in acts of terror. His findings were that none of the militants were uneducated, desperately poor, simple-minded, or depressed. Also, the founder and leader of the prominent Palestinian terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was a medical doctor. His then head of special operation Wadie Haddad was also a medical doctor.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s then chief strategist and Osama bin Laden’s deputy and now the al-Qaeda leader, is a trained surgeon. Orlando Bosch, who was active in the militant Miami, Florida-based anti-Castro movement and was charged with the in-flight bombing of a Cubana Airlines flight in 1976 that killed 73 persons, practiced as a pediatrician. Thus, the once branded uncivilized, uneducated and poor terrorist seized to exist. Hence the question, who is a terrorist?
On age dynamics, there was a misconception on persons regarded as terrorist as those between the ages of 15 years – 24 years and above. This age bracket seemed to be the ones holding a lot of grievances such as unemployment that acted as a push factor in committing acts of terrorism. But, now things have change. ‘Toddlers’ or children referred to as minors are now on the leash perpetrating acts of terror.
For instance, on May 1, 2011, a 12-year-old blew himself up in a bazaar in the Barmal district of Paktika province, Afghanistan, killing four civilians and wounding 12 others. On April 13, a 13-year-old suicide bomber detonated his explosives vest in Asmar district of Kunar province. The blast in eastern Afghanistan killed 10 people, including five schoolboys. This, ‘cabs of terror’ automatically change the misconception of who is a terrorist.
Pushing the argument further, can heads of state be referred to as terrorist? Or can governments be branded as a terrorist? This comes in lieu of the incidence committed on April 4, 2017, when President Assad government was accused of instigating a chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun town, killing approximately 86 Syrians. This notwithstanding, a similar chemical attack was launched on August 21, 2013, resulting in the death of more than 1000 civilians in Ghouta. The Syrian government has been blamed by the international community for using chemical agents such as sarin, mustard gas, and VX, the nerve agent in executing outrageous terror attacks against her innocent civilians.
Today, there is an ongoing cold war in the Gulf region. The Qatar nation is accused of funding and supporting terrorism in the region. However, the Qataris have refuted the claims citing political foul play on the outrageous allegation by its neighboring countries. Thus, with this kind of allegation against Qatar, are we in a position to refer Qatar as a terrorist?
Last but not least, are rebels or freedom fighters terrorist? In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) was regarded as a terrorist group. Nelson Mandela the iconic South Africa leader was on the U.S. terrorism watch list till 2008 due to his unrelenting quest to lead South Africa’s black struggle against the apartheid regime. Yet when he died, he happens to have been the most celebrated Africa leaders. Hence, the question was he a terrorist or not? Mau Mau freedom fighters in Kenya were also branded as terrorist by the British government during their pursuit for an independent and self-rule Kenya. Were they terrorist or was it just a tool used by the colonial masters to repress and deter Mau Mau’s quest for freedom?
It is of prerequisite for the term terrorist to be clearly defined. If not, then we need to be careful while branding any act of violence as a form of terror. On this, President Trump administration is pushing to bar citizens of Libya, Syria, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, and Sudan from entering the United States (U.S.) for a period of 90 days, and bar nearly all refugees from entering the U.S. for a period of 120 days due to the fear of them committing acts of terror. Then what measures were used to brand or profile individuals from the said countries as a terrorist?
Dennis Munene is a Researcher and Policy Analyst on Governance and Security issues at Africa Policy Institute