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Friday, June 22, 2007

A definition of terrorism

The story this morning about 'moderate' 'Palestinian' President Mahmoud Abbas Abu Mazen refusing to talk to Hamas because they are 'terrorists' got me to thinking that it might be a good exercise to try to define what a terrorist is - something the UN has been trying unsuccessfully to do for years. So here's my definition and feel free to critique it and propose your own:

A "Terrorist" is someone who intentionally perpetrates, or causes or directs someone else to perpetrate, a violent attack against others with the intention of killing or maiming random non-combatants or destroying their property.

Note what's missing here: It doesn't matter what the goal is.

For the record, a person is considered "Random" if they are not a specific, designated target of the attack and they are a "Non-Combatant" if they are not either (i) a uniformed soldier in a combat field or (ii) a Terrorist.

By this definition, Hamas are clearly terrorists and so is Abu Mazen.

On the other hand, the IDF's targeted assassinations would never be acts of terrorism (they don't intend to kill or maim random non-combatants - only Terrorists). 'Collateral damage' casualties can never be terrorism (and that is not to say that they should not be avoided when possible).

The classic case in which an Israeli is accused of terrorism is Menachem Begin's Irgun's attack on the King David Hotel on July 22, 1946. Under my definition, that would not be an act of terrorism because its targets were British soldiers at a British army headquarters (and no one would have been killed if the British had heeded the warnings and evacuated the hotel).

Your thoughts welcome.


At 6:26 PM, Blogger Soccer Dad said...

See this.

At 6:52 PM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...

Soccer Dad,

He's looking at the question of who is entitled to protection as a 'combatant' under the Geneva Convention. Basically, the Geneva Convention only protects combatants if they are in uniform. I was trying to get to a different issue: a working definition of terrorism. The Irgun would not have been entitled to Geneva Convention protection. Neither would the Partisans in World War II. But I would not call either the Irgun or the Partisans terrorists.

At 9:41 PM, Blogger Elder of Ziyon said...

Believe it or not, Kofi Annan once gave a pretty good definition.

At 5:28 AM, Blogger Dave in Pa. said...

Elder, that Kofi Annan link's now "page not found".

Do you have that Annan definition you could quote for us?

At 5:46 AM, Blogger Dave in Pa. said...

A question, Carl...

By your definition, it'd seem to say that when groups such as Hamas, PLO, Al Qaeda, IRA attack Armed Forces, they are not terrorists, whereas when these same groups attack civilians or private property they are terrorists.

So it's not the goal but the target that defines if a combatant is a terrorist or not?

What if for instance, a terrorist group plants a hidden bomb in a public marketplace or facility, with the intent of killing the maximum number of civilians possible. A common scenario in Israel, Iraq, Af-stan.

But the bomb is discovered before detonation and a uniformed military unit attempts to defuse the bomb. But the bomb explodes during this attempted defusing and kills some of the military bomb disposal team.

As I understand your definition, that'd make the bomb planters NOT terrorists and the planting of the bomb and killing of the soldiers NOT a Geneva Convention war crime?

At 4:41 PM, Blogger Thanos said...

The two key words to me that belong in any definition of terrorism are intention and civilian.

Terrorists intentionally target civilians, however sometimes they don't do it randomly. e.g. the targeted civilian attacks in Iraq designed to foment sectarian violence.

At 10:34 PM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...


I'm not talking about whether it's a war crime. That's a separate issue. I'm talking about defining terrorism, something the UN has been trying unsuccessfully to do for years. Planting a bomb in a marketplace is always going to be terrorism.


Targeting Shiites or Sunni to foment violence is terrorism. They don't care whom they kill as long as they are Shia or Sunni.

At 12:04 AM, Blogger cantbeatpar said...

Isreal your argument doesnt hold water. I dont even know where to begin.
A "terrorist" is someone who commits an act of terror. Plain and simple. "Terror" is fear. So a terrorist is anyone who causes fear, no matter what the reason.

'Collateral damage' casualties are most certainly terrorism no matter what the intent. In your defense of the IDF you say its all in the intent. So if someone walks in a crowded place and tries to shoot another person, killing random civilians, they should not be held responsible for the 'Collateral damage' casualties because they didnt go in with the intent to kill any of them.

Now the King David Hotel. By you logic the attack the USS Cole was not terrorism! The attacks were on American soldiers on an American ship and the soldiers would not have been there had the United States heeded the warnings and got out of the Middle East.

Your arguments are shallow and self-serving. Your commandments say "Thou shalt not kill" there is no "except when" clause attached to that. Maybe if you see the self serving nature of your thinking you will be able to understand the self serving nature of your Palestinian brothers thinking also.

At 2:48 PM, Blogger Robin Hyman said...

Fully agree with cantbeatpar - this is a self-serving definition. Terror is terror is terror whoever perpetrates it and whatever the target or intent. Settlers are trying to drive out or subjugate the Palestinians by any means necessary, including terror, but they seek to paint the resistance as terrorism in an attempt to legitimize their actions.


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