How the war on terror is a war of terror

States such as Israel which today “portray themselves” as fighting terrorism were in some ways “born out of terror”.

Indira Gandhi
In 'Great Betrayal', Kavita Narawane - a partisan of the right-wing RSS - dubbed the Constitutional clause which Indira Gandhi used to declare emergency as "totalitarian" [GALLO/GETTY]

Drawing on intellectual and political history of different regions of the world, in a two-part series, Irfan Ahmad discusses the fallacy of and politics behind the current consensus on what constitutes terrorism. He shows how the dominant definition of terrorism as act of violence by non-state actors to induce political change is conceptually flawed and demonstrates how terror has historically been important to most ruling elites and states across time. Based on diverse examples from India, the US, Israel, Indonesia and elsewhere, to this end, the author also shows how the watertight distinction between state and non-state actors is fragile and unsustainable. 

As we approach twelfth year of the West-led war on terror (WOT), it is time to ask: what terrorism is. The more we watch and read about terrorism the less we understand it. The mediatised discourses on terrorism often mystify the phenomenon and politics of terrorism. This article critiques the dominant consensus on terrorism and WOT to pose some unpalatable questions essential for a fair debate. I make three arguments.  

First, the near consensus that terrorism is an act of violence by non-state actors to enact political change through fear is not only dubious and historically untenable it is also unethical as it unqualifyingly legitimises the state violence/terrorism which is responsible for killing far more number of people than those killed by terrorists. 

Second, I argue that we begin writing about the terror of counter-terrorists. It is my contention that counter-terrorists too practice terror. In fact, their terror is deadlier because of their assumed legitimacy, gigantic infrastructure, lethal weapons and sheer reach state terror has. To this end, I discuss “symbolic terror” of the term “new terrorism”. In defining contemporary terrorism as distinctly religious, Islamic (often implicit than explicit), the so-called security experts and terrorism scholars perpetuate symbolic terror against Islam.  


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Third, dismissing the doxa that terrorism emanates from a flawed personality or an allegedly violent religion, Islam – the 21st century discussion on terrorism is ultimately about Islam – I argue that violence terrorists resort to, in key ways, simply reflects the terror-ridden, national, global polity we inhabit. An antidote to terrorism is not, as counter-terrorism pundits preach, tightening of “homeland security” and unethical aggrandisement of “national interests” but shaping a humane world with human(e) interests.   

Let me clarify my use of the term counter-terrorism. US Foreign Policy uses it as “practices, tactics, techniques and strategies that governments, militaries, police departments and corporations adopt in response to terrorist threats and/or acts, both real and imputed”. To this, I add terrorism scholars and security experts associated with counter-terrorism.   

(Im)possibility of defining terrorism  

There is no universal consensual definition of terrorism. In 1984, Alex Schmid discussed over 100 definitions only to say 20 years later, in 2005, that the quest for an “adequate” definition of terrorism continues. Not to speak of definitions by academics and security experts, differences, ambiguities, even tensions, exist in definitions given by various departments of the same state. Consider the definitions by the Department of State, Department of Defence and FBI of the USA.  

“The term terrorism means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” – Patterns of Global Terrorism 2003, p. xii, US Department of State

“[T]he unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population… in furtherance of political or social objectives.” – Terrorism 2002-2005, p. iv, FBI, US Department of Justice  

“The unlawful use of violence or threat of violence to instil fear and coerce governments or societies. Terrorism is often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs and committed in the pursuit of goals that are usually political.” – Department of Defence Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, (Amended in 2012), p. 317  

While violence for political goals is common to all definitions, they markedly differ from one another in other respects. In the first, terrorists are “subnational groups or clandestine agents”, the second and third definition don’t specify who they are – subnational, clandestine or other categories of people. In the first definition, terrorists’ target is non-combatants, in the second it also includes property. In the first, terrorists’ aim is to “influence an audience”; in the second, it is to advance political or social objectives. Focusing on terrorists’ motivation, the third definition highlights, as does the second one, how terrorists aim to generate fear to coerce the government, civilian population and societies.  

Clearly, keywords in these definitions like “ideological beliefs”, “religious”, “subnational”, “violence”, even “societies”, can be amply twisted to include as much as exclude, subject to convenience, what counts as terrorism which, according to India’s The Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002, includes any “intent to threaten the unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of India or to strike terror in the people”. In mainstream definitions, the term “political” is used to distinguish terrorism from crime by an “abnormal” person – shootings by an individual for “personal” reason. However, defining “political” this way is problematic because in another definition of politics – everything is political or, as the feminist credo held: “the personal is political”.   

There is one deep commonality in all three definitions – actor of terrorism is never the state or government. This is a major departure from earlier definition; in 1978, Edward Mickolus, a CIA official/scholar, included state terror under terrorism as follows: “state terrorism includes terrorist actions conducted by a national government within the borders of its own country” (p. 128). He mentioned the USSR as an example. The Regan administration accused the USSR of backing terrorism and intellectuals like Indian-born British writer Salman Rushdie who had desired declaration of Pakistan as a terrorist state. It is understandable why a given state would not call its own actions terrorist, but why do academics and security/terrorism experts delete state from the ambit of their definitions? 


 Empire – 9/12 and the ‘war on terror’ 

Unmindful of Nietzsche’s observation that “only that which has no history can be defined”, Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert, thus unproblematically states that terrorism is “perpetrated by subnational or non-state groups” (Inside Terrorism, 2006, p., 40). Similarly, James Lutz and Brenda Lutz write that terrorism is “violent or threatens violence” and it “involves a non-state actor or actors” (Global Terrorism, 2008, p. 6). 

Why the expulsion of state in such definitions from the ambit of terrorism despite the fact that over the 20th century, compared to 500,000 killed by terrorists, various states in course of wars killed 34 million people and an additional 170 million beyond the legal contours of warfare (David Wright-Neville, Dictionary of Terrorism, 2010, p. x)?

Might it be that such definitional tropes, in addition to converging with the definitions supplied by powerful states, tend to sanitise the massive violence they perpetrate? Might it also be that these definitions allow, for instance, the non-state actors such as the stateless Palestinians to be conveniently dubbed “terrorist” when they resist their continued violent occupation by Israel and at the same time not allow raising sufficient questions about how they were rendered stateless?  

Definitions such as Hoffman’s and Lutzs’ are selective; they lift “useful” things from the history of terrorism to shape the present. As I will show, history of terrorism is also the history of terror by ruling elites and states. By state terrorism, contra Hoffman and Lutzs, I don’t just mean support of terrorism by a given state. I contend that state enacts terror within its border as well as without and that terror is constitutive of most states. My larger point is that the neat line hurriedly drawn between state and non-state actors is fragile for states can find effective, plausible ways to work as non-state entities just as non-state-actors can/do become state-actors. John Perkin’s Confession of an Economic Hitman illustrates how state and non-state actors work intimately so as to publicly appear distant.  

State terror: An unedited brief history 

Instead of dealing with the act of terror itself, dominant definitions focus on its actors to dub them terrorists if they are non-state. The shift from the act and nature of terror to those of their actors has huge implication. For example, Hoffman insists on differentiating one set of actors (non-state) from another (state), thereby legitimising the latter. He rejects similarities between them for it “plays into the hands of terrorists and their apologists who would argue that there is no difference between the ‘low-tech’ terrorist pipe-bomb placed in the rubbish bin at a crowded market… and the ‘high-tech’ precision-guided ordnance dropped by air force fighter-bombers from a height of twenty thousand feet or more that achieves the same wanton… effects on the crowded marketplace far below” (Hoffman, p. 25). Indeed, following Roger Woddis, what is the difference?  

Throwing a bomb is bad/ Dropping a bomb is good;
Terror, no need to add/ Depends on who’s wearing the hood.  

Terror has been integral to ruling elites for ages. Chanakya (b.280BC), adviser to the famous Indian ruler Chandragupta, suggested many clandestine methods to subdue enemies through terror. In Arthshastra, Chanakya (also called Kautilya), outlined natural needs of the state to emphasise ends, not means. For Chanakya, who Max Weber likened to Machiavelli, what mattered was not ethics, but survival and expansion of the kingdom by conquest. Chanakya approved covert war for “a single assassination can achieve, with weapons, fire or poison, more than a fully mobilised army”.

He discussed not only how to assassinate enemy kings and their officials, but also how to terrorise civilians. To this end, he suggested use of spies, women, intrigue, rumour, propaganda and so on. To ensure victory, Chanakya suggested that “agents costumed as demon-serpents and flesh-eating tigers should terrorise civilians to lure the enemy king outside the city walls to perform rites of appeasement, whereupon he should be ambushed and killed” (Randall Law, Terrorism: A History, 2009, pp. 13-14). 


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Without giving other examples from earlier times – the Zealots-Sicarii, the Assassins and the Thuggees – let me focus on modern France when terrorism entered the English language. Derived from Latin and meaning physical trembling, it referred to the Reign of Terror (la Grande Terreur) deployed by the post-1789 Revolutionary rulers, the radical revolutionaries, Jacobins. Note that terrorism meant terror by the regime, not by non-state actors.

After Louis XVI’s regime’s overthrow, a new legislature, the Convention dominated by Jacobins like Robespierre, was formed. In 1793, the Convention passed a decree announcing, “terror is the order of the day”. It also enacted Law of Suspects to arrest “those who by their conduct, relations or language spoken or written have shown themselves partisans of tyranny… and enemies of liberty”. Between 1793 and 1794, 17,000 people were executed. Additionally, half a million were held as prisoners. The total toll of the Reign of Terror was around 40,000 people.  

That terrorism meant a terror of arbitrary government” was evident from a note by Sir John Lawrence, a British colonialist. After the suppression of the 1857 anti-colonial uprising and capture of Indian Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, Lawrence wrote that the summary execution of “such men [Zafar’s sons] will strike terror, and produce a salutary fear through the Mahomedan [sic] population” (p.143).  

In 20th century too, state terror continued. Terror of Nazi’s and Stalin’s regime is well-known. So is the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which Coner Gearty described “a pure act of political terror: ‘look what we can do, now listen to us'”. There were many others. Under Suharto’s military regime, one million Indonesians were killed and an additional 80,000 jailed without trial.

Between 1974 and 1979, the regime of Pol Pot killed around 1.3 million Cambodians. After the CIA toppled Chile’s democratic government of Allende in 1973, the brutal rule of Pinochet killed 15,000 people within months. Santiago’s stadia were turned into prisons. In its campaign against the opponents during 1976 and 1983, the Argentinean state killed between 10,000 and 20,000 people.  

In 1979, when Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinistas overthrew the Debayle regime backed by the US, the latter used all resources to wreck the Sandinista rule. The US supported anti-Sandinista counter-revolutionaries, called Contras. Between 1981 and 1983, the CIA supplied money and weapons to build sanctuaries and train the Contras.

After the rejection of President Reagan’s request for more funds for the Contras by the US Congress in 1988, funds were secured through secret sale of arms to Iran, the Iran-Contra Affair. Note that Sandinistas were elected to power in 1984. During Contra War around 30,000 people were killed. To President Reagan, the Contras engaged in killings, including civilians, were, however, “our brothers… freedom fighters… moral equal of our founding fathers“.  

Showing the folly of the vulgate which equates terrorism with non-state actors, I showed how terrorism has been central to and constitutive of the state from ancient to modern times and that the state has practiced it both at home and abroad. Viewed from this perspective, Janna Thompson‘s assertion that “A state which unjustly invades the territory of another is not necessarily committing acts of terror by attacking and killing those who oppose it” (p. 156) is, at best, conceptually and ethically impoverished. My argument will remain incomplete, however, as long as the distinction between state and non-state actors is implausibly maintained. Below I demonstrate how this distinction is fragile, even deceitful.    

Distinction that is flimsy  

In 1975, the Indian state visibly enacted terror when Indira Gandhi’s government declared a state of emergency and jailed her opponents. In Great Betrayal, Kavita Narawane, a partisan of the right-wing RSS, called the regime “the reign of terror” and likened Indira Gandhi to Hitler. Dubbing the Constitutional clause which she used to declare emergency as “totalitarian”, Narawane deplored the formation by Indira Gandhi of a new spy wing, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and “para-military bodies”: Central Reserve Force and Border Security Force. Indira Gandhi did this, she noted, “to strike terror in the heart of the common man so that not a finger should be raised in opposition to the despot” (pp., 111-13).  

In a favourable foreword to Narawane’s book, Atal Behari Vajpayee, then an opposition leader, shared the author’s view on terror to decry the use “of arbitrary power, of subversion of the law”. However, two decades later, when Vajpayee became Prime Minister, his government, post-9/11, passed The Prevention of Terrorism Act which in arbitrariness surpassed all previous laws. Vajpayee even said: “Wherever Muslims live, they don’t want to live in peace with others” and “they stay by threatening and frightening others“.

It is clear how Vajpayee and his party, non-state actors during 1970s, described the then government as “reign of terror” but decades later, passed the draconian anti-terror law when he and his party were in power – implying obviously that his government didn’t practice terror. My point is simply this. Non-state actors of the 1970s became state-actors in the 2000s; with this change their meaning of terror too changed. Clearly, the line terrorism experts and the state scholars draw between state and non-state actor is blurred. 


 Frost Over the World – The ‘war on terror’ 10 years on 

Consider Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a white terrorist outfit formed in 1866. Its founders were six Confederate veterans of the American Civil War; so were its key members. In 1867-68, when innocent blacks were murdered, many local authorities in Tennessee and Arkansas supported the KKK and troops were not dispatched to combat their terrorism.

Wanton violence by the KKK was rarely punished as “police forces were riddled with Klan members or sympathisers”. Early in the 20th century, four Governors and five Senators were KKK members (Randall Law, pp. 137-38). Note how porous the line between the KKK, a “non-state actor” and various state actors. A more glaring example is from 20th century Ottoman Empire which the West dismembered, inter alia, for the state of Israel to be born.  

In 1923 under direct British dispensation in Palestine, the Jewish population was less than 15 per cent which later increased leading to the Arab Revolt. To acquire a Jewish homeland, Zionist terrorism intensified. Ze’ev Jabotinsky formed Irgun Zavi Leumi (National Military Organisation), a terrorist organisation. It conducted a series of terror attacks.  Lohamei Herut Israel, LEHI (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), a splinter group from Irgun formed in 1939, carried a campaign of deadlier terror killing hundreds.

Yitzhak Shamir, a key LEHI leader, said: “Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat”. Menacham Begin, new commander of Irgun in 1943, reorganised it like an army with assault teams, propaganda units and recruitment officers. The UN agency examining the region met Begin two times (Randall Law, p. 182, 185).  

Without detailing the terror let loose by Irgun, let me state my point. Both Begin and Shamir later became Israel’s prime ministers. Irgun and LEHI which earlier separately executed terror campaigns merged to become the Israel Defence Force in 1948 (Randall Law, p. 188). Also note that Nelson Mandela, a terrorist in the racist South African regime, later became president (it was after 9/11 that the US removed his name from the list of international terrorists).

Lieutenant Colonel Shrikant Purohit, jailed for his involvement in 2008 terror blasts near a mosque in Malegaon, was/is a serving officer of the Indian army. Also note that through intelligence, propaganda and threat the Indonesian military, like in Rwanda, encouraged local communities (non-state actors) to take part in the killings. 

If a firm distinction between state and non-state actor is arbitrary – to legal juggernaut it is lawful, to me in essence it is awful – there is no sound ground to limit terrorism to non-state actors. Ethically, if political violence and fear is reprehensible, unjust and threatening does it matter if its actors are in uniform (state) or sans uniform (non-state)?

Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of terrorism is apt, especially, without third bracket. “The unofficial or unauthorised use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims; (originally) such practices used by a government or ruling group (freq. through paramilitary or informal armed groups) in order to maintain its control over a population; (now usually) such practices used by a clandestine or expatriate organisation as a means of furthering its aims.” 

Irfan Ahmad is a political anthropologist and a lecturer at Monash University, Australia, and author of Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami (Princeton University Press, 2009) which was short-listed for the 2011 International Convention of Asian Scholars Book Prize for the best study in the field of Social Sciences. Currently, he is finishing a book manuscript on theory and practice of critique in modernity and Islamic tradition.