Ali S. Awadh Asseri

(Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon)

1. Terrorism in Theory

     Terrorism is indeed the world’s most prevalent phenomenon today. There seems to be no escaping from it, at least in the near future. It has haunted us for ages and it will continue to haunt us if we fail to evolve an international consensus on its causes, nature, scope, implications, and solution. Without developing a sound understanding of terrorism, no strategy to combat it can succeed. However, the principal problem in developing such an understanding or realizing an international consensus on terrorism is our tendency to simply issues, whereas terrorism is an extremely complex issue involving a lot of controversy. Perhaps that is why the world has, so far, failed to evolve a universally accepted definition of terrorism. As a starting point, therefore, what we need is to place the subject of terrorism in its proper theoretical and conceptual framework, and to see whether it is possible to at least create its workable or functional definition.

     This chapter makes use of important theoretical perspectives on terrorism available in contemporary Western literature, however, pinpointing some of its fundamental flaws. There are issues that are overplayed or over-emphasized by Western writers on the subject, either intentionally or inadvertently. This necessitates a critical review of the established opinions on what terrorism is, for which purpose it is undertaken, what its eventual goals are, and how it relates to other forms of politically motivated violence. To start with, the questioned a single theoretical definition of terrorism has haunted the human mind for decades, but all efforts in that direction have failed to evolve a consensus. The horrific connotations of the word ‘terrorism’ and the feelings of revulsion it evokes are the reasons behind a vast array of theoretical definitions available on the subject. The problem in defining terrorism pertains to labeling, because ‘terrorist’ is a description that has almost never been voluntarily adopted by any individual or group,[1] what to speak of a state entity that, under international law, has the right to use force to ensure self-defense and preserve territorial integrity, however, with some pre-conditions!

     Various countries define the term according to their own beliefs and to support their own national interests. International organizations craft definitions to promote the interests of their member-states, while academics engaged in this exercise are also quite often subject to their own political points of view. Since terrorism implies the killing or maiming of innocent people, no country wants to be accused of supporting terrorism or harbouring terrorist groups. No country, however, wants what it deems to be a legitimate use of force to be considered terrorism. This is the paradox that has perplexed the human mind endeavouring to define terrorism. That is why all the definitions of terrorism crafted by states, state institutions and international governmental organizations mention only non-state individuals and groups, and do not include states as perpetrators of terrorism. 

(To be continued)


[1] Charles Townshend, Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.3.