June 17, 2003

Terrorism or National Liberation Struggle?

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The word “terrorism” is bandied about by the Bush administration as it suits its political agenda. It is important to try to define and distinguish between different forms of terrorism, and to distinguish that from national liberation struggles.
M. Kalliopi K. Koufa, the U.N. special rapporteur for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, has differentiated between five different types of terrorism: individual or group terrorism, international state terrorism, state regime or government terror, state sponsored or state supported terrorism, and national liberation struggles for self-determination. I will apply those definitions to the September 11th attacks, the U.S.-U.K. bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel’s occupation and massacre of the Palestinians, U.S. support for Israel’s military operation and Palestine’s response to the illegal occupation.

Individual Terrorism

The September 11 attacks are examples of sub-state terrorism. Individual acts of violence and intimidation, including assassinations, bombings, sabotage and robberies, have historically been perpetrated by individuals and groups to terrorize the state and the public in order to revolutionize the masses and create social and political change. Individual terrorism has been waged by religious as well as national and political groups. The planning of the September 11 attacks has been largely attributed to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. In 1996, Bin Laden declared a jihad to drive the U.S. military forces out of the Arabian Peninsula, overthrow the Saudi government and liberate Mecca and Medina. Four years later he issued a fatwa stating it is the duty of all Muslims to kill U.S. citizens and their allies. After September 11, he said, “America and its allies are massacring us in Palestine, Chechneya, Kashmir and Iraq. The Muslims have a right to attack America in reprisal….The September 11 attacks…targeted America’s icons of military and economic power.”

Bin Laden’s other flash points were the deaths of one million innocent Iraqis as the result of sanctions and U.S. complicity in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. He holds the American people responsible for electing a government that manufactures arms and gives them to Israel.

The Convention of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference on Combating International Terrorism defines terrorism as follows:
Any act of violence, or threat thereof notwithstanding its motives or intentions perpetrated to carry out an individual or collective criminal plan with the aim of terrorizing people or threatening to harm them or imperiling their lives, honour, freedoms, security or rights or exposing the environment or any facility or public or private property to hazards or occupying or seizing them, or endangering a national resource, or international facilities, or threatening the stability, territorial integrity, political unity or sovereignty of independent states.

The Convention defines a “terrorist” crime as “any crime executed, started or participated in to realize a terrorist objective in any of the contracting states or against its nationals, assets or interests or foreign facilities and nationals residing in its territory punishable by its internal law.” Under the Convention, the September 11 attacks constituted individual or group acts of terrorism because they were acts of violence to carry out an individual or collective plan to terrorize and imperil the lives of people in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

International State Terrorism
International state terrorism is the use of force as coercive diplomacy, the unlawful use of force in violation of the U.N. Charter. A number of states have endorsed the following definition of this form of state terrorism:
. . terror inflicted on a large scale and with the most modern means on whole populations for purposes of domination or interference in their internal affairs, armed attacks perpetrated under the pretext of reprisals for preventative action by states against the sovereignty and integrity of third states, and the infiltration of terrorist groups or agents into the territory of other states.

The bombing of Afghanistan by the U.S. and the U.K., undertaken in violation of the U.N. Charter, inflicted large scale terror on the whole population. The military strikes against Afghanistan were armed attacks perpetrated under the pretext of reprisals for the September 11 attacks and the prevention of further terrorist attacks on the U.S.9 They constituted international state terrorism and violated international law.

The sanctions against Iraq, the on-going bombing of Iraq in the “no-fly zones,” and the U.S-U.K.’s war on Iraq-none of which has been sanctioned by the Security Council-are other examples of international state terrorism. The U.S. and U.K. are not responding to an imminent threat of danger from Iraq. Regime change violates the sovereignty of Iraq as guaranteed by the U.N. Charter.

State Terrorism by a Regime or Government

Traditionally, “regime” or “government” terror is conducted by organs of the state against its own population or the population of an occupied territory for the purpose of preserving a regime or suppressing challenges to its authority. It is frequently characterized by kidnapping and assassination of political opponents of the government, by the police, secret service, army or security forces; imprisonment without trial; persecution and torture; massacres of racial or religious minorities or certain social classes; internment in concentration camps; and government by fear. Regime or governmental state terrorism is legitimized by the law the state has itself established.

Israel’s 36-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, its subjugation of the Palestinian people, in a system of apartheid, and its recent brutal massacre of hundreds of Palestinians, particularly in Jenin and Nablus, constitutes regime or governmental state terrorism. The Israeli government justifies its policies as lawful self-defense against Palestinian terrorists, e.g. “suicide bombers.”

State-Sponsored/Supported Terrorism

State-sponsored or state-supported terrorism includes overt or covert assistance or support by a state to terrorist agents in order to subvert or destabilize another state or its government.12 According to Koufa, “State sponsored terrorism occurs when a government plans, aids, directs and controls terrorist operations in another country. It is sometimes called ‘surrogate warfare.’”

Congress votes annual appropriations of military aid to Israel, which was $2.76 billion dollars this year.14 The U.S. financial and military aid to Israel, with the knowledge of Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian lands and massacres of Palestinian civilians, constitutes state-supported terrorism. Further, the U.S. exercise of its veto in the Security Council to prevent condemnation of Israel’s actions enables Israel to continue its occupation and terror against the Palestinians. The paramilitary forces tolerated by the U.S.-supported Uribe government in Colombia also characterize this form of terrorism.

Terrorism vs. National Liberation Struggles

In her report, the U.N. rapporteur Koufa distinguished between “terrorism” and “wars of national liberation in the context of the right of self-determination,”15 which are memorialized in the 1999 Convention of the Organization of the Islamic Conference on Combating International Terrorism. That convention says:
Peoples’ struggles, including armed struggle against foreign occupation, aggression, colonialism, and hegemony, aimed at liberation and self-determination in accordance with the principles of international law shall not be considered a terrorist crime.

Likewise, the 1998 Arab Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism excepts struggles against foreign occupation and aggression for liberation and self-determination from the definition of terrorist crime.

Two Islamic resistance movements, Hizbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Palestine, were born in the 1980s in reaction to Israel’s invasion, occupation and oppression of the Palestinians. They combine political action and militant jihad with humanitarian, social and educational programs.18 Hizbollah is a political party with seats in Parliament, and it continues to function in mainstream Lebanese society.19 Through suicide bombings, roadside booby traps and other violence, Hizbollah forced Israel to withdraw from the southern strip of southern Lebanon in May 2000.20 In response to Israel’s 2002 invasion of the occupied territories, Hizbollah fired rockets from Southern Lebanon into Israel.

Before 1994, Hamas restricted its guerrilla actions to political and military targets in the occupied territories. But after Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler, shot and killed 29 Muslim worshippers in the Mosque of the Patriarch in Hebron, Hamas took revenge with a new weapon-the suicide bomber. Israel has responded by massacring Palestinian civilians.

In September 2000, the Palestinians began a campaign of resistance (intifada), sparked by Israel’s increasing aggression in the occupied territories. The armed resistance of Palestinians to the 36-year Israeli occupation is not terrorism. It is an armed struggle for self-determination against foreign occupation, aggression and colonialism. Suicide bombers who target civilians, however, are engaging in terrorism.


The international community has long sought to eliminate international terrorism. It recently adopted U.N. General Assembly resolution 55/158, which reaffirmed international cooperation and stated that actions by states to combat terrorism should be conducted in conformity with principles of the charter. The U.S. must immediately ratify: the International Criminal Court statute, the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, the International Convention for the Suppression of Financing Terrorism, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production, and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and Their Destruction, and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The United States government must stop claiming unilateral jurisdiction over individuals, organizations and nations it defines as “terrorist” or “aiding terrorists.” Instead it must work through the international legal community.