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> What is Terrorism?> Terrorism: Theirs and Ours - Eqbal Ahmad
WHAT IS TERRORISM?
Terrorism: Theirs and Ours
(A Presentation at the University of Colorado, Boulder,
October 12, 1998)
"If you are not going to be consistent,
you're not going to define. I have examined at least
twenty official documents on terrorism. Not one defines
the word. All of them explain it, express it emotively,
polemically, to arouse our emotions rather than
exercise our intelligence.... the absence of definition
does not prevent officials from being globalistic. We
may not define terrorism, but it is a menace to the
moral values of Western civilization. It is a menace
also to mankind."
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Jewish underground in
Palestine was described as "TERRORIST." Then new things
By 1942, the Holocaust was occurring, and a certain
liberal sympathy with the Jewish people had built up in
the Western world. At that point, the terrorists of
Palestine, who were Zionists, suddenly started to be
described, by 1944-45, as "freedom fighters." At least
two Israeli Prime Ministers, including Menachem Begin,
have actually, you can find in the books and posters with
their pictures, saying "Terrorists, Reward This Much."
The highest reward I have noted so far was 100,000
British pounds on the head of Menachem Begin, the
Then from 1969 to 1990 the PLO, the Palestine Liberation
Organization, occupied the center stage as the terrorist
organization. Yasir Arafat has been described repeatedly
by the great sage of American journalism, William Safire
of the New York Times, as the "Chief of Terrorism."
That's Yasir Arafat.
Now, on September 29, 1998, I was rather amused to notice
a picture of Yasir Arafat to the right of President Bill
Clinton. To his left is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu. Clinton is looking towards Arafat and
Arafat is looking literally like a meek mouse. Just a few
years earlier he used to appear with this very menacing
look around him, with a gun appearing menacing from his
belt. You remember those pictures, and you remember the
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan received a group of
bearded men. These bearded men I was writing about in
those days in The New Yorker, actually did. They were
very ferocious-looking bearded men with turbans looking
like they came from another century. President Reagan
received them in the White House. After receiving them he
spoke to the press. He pointed towards them, I'm sure
some of you will recall that moment, and said, "These are
the moral equivalent of America's founding fathers".
These were the Afghan Mujahiddin. They were at the time,
guns in hand, battling the Evil Empire. They were the
moral equivalent of our founding fathers!
In August 1998, another American President ordered
missile strikes from the American navy based in the
Indian Ocean to kill Osama Bin Laden and his men in the
camps in Afghanistan. I do not wish to embarrass you with
the reminder that Mr. Bin Laden, whom fifteen American
missiles were fired to hit in Afghanistan, was only a few
years ago the moral equivalent of George Washington and
Thomas Jefferson! He got angry over the fact that he has
been demoted from 'Moral Equivalent' of your 'Founding
Fathers'. So he is taking out his anger in different
ways. I'll come back to that subject more seriously in a
You see, why I have recalled all these stories is to
point out to you that the matter of terrorism is rather
complicated. Terrorists change. The terrorist of
yesterday is the hero of today, and the hero of yesterday
becomes the terrorist of today. This is a serious matter
of the constantly changing world of images in which we
have to keep our heads straight to know what is terrorism
and what is not. But more importantly, to know what
causes it, and how to stop it.
The next point about our terrorism is that posture of
inconsistency necessarily evades definition. If you are
not going to be consistent, you're not going to define. I
have examined at least twenty official documents on
terrorism. Not one defines the word. All of them explain
it, express it emotively, polemically, to arouse our
emotions rather than exercise our intelligence. I give
you only one example, which is representative. October
25, 1984. George Shultz, then Secretary of State of the
U.S., is speaking at the New York Park Avenue Synagogue.
It's a long speech on terrorism. In the State Department
Bulletin of seven single-spaced pages, there is not a
single definition of terrorism. What we get is the
Definition number one: "Terrorism is a modern barbarism
that we call terrorism."
Definition number two is even more brilliant: "Terrorism
is a form of political violence." Aren't you surprised?
It is a form of political violence, says George Shultz,
Secretary of State of the U.S.
Number three: "Terrorism is a threat to Western
Number four: "Terrorism is a menace to Western moral
Did you notice, does it tell you anything other than
arouse your emotions? This is typical. They don't define
terrorism because definitions involve a commitment to
analysis, comprehension and adherence to some norms of
consistency. That's the second characteristic of the
official literature on terrorism.
The third characteristic is that the absence of
definition does not prevent officials from being
globalistic. We may not define terrorism, but it is a
menace to the moral values of Western civilization. It is
a menace also to mankind. It's a menace to good order.
Therefore, you must stamp it out worldwide. Our reach has
to be global. You need a global reach to kill it.
Anti-terrorist policies therefore have to be global. Same
speech of George Shultz: "There is no question about our
ability to use force where and when it is needed to
counter terrorism." There is no geographical limit. On a
single day the missiles hit Afghanistan and Sudan. Those
two countries are 2,300 miles apart, and they were hit by
missiles belonging to a country roughly 8,000 miles away.
Reach is global.
A fourth characteristic: claims of power are not only
globalist they are also omniscient. We know where they
are; therefore we know where to hit. We have the means to
know. We have the instruments of knowledge. We are
omniscient. Shultz: "We know the difference between
terrorists and freedom fighters, and as we look around,
we have no trouble telling one from the other."
Only Osama Bin Laden doesn't know that he was an ally one
day and an enemy another. That's very confusing for Osama
Bin Laden. I'll come back to his story towards the end.
It's a real story.
Five. The official approach eschews causation. You don't
look at causes of anybody becoming terrorist. Cause? What
cause? They ask us to be looking, to be sympathetic to
Another example. The New York Times, December 18, 1985,
reported that the foreign minister of Yugoslavia, you
remember the days when there was a Yugoslavia, requested
the Secretary of State of the U.S. to consider the causes
of Palestinian terrorism. The Secretary of State, George
Shultz, and I am quoting from the New York Times, "went a
bit red in the face. He pounded the table and told the
visiting foreign minister, there is no connection with
any cause. Period." Why look for causes?
Number six. The moral revulsion that we must feel against
terrorism is selective. We are to feel the terror of
those groups, which are officially disapproved. We are to
applaud the terror of those groups of whom officials do
approve. Hence, President Reagan, "I am a contra." He
actually said that. We know the contras of Nicaragua were
anything, by any definition, but terrorists. The media,
to move away from the officials, heed the dominant view
The dominant approach also excludes from consideration,
more importantly to me, the terror of friendly
governments. To that question I will return because it
excused among others the terror of Pinochet (who killed
one of my closest friends) and Orlando Letelier; and it
excused the terror of Zia ul-Haq, who killed many of my
friends in Pakistan. All I want to tell you is that
according to my ignorant calculations, the ratio of
people killed by the state terror of Zia ul-Haq,
Pinochet, Argentinian, Brazilian, Indonesian type,
versus the killing of the PLO and other terrorist types
is literally, conservatively, one to one hundred
thousand. That's the ratio.
History unfortunately recognizes and accords visibility
to power and not to weakness. Therefore, visibility has
been accorded historically to dominant groups. In our
time, the time that began with this day, Columbus
The time that begins with Columbus Day is a time of
extraordinary unrecorded holocausts. Great civilizations
have been wiped out. The Mayas, the Incas, the Aztecs,
the American Indians, the Canadian Indians were all wiped
out. Their voices have not been heard, even to this day
fully. Now they are beginning to be heard, but not fully.
They are heard, yes, but only when the dominant power
suffers, only when resistance has a semblance of costing,
of exacting a price. When a Custer is killed or when a
Gordon is besieged. That's when you know that they were
Indians fighting, Arabs fighting and dying.
My last point of this section - U.S. policy in the Cold
War period has sponsored terrorist regimes one after
another. Somoza, Batista, all kinds of tyrants have been
America's friends. You know that. There was a reason for
that. I or you are not guilty. Nicaragua, contra.
Afghanistan, mujahiddin. El Salvador, etc.
Now the second side. You've suffered enough. So suffer
There ain't much good on the other side either. You
shouldn't imagine that I have come to praise the other
side. But keep the balance in mind. Keep the imbalance in
mind and first ask ourselves, What is terrorism?
Our first job should be to define the damn thing, name
it, give it a description of some kind, other than "moral
equivalent of founding fathers" or "a moral outrage to
Western civilization". I will stay with you with
Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: "Terror is an intense,
overpowering fear." He uses terrorizing, terrorism, "the
use of terrorizing methods of governing or resisting a
government." This simple definition has one great virtue,
that of fairness. It's fair. It focuses on the use of
coercive violence, violence that is used illegally,
extra-constitutionally, to coerce. And this definition is
correct because it treats terror for what it is, whether
the government or private people commit it.
Have you noticed something? Motivation is left out of it.
We're not talking about whether the cause is just or
unjust. We're talking about consensus, consent, absence
of consent, legality, absence of legality,
constitutionality, absence of constitutionality. Why do
we keep motives out? Because motives differ. Motives
differ and make no difference.
I have identified in my work five types of terrorism.
First, state terrorism. Second, religious terrorism;
terrorism inspired by religion, Catholics killing
Protestants, Sunnis killing Shiites, Shiites killing
Sunnis, God, religion, sacred terror, you can call it if
you wish. State, church. Crime. Mafia. All kinds of
crimes commit terror. There is pathology. You're
pathological. You're sick. You want the attention of the
whole world. You've got to kill a president. You will.
You terrorize. You hold up a bus. Fifth, there is
political terror of the private group; be they Indian,
Vietnamese, Algerian, Palestinian, Baader-Meinhof, the
Red Brigade. Political terror of the private group.
Keep these five in mind. Keep in mind one more thing.
Sometimes these five can converge on each other. You
start with protest terror. You go crazy. You become
pathological. You continue. They converge. State terror
can take the form of private terror. For example, we're
all familiar with the death squads in Latin America or in
Pakistan. Government has employed private people to kill
its opponents. It's not quite official. It's privatized.
Convergence. Or the political terrorist who goes crazy
and becomes pathological. Or the criminal who joins
politics. In Afghanistan, in Central America, the CIA
employed in its covert operations drug pushers. Drugs and
guns often go together. Smuggling of all things often go
Of the five types of terror, the focus is on only one,
the least important in terms of cost to human lives and
human property [Political Terror of those who want to be
heard]. The highest cost is state terror. The second
highest cost is religious terror, although in the
twentieth century religious terror has, relatively
speaking, declined. If you are looking historically,
massive costs. The next highest cost is crime. Next
highest, pathology. A Rand Corporation study by Brian
Jenkins, for a ten-year period up to 1988, showed 50% of
terror was committed without any political cause at all.
No politics. Simply crime and pathology.
So the focus is on only one, the political terrorist, the
PLO, the Bin Laden, whoever you want to take. Why do they
do it? What makes the terrorist tick?
I would like to knock them out quickly to you. First, the
need to be heard. Imagine, we are dealing with a minority
group, the political, private terrorist. First, the need
to be heard. Normally, and there are exceptions, there is
an effort to be heard, to get your grievances heard by
people. They're not hearing it. A minority acts. The
The Palestinians, for example, the superterrorists of our
time, were dispossessed in 1948. From 1948 to 1968 they
went to every court in the world. They knocked at every
door in the world. They were told that they became
dispossessed because some radio told them to go away - an
Arab radio, which was a lie. Nobody was listening to the
truth. Finally, they invented a new form of terror,
literally their invention: the airplane hijacking.
Between 1968 and 1975 they pulled the world up by its
ears. They dragged us out and said, Listen, Listen. We
listened. We still haven't done them justice, but at
least we all know. Even the Israelis acknowledge.
Remember Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, saying in
1970, 'There are no Palestinians.' They do not exist.
They damn well exist now. We are cheating them at Oslo.
At least there are some people to cheat now. We can't
just push them out. The need to be heard is essential.
One motivation there.
Mix of anger and helplessness produces an urge to strike
out. You are angry. You are feeling helpless. You want
retribution. You want to wreak retributive justice. The
experience of violence by a stronger party has
historically turned victims into terrorists. Battered
children are known to become abusive parents and violent
adults. You know that. That's what happens to peoples and
nations. When they are battered, they hit back. State
terror very often breeds collective terror.
Do you recall the fact that the Jews were never
terrorists? By and large Jews were not known to commit
terror except during and after the Holocaust. Most
studies show that the majority of members of the worst
terrorist groups in Israel or in Palestine, the Stern and
the Irgun gangs, were people who were immigrants from the
most anti-Semitic countries of Eastern Europe and
Germany. Similarly, the young Shiites of Lebanon or the
Palestinians from the refugee camps are battered people.
They become very violent. The ghettos are violent
internally. They become violent externally when there is
a clear, identifiable external target, an enemy where you
can say, 'Yes, this one did it to me'. Then they can
Example is a bad thing. Example spreads. There was a
highly publicized Beirut hijacking of the TWA plane.
After that hijacking, there were hijacking attempts at
nine different American airports. Pathological groups or
individuals modeling on the others. Even more serious are
examples set by governments. When governments engage in
terror, they set very large examples. When they engage in
supporting terror, they engage in other sets of
Absence of revolutionary ideology is central to victim
terrorism. Revolutionaries do not commit unthinking
terror. Those of you who are familiar with revolutionary
theory know the debates, the disputes, the quarrels, the
fights within revolutionary groups of Europe, the fight
between anarchists and Marxists, for example. But the
Marxists have always argued that revolutionary terror, if
ever engaged in, must be sociologically and
psychologically selective. Don't hijack a plane. Don't
hold hostages. Don't kill children, for God's sake. Have
you recalled also that the great revolutions, the
Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Algerian, the Cuban, never
engaged in hijacking type of terrorism? They did engage
in terrorism, but it was highly selective, highly
sociological, still deplorable, but there was an
organized, highly limited, selective character to it. So
absence of revolutionary ideology that begins more or
less in the post-World War II period has been central to
My final question is - These conditions have existed for
a long time. But why then this flurry of private
political terrorism? Why now so much of it and so
visible? The answer is modern technology. You have a
cause. You can communicate it through radio and
television. They will all come swarming if you have taken
an aircraft and are holding 150 Americans hostage. They
will all hear your cause. You have a modern weapon
through which you can shoot a mile away. They can't reach
you. And you have the modern means of communicating. When
you put together the cause, the instrument of coercion
and the instrument of communication, politics is made. A
new kind of politics becomes possible.
To this challenge rulers from one country after another
have been responding with traditional methods. The
traditional method of shooting it out, whether it's
missiles or some other means. The Israelis are very proud
of it. The Americans are very proud of it. The French
became very proud of it. Now the Pakistanis are very
proud of it. The Pakistanis say, 'Our commandos are the
best.' Frankly, it won't work. A central problem of our
time, political minds, rooted in the past, and modern
times, producing new realities. Therefore in conclusion,
what is my recommendation to America?
Quickly. First, avoid extremes of double standards. If
you're going to practice double standards, you will be
paid with double standards. Don't use it. Don't condone
Israeli terror, Pakistani terror, Nicaraguan terror, El
Salvadoran terror, on the one hand, and then complain
about Afghan terror or Palestinian terror. It doesn't
work. Try to be even-handed. A superpower cannot promote
terror in one place and reasonably expect to discourage
terrorism in another place. It won't work in this
Do not condone the terror of your allies. Condemn them.
Fight them. Punish them. Please eschew, avoid covert
operations and low-intensity warfare. These are breeding
grounds of terror and drugs. Violence and drugs are bred
there. The structure of covert operations, I've made a
film about it, which has been very popular in Europe,
called Dealing with the Demon. I have shown that wherever
covert operations have been, there has been the central
drug problem. That has been also the center of the drug
trade. Because the structure of covert operations,
Afghanistan, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Central America, is very
hospitable to drug trade. Avoid it. Give it up. It
Please focus on causes and help ameliorate causes. Try to
look at causes and solve problems. Do not concentrate on
military solutions. Do not seek military solutions.
Terrorism is a political problem. Seek political
solutions. Diplomacy works.
Take the example of the last attack on Bin Laden. You
don't know what you're attacking. They say they know, but
they don't know. They were trying to kill Qadaffi. They
killed his four-year-old daughter. The poor baby hadn't
done anything. Qadaffi is still alive. They tried to kill
Saddam Hussein. They killed Laila Bin Attar, a prominent
artist, an innocent woman. They tried to kill Bin Laden
and his men. Not one but twenty-five other people died.
They tried to destroy a chemical factory in Sudan. Now
they are admitting that they destroyed an innocent
factory, one-half of the production of medicine in Sudan
has been destroyed, not a chemical factory. You don't
know. You think you know.
Four of your missiles fell in Pakistan. One was slightly
damaged. Two were totally damaged. One was totally
intact. For ten years the American government has kept an
embargo on Pakistan because Pakistan is trying, stupidly,
to build nuclear weapons and missiles. So we have a
technology embargo on my country. One of the missiles was
intact. What do you think a Pakistani official told the
Washington Post? He said it was a gift from Allah. We
wanted U.S. technology. Now we have got the technology,
and our scientists are examining this missile very
carefully. It fell into the wrong hands. So don't do
that. Look for political solutions. Do not look for
military solutions. They cause more problems than they
Please help reinforce, strengthen the framework of
international law. There was a criminal court in Rome.
Why didn't they go to it first to get their warrant
against Bin Laden, if they have some evidence? Get a
warrant, then go after him. Internationally. Enforce the
U.N. Enforce the International Court of Justice, this
unilateralism makes us look very stupid and them
The question here is that I mentioned that I would go
somewhat into the story of Bin Laden, the Saudi in
Afghanistan and didn't do so, could I go into some
detail? The point about Bin Laden would be roughly the
same as the point between Sheikh Abdul Rahman, who was
accused and convicted of encouraging the blowing up of
the World Trade Center in New York City. The New Yorker
did a long story on him. It's the same as that of Aimal
Kansi, the Pakistani Baluch who was also convicted of the
murder of two CIA agents. Let me see if I can be very
short on this. Jihad, which has been translated a
thousand times as "holy war," is not quite just that.
Jihad is an Arabic word that means, "to struggle." It
could be struggle by violence or struggle by non-violent
means. There are two forms, the small jihad and the big
jihad. The small jihad involves violence. The big jihad
involves the struggles with self. Those are the concepts.
The reason I mention it is that in Islamic history, jihad
as an international violent phenomenon had disappeared in
the last four hundred years, for all practical purposes.
It was revived suddenly with American help in the 1980s.
When the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan, Zia
ul-Haq, the military dictator of Pakistan, which borders
on Afghanistan, saw an opportunity and launched a jihad
there against godless communism. The U.S. saw a God-sent
opportunity to mobilize one billion Muslims against what
Reagan called the Evil Empire. Money started pouring in.
CIA agents starting going all over the Muslim world
recruiting people to fight in the great jihad. Bin Laden
was one of the early prize recruits. He was not only an
Arab. He was also a Saudi. He was not only a Saudi. He
was also a multimillionaire, willing to put his own money
into the matter. Bin Laden went around recruiting people
for the jihad against communism.
I first met him in 1986. He was recommended to me by an
American official of whom I do not know whether he was or
was not an agent. I was talking to him and said, 'Who are
the Arabs here who would be very interesting?' By here I
meant in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said, 'You must
meet Osama.' I went to see Osama. There he was, rich,
bringing in recruits from Algeria, from Sudan, from
Egypt, just like Sheikh Abdul Rahman. This fellow was an
ally. He remained an ally. He turns at a particular
moment. In 1990 the U.S. goes into Saudi Arabia with
forces. Saudi Arabia is the holy place of Muslims, Mecca
and Medina. There had never been foreign troops there. In
1990, during the Gulf War, they went in, in the name of
helping Saudi Arabia defeat Saddam Hussein. Osama Bin
Laden remained quiet. Saddam was defeated, but the
American troops stayed on in the land of the kaba (the
sacred site of Islam in Mecca), foreign troops. He wrote
letter after letter saying, Why are you here? Get out!
You came to help but you have stayed on. Finally he
started a jihad against the other occupiers. His mission
is to get American troops out of Saudi Arabia. His
earlier mission was to get Russian troops out of
Afghanistan. See what I was saying earlier about covert
A second point to be made about him is these are tribal
people, people who are really tribal. Being a millionaire
doesn't matter. Their code of ethics is tribal. The
tribal code of ethics consists of two words: loyalty and
revenge. You are my friend. You keep your word. I am
loyal to you. You break your word, I go on my path of
revenge. For him, America has broken its word. The loyal
friend has betrayed. The one to whom you swore blood
loyalty has betrayed you. They're going to go for you.
They're going to do a lot more.
These are the chickens of the Afghanistan war coming home
to roost. This is why I said to stop covert operations.
There is a price attached to those that the American
people cannot calculate and Kissinger type of people do
not know, don't have the history to know.
Eqbal Ahmad, Professor Emeritus of International
Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at Hampshire
College in Amherst, Massachusetts, also served as a
managing editor of the quarterly Race and Class. A
prolific writer, his articles and essays have been
published in The Nation, Dawn (Pakistan), among several
other journals throughout the world. He died in
Courtesy: University of Colorado