Public perceptions about terrorism in the decade since 9/11 stem from a habitual way of perceiving any foreign security threat in terms of specific, named countries or groups or the leaders of those countries or groups. This is particularly true of the US, but also true of its developed western counterparts across the pond. The public equates trans-national terrorism with Al Qaeda, Iran, extremist Islam or anti-westernism. Viewed through the lens of the mass media, what does or does not constitute terrorism is rather clearer than any discussion of the definitions in law or international politics might imply.
How would you define terrorism?
Personally, this Diplomat prefers a definition of “subversive acts or threats of violence with an intention to, directly or indirectly, coerce, intimidate or terrorise targets perceived to be in a position of authority or power by means of destroying public property or victimisation of innocent, unentangled or civilian people.”
However, defining terrorism is an extremely subjective and politicised activity. It entangles notions of what are or are not legitimate military targets, perpetuating the idea of the State’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and the fate of self-determination and freedom fighting globally.
But what does the law say?
International law doesn’t have a definition of terrorism, nor is “terrorism” a crime. This is because “international criminal law is currently subdivided into international criminal law stricto sensu — the so-called core crimes — and crimes of international concern — the so-called treaty crimes“, also known as transnational crimes. It is due to this fact (and the Baxter Paradox*) that terrorism has not been addressed by customary law (with consensus).
However, the lack of a crime of terrorism in IL is significant as acts of terrorism are often remote or transnational, making them difficult to domesticise and therefore combat within domestic jurisdictions alone. This means that without international cooperation, made extremely difficult due to the aforementioned issues, terrorism continues unfettered by the international community as a whole.