The definition of the term terrorism in the post 9/11 years has become a debated issue, with the U.S setting the standards over how terrorism should be defined and fought. Ever since George Bush declared “war on terrorism” a fictional entity which is not confined by geographical borders, or confined to any particular religious, political or ethnic motivation the use of the term terrorism, how it’s defined and who falls into the category has intensively been debated. Actually throughout the majority of modern history the definition of the term terrorism has become a focus point of heated political and academic discourse.
The U.S definition of terrorism is outlines title 22, Section 2656f(d) of the U.S Code which defines terrorism as a: “means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”
As can be seen above, the U.S definition of terrorism is extremely ambiguous, allowing for terrorism to be defined as literally any act of violence against a nonecombatant to be classed as terrorism. This also allows for the U.S State Department to be hypocritically selective over who is branded as a terrorist. On a transnational level the ambiguity of the term terrorism is mainly a direct result of its conflict with the right of self-determination, becoming an umbrella term for either the U.S War on Terror, or any state affected by separatism, while on a domestic level the term is often applied to any political movements opposing the state.
In wake of the recent Boston Marathon Bombings the question of how the U.S defines terrorism has once again come into question. Shortly following the bombings it was announced that both the Tsarnaev brothers were Chechen immigrants, emigrating to the U.S as youngsters, from the Russian state of Dagastan located in Russia’s troubled Caucasus.
The announcement of the Chechen connection probably resulted in mass celebrations in the state Duma and FSB, due to the U.S lack of recognition of terrorism in the caucuses. Despite numerous terrorist attacks, the U.S government and many U.S based think-tanks have criticized Russia for human rights abuses and what they view as a brutal crackdown on Chechen self-determination. The Boston Bombings have now given Russia a new bargaining chip to claim the same definition of terrorism as the U.S state department, which has already been seen in the weeks following the Boston Bombings. Following the bombings the Russian media has been spinning the “we told you so” line, while Putin in his annual call-in show pointed out that Russia “is itself a victim of international terrorism.” Russia has been quick to get their point across, that from now on, the U.S cannot set the standards for defining terrorism, and must now give the Russian fight against terrorism the same recognition as the U.S “War on Terror”.
Just like Russia other states also used the Boston Bombings to highlight their plight to fight terrorism. On the 25th of April Beijing announced what it called a “terrorist attack” in Xinjiang, when a violent incident resulted in the death of 21 people. The BBC like normal in their report on the incident gave the typical Western approach to defining terrorism, disputing the official Chinese claims and instead reporting that the incident was more a result of Uighur self-determination, with separatist movements reacting to China’s brutal occupation. The Beijing-backed Hong Kong Newspaper, Wen Wei Po gave a different approach to the standard BBC report, instead calling out U.S “double standards,” over terrorism and Chechen separatists and blaming these double standards were to blame for bomb attacks in Boston. The article went on to urge the U.S to “learn a lesson” and not harbour, or support Xinjiang Separatists.
Similarly Syria reiterated is plight of fighting what it has claimed to be terrorism, rather than the Western perception of a brutal regime, cracking down on a freedom movement. Syria which has become a brutal proxy war between Russia and the U.S often brings heated debate with both Assad and the FSA gaining equal support. However, despite your political allegiance the entire war reeks of hypocrisy. Following the Boston bombings, the U.S responding to a European Union investigation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, persuaded Obama to investigate whether they had crossed his “redline” which would involve some form of intervention. There is no doubt there needs to be some form of direct intervention, or peace talks to bring an end to the conflict. However, much of the prolonging of the war can be attributed to not only the U.S definition of the conflict, but an outright refusal to attempt any dialogue between the FSA and the Syrian regime.
Nonetheless, Damascus has frequently been targeted by suicide bombers killing both government and civilians alike, while Al-Nusra Front one of the factions fighting in Syria, has officially pledged and allegiance to Al Qaeda. When referring to these events the U.S completely avoids using the word “terrorism,” whether it’s referring to bombings, or groups such as Al-Nusra Front. It would be stupid to think that the U.S does not view these incidents as terrorism the only difference is they don’t publicly announce it, in order to insure Western support for the FSA. Despite the oppositions links to terrorism the U.S carries on funding the opposition, while avoiding intervention, in the hope that they will not only rely on U.S investment in the post war year, but also a hope they will project their hatred away from the U.S, and instead towards Russia. There is no doubt that a large majority of the Syrian rebels can be classed as terrorists. However, because Assad is seen as a dictator, and the rebels are supported by the West, the mere mention of classifying the Syrian rebels as terrorists is discredited because it does not fit the U.S definition of terrorism.
Clearly the recent Boston bombings have highlighted, not only the ambiguous wording of the U.S definition of terrorism but has also given the U.S less political power to determine who can and what can be classified as terrorism. Whether the U.S likes it or not, terrorists can be classed as rational actors fighting against what they feel as political oppression. What the U.S classes as terrorism is purely dependent on their diplomatic relations with the state making the accusation, and U.S strategic interests in the region. This allows for the use to define any group working in U.S foreign interests as acting in their right for self-determination, despite any violent act of terrorism they may carryout, while any group acting against U.S interests will be labelled with the tag of terrorist. In response to the Boston Bombings the U.S has already been forced to reclassify and change its stance towards terrorism in the Caucuses. Nonetheless, only time will tell whether this will force the U.S to change their definition of terrorism, or whether this will push the U.S into accepting other states claims of terrorism. The liable case, like everything related to U.S foreign policy, they will continue to maintain their hypocritical definition of terrorism, although the Boston Bombings now gives states a bargaining chip to use against the U.S when criticism is given in relation to their claims of terrorism and efforts of counterterrorism.