Are our efforts to establish an effective counter-terrorism framework hampered by an inability to define the subject?

At the World Summit on Counter-Terrorism held last month in Herzliya, Israel, Dr Boaz Ganor argued that the lack of a broadly-accepted definition of terrorism deprives us of a fundamental counter-terrorism measure.

Any discussion of a definition of terrorism relies on two key assumptions. Firstly, that terrorism is sufficiently different in nature to warrant unique treatment under law (that is to say, that terrorism is not an ordinary criminal act but rather a political-military act necessitating special laws and more severe penalties). The second, and interrelated, assumption is that the existing legal framework pertaining to the conduct of warfare and politically-motivated violence does not sufficiently incorporate the types of attacks by transnational groups which have proliferated since the 1970s. Both of these assumptions are contested and can form the basis for further discussion. However, for the purposes of this argument, I will assume both as given.

Definitions of terrorism exist across a wide range of jurisdictions. Some, like the United States Code, adopt a general approach, defining terrorism as ‘premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.’

The PATRIOT Act 2001 defines ‘activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the U.S. or of any state, that (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping, and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.’

Australia’s Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2002 provides a similar general definition while carving out exemptions for ‘advocacy, protest, dissent or industrial action.’

For over forty years the UN has failed to produce a universal legal definition that meets the approval of the General Assembly. In the absence of an agreed definition, the UN has adopted a specific approach, elaborating 16 legal instruments and four amendments to prevent specific terrorist acts, such as the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

A common argument is that these specific legal instruments are sufficient to combat terrorism without a broadly accepted definition.

But terrorism is changing. We face a more fluid, dynamic, and complex terrorist threat. The strategies and instruments that have brought us limited success in the past will prove inadequate in the future.

Counter-terrorism agencies have gradually departed from a reactive, investigative-driven response to a pro-active, intelligence-driven one. To be successful, effective counter-measures need to target and disrupt terrorist operations and organisations on a number of levels – bringing individuals to justice, controlling financial flows, trans-border movement and global communications channels.

I spoke with former Chairman of the US National Commission on Terrorism Paul Bremer in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. 'The objective of an effective counter terrorist policy', he said, 'is preventing attacks. For that you need good intelligence. This is the most difficult kind of intelligence to collect that there is. It requires a seamless web of local, municipal, national and international cooperation and information-sharing.'

The level of interoperability and cooperation Bremer considers vital is simply unachievable without broad consensus on the nature of the threat.

The key to developing any such consensus is two-fold. Firstly, the definition must be general in nature, so as to effectively communicate the rejection of the tactic by the international community.  The second is to craft a definition that reduces the subjectivity of the terminology. In a follow-up post, I'll consider whether the definition Boaz Ganor offeredf at the recent World Summit on Counter-Terrorism meets these requirements.

Photo by Flickr user Dave Cross.