The Global War on (?): Crafting the Legal Definition of “International Terrorism”

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On September 11, 2001, nineteen members of al-Qaeda launched a coordinated series of attacks while aboard four United States [U.S.] commercial jet airliners. In doing so, these nineteen men hijacked their respective aircrafts and attempted to divert the flights to hit four high-profile targets on U.S. soil. Three groups of hijackers were successful, hitting the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center and the western face of the Pentagon within just thirty-four minutes of each other. The fourth plane was unsuccessful, and failed to reach its target of either the U.S. Capitol or the White House after a group of passengers instead forced the plane to crash in a field in southern Pennsylvania. A total of 2,981 people were killed during the attacks, surpassing the number of victims killed at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Then-President George W. Bush was swift to condemn the attacks, and on the evening of September 11th delivered a public address which opened with: “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.” This reference to terrorism would prove a key theme in President Bush’s address that night, appearing five times in a speech totaling just over four minutes. The theme of terrorism would also become a staple of President Bush’s rhetoric in the years that followed, thereby facilitating his commencement of a global “war on terror” and his solicitation of international support for this cause.

Yet what exactly does a “global war on terror” entail? In the near decade that has passed since the September 11th attacks it seems that no one, not even President Bush himself, has been able to devise a satisfactory answer to that question. This is unsurprising, given that no universally accepted definition of the underlying crime of “terrorism” currently exists. However, the fact that no such definition exists is surprising, as “[v]iolence aimed at inspiring fear and intimidating populations is not a new phenomenon.”

Indeed, the word “terror” was first used to describe the Jacobin “Reign of Terror” following the French Revolution at the end of the 18th Century. Since that time, the global community has come to regard acts of terrorism as international crimes. Yet any such harmony in the global community ends there, as it has also failed to assign a uniform definition to acts constituting international terrorism. As such, the assignment of this label carries little legal weight, particularly in establishing methods of both prevention and response. Instead states frequently seek refuge in the term’s ambiguity, and “terrorism easily falls prey to change that suits the interests of particular states at particular times.”

This assertion is certainly indicative of the U.S.’ response to September 11th. Many believed that the attacks were of such “a murderous scale that [it] makes quibbling over definitions seem absurd.” Yet President Bush posed the initiative that followed not as an effort targeting al Qaeda, but as a strike against all international terrorism. This was a clever tactic— because the international community had not yet defined the act of “terrorism,” it had also failed to assign definitive legal principles to govern a state’s response to such acts. This granted terrifying leeway to the Bush administration, which manipulated the term to allow for such “counterterrorism” methods as torture and denial of due process rights.

The impact of such indeterminacy in the law, “brought about by a vague or nonexistent definition of terrorism, can [thus] result in the multiplicity of interpretation and the instability of the legal system.” For while the U.S.’ cause may have been noble, its methods were not. This not only harmed the credibility of the U.S. in the international community, but also the legitimacy and enforceability of international legal standards as well. Such an impact has revealed the urgent need for a uniform definition of international terrorism, as states cannot expect to successfully fight a war on terror without first knowing what that fight entails.

Its global condemnation has existed for as long as acts of terrorism have been committed. This had led some to assign the prohibition of international terrorism as a category of customary…

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