Terrorism is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, which traces back to the 18th century France, when the regime de la terreur of Maximilien de Robespierre was adopted as means to establish order during the transitional period of turmoil and anarchy that followed the revolution of 1789. At that time, terror was not used as means adopted by non-state or subnational entities against an existing government or political group, rather as an instrument used to consolidate the nascent revolutionary movement.

The Committee of General Security and the Revolutionary Tribunal held powers of arrest and judgment, publicly putting to death by guillotine persons convicted of treasonous and reactionary crimes. In the words of Robespierre himself, “virtue, without which terror is evil; terror, without which virtue is helpless,” and also, “Terror is nothing but justice, prompt, severe and inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.”[1]

Despite the fact that it would be anachronistic to use this same category of analysis when studying today’s terrorism, we must acknowledge that French Revolution’s “terrorism” had some common features with the contemporary one. First, the Jacobin terror was organized, deliberate, and systematic. Secondly, its goal was the creation of a new and better society.

However, terrorism never ceased from evolving and adjusting to new international and regional dynamics, as well as to specific cultural, societal, and political features of the time.[2] Following the Second World War, the meaning of the word “terrorism” continued to shift as a pendulum, to then regain the revolutionary connotations with which is it most commonly associated today. At that time, the term was used in reference to the violent revolts of indigenous nationalist and anti-colonialist groups that emerged in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, to oppose the European rule. Terrorism also fiercely substantiated on the European soil, where groups of separatists, left-wing activists and anarchists, as well as right-wing militants, carried out several actions.[3] Today, the postmodern transnational terrorism is instead associated with religious fanaticism.

Although terrorism is a global, deeply-rooted phenomenon, largely both directly and indirectly experienced by the international community, a common and agreed definition of terrorism has not been completely agreed, yet.

Defining terrorism

Assuming that knowledge is power and adopting a chronological approach, this section aims at analyzing the attempted definitions the international community of scholars and experts have been elaborating on terrorism.

In 1983, the U.S. Department of State (DOS) formulated one of the most widely used definitions. According to this definition, terrorism is “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” As part of this definition, the term “noncombatant” includes civilians and military personnel who are unarmed or not on duty. The term ‘international terrorism’ refers to terrorism “involving citizens or the territory of more than one country,” while the term ‘terrorist group’ refers to “any group practicing, or that has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.”[4]

Riley and Hoffman (1995) affirmed that “terrorism is violence, or threat of violence, calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm […] Terrorist acts are intended to produce effects beyond the immediate physical damage they cause, by having long-term psychological repercussions on a particular target audience. The fear created by terrorists, for example, may be intended to cause people to exaggerate the strength of the terrorists and the importance of their cause, to provoke governmental overreaction, to discourage dissent, or simply to intimidate and thereby enforce compliance with their demands.”

In 1996 the General Assembly, in resolution 51/210 of 17 December, decided to establish an Ad Hoc Committee to elaborate an international convention for the suppression of terrorist bombings and, subsequently, an international convention for the suppression of acts of nuclear terrorism, to supplement related existing international instruments, and thereafter to address means of further developing a comprehensive legal framework of conventions dealing with international terrorism.

Bruce Hoffmann attempted to define terrorism as the “deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.”[5] He also admitted that “Terrorism is designed to create power where there is none or to consolidate power where there is very little. Through the publicity generated by their violence, terrorists seek to obtain the leverage, influence and power they otherwise lack to effect political change on either a local or an international scale.”[6]

Security Council Resolution 1566 (2004) calls on “criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act,” as relating to terrorism. However, this definition is not binding, as it lacks any legal authority in international law.

According to Amid T. Schmid, terrorism refers, “on the one hand, to a doctrine about the presumed effectiveness of a special form or tactic of fear-generating, coercive political violence and, on the other hand, to a conspiratorial practice of calculated, demonstrative, direct violent action without legal or moral restraints, targeting mainly civilians and non-combatants, performed for its propagandistic and psychological effects on various audiences and conflict parties.”[7]

Boaz Ganor defines terrorism as “a form of violent struggle in which violence is deliberately used against civilians in order to achieve political goals (nationalistic, socioeconomic, ideological, religious, etc.).”[8] He distinguishes terrorist acts from guerrilla warfare, as in the latter military units, rather than civilians, are targeted.

Scholars agree that the terrorist is fundamentally an altruist: he believes that he is serving a ‘good’ cause designed to achieve a greater good for his own community, which the terrorist and his organization represent. Terrorist is also a rational actor, rather than a psychopathic human being,[9] as his behavior is the product of a strategic choice that through the employment of certain means allows the maximization of the aimed result. It is important to bear in mind that when using the attribute of rational, we refer to the behavior and the action undertaken by the militant terrorist, aimed to maximize the advantages, using certain resources. We are not then referring to the nature of the advantage chosen (i.e. establishing of a new political body; overthrowing a leader; spreading a political or religious faith, etc.).

Another specific feature scholars and expert of the sector concertedly agree on is that current postmodern terrorism aims not only to spread terror, but also to achieve mass destruction, as a form of punishment. As mentioned before, today terrorism is associated with religious fanaticism, of Islamic origin. In particular, a specific form of “civilization terrorism”[10] – different from the political one (PLO, Fatah, Red Brigades sponsored terrorism) – is in place. If political terrorism is motivated by the course of action of changing a political arrangement, the civilizational terrorism instead aims at unsettling the fundamental values of the democratic regimes it attacks.

Jihadi-Salafism and international and transnational terrorism

 Al-Salafiyya al-Jihadiyya is an ideological movement in Sunni Islam that predicates on an extremist reading of Islamic scripture, textually rigorous, deeply rooted in a premodern theological tradition, and extensively elaborated by religious authorities. This post-modern jihadism lays its basis into the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, developed as an answer to the rise of Western Imperialism. Founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, the Brotherhood aimed at strengthening Islamist influence in the society, by enhancing the people’s feeling of being part of a community, by offering primary services alternatively to the ones insured by the state and by sponsoring social activism (da’wa).

Salafism is a primarily theological movement in Sunni Islam concerned with purifying the faith. Therefore, it focuses on eliminating idolatry (shirk) and affirming God’s Oneness (tawhid). The writings of the Syrian Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1328) and his students provide the core Salafi theological corpus. Later significant Salafi thinkers came from the Wahhabi movement, (or Wahhabism), a subset of Salafism founded in the Arabian Peninsula by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1792).

More recently, this strict interpretation of Sunni Islam was again embraced and strengthened by Sayyid Qutb – “Bin Laden’s godfather” –, Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi – teacher and mentor of ISIS’s spokesperson – and Abu Basir al-Tartusi. These two particularly defined the current shape of Salafi Jihadism, encouraging the militants in embracing a radical revolution to overthrow the existing governments and replace them with an Islamic State. In Arabic the word Jihad means “effort” or “struggle.” In Islam, it could be an individual’s internal struggle against baser instincts, the struggle to build a good Muslim society, or a war for the faith against unbelievers.[11] Therefore, the most radical interpretation of this word refers to a peripheral current of extremist Islamic thought whose adherent demand use of violence aims at ousting non-Islamic forms of government and societies, in order to establish an Islamic government according to Shaaria, God’s law.[12] It is fundamental to notice that the term “jihadist” is not used by many Muslims because they see it as wrongly associating a noble religious concept with illegitimate violence.

After al-Qaeda, today the Islamic State challenges both the Middle East and North Africa region and the Old Continent, though an enhanced and inflexible version of Jihadi Salafism, and a perfect combination between “defensive and offensive jihad.” Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, former Daesh leader, explicitly emphasized the importance of “offensive jihad,” which he defined as “going after the apostate unbelievers by attacking [them] in their home territory, in order to make God’s word higher and until there is no persecution.”

After having undertaken a process of growth and maturation,[13] the rise of the Islamic State in 2013-2014 has energized the jihadi movement, attracting tens of thousands of young Muslims around the globe. This growing success is also proved by the spectacular phenomenon of the “foreign fighters,” individuals who join insurgencies abroad.[14] Although this phenomenon is nothing but new, the Syrian war has attracted hundreds of thousands of fighters from all over the world as nothing before. According to the ICRS, at the end of 2014, about 20,000 foreign fighters travelled to the Middle East, and among them 3850 were Europeans. The Soufan Group registered a dramatic increase at the end of the 2015, with between 27,000 and 31,000 people joining the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Among these, between the 20% and 30% came back to their home country, representing a substantial dangerous threat.

Evidently, terrorism is one of the main challenges our world is facing today, several attacks having been perpetrated at the heart of European democracies. Let is notice that this analysis does not consider more ruinous or catastrophic a terror attack tackling European societies, rather than one occurring in one of the MENA region countries. On the contrary, we are assuming that the European societies are less used to experience terrorism. This does not mean that we should not devote our attention to countries that are the ground of terror attacks, almost on a daily basis. It just means that for the purpose of this analysis, we are considering European democracies as target of jihadi salafi militants (both foreign fighters and not), and we want to elaborate more on which strategy they should adopt to face this threat.

Then, what is the best way in which democracies are able to counter terrorism? Most discussion in this field has concluded that in democratic countries it is better to deal with terrorism using the criminal justice mode, that leaves the struggle in the hands of the police as part of a more comprehensive mode which treats terrorism as violent criminal action in the civilian arena.[15] The alternative model, the war model, assumes that terrorism is an act of war that challenges the legitimate foundation of the state or political system and therefore is a serious threat that must be fought aggressively with military forces and civilian intelligence agencies.[16]

Israel security paradigm

As it proclaims itself as the only democracy of the Middle Eastern region, Israel is a relevant case study for this analysis, as a country that has been facing this ‘disease’ for decades, by now. Thus, the fear of terror is a structural part of daily life in Israel.

Israel has been facing for decades a political kind of terrorism, whose militants are Palestinians who fight a national struggle for the recognition of their identity and territory. It has developed one of the most sophisticated security apparatuses of the world and has achieved one of the highest values of GDP expenditure in the military sector – 5.2% in 2014, compared to 3.5% of the United States.[17] Since the 2002, after the second Intifada, the country is equipped with a fence that separates – and defends – it from the neighboring Palestinian territories. It has established numerous security checks, it conducts military raids in the West Bank and its refugee camps, and it carefully monitors the communications between potential terrorist militants. Nevertheless, it is still facing revenging attacks that according to someone could inaugurate a third Intifada.

As a matter of fact, securing the state in such a skillful way, in the long term causes an evident democracy’s shrinkage: the spread psychosis and the constant fear affect the political leaders’ choices, who more often aim to block and limit the voice of their fellow citizens – Arab Israeli parties and Arab Israeli civil society.

Recently, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee approved[18] a proposal that, if passed, will allow a vote by 90 out of 120 members of Knesset to suspend one of their colleagues from their post indefinitely. There is little doubt that the proposed legislation was designed to target serving Arab Members. Speaking of which, the Knesset’s Ethics Committee suspended[19] three Arab MKs for periods of two to four months as punishment for meeting with families of alleged Palestinian terrorists shot dead after killing Israeli civilians.[20]

Turning to civil society and freedom association, proposed bills[21] have called for denying NGO registration on political grounds, requiring pre-approval from the government for donations from foreign funders, and labeling certain nonprofits as funded by “foreign agents.” On top of this, the Northern branch of the Islamic movement in Israel was declared an illegal organization, although any evidence of link with terrorism was present. The “Nakba Law” (2011) enables the Ministry of Finance to cut funding for any public institution including schools that commemorates the Nakba – national tragedy for the Palestinian people. The “Boycott Law” (2011) first bans Israeli citizens and organizations from calling for a boycott both in Israel, in its settlements in the occupied territories; secondly, it includes as punishment, civil lawsuits, and budget cuts and revoked tax exemptions.

Strong declarations are not coming only from right-wing representatives.[22] Isaac Herzog, leader of the main Likud opposition party, Zionist Union, said that the two-state solution is not a realistic option in the near future. “There is a need to initiate security measures that match the reality on the ground and that means separation from the Palestinians,” he told, welcoming the plan of completing the West Bank security barrier and “physically separating” the Palestinian villages surrounding Jerusalem from the capital.[23]

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, an Israeli senior security officer declared, “I hope that the Europeans will now understand how disconnected they are from reality when they talk about human rights, rules of war and exalted moral principles. Radical Islam does not recognize any of these things. In this respect, Hamas does not differ much from the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. They share the same Sharia; they aspire for a caliphate in the Middle East and afterward the rest of the world and they share the same internalized brutality,” – “Our fight against Hamas is in that category — it is the framework where the Europeans now understand that they have to start battling al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in their own backyards. When you struggle against an enemy of this type, you need the correct tools,”[24] where the correct tools take the shape of fierce violence, strengthened security checks, and the shrinkage of individual space of freedom.

What security paradigm for Europe?

The Old Continent has been experiencing harsh and tremendous attacks on its soil, recently. Several European heads of governments stated that the global jihadism has declared war to Europe and to the democratic values Europe is built on. Although this could be true and correct for a certain extent, the emotive and fierce reaction that follows present some evident flaws.

As the analysis of the Israeli case has just demonstrated, answering to terrorism with violence, enhanced security measures, freedom limitations and diffused fear does not only mean to play the terrorists’ game and let them easily win, but also to weaken the pillar of the democratic society that our political leaders have been sponsoring and defending for decades, vis-à-vis repressive and violent dictatorships in other parts of the world.

As Louise Richardson noticed, terrorists want “revenge, renown, and reaction.”[25] War gives them all three, providing opportunities to revenge by the deployment of troops or heavy bombings in the dar al Islam; feeding their believes that democratic societies are contrasting their mission and repressing their faith; giving them an easily accessible channel to recruit much more sympathizers.

Europe should not go down on the battlefield, and should not even follow the “security path” followed by Israel, by transforming itself in a fortress hard to break.

Europe is facing a civilization terror that aims to destabilize the fundamental values of the democratic regimes it attacks. By securing the fortress to guarantee maximal national security, Europe will take the risk of damaging its human rights implant, its diplomatic values and the democratic, free and open order it had been able to create after centuries of interstates conflicts on its soil. As Boaz Ganor elaborated,[26] terrorist attacks are the result of a successful combination between ‘motivation’ – rational, consequential and appropriate way of thinking by maximizing the results, using the available means – and ‘operational capacity’ – travel, weapons, bomb construction, procurement. The European countries have to concretely and unitarily address these two elements: first, by tackling the motivation, the societal pressure, the indoctrination and the radicalization; secondly by disrupting the operational network the terrorists built. This can be achieved only through a systematic and coordinated action of all the European countries, that have to further renounce to their national sovereignty and put in the hands of an accountable political actor – the EU with its Parliament, its Executive, and its Army (Art. 42.2, The Treaty on European Union)[27] – the future of a (now) disrupted continent.

Will the 28 follow this advice? For the moment, we can only let time take its course.

Giulia Formichetti

Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)


References and notes

[1] Halsall, Paul. Maximilien Robespierre: On the Principles of Political Morality, February 1794. New York, NY: Fordham University, 1997. legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/robespierre-terror.asp

[2] For a detailed analysis of the historical evolution and mindset of terrorism, see: Hoffmann, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006.

[3] Red Army Faction, Japanese Red Army, Baader-Meinhof Group, Irish Republican Party, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, Ordine Nuovo, Avanguardia Nazionale, Brigate Rosse.

[4] U.S. Department of State. Patterns of Global Terrorism 2003. www.state.gov/documents/organization/31912.pdf

[5] Hoffmann, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Schmid, Alex P. (ed.). The Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research. London and New York: Routledge, 2011.

[8] Ganor, Boaz. The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2005.

[9] See: Silke, Andrew. “Cheshire-cat logic: The recurring theme of terrorist abnormality in psychological research,” Psychology, Crime & Law 4, no. 1, 1998: 51–69. Crenshaw, Martha. “The logic of terrorism: Terrorist behavior as a product of strategic choice.” In Origins of terrorism: Psychologies, ideologies, theologies, states of mind, edited by, Walter Reich, 7–24. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Johns Hopkins, 1998. Post, Jerrold M. “Terrorist psycho-logic: Terrorist behavior as a product of psychological forces.” In Origins of terrorism: Psychologies, ideologies, theologies, states of mind, edited by Walter Reich, 25–40. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Johns Hopkins, 1998.

[10] Illouz, Eva. “In Dealing With Terrorism, France Mustn’t Look to Israel for Answers,” Haaretz, November 19, 2015. www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.687144

[11] “What is jihadism?,” BBC,  December 11, 2014. www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-30411519

[12] Brechman, Jarret M. Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

[13] See: Bunzel, Cole. “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World – Analysis Paper 19, March 2015. www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2015/03/ideology-of-islamic-state-bunzel/the-ideology-of-the-islamic-state.pdf

[14] Bąkowski, Piotr, and Laura Puccio. “Foreign fighters: national and EU responses in an international context,” European Parliamentary Research Service, February 2015. www.europarl.europa.eu/EPRS/EPRS-Briefing-548980-Foreign-fighters-FINAL.pdf

[15] Perliger, Arie, Hasisi, Badi, and Ami Pedahzur. “Policing Terrorism in Israel,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 36, no. 12, December 2009: 1279–1304.

[16] Ibidem.

[17] World Bank. Military expenditure (% of GDP)data.worldbank.org/indicator/MS.MIL.XPND.GD.ZS

[18] Lis, Jonathan. “After Stormy Debate, Bill Allowing Knesset to Expel Lawmakers Passes First Legislative Hurdle,” Haaretz, February 29, 2016. www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.706177

[19] Khoury, Jack and Jonathan Lis. “Knesset Suspends Three Israeli-Arab Lawmakers Over Visits With Families of Slain Terrorists,” Haaretz, February 8, 2016. www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.702177

[20] Harel, Amos. “Israel Is Beginning to Eat Its Own,” Foreign Policy, February 22, 2016. foreignpolicy.com/2016/02/22/israel-eats-its-own-palestine-violence-intifada-netanyahu-livni-herzog-lapid/

[21] “Anti-NGO Legislation in the Israeli Knesset,” The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, February 2016. www.acri.org.il/en/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Anti-NGO-Bills-Overview-Updated-Febuary-2016.pdf

[22] See: Ravid, Barak. “Netanyahu: I Don’t Want a Binational State, but We Need to Control All of the Territory for the Foreseeable Future,” Haaretz, October 26, 2015. www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.682374

[23] Wootliff, Raoul. “Herzog: For now, two-state solution unrealistic,” The Times of Israel, January 20, 2016. www.timesofisrael.com/herzog-for-now-two-state-solution-unrealistic/

[24] Caspit, Ben. “Israel wonder how Europe will change after Paris terror attack,” Al Monitor, January 8, 2015. www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/01/terror-france-charlie-hebdo-israel-islamism-human-rights.html

[25] Richardson, Louise. What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat. New York, NY: Random House, 2007.

[26] Ganor, Boaz. The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2005.

[27] The Article 42.2 of the Treaty on European Union states: “[…] The common security and defence policy shall include the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy. This will lead to a common defence, when the European Council, acting unanimously, so decides. It shall in that case recommend to the Member States the adoption of such a decision in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements. […]”