Terrorism is widely regarded as the most dangerous to global security in the 21st century. This activity has the potential to devastate the social, economic, and political life of a nation. The international community has, therefore expressed its disapproval of all forms of terrorism. Worldwide condemnation of terrorist organizations and their actions has been issued with harsh penalties being imposed on perpetrators. Despite the unanimous stand against terrorism by the international community, there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. While the traditional view of terrorism pits an organization or an individual against a sovereign state, there have been suggestions that a state can be a terrorist. Such suggestions have been reinforced by the presence of a type of terrorism that involves the secret sponsorship of terrorists by a sovereign state. This paper will argue that a state cannot be a terrorist even if it perpetrates violence against non-combatants.
Why a State cannot be a Terrorist
Most definitions of terrorism emphasis on the points that terrorism is politically motivated and only non-state actors can be regarded as terrorists. While there is no universally endorsed definition of terrorism, one of the more widely used definitions labels it as “politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by non-state actors” (Linden 172). From this definition, it is evident that the terrorist element has to be a non-state actor. If the state engages in acts of violence, these actions cannot be regarded as terrorism. Jongman notes that terrorism is illegal political behaviour (6). A sovereign state has the right to engage in any political behaviour it chooses.
States cannot be classified as terrorists since they lack any of the motivations that terrorist organizations and individuals have. The classic causes of terrorism are identity, and economic grievances by a subset of society and this group take up terrorism to highlight their grievances. Williamson documents that political, ideological, and religious objectives have always been integral aspects of terrorism since historical times (45). The state does not hold any such grievances since it can dictate the religious and cultural composition of its citizens. The state also has control over the economy of its people and hence cannot engage in terrorism to achieve economic goals. Williamson notes that terrorists hope to gain power and influence where they have little or none of it (47). Terrorists hope to create some political change in their country through violence or the threat of violence.
Terrorism involves the illegal use of force and violence against civilians or military targets. The state is legally sanctioned to use force and violence as it might deem necessary. Riegler notes that violence is a component of even democratic governments, and its use may be required for the security of the government or the citizens (1). It is assumed that when the state engaged in acts of violence, even against a civilian population, there is a reasonable justification for this and the actions are within the state’s rights.
The state is justified to engage in forms of violence to protect its interests or defend its allies. One of the most commonly cited case studies in support of the existence of state terrorism is the Battle of Algiers between 1950 and 1960. In this case, the government created a terrorist outfit to counter the terrorist activities of the Algerian freedom fighters who were engaged in terror activities (Riegler 2). The government counterinsurgency units did not engage in conventional warfare but used guerrilla strategies similar to those used by the national liberation movements. In this often-cited case study, the state was not acting as a terrorist since it was protecting its interests. In addition to this, the state is authorized to make use of violent force, and its actions cannot be categorized as terrorism.
States are not terrorists since when they engage in violent actions against citizens, the actions are regarded as aggressions, and they are met with military force from the other nation. Terrorism is usually carried out with the express intention of eliciting a reaction from the government. Williamson reveals that the main target of modern terrorism is not particularly individuals who are killed, rather, “it is the intended demonstrative effect of the killing of the wider social and political environment, including the foreign policy of the victims’ government” (42). If a state were to engage in actions against citizens of another state, this would be termed as aggression and not terrorism. The other state would most likely respond by engaging the aggressor nation in a conventional military confrontation.
This paper set out to argue that a state cannot be a terrorist. To support this claim, the article has noted that the definition of terrorism explicitly excludes actions by state entities. In addition to this, the state has the legitimacy to use violence and force. The paper has also noted that when a state engages in violence against civilians of another state, this is an act of war and not a terrorist act. From the arguments given in this paper, it can be convincingly stated that the state cannot be a terrorist even if it sponsors terrorist groups.
Jongman, Albert. Political Terrorism: A New Guide to Actors, Authors, Concepts, Data Bases, Theories, and Literature. London: Transaction Publishers, 2005.
Linden, Edward. Focus on Terrorism. NY: Nova Publishers, 2007.
Riegler, Thomas. The State as a Terrorist? Arguing for a Category of State Terrorism. Web.
Williamson, Myra. Terrorism, War and International Law: The Legality of the Use of Force Against Afghanistan In 2001. Boston: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2009