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Terrorism in the Global Context


The issue of terrorism is rather complex as it is carried out by persons who are influenced by multi-faceted ideological viewpoints and are also motivated by various other factors like history, philosophy, politics, psychology, personal experiences etc. Radicalization towards terrorism can be carried forth by groups hailing from extremists’ ideologies or even by individuals widely referred to as “lone wolves”. Efforts to understand and eliminate terrorism internationally can be traced back to 1937 when the League of Nations presented a draft convention for the prevention and punishment of terrorism. Although this convention never saw the light of day its efforts towards defining terrorism form the foundational steps for understanding the perils of Terrorism globally. The draft convention defined Terrorism as “acts of criminal nature which are directed against the state with the intention to create a sense of terror in minds of particular persons, group of persons or the public at large”. One of the shortcomings of this interpretation was that it did not recognize terrorist acts against civilians as widely and importantly as it should’ve, yet this serves an important point of reference for later discourse on Terrorism. Then and now, the world community is yet to adopt an all-inclusive concrete definition of Terrorism. But this absence of consensus in no way signifies lack of progress when it comes to coming up with mechanisms to battle Terrorism. The UN and other IOs have managed to come up with declarations, resolutions, specific ad hoc conventions have been formulated and multiple universal “sectoral” treaties relating to specific aspects of Terrorism have been declared. Such multi-dimensional mechanisms have successfully provided a basic framework by defining certain acts and core elements of Terrorism and as a result facilitated the process of combating Terrorism.

A Customary Perspective on Terrorism

As has been noticed earlier, there exists no universally accepted definition of the term terrorism, yet evidence with respect to customary definition can be derived from the judgement[1] of Special Tribunal for Lebanon in 2011. The STL opined that there exists a definition of terrorism within the customary international law since 2005. The tribunal while defining terrorism relied heavily on a wide spectrum of germane policies, rules, operations, norms adopted by UN and UNGA along with evolved domestic and international jurisprudence. As a result of which, it was stated that the customary international law was constituted of 3 key elements, as follows: –

  • First key element is the committal of a criminal act such as against civilians, conspiracy, causing death or serious bodily injury, holding hostage, kidnapping etc.
  • Second key element is the criminal intent with which is act is perpetrated. Holding aims such as spreading a sense of fear and terror on a widespread level or use of oppressive methods against any authority to the extent of harassing them to carry out a specific act or even refrain from some according to their demands.
  • Lastly, the act must be of transnational nature.

The tribunals view was severely criticized for not expressing a holistic view while defining terrorism because of which this understanding was rather narrow. One of the prominent commentators of that time, Ben Saul pointed out the absence of a comprehensive definition of terrorism. A consensus was that a customary definition of terrorism is still evolving and there is time till fruition, yet its existence was recognized.

United Nations Definitional Approach on Terrorism – A Timeline

The first instance in the timeline of efforts carried out by the UN to define terrorism can be traced back to the UN Resolution 49/60, which was intended at criminalizing an array of armed activities which were designated as “terrorist” in essence, the resolution referred to terrorism as, “Acts aimed to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them”[2].

Another effort of UN at trying to decipher the term terrorism can be traced back to Resolution 1566 which aimed to aid states in order to empower them to meet their duties conferred upon them by Resolution 1373. Resolution 1566 loosely defined terrorism as follows, “criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with 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, which constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism, are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature, and calls upon all States to prevent such acts and, if not prevented, to ensure that such acts are punished by penalties consistent with their grave nature.”

Another important source to define and understand terrorism in a global context is the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, 1999 and the same understanding of terrorism was also reaffirmed by the UNSC Resolution, 2001.

Security Council Resolution 1373: A Harbinger of Progress

The year is 2001, the scenario is that the two towers of the world trade center in New York City, the Pentagon in D.C and in Pennsylvania have been crashed into by 4 hijacked airplanes. What made these attacks monumental was that the symbols of American identity had fallen to ground like a house of cards. The Security Council post the attacks took certain steps to inculcate counter-terrorism mechanisms to fight against terrorism on a global level. There was a condemnation of global terror and the right to self-defense was recognized under Article 51 of the UN Charter.[3] Perhaps its most significant action in this area, however, was the adoption of Resolution 1373 which established the Counter-Terrorism Committee.[4] The resolution remains silent on the definition clause as far as terrorism is concerned and even on identification of separate and specific terrorists’ acts. Rather a deviation from the usual course of action has been observed and it seems to be focusing more on empowering individual nations in terms of legislative and executive competency as far as countering terrorism is concerned. Resolution 1373 creates a uniform obligation for all 191 member states to the United Nations, thus going beyond the existing international counterterrorism conventions and protocols binding only those that have become parties to them. Resolution 1373 encompasses various counter-terrorism measures, including controls upon terrorist financing and weapons transfers, criminalization of certain acts, enhanced border control and policies for inter-State cooperation.[5] The focus has been laid on the crucial area of financing terrorism but alongside it also places expectations on states and urges them to take steps against terrorists, their organizations. To carry out the same obligation the states are required to update domestic laws and to curb terrorism, improve border security and control traffic in arms, cooperate and exchange information with other states concerning terrorists, and provide judicial assistance to other states in criminal proceedings related to terrorism.[6] Finally, it creates the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) tasked with monitoring the implementation of Resolution 1373. In a basic sense it expects all states to function in unison by working more efficiently on improving their domestic legislations in such a manner that terrorist financing is rendered impossible.

Implications of “No Definition Consensus” Under Security Council Resolution 1373

The absence of a universally accepted definition is a cause for grave concern as the fluid nature of it can be manipulated in multiple ways. Consequences of terrorism are known to affect the entire world, a lot of ambiguity in such a scenario can warrant for misapplication and misuse by authorities. Politicization of terrorism can facilitate mismanagement by those in power which can result into states turning violent against its citizen in the name of countering terrorism. Scenarios like these create a hospitable environment for violations to take place in such as rights of the citizens being infracted. Even though there is a generally accepted notion that counter-terrorism measures are bound to be stringent but at no point should it overpower the rights of an individual.

It also becomes extremely important to bridge such gaps as absence of a universally accepted definition also leads to ambiguous domestic legislations. These gaps account for shoddy legislations which are not all-inclusive in nature. These ambiguities go against the very premise of principle of legality, or nullum crimen, nulla poena sine lege, a latin phraseology used to denote that no person shall be punished under any circumstance for an act which was not criminalized under the relevant legislation at that given point in time when it was alleged to have been committed. Principle of legality in essence disallows criminal law to be applied retrospectively and demands for an offence to be clearly defined in the law itself and the punishment to be prescribed thereof. It is based on the humble assumption; “no punishment without law”.

Another significant issue has been the lack of harmonization between national and regional laws and normative standards on countering terrorism. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1373 (2001), which required States to take effective national legislative action as part of their global efforts to counter terrorism more effectively. Although, on the one hand, this obligated States to take legislative action, in the absence of a universally agreed definition of terrorism, the result has been a mixed legislative response and approach by Member States, sometimes with the potential to hinder rather than facilitate international cooperation. The resolution has also been criticized for its “no definition consensus” as wider understanding of a concept such as terrorism can lead to miscarriage of justice if independent states are not cautious while exercising power and interpreting international conventions and can potentially violate the rights of individuals such as the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial, the right to seek asylum, the right to freedom of expression, as well as the prohibition of torture and discrimination. The states at no point shall turn violent towards its citizens and violate their human rights in the pretext of countering terrorism.

Perceptions on Terrorism; Destroying the Cliché

Terrorism and Religion

One should at this point stop and ask oneself this question, what is it that one associates terrorism to or what is the image that comes to one’s mind when they think of a terrorist? The response is so apparent that it is better left unanswered for the purpose of understanding how deeply rooted is this stereotypical image of terrorism in our thoughts. There seems to exist this common behavioral pattern of associating terrorism to religion more particularly to Islam.

The below image represents the diversity when it comes to participation in terrorist activities by humans.

Terrorism has no Religion

An intentional use of blue has been made in the above chart for 2 main reasons a) for the purpose of representing oneself as human first and then religious and b) to signify all religions as one and unified.

Taking into consideration a hypothetical scenario where we try to derive a logical inference from the following statements: A) All terrorists are humans B) Not every human is a Muslim, this leads us to a simple and humble conclusion that not all terrorists are Muslims.

Terrorists hailing from around the world come from different religious backgrounds and not just Islam. Separating Islam from terrorism is rather crucial as many claim that there is no “true Islam” or there is no authentic way to follow Islam. In such a scenario, associating terrorist activities singularly to Islam is erroneous because of two main reasons a) Islam is the second largest religion in the world after Christianity and b) Islam is reasonably heterogeneous in nature, both these factors add to explain us the importance of not generalizing and compartmentalizing Islam.

Perils of Polarization

When it comes to learning from experiences, France has some to teach us all. In a country that is increasingly polarized the events that took place in 2015 which killed about 150 people, divided the country further. The incident arose when an Islamist terrorist attack was carried out at the office of a French satirical magazine ‘charlie hebdo’. The attacks spurred after they magazine had published a caricature of Prophet Muhammad that triggered the religious sentiments of his followers. Soon after the attacks were carried out, a slogan “Je suis Charlie” which translates to “I am Charlie” emerged as the beacon of defending free speech and ricocheted around across the globe harnessing support. All standing together against the terrorist attack in France were inspired by this shared sentiment of “I am Charlie”. A couple of years into the future, the slogan which was used to unify people against the terrorist attack has led to the creation of a wide crack between the two newly created sects of people based on secularism, identity, freedom of speech and most definitely Islam. This has led to multiple complications and now the people seem to be under a compulsion to pick sides. One who identify with Charlie as “I am Charlie” and the other who don’t identify with Charlie as “I am not Charlie”. “I wish this slogan would cease to exist because in the form it’s taken today, it deepens the divide”[7]. What this divide mainly signifies is that if one is Charlie, they support the caricatures that were published and in that way are anti-Islam and non-secular whereas if one is not Charlie, they do not support an individual’s right to express themselves and opine that when it comes to religion there is no tolerance.

In this scenario, the people have seemed to fallen prey to the play of words and have in the process lost the plot. The real fight against terrorism remains untouched while new issues are emerging, and the divide seems to sharpen further. This is exactly the learning the author was referring to; past experiences are not for regret but for progress.

We seem to be losing a perspective of things as we shift from “I think therefore I am” to “I believe therefore I am right” which has also been recognized as post-truth politics. Hence it is essential we start questioning things and understanding them in their true essence rather than falling prey to our emotions and falling into the trash chute of “make-believe”. On that note, dividing people is dangerous and further prompts terrorist behaviour.

Unifying the Polar World

Unifying people globally is essential in the fight against terrorism. To have a humanist approach towards dealing with such evils existing in our society is to understand that it is not the people who are particularly evil rather it is the circumstance that is. The us v. them or the good v. evil narrative is rather a futile effort at understanding crime and criminology, the blame game is nothing but a journey through a tunnel that never ends and sees light. Such a narrative causes frustration of a kind like that of what Kafka referred to while coining the term “Kafkaesque”. History is witness of what happens when poles are crated globally, cold war taught us so many lessons about the horrifying outcomes of dividing people and creating a so-called powerful pole up against weaker ones. Dividing people gives birth to many more issues, creates more hurdles, and pushes us farther away from our eventual goals. Polarizing further the already polarized world is not a singular step but rather multiple leaps forward towards the Judgement day.

Terrorism Beyond Good and Evil

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”

It is extremely complex to study and understand terrorist behaviour as for one no terrorist would volunteer to be studied as a terrorist and secondly trying to conclude from afar can lead to serious miscalculations and errors. Many psychologists ascertain that assuaging people’s fear of cultural annihilation, highlighting our common humanity or demonstrating the discrepancy between the dream and reality of terrorist involvement[8] can possibly help in prevention of terrorism.

A study was carried out by psychologist John Horgan at the Pennsylvania State University’s International Center for study of terrorism which involved interview with 60 former terrorists. The insights provided by him highlighted the reasons behind a person voluntarily and sometimes even involuntarily opting for such a dangerous course of action. Few amongst these reasons were as follows-

  • Feelings of angst, alienation and lack of connection.
  • Existence of a thought process that signifies feeling of discontent towards a particular political regime in which they find themselves not well represented to motivate and make real changes.
  • Self-identifying oneself as a victim of injustice because of which they feel obligate to reciprocate with such harsh measure.
  • Strong belief in the concept of ‘talk less, do more’.
  • Carrying beliefs that it is not immoral to wage war against state when demanding rights.

Terrorism has also been recognized as the “warfare of the weak”, in this sense, it means groups that lack power resort to such oppressive measures against the authorities that they believe do not recognize their welfare. Hence, in this context, it becomes essential to study psychological pattern to come up with mechanisms of deradicalization.

Emerging Trends in Terrorism

Terrorism manifests in multiple forms and shapes and is not restricted to one isolated form as we have seemed to perceive and accept it as. Mentioned hereunder are certain emerging trends many of which have been said to exist from much before but have gained significance of a large magnitude as they have been seen to emerge and pose a great threat to humanity.

SN Type of trend What does it mean? What do these trends entail?
1. Lone wolf terrorism/ Lone actor terrorism Hamm & Spaaij in their book “Age of lone wolf terrorism” define it as “political violence perpetrated by individuals who act alone; do not belong to any organized terrorist group or network” v March 2019, Holden Matthews burnt and destroyed 3 black churches in Louisiana.

v March 2019, two consecutive mass shootings took place at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand during Friday prayers.

v August 2019, Patrick Crusius conducted a domestic mass shooting attack at Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

2. Radicalization Radicalization is a process in which individuals adopt extreme political, social, and/or religious ideals and aspirations, and where the attainment of goals justifies the use of indiscriminate violence. It is both a mental and emotional process that prepares and motivates an individual to pursue violent


v Islamist Radicalization

v Right-wing radicalization

v Increasing role of Internet and social media- “social media constitutes a facilitating environment rather than a driving force for violent radicalization or the actual commission of violence.”

3. Covid-19 and terrorism Violent extremists across the ideological spectrum view the

global pandemic as an opportunity for expansion.


v Increased spread of disinformation, conspiracy theories and propaganda, increased recruitment online, backfire of preventive COVID-19 lockdown measures.
4. Cyber-terrorism Cyberterrorism is the use of the Internet to conduct violent acts that result in, or threaten, loss of life or significant bodily harm, to achieve political or ideological gains through threat or intimidation. v Employing measures such as computer viruses, worms, phishing, ransomware attacks, Denial of Service attacks, cyber espionage, cyber hacktivist.

American Exceptionalism behind the Veil of Euphemism

There seems to be this pattern of taking a moral high ground by the United States when they seem to be carrying out violent and immoral acts across the world. The United States is the biggest culprit when it comes to abusing the term “collateral damage”. It not only has toyed around the term but has also used the euphemism to its advantage.[9]

Take for instance the conduct US adopted in the infamous bombings of the cities of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, President Truman righteously tried to justify its action by claiming the bombs were strategically dropped to attack the military bae without cause civilian causalities. It is a no brainer that the attacks did result in killing of thousands of civilians almost instantly.

Further carrying out operation “rolling thunder” US managed to kill almost 52,000 North Vietnamese which comprises an estimate of 0.3% of the total population.[10] Instance of aerial bombing over Korean territory was also carried by the US and this time “legitimate military targets” also included civilian holdings like arms factories, railway networks and their workers. The officers assigned with the bombings of North Korea’s major cities pledged to turn North Korea into “a desert” and “every installation, facility and village in North Korea” became a military and a tactical target subsequently.

While quoting such instances, the author does not intend to take away any good efforts being carried out by the US but there has been a pattern of doublespeak tendency when it comes to protection of Human Rights. US has time and again portrayed itself as a messiah for the world in general, the American exceptionalism is a fixation amongst the United States’ political elite that their nation has the universal struggle and free hand to spread the tenets of democracy, freedom, sovereignty and now, global capitalism.


It is especially important to realize, that life cannot be quantified. Killings cannot be carried out at such convenience to justify and achieve personal goals and motives. The simple fact of accepting the struggles of life is very painfully yet rightfully elaborated by the life of the Greek king Sisyphus. He was punished by the gods to roll a huge rock to the top of the mountain only so that it will roll back down for him to start afresh. Learning from his life one should try inculcating that level of dedication and accept struggles as a part of their life and when it becomes overbearing, patience needs to be practiced while starting all over again. Any sense of discontent, disharmony, or dissatisfaction one feels towards their government or any other authority is to be dealt with peace and patience, even if it entails struggling like the Greek king Sisyphus. Violence by no means ensures positive outcomes, in turn it only creates new problems. Instead of warding off one’s own insecurity, making others insecure on that pretext is just a process of shifting burden and never reducing it. The menace of terrorism is an emerging one and issues related to human have to be dealt with a humanist approach to eliminate the very foundation of such evils that pose a threat to our society and lives of people.

[1] Interlocutory Decision on the Applicable Law: Terrorism, Conspiracy, Homicide, Perpetration, Cumulative Charging , 2011, STL-11-01/I, (16 February).

[2] United Nations General Assembly 49/60 (adopted 9 December 1994) A/RES/49/60.

[3] United Nations Security Council Resolution 1368 (adopted 12 September 2001) S/RES/1368.

[4]  United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 (adopted 28 September 2001) S/RES/1373.

[5] At, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-journal-of-international-law/article/abs/security-council-resolution-1373-the-counterterrorism-committee-and-the-fight-against-terrorism/2F038CB9547FE44144D03128849BC55D

[6] United Nations Security Council Resolution 1368 (adopted 12 September 2001) S/RES/1368.

[7] Norimitsu Onishi and Constant Méheut, “Once a Slogan of Unity, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ Now Divides France”, The New York Times, 19th December 2020.

[8] Tori DeAngelis, “Understanding Terrorism”, American Psychology Association, 2009, Vol 40, No. 10.

[9] “Human Rights and Disability Law Global Perspective”, Prof. (Dr.) Naresh Kumar Vats (eds.), Dr. Prof. (Dr.) Vijender Kumar (eds.), Collateral Damage & Peaceful Bombings under IHL: License to Kill & a Mere Euphemism, Bharti Publications, New Delhi.

[10] Supra at note 9

Law Wire Team
Law Wire Teamhttps://lawwire.in/
Law Wire Team attempts to delve into pertinent (and sometimes not immediately pertinent) questions regarding socio-politics, Law and their interesting matrix.


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