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Revisiting the Terrorism Discourse

The paradigm of the war on terror has erroneously and deliberately subsumed all forms of local, national and violent movements under the category of "global terrorism".


Revisiting the Terrorism Discourse

Ninan Koshy

The paradigm of the war on terror has erroneously and deliberately subsumed all forms of local, national and violent movements under the category of “global terrorism”.

Ninan Koshy ( writes on foreign policy and is a former director of the World Council of Churches, Commission of the Churches on International Affairs.

t is necessary to re-examine the discourse on terrorism and counterterrorism especially in the context of the struggles for self-determination and justice in south Asia. The discourse since 11 September 2001 has been defined by the United States, which had declared and pursued a “war on terror” since the incidents that day.

‘Global Terrorism’

The term “global terrorism” is generally used as the dominant theme in the discourse and this needs close scrutiny. How global is “globalised terrorism”? This question assumes significance in view of the fact that since 11 September 2001 in their combat against terrorism, the western countries are focusing their attention on “global terrorism” and the “rogue states” that support and or utilise it. Much less emphasis is put on terrorism at regional or national levels. More often than not, n ational or regional terrorism is considered as nothing more than a local manifestation of global terrorism. In this discourse state terrorism is totally discarded.


After 11 September non-state terrorism has been imagined as “globalised terrorism” or “international terrorism” that is extremely networked, highly symbolic and clandestine. As Michael Humphrey (2004) suggests,

Irrespective of whether or not the perpetrators of terrorist violence are part of i nternational networks with common aims, globalized terrorism effectively assimilates diverse forms of political violence with the consequence of unifying and amplifying the threat. Differences are further de-politicised by essentialising the terrorist act ignoring the political project behind it thereby reducing terrorism to a problem of security and counter-terrorism policy for the state.

The perception stems first of all from the fact that Al Qaida has a declared t ransnational aim. Whether today it has a t ransnational organisation is in serious doubt. It stems also from the fact that Al Qaida has declared US,

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the only country with the global reach, as its enemy. But in responding to this the former US President George W Bush was categorical that all those who are opposed to the US are terrorists or supporters of terrorism: “With us or against us. This is the world’s fight. This is civilisation’s fight”, he declared. Counter-terrorism defined solely in military terms, also is projected in grandiose, universalistic terms. This is how terrorism has been “globalised”. This is a reductive version of the issue. The blurring that seems to prevail is not helpful. It obfuscates differences, which in contrast are relevant to provide an effective response.

Terrorism is a form of political action. It cannot be taken out of specific historical contexts or treated as a generic phenomenon. It is a strategy rooted in political discontent used in the service of many different beliefs and doctrines that seek to legitimise and sustain violence. Ideo logies associated with nationalism, revolution, religion and defence of the status quo have all inspired terrorism. We have to look at the opportunities, resources, i ntentions and perceptions of the actors for whom terrorism is useful to intimidate opponents, communicate goals, advertise the cause, recruit followers and mobilise popular support.

By presenting terrorists as belonging to organisations or groups with international links, most countries tend to argue that terrorists within their borders actually come from or are linked to forces outside the country. This reflects often an unwillingness or inability to deal with the domestic causes which result in terrorism in the first instance. National problems are attributed to “international” or rather “global” terrorism. Struggles for self-determination and justice are dealt with under the framework of the war on terror. Many nations abdicate their responsibility to understand and deal politically with the discontent and frustrations that lead to terrorist activities within their borders attributing them all to “global terrorism”. The importance of identifying and managing the special characteristics and roots of national and local conflicts, which may create terrorist activities is often discounted.

It is this “globalisation” of terrorism by the west that made it possible for the war on t er ror to hijack counter-terrorism. All counter-terrorism measures, present and past become subsumed under this war. They are relevant only to the extent that they are part of the war. The terminology of war assumes that terrorism has to be combated solely through military means. For seven years and seven months, the US has been e ngaged in a monumentally flawed and d estructive campaign that George Bush d escribed as all-out effort against terrorism and terrorist groups of global reach. It i ncludes two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a global effort to expand US military and i ntelligence ties to countries throughout A frica, west and south Asia.

Too Little, Too Late

In an article in the Guardian on 15 January 2009 the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the idea of a war on terror’ was a “mistake” putting too much emphasis on military force. He said the idea had unified disparate terrorist groups against the west. The foreign secretary wrote that since 9/11 the phrase war on terror had “defined the terrain” when it came to tackling terrorism and although it had merit, ultimately the notion is “misleading and mistake”. Miliband wrote that the phrase was all encompassing and gave the impres sion of a unified, transnational enemy, embodied in the figure of Osama bin Laden or in the Al Qaida when the situation was far more complex. Miliband’s confession is a case of too little and too late. His government was the staunchest ally of the US in the war on terror. His change of mind seems to have little to do with the notion of right and wrong. He makes no reference to the enormous toll of death and destruction and human suffering the Bush(Tony) Blair war on terror has inflicted on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his inaugural address on 20 January 2009, Obama declared, “Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred”. The next day he said “Afghanistan and Pakistan are the central front in America’s war against terrorism and the d eteriorating situation in the r egion poses grave threat to global s ecurity”. He added that this “is the central point in our enduring struggle against e xtremism and terrorism”.

What is disturbing about Obama’s statement is that he continues to maintain the war on terror framework with its dangerous doctrines which violate international laws. For him also America’s war against terrorism is “enduring” and he seems to believe that it should continue to be the overarching framework of his foreign policy.

For a large majority of analysts not only in the US but across the world, “9/11” has become the decisive marker for studying terrorism. The Mumbai attacks of November 2008 were called India’s 9/11. The r esponse demanded by a section of the m edia was war on terror. But, as Ollappally (2009) points out

Yet accepting a 9/11-centric framework to

consider violent extremism worldwide puts

us in danger of losing sight of the nature and

impact of America’s own role. The Iraq case

is the most obvious current example: almost

no evidence of terrorist links or cells threaten

ing the US could be found prior to the Ameri

can invasion of Iraq. Post-invasion groups in

Iraq reactively attacking the US are regularly

called “terrorists”, providing a justification for

US military action, and in the process blurring

the lines between cause and effect. Most of all,

this situation shows America’s near-hegemonic

definitional power.

The term terrorism has suffered from the lack of a universally accepted definition at both the academic and policy levels. Despite extended and repeated attempts by the United Nations (UN) in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 incidents, it has proved nearly impossible to generate a definition of terrorism that satisfies all parties. To say that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter is not just a cliché but has elements of truth in it which underlines the difficulty of d efining terrorism and terrorists. It should not be forgotten that even in the recent past liberation movements have been called terrorist

o rganisations and their leaders-terrorists.

After the war on terror began, the US has a new category of terrorists: those engaged even in legitimate resistance against occupation. This has, in fact, further complicated efforts for a convention on terrorism at the UN level.

There is no definition of terrorism in the Outcome Document of the Millennium Summit of the UN of mid-September 2005. It ended up with a milk-toast condemnation of “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes, as it constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security”.

The definitional struggle is no longer (only) about state terrorism and liberation struggle. It is also about invasion and

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o ccupation in the name of war on the t error on the one hand and resistance on the other.

South Asia and War on Terror

Most of the post-9/11 analysis on terrorism is from a US policy perspective with little theoretical and historical content. For a region like south Asia that has an overabundance of history and political complexity such an approach is far too limited. The American discourse has taken on a totalising and purely military perspective, one that leaves little or no room for negotiations with the “terrorists”. While the US might be able to sustain such a warlike policy given that its enemies are still l argely externally based, the countries of south Asia are faced with militancy and extremism that have immediate internal repercussions. In other words the war is fought at home and not abroad. The government of Afghanistan and radical Pashtuns, the Indian government and militant Kashmiris, and the Sri Lankan government and the alienated Tamils all face a central reality: unlike the US, these governments are dealing with their own populations.

India, the biggest nation in south Asia accepted wholeheartedly not only the US perspective on terrorism but also the framework of the war on terror. The countries with which it has the closest collaboration on “counter-terrorism” are the US and Israel.

The war on terror has refashioned conflict situations in south Asia. In that process, the history and politics of these conflicts have been forgotten or ignored and the real causes pushed aside. Two of the most prominent conflict situations may be e xamined. These are Kashmir and Sri L anka’s national struggle of Tamils. In broad terms both these are struggles for selfdetermination and justice. Struggles for self-determination are not necessarily secessionist and may be internally settled with the extent of autonomy being n egotiable.

M K Narayanan, currently the National Security Adviser of India, in an article less than a month after the terror attacks in the US (in Asian Age online) argued that there was “a connection between the 11 September attacks in the US” and “ongoing conflict in Jammu and Kashmir”. He argued that a war against terrorism must address the violence in K ashmir as well as in Afghanistan. He says,

Something drastic needs to be done to curb Islamist outfits currently engaged in cascading violence in J&K. The Alliance for the Battle against Terrorism must gear itself to deal with a situation which is fraught with dangerous possibilities.

This was gross distortion of the conflict in Kashmir which has a history of six decades of which only the recent two decades has shown militancy and violence. To bring it under the frame of the war on terror which was an imperialist response by the US to events of 11 September was to ignore the causes for the Kashmir conflict and thus make the problem more intractable.

The dynamics of the Kashmir conflict underwent a drastic change when brought under the war on terror. India’s support to the war on terror proceeded on the assumption that the US would have to accept that the happenings in Kashmir are due to “cross-border terrorism”. India strongly challenged Pakistan’s credentials to be partner of the US in the war on terror and repeatedly urged on the US to include Kashmir in the war on terror. The US which needed both Pakistan and India in the war on terror, did not do so.

Political Solution

Credit goes to the government of India for the improvement in the general political climate in Kashmir. But there is very little discussion in India on the ground realities of Kashmir, the violation of human rights, the disappearances, the consequences of militarisation. To treat the Kashmir problem as solely or primarily due to “international terrorism” is to discard the real issues and to invite the kind of inter national attention which India says it does not want. The Kashmir issue including extremism there has to be redefined on terms that take into account the multiple causes of discontent, frustration and a lienation there and not treated under war on terror.

Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to use the war on terror concept and framework for its internal conflict. U nfortu nately, the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by its own actions fitted itself into that framework.

On 16 January 2009, The Wall Street Journal wrote:

For all those who argue that there is no military solution for terrorism, we have two words, Sri Lanka.

... We recount this history at length to make a simple point. Colombo’s military strategy against Tamil terrorists has worked; negotiations have not.

This victory in the war on terror should be a lesson for Israel as it “focuses on its terror problem” and for the US in Iraq, the esteemed Journal advised: “Take note, Barack Obama”.

The US embassy in Colombo issued a statement on 13 January 2009 that welcomed the Sri Lankan state’s recent victories in the war with the LTTE and urged the Sri Lankan government and its military to press forward with the destruction of the LTTE. The key passage in the statement said:

The US does not advocate that the government of Sri Lanka negotiate with LTTE, a group designated by America as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation.

India’s Foreign Secretary Shivshankar M enon during a visit to Colombo in January expressed his appreciation of the “posit ive role played by Sri Lanka both militarily and in the regional context in combating terrorism”. This was of course not only renewed support for Sri Lanka’s war on terror but also recognition of Sri Lanka’s role in combating terrorism in the region whatever that means.

The subsuming of the ethnic conflict under the war on terror has shifted focus from the underlying political problems and the legitimate rights of the Tamil people. The conflict has a history of half a century and it became violent only in 1984 mainly in r esponse to the pogrom on Tamils in Sri Lanka in 1983. While the mantra of a political solution is repeated, there is not evidence of any clear plan to resolve the problem and no negotiations are in sight.

In seeking resolution of conflicts in south Asia, it is important to re-examine the dominant terrorism perspective and reject the war on terror framework. A new perspective to look at conflicts in the r egion has to be developed in the context of struggles for justice, democratic participation and people’s security. This is the task of academics and activists.


Humphrey, Michael (2004): “Human Rights, Counter-Terrorism and Security”, Australia Human Rights Centre, Working Paper.

Ollappally, Deepa M (2009): The Politics of Extremism in South Asia, Cambridge University Press.

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Economic & Political Weekly

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