‘Terrorism’ first entered into the English vocabulary in 1795 when it became state policy in France during the Reign of Terror in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety – also knowns as the Terrorists – sought to purge the nation of aristocratic sentiment with the liberal use of Madame la guillotine. It was not until the nineteenth century that terrorism began to take on the more modern meaning of non-state organisations employing targeted violent means against state agents and ultimately, through the mid-to-late twentieth century, against civilian populations in the hope of political or ideological gain. The shift in US rhetoric and foreign policy after September 2001 has effectively defined all non-state insurgents, including revolutionary groups in Latin America and elsewhere, as terrorists – making terrorism the single greatest threat to the peace and security of the world’s nation states.
This latter point is important in any discussion on the subject because it underlines the role of definitions in our understanding. Almost no matter how we define terrorism and terrorists those definitions include the behaviour of the nation states themselves. Most modern states, claiming a monopoly on power within their territorial boundaries, have utilised terroristic tactics against civilian populations for political and ideological reasons. Yet in their present use of ‘terrorism’ the state actors do not mean to refer to themselves, and so another element must be added to the definition; such actions when committed by non-state persons or organisations. At bottom the label of ‘terrorism’ boils down to the question of who has the right to call another a terrorist.
Regardless of the caricature of such groups as the FARC in Colombia or ISIS in the Middle East as mindless barbarians engaged in senseless violence for its own sake, the truth is far more nuanced and complex. What the vast majority of these otherwise unconnected groups share in common is that they are proto-state entities; gaining support and funding from local populations by providing what the state either cannot or will not provide. Modern terrorism arises, in part, to meet the demands of people whose needs are either not being met or who are being victimised by their own or a foreign state (or both). It is for this reason that military responses to address terrorism frequently fail – battles and drone attacks may kill terrorists, but they are incapable of destroying terrorism.
Ironically enough, one approach to ending terrorism globally is to be found in the addendum to its modern definition. Questions of power and exclusion from power – a statement which includes the empowerment and liberation from state oppression, repression, and indifference – are our key to understanding what energises non-state terrorist groups. International power qua the community of nation states is power only insofar as it is an arrogation of power from others, and where such lacunae exist there is a natural will to power among the power-less. Capitalism – the prevailing ideology of modernity – accumulates wealth and power by taking it from others; leaving them short, in many instances, of even the necessities of life. Such international injustice is itself one of the primary producers of this socio-political gap to which terrorism becomes a response.