For many years, the word terrorism was a highly charged political term devoid of any legal significance. In fact, it was axiomatic that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." The term was used pejoratively, connoting revulsion at the acts of political violence by the weak, the oppressed and the disenfranchised, against vastly superior and well-established armies and political systems.
The hijacking in the 1970s of civilian aircraft, to draw attention to the Palestinian cause, was one in a series of events that led to the term being used extensively and attached tenaciously to the Palestinian struggle for several decades after the Palestinian resistance, in fact, abandoned this particular tactic. The term became a useful tool for discrediting political violence when used by liberation movements. The fact that such movements were often unable to confront the armies of their opponents, and fell into the temptation of targeting the "softer" civilian targets only served to further discredit them as being evil and heartless, or wanton and indiscriminate. The negative results of such a designation were so powerful that the term "terrorist" was used against all the types of violent action taken by such groups, even when they utilized it properly against military targets and in pursuit of legitimate objectives.
One example was the routine labeling of Hizbullah (an umbrella organization of various Shi'ite groups and organizations which adhere to a Khomeinistic ideology) fighters in southern Lebanon as terrorists, when they were clearly an armed-resistance movement acting against the Israeli military occupation, and when their targets were primarily, if not exclusively, Israeli military targets. Turkey also used that label against the Kurdish fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and accused that organization of terrorism, thereby also justifying its denial of the demands of Turkish Kurds for cultural, linguistic and political autonomy.
This designation was not limited to the Middle East. The South African apartheid regime used the term against the African National Congress (ANC) and sought to discredit it in order to justify its own system. The Russian army, fighting the Chechen rebels, labeled them "terrorists," and, in fact, engineered a number of blasts in the Russian capital to arouse public opinion against the rebels and to justify an intensification of the war against them, in the name of "fighting terrorism."

"State Terrorism" or "States that Support Terrorism"

While the charge of terrorism assumed or implied politically motivated acts of violence aimed at civilians and perpetrated by non-state groups, the state that was fighting terrorists often engaged in far greater acts of violence against civilians, but the term "terrorist", and the attendant revulsion and de-legitimization, however, was not applied to their actions. The perceived unfairness of the accusation led to the rise of an opposing polemic complaining of "state terrorism," and using that designation to refer to acts of indiscriminate political violence by states and their armies, aimed at intimidating largely civilian populations.
To muddy the waters further, the US began using the phrase "states that support terrorism" as a designation for states that tolerated, sympathized with, or supported liberation movements, or other political resistance movements whose objectives were not in line with US policy. A list of such states was published by the US State Department and political consequences followed for any state whose name appeared on that list. Arab states like Libya and Syria expended much effort, and were prepared to make substantial political concessions, in return for a promise to have their names stricken from that list.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, the US embarked on an international effort to fight "international terrorism" and to demand that each and every state undertake specific actions in the "war on terrorism." This included denial of material and financial aid, refuge, or support to any individual or organization that the US could successfully accuse of involvement in international terrorism. It required all banking institutions to provide detailed financial information on suspected groups or persons and to freeze the funds associated with such groups and individuals. The US Patriot Act was enacted, granting the US broad powers to collect information, freeze funds, and arrest individuals on mere suspicion of involvement in "international terrorism."

Definitions and Legal Criteria

It therefore became necessary to examine the term and introduce a measure of objectivity into the fevered discourse by establishing and listing clear definitions and promulgating legal criteria for what has hitherto been a largely subjective matter, and which continues to be a highly charged emotional matter. Almost no one disputed that the hijacking of civilian aircraft, and the use of such airplanes as loaded missiles constituted an illegitimate method of political struggle that should be internationally outlawed. Nobody disputed that the Twin Towers (though not the Pentagon building) were not a legitimate target in any political struggle. In that sense, there was an international consensus that such actions, and the organization behind them, ought to be outlawed and international efforts to curb such organizations were vital and should be codified into international law (if they were not already prohibited by various provisions of conventional and customary international law). Beyond such clear cases, however, there was much to be debated:
First: Is it an act of terrorism when the target is clearly military (such as the attack on the USS Cole, the US Navy ship in Aden)? It seems that, under traditional laws of war and customary international law, such politically motivated actions, however foolish, unwise or injurious, must not be confused with attacks on clearly civilian targets.
Second: Is "suicide" as a component of the tactics utilized sufficiently abhorrent morally to be, itself, outlawed as an illegitimate form of political struggle? Is suicide a "terrorist" tactic, which should be outlawed by the international community? Israel is currently lobbying for a treaty to denounce suicide attacks (as a matter of international law) and make it an international crime to support, allow, fund, equip or incite actions that involve suicide attacks. Again, if the target of the attack is clearly military and not civilian, the willingness of the fighter to die or take a 100 percent risk of fatality (while strange to the Western mind) is not prohibited under current international laws, and the case has not been made that, in fact, it should be. Unfortunately, all war and armed struggle involves high risks of fatality both for the perpetrators and their enemies. Until war itself is outlawed, the international community, which has an interest in limiting casualties among noncombatants, has not clearly outlawed or repudiated political violence. This includes the perpetrator taking the supreme sacrifice in an effort to inflict maximum casualties on his enemies as a method for drawing attention to his cause.
Third: Which rules ought to govern the behavior of liberation movements and other non-state groups involved in a violent struggle for political objectives? Are these rules different from the rules governing the behavior of states and their armed forces? Should there be detailed conventions governing such groups and proscribing the weapons, tactics, and targets against which they may legitimately act in pursuit of their political objectives? Or are the same rules applicable to them by analogy? It would seem that with respect to prohibited weapons of indiscriminate and mass destruction (such as chemical or biological weapons) the rules ought to be the same. Similarly, the targeting of uniquely civilian and noncombatant populations and establishments should also be prohibited. International law recognizes the right to legitimate resistance in the course of a struggle for freedom, or against foreign and colonial rule, but there is no clarity as to the restrictions on such a right. For example, is it legitimate to "internationalize the struggle" by carrying it into the heartland of the colonial power, for example, or to other geographic areas outside the direct area of conflict?
Fourth: Where a legitimate movement practices armed struggle, but is also engaged in a political struggle for its objectives, a distinction should be made between the armed wings of such a movement and its political and social wings. Where such an organization actively separates its armed cadres and activities from the wider "political" activities associated with its cause, should such wings be treated differently (as a matter of international law) or should countries be permitted to paint with a broad brush the entire enterprise and outlaw the whole movement when its armed wing carries out prohibited and improper violent activities? The US, as well as Israel and others has argued that in the fight against terrorism, it is necessary to destroy the "infrastructure" supporting terrorism and dry up their sources of funding, support and sympathy. Such an argument lacks a clear nexus and connection; thus how far should such states be permitted to proceed under the umbrella of "fighting terrorism" before they themselves begin to terrorize a civilian population?

Lack of Reasonable Discussion Hampers Fight against Terrorism

Unfortunately, little discussion of these issues takes place in a calm or reasonable fashion. The absence of such reasonable discussion and the emergence of clear definitions and criteria will hamper the real fight against terrorism, thus further weakening international law itself by allowing the prevalence of totally subjective approaches whenever the designation of terrorism continues to be based on the identity of the perpetrator, or that of the targets. In such an atmosphere, double standards abound and respect for international law is diminished, so positions are taken solely on self-interest and power relations. Who is labeled a terrorist, or to the contrary exonerated and supported, will then depend on whether we like or don't like an individual group. Whatever criteria are eventually adopted must be clear, objective, measurable and applicable to friend and foe alike. Only in this fashion can we develop a unified position against the scourge of international terrorism.