Eight Definitions of Terrorism that don’t apply to the tragedy of Nice


One thing ahead: I’m aware that by now, Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack. That, however, doesn’t really mean anything. As of yet, there is no evidence that the perpetrator of Nice, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, had any contact to Daesh whatsoever. On the other hand, it is somewhat impossible to prove that he wasn’t influenced by their propaganda. He definitely heard of the IS, probably got in touch with their material via social media like many people with ties to the broad area nowadays do, including myself.

Thus, it is handy for Daesh to just pretend Bouhlel was their man. Based – as of now – solemnly on the fact that he was from a Muslim background (though no-where close to being a practicing one, apparently), everybody is willfully going to believe them. In the end, it’s free propaganda. For Daesh, constituting anti-Islamic sentiment in the Western world is paramount in both recruiting among Western youths, and related to that, also in asserting themselves as “enemy number one” to Western oppression.

Ultimately, other than anything media, politicians and Daesh interpret into the horrible event, there is as of yet no clue at all to Bouhlels motives, intentions, his political stance, ideology, whatever.

So, here are the definitions. I tried to be heterogeneous about them, picking each two national, supranational, mundane and frequently quoted scientific ones:

[…] any action, […] that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.

(UN High Level Panel, 2004)

Doesn’t apply to the Nice attack because there is no evidence of a purpose at all. One might theorise that the purpose was to intimidate a population because, evidently, a population is intimidated.

However, the fact that a response occurred, even one that could have been expected, doesn’t serve as evidence that this response was the purpose of the action or even intended. He might as well not have given a fuck. He might have been mad. He might have been on drugs. He might have been a suicidal amok runner.

The likelihood of Bouhlel having a purpose, lest to say one related to Daesh, diminishes as he apparently didn’t attempt at all to communicate a message as to what the population should be afraid of, or into what behaviour they were supposed to be intimidated. No manifesto, no phone call, to Daesh flag, nothing. If there was a message to a wider population, why didn’t he articulate it?

[…] intentional acts […] which, given their nature or context, may seriously damage a country or an
international organisation where committed with the aim of:
— seriously intimidating a population, or
— unduly compelling a Government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act, or
— seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation.

(European Union, 2002) (pdf)

No evidence of intention, same as above.

The Intelligence Community is guided by the definition of terrorism contained in Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f(d):

  • The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.
  • The term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving the territory or the citizens of more than one country.
  • The term “terrorist group” means any group that practices, or has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.

(USA, 2004)

If anything, the first sentence would apply. But just as there is no hint of the purpose, there is also no hint of a political motive.

Acts of terrorism are defined by criminal law as the combination between a criminal offence already defined by the criminal code, like murder for example, and the link of this criminal offence with an individual or collective undertaking aiming at seriously disrupting law and order by intimidation or terror.

(France, quoting Olivier Dutheillet de Lamothe, Member of the Constitutional Council, 2006) (pdf)

And again: We have clue on Bouhlel aiming at anything of deeper meaning.

The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

(Oxford Dictionary)

Political aims? Haven’t heard of any.

Simple Definition of terrorism:
the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal

Full Definition of terrorism:
the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion

(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Nothing known about achieving a political goal or coercion, no evidence the attack being systemic.

Most of the formal definitions of terrorism have some common characteristics: a fundamental motive to make political/societal changes; the use of violence or illegal force; attacks on civilian targets by “nonstate”/”Subnational actors”; and the goal of affecting society. This finding is reflected in Blee’s listing of three components of terrorism:

  1. Acts or threats of violence;
  2. The communication of fear to an audience beyond the immediate victim, and;
  3. Political, economic, or religious aims by the perpetrator(s).

(Vallis et al, 2004)

An act of violence is given, but neither are a communication of fear beyond the immediate victim, nor any conceivable political, economic or religious aims.

(For a similar consentual approach that’s more elaborate, check this out)

The use, or threat of use of violence by an individual or a group, whether acting for or in opposition to establish authority, when such action is designed to create extreme anxiety and, or fear including effects in a target group larger than immediate victims with the purpose of coercing that group into according to the political demands of the perpetrator.

(Wardlaw, 1982)

No signs of coercing a group into any political demands, as political demands were not articulated.

Why is any of this important?

Now, if we have no evidence about the Nice attack being a terror attack, this doesn’t rule out that it was one – just a bad one in the sense that the perpetrator fully relied on the authorities interpreting the attack as an Islamist one. That is possible. But it’s also speculation.

Speculation that numerous prestigious media outlets as well as the Prime Minister of France and his Minister of the Interior already sell as facts. Even if it does turn out in a few days that there was a confession letter or a long Facebook conversations between Bouhlel and Daesh, still, Hollande doesn’t yet know that and is, well, lying when he claims that this catastrophe “has all the elements to be called a terror attack”.

Having chosen to use the term “terror attack” rather than “killing frenzy” legitimizes a whole different set of sociopolitical responses, including potential military spendings in the billions. It shifts away the focus from potential internal problems to an outside enemy. It rules out any other explanations prematurely, such as the above mentioned ones, based, and I can’t point this out often enough, solemnly on the fact that the perpetrator was from a Muslim background.

In this case, apparently, one doesn’t need to look at the polemic right to find racism and political instrumentalisation of a tragedy.


4 thoughts on “Eight Definitions of Terrorism that don’t apply to the tragedy of Nice

  1. Thank you for the Blogpost! Nice (…Nice/France?! :D) Research; Very Useful. Especially, because “Terrorism” became a day-to-day word in the past month and most people – me included – probabaly did not/do not really know what it means…

    Actually I was especially wondering about the focus of the US Definition on the terrorist GROUPS – is this (the conection of an individual terror act with the greater good of a groups interest) perhaps essentially for defining terrorism? Or to ask more pendingly: How (in an terrorist act) is the individual act linked with the terrorist subgroup on the one hand and with the “national” group, which is affected by the act, on the other hand? What is the difference – concerning the relation of the individual act and the social identification on the different levels – between a terrorist act and a mad person, who runs amuck? ..Any Suggestions Lukas? 😀

    Perhaps an answer would also lead to some ideas how to link the source of internal problems with the formation of an outside enemy, since a normal mad person (i love this slight little contradiction:D) – most likely in contradiction to a terrorist – has no identification with an “outside” enemy and is probabaly even with less social linkage…apropos: i really like your view on this point: “It shifts away the focus from potential internal problems to an outside enemy.”

    • That’s a very interesting train of thought! Especially when we look at how (German) media react ot the case of Nice and Würzburg now that a few days have passed. ZEIT is highly reflecting on the difference of Amok and Terror and how there is a grey space, also the trustworthiness of IS claims for an attack. As it seems, the responisbility claims for Orlando, Nizza and Würzburg came from the same network, which isn’t “officially” one of the outlets the IS calls it’s own, and which itself claims that they know about Daesh’s responsibility from yet another source. So it’s highly debatable if the IS even claimed responsibility at all, and if they did, they made sure to have the sneakiest way out.

      Returning to the issue of groups: If I remember correctly, in the early 2000s, people had trouble to understand that Al-Quaeda wasn’t a single entity, but a network with more or less isolated cells that happened to plea allegiance to the same leader (or something like that). Perhaps, while measures of counter-terrorism are more and more efficient, yet the world becomes a more and more connected, but the connections are more and more “impersonal”, the borders between what is what will shift even more.

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