Is It ‘Terrorism’ if Soldiers are the Target?

Matthew Shugart argues of the Fort Dix Six, “If they were really preparing to attack a military base, that, by definition, would not be terrorism.” Steven Taylor agrees, “One could call this a paramilitary operation (or some other term), but not terrorism.”

Well, no.

There are numerous definitions of “terrorism” but none of them exclude acts against military personnel per se.

  • “[A] premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” – Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f(d)
  • “All criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public.” League of Nations Convention (1937)
  • [C]riminal acts intended or calculated 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 other nature that may be invoked to justify them”. UN GA Res. 51/210 Measures to eliminate international terrorism (1999)
  • “Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby – in contrast to assassination – the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organization), (imperilled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience(s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought” – Academic Consensus Definition (Schmid, 1988)
  • Systematic use of violence, terror, and intimidation to achieve an end. Webster’s University Dictionary
  • “The calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” – US Dept of Defense
  • “Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” – FBI

(Note that the academic definition is longer than all the rest combined.)

The confusion arises because acts that would be considered “terrorism” are sometimes deemed legitimate when directed against combatant targets during a war. Arguably, therefore, the 1983 suicide bombing that killed 241 U.S. servicemen was “guerrilla warfare” rather than “terrorism,” depending on whether one considers the Marines to have been peacekeepers or combatants.

Soldiers at Fort Dix, thousands of miles away from a hostile fire zone, are not “combatants” in any sense of the word. They are not, therefore, legitimate military targets.

Furthermore, even if one disagreed because Dix is a staging ground for departure for war, is training soldiers for war, or some such rationale, the perpetrators are not lawful combatants in a war.

UPDATE: Taylor weighs in with a lengthy reply in the comments section and legion has an interesting response to the last sentence above. I agree with both that this is a very complicated issue, mostly because mass international terrorism is relatively new compared to warfare, and much less philosophical brain power has gone into parsing the subject.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Terrorism, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Scott_T says:

    He’s also missing the fact that not all people located at Fort Dix are military personel. I’m sure their are many DoD employees (government service GS), military family members, or contractors on-base that do things.

    Civilians would likely be on-base during any planned attack by these jokers.

  2. legion says:

    That’s an interesting thought… I’ll have to work on it. But I would like to point out a couple of things:

    He’s also missing the fact that not all people located at Fort Dix are military personel.

    I don’t think that’s pertinent to this issue… If (and that’s still a big if) a US military base outside the combat zone is a legitimate target, then the civilians on that base are literally taking their lives into their own hands by simply being there.

    Soldiers at Fort Dix, thousands of miles away from a hostile fire zone, are not “combatants” in any sense of the word. They are not, therefore, legitimate military targets.

    Again, I’m far from making up my mind on this, but how does that statement bump up against the strategic bombing campaigns against German war factories in WWII? Or the fire-bombing of Tokyo? My read is that they were justified in order to put pressure on the respective gov’ts to surrender; how would that be different from an attack on Ft Dix?

  3. legion says:

    Oops; hit ‘post’ too fast…

    the perpetrators are not lawful combatants in a war.

    That is certainly the key item in this particular story, but it shouldn’t affect the debate. What if these guys had been “real” AQ or Taliban, working to re-assert control of Afghanistan, rather than (as near as I can tell from current reports) a group of yahoos?

  4. I not big on looking to statute law for definitions, so am not persuaded by that argument.

    And, of course, “terrorism” may well be the most debated term in all of political science these days–one could likely post thousands of words worth of definitions, none of which would be in full agreement. (Not to sound argumentative–tone is hard to convey in comments sections sometimes– but the notion that there is a “consensus” definition of the term, especially one from prior to 911 is kind of funny).

    Still, there is something fundamentally different from launching grenades at a military base (even one not in a combat zone) and blowing up a pizza parlor full of civilians, is there not? I simply am seeking those definitional parameters.

    In terms of an analytical category, I consider terrorism to be violence directed at noncombatants (and yes, I am aware that legally the troops at Fort Dix are noncombatants–but I will leave that alone for now), usually civilians, for the purpose of generating fear in the civilian population so as to put pressure on a government to alter policy. Assaulting a military based using paramilitary tactics is something different in my mind. The specific tactics matter in the definition, I would argue.

    Of course, many of the definitions offered (mine included) require some understanding intent, and I don’t think that we know what the actual intent was.

    If these guys had been natives who didn’t like the army and attacked the base, we would probably call them “militiamen”-probably not “terrorists”. Indeed, I think in the American psyche these days more native violence is not thought of as terrorism with the exception of someone like McVeigh (we didn’t think of militiamen as “terrorist” and normally don’t call abortion clinic bombers “terrorists”, for example).

    Mostly this is an academic debate (although it has political consequences as well), much like the discussion of whether or not Iraq is in a “civil war” or something else.

    Back to the basic argument: your last several paragraphs would suggest that there are really only two kinds of violence: that directed at combatants and that not targeted as combatants. Such a dichotomy created only two types of violence, then: war and terrorism (and I know you don’t think that, but that is the implication left by your post). I think that there are a lot more variations to be looked at than just those two–political violence is quite a spectrum, I would argue.

    Part of our disagreement is probably based on the fact that you are arguing more from a legal perspective in terms of international law and the laws of war and I am looking for a broad-based comparative politics definition of the term.

    I will allow this: in the popular mind any attack perpetrated on US soil (or any plan for one) done by persons of Muslims orientation will be considered “terrorism” and it certainly will be so -categorized by the government.

    More later, I suspect, but I need to straighten the house up for pending guests… (I have already spent more time on this than I should have!)

  5. Scott T:

    But not all civilians deaths that result from political violence automatically make an event “terrorism.”

    I am not trying, by the way, to diminish these actions in question–I am just interested in proper definition.

    I also know that in terms of popular discourse, I am almost certainly on the losing end of this argument.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Or the fire-bombing of Tokyo? My read is that they were justified in order to put pressure on the respective gov’ts to surrender; how would that be different from an attack on Ft Dix?

    Those acts are, arguably, war crimes. Since they were done under color of state authority, they are, by definition, not “terrorism.”

    What if these guys had been “real” AQ or Taliban, working to re-assert control of Afghanistan

    An interesting question and one that has no settled answer.

    Col. Daniel Reisner offers this explanation:

    Classic international law deals with two generic situations: war and peace. There is a big rule book dealing with the laws of warfare, the laws of how to open war, how to end war, what weapons may be used, how to treat captives. Different rules apply to countries when there is peace.

    Where does a terrorist fit in to this structure? In peacetime, people are divided into two different categories. They are either law-abiding citizens or criminals, to be dealt with by the police and the courts.

    In wartime, people are divided into two different categories. They are either civilians or combatants. Who is a combatant? is a big question in international law, but there is general consensus that anyone taking part in hostilities is a combatant, regardless of where he lives or whether or not he wears a uniform.

    Where does a terrorist fit in, such as a suicide bomber? Is he a criminal offender? Are we supposed to send the police to catch him en route? What happens if the police see a suicide bomber who opens his jacket and shows his explosive belt? Can the Israeli police kill him? He hasn’t done anything. If he is a criminal offender, he cannot be shot because he hasn’t blown himself up yet. He’s a potential terrorist but he hasn’t done it yet. No country in the world has come up with a good response as to what should be done to a suicide bomber. This police matter actually occurs to policemen in Israel and some of them have died.

    What is the main significance of the difference between combatants and civilians in warfare? The difference is that an army has the right to initiate fire and kill combatants. Must a combatant be given a chance to surrender? Absolutely not. An army can launch a missile from 25km away at a target which has no idea it is being targeted, and kill everyone inside a military base, because all soldiers are fair game in warfare, irrespective of their position. Those are the clear rules of warfare.

    The law breaks down when civilians start taking up weapons because the law’s main objective is to protect civilians in warfare. The idea is that armies can take care of themselves, but the civilians need help. The law says civilians may not be targeted and they and their property are not to be harmed. But what happens when a civilian picks up a rifle and shoots at an army vehicle and then drops the gun on the ground. What can be done to him? If he were a soldier I could kill him. If he surrenders, I have to accept his surrender. But with a civilian combatant, do I continue shooting, or because the danger has now passed I treat him as a criminal offender once again? Does he go back to being a civilian just because he put down his rifle? Let’s say he didn’t put down his rifle, he just ran out of ammunition; is he still a combatant?

    More questions than answers, really, but I’m not sure we have any more than that settled at this point.

  7. Anderson says:

    but how does that statement bump up against the strategic bombing campaigns against German war factories in WWII? Or the fire-bombing of Tokyo?

    Bingo. The RAF expressly aimed at terror; to say it’s not “terrorism” but a “war crime” seems to me to slice the pie awfully thin. “It’s not terrorism if a state does it” begs some questions; cf. “state-sponsored terrorism.”

    (I would just add that Legion’s “factories” is a bit of a misnomer; there were some targeted attacks vs. factories, chiefly I think by the U.S., but the RAF aimed expressly at leveling cities and killing their civilian inhabitants, with or without factories.)

  8. Anderson says:

    What happens if the police see a suicide bomber who opens his jacket and shows his explosive belt? Can the Israeli police kill him? He hasn’t done anything. If he is a criminal offender, he cannot be shot because he hasn’t blown himself up yet.

    Gibberish. A guy who could blow up his surroundings at the push of a button, and apparently intends to do so, can certainly be shot on the spot. It would be derelict for the cops *not* to shoot him.

    As for the civilian who picks up a rifle & shoots, he doesn’t become a civilian again just because he stops shooting. The simplest thing is to treat him as a combatant.

    I think the mistake is to recognize “terrorism” as a distinct category at all. Whether you’re blowing up a building to inspire terror or just for the hell of it, the law shouldn’t distinguish.

  9. Nikolay says:

    Arguably, therefore, the 1983 Hamas suicide bombing that killed 241 U.S. servicemen was “guerrilla warfare” rather than “terrorism,” depending on whether one considers the Marines to have been peacekeepers or combatants.

    It was not a Hamas bombing. It was believed to be either Hezbollah, Al Dawa (Maliki’s party) or “some other Shia extremists”. Hamas didn’t even exist in 1983.

  10. James Joyner says:

    It was not a Hamas bombing. It was believed to be either Hezbollah, Al Dawa (Maliki’s party) or “some other Shia extremists”. Hamas didn’t even exist in 1983.

    You are correct, sir. I’ve just striken the word “Hamas” rather than trying to clarify, since the identity of the bombers isn’t really the point of the sentence.

  11. Tlaloc says:

    Soldiers at Fort Dix, thousands of miles away from a hostile fire zone, are not “combatants” in any sense of the word. They are not, therefore, legitimate military targets.

    That’s simply untrue. They are definitely a legitimate military target. A military base is ALWAYS a legitimate military target. They may not be “combatants” in the sense of being actively involved in fighting at the time, but they are soldiers in a uniformed military and thus do not qualify as “non-combatants.”

    Non-combatant is a military and legal term describing civilians not engaged in combat. It also includes (Geneva Conventions Protocol I, 8 June 1977, Art 43.2) persons, such as medical personnel and chaplains (who are regular soldiers but are protected because of their function) and soldiers who are hors de combat.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noncombatant

    (“hors de combat” means incapable of fighting, for example- wounded soldiers, it does not include soldiers simply stationed outside of the combat zone).

    As a result your statement “There are numerous definitions of “terrorism” but none of them exclude acts against military personnel per se” is wrong. the very first quoted definition specifies that terrorism is an attack on noncombatants.

  12. legion says:

    That Reisner piece is very interesting & complements this discussion nicely. The main reason (IMHO) that terrorists are, and must be, considered differently from regular soldiers is their authority. Uniformed soldiers openly represent a given nation and are the instrument of that nation’s political decisions & policy. “Terrorists”, at least as far as we all seem to be using the word, do things that a nation cannot, or will not – such as openly violating other generally-accepted rules of combat.

    International law only recognizes those two categories – combatant and civilian. People resisting an occupation are technically terrorists/criminals until & unless the occupiers leave. But that still leaves the question of how to treat them; as Riesner says,

    The law breaks down when civilians start taking up weapons because the law’s main objective is to protect civilians in warfare. The idea is that armies can take care of themselves, but the civilians need help.

    A tricky subject, indeed…

  13. Michael says:

    I would think whether an act is “terrorism” or not would, as the definition implies, depend on the intended outcome of the act. That is the only common element of all the definitions listed.

    By this definition, the factory bombings of Europe in WW2 served a logistical goal, denying the enemy the resources of war. The Marine barracks bombing probably also had a strategic and logistical goal. The same for the nuclear bombing of Japan. The fire bombing of Tokyo, I don’t see how it had either strategic or logistical goals, so it may fall under the definition of terrorism.

    That being the case, we don’t have enough information yet about why these people were planning this attack to determine whether it was terrorism or not.

  14. Christopher says:

    wow, is it liberal day here at OTB? Debating what terrorism is? You guys are all wacko.

    The attack would have been terrorism. Yes of course! What in the world is going through everyone’s head? Like a bunch of lawyers here. Typical, since so any liberals are lawyers. Especially lawyer-wannabe legion there.

  15. spencer says:

    does the dept of defense definition imply that the department of defense is a terrorist organization?

  16. mannning says:

    Their lawyers will have a field day with the obfuscation of their exact status and intent. I do hope this doesn’t take years and millions of dollars to settle! All we need now is for the ICC to claim jurisdiction of the case to thoroughly muddle the situation.

  17. Scott_T says:

    Steven Taylor said:
    “Still, there is something fundamentally different from launching grenades at a military base (even one not in a combat zone) and blowing up a pizza parlor full of civilians, is there not? I simply am seeking those definitional parameters.”

    The problems are that many military bases are small towns with on-site schools (used to have civilian elementary schools), civilian homes (or again at least used to), churches (can’t attack those!), stores (PX) that are definately non-military targets. While their are many military targets (hangers, maintence shops, armories, ammo bunkers, barracks, training facilities, etc). It should be addressed in a case-by-case event.

    But just because some of these are “on-base” because of a property line, verses “off-base” because of a chain-link fence shouldn’t make them “targets” or “allowable targets” because of their location.

    To put this problem in the Iraq War context. Could the USAF smart-bomb a Mosque on an Iraqi military base just because it was on-base and not one off-base?

    While I agree that these guys at Fort Dix were going to terrorize (to cause terror), they weren’t Terrorists (one who causes/forments terror). Since Terrorists usually have an organized goal (ie destroy Israel/Jews) and are using terrorism to achieve that goal, these jokers were aiming for a 1-time event to terrorize.

  18. Michael says:

    spencer,
    No, the DoD isn’t usually involved in influencing government or public option, that’s more of a CIA thing. The DoD uses violent acts to achieve strategic goals, not influence.

  19. Andy says:

    No, the DoD isn’t usually involved in influencing government or public option

    Ha! Good one!

  20. spencer says:

    Yes Michael — the objective of war is to inflict your objective on a foreign government or public opinion. why else do you think we fight wars?

  21. spencer says:

    I’m not trying to knock the DoD with my comment,
    I’m just pointing out the irony of their definition.

  22. LJD says:

    these jokers were aiming for a 1-time event to terrorize.

    Unlike suicide bombers?

  23. Bithead says:

    Gibberish. A guy who could blow up his surroundings at the push of a button, and apparently intends to do so, can certainly be shot on the spot. It would be derelict for the cops *not* to shoot him.

    As for the civilian who picks up a rifle & shoots, he doesn’t become a civilian again just because he stops shooting. The simplest thing is to treat him as a combatant.

    Simple, perhaps but not LAWFUL, wherein lies the rub.

    I mean what you’re suggesting here at it’s logical extension would have anyone who carries a firearm considered a criminal…..

    Oh, wait…. What’s your position on citizens carring firearms, again?

  24. Bithead says:

    the objective of war is to inflict your objective on a foreign government or public opinion.

    As an active defense against those who would impose such on us, maybe?

  25. Anderson says:

    The same for the nuclear bombing of Japan. The fire bombing of Tokyo, I don’t see how it had either strategic or logistical goals, so it may fall under the definition of terrorism.

    Terror bombing has a “strategic” goal — to force the enemy to surrender. So you could say 9/11 had a strategic goal.

    I don’t really see how to distinguish the atomic bombings from the Tokyo firebombing, which killed more people than either attack (maybe than both put together, depending on your figures).

  26. Tlaloc says:

    The problems are that many military bases are small towns with on-site schools (used to have civilian elementary schools), civilian homes (or again at least used to), churches (can’t attack those!), stores (PX) that are definately non-military targets.

    That’s the fault of the military and not the people attacking the military. They chose to invite civilians into what they knew was a military target and they exclusively bear the blame for what happens to those civilians while they are on the base.

    That case is no different than any other situation of a military using human shields.

  27. Anderson says:

    Simple, perhaps but not LAWFUL, wherein lies the rub.

    I mean what you’re suggesting here at it’s logical extension would have anyone who carries a firearm considered a criminal…..

    Assuming you’re on my 2d example, no, if you were *just shooting* at U.S. troops, in an occupied territory, then you are an enemy combatant, or at least have to be so treated until a competent tribunal decides otherwise.

    This is one of the issues that int’l law expressly sought to address, after the notoriety of the German reprisals against “franc-tireurs,” real or imagined, in WW1.

  28. legion says:

    Scott_T,
    To put this problem in the Iraq War context. Could the USAF smart-bomb a Mosque on an Iraqi military base just because it was on-base and not one off-base?

    As your comment suggests, the answer is no – a house of worship is protected, whether it’s on base or not. However, if it’s on base & used for military purposes (storing ammo, say), it would lose its protection. In fact, a few years ago I had to deal with just that sort of situation… I was stationed in Germany, and dealing with upgrading the base computer network. In the network, some buildings are ‘end nodes’, and some are ‘tree nodes’ that feed other buildings/end nodes. Some lawyerly type figured that since the base hospital was a tree node, it was supporting other buildings with military purposes, and was technically in violation of Geneva Conventions. Part of our job was re-architecting things so the hospital became an end node.

    Also,
    That being the case, we don’t have enough information yet about why these people were planning this attack to determine whether it was terrorism or not.

    You raise a good point as well, Michael – just as one man’s guerrilla is another’s freedom fighter, a act by itself is hard to call terrorism until you know something about its context… the freaks who flew the planes on 9-11 were terrorists; they defined themselves as such. Were the pilots who flew kamikaze missions into ships in WWII better or worse? Or not even comparable?

  29. Michael says:

    Terror bombing has a “strategic” goal — to force the enemy to surrender. So you could say 9/11 had a strategic goal.

    I would call that a psychological goal, as the damage done by the bombing it didn’t gain the US any strategic or logistical advantage. It’s main goal was to boost US morale and sow doubt and fear among the Japanese civilians.

    I don’t really see how to distinguish the atomic bombings from the Tokyo firebombing, which killed more people than either attack (maybe than both put together, depending on your figures).

    I consider the nuclear bombings a strategic move because they removed Japan’s ability to lead a successful campaign against US forces.

    Now I am not saying that any of these actions are “good” or “bad”, just that some were done to gain advantages in resources or position, and some were done to gain advantages in opinion.

  30. Michael says:

    the objective of war is to inflict your objective on a foreign government or public opinion. why else do you think we fight wars?

    The vast majority of wars have been fought over control of resources. They usually involved the destruction of foreign governments and oppression of the public. Only in recent history have they been fought merely to influence foreign governments or public opinion.

  31. TheHat says:

    The object of terrorists is to terrorize. These six individuals were not engaging in an act of war, they wanted to strike terror into the hearts and minds of Americans. Where they hit is not material. Nor is who they hit. Let’s try not to over think this.