Who Qualifies as a Terrorist?

Counterterrorism Blog’s Michael B. Kraft lauds NYT’s Daniel Okrent [rss] for acknowledging that the practice of many media outlets, including his own, of refusing to label anyone a “terrorist” is problematic.

I think in some instances The Times’s earnest effort to avoid bias can desiccate language and dilute meaning.
While some Israelis and their supporters assert that any Palestinian holding a gun is a terrorist, there can be neither factual nor moral certainty that he is. But if the same man fires into a crowd of civilians, he has committed an act of terror, and he is a terrorist. My own definition is simple: an act of political violence committed against purely civilian targets is terrorism; attacks on military targets are not. The deadly October 2000 assault on the American destroyer Cole or the devastating suicide bomb that killed 18 American soldiers and 4 Iraqis in Mosul last December may have been heinous, but these were acts of war, not terrorism. Beheading construction workers in Iraq and bombing a market in Jerusalem are terrorism pure and simple.

Kraft counters, correctly in my view, that it’s not quite that clear cut:

Unfortunately even this otherwise good definition is too simple. The key word is non-combatant. The State Department definition used in the law requiring the annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report refers to politically motivated attacks perpetrated against “non-combatants” for a reason. Attacks against military installations during a time of peace or personnel who are not in a combat situation are also acts of terrorism

The Cole was not engaged in military operations when it made a port of call in Yemen. Attacks on military bases during times of peace, such as those attempted by German Red Army Faction terrorists in the 1980’s, or assassinations of military attaches assigned to an embassy (Greece) or soldiers/and police recruits waiting for a bus or flying home on leave (Israel, Iraq, 1985 TWA 847 hijacking) off duty Marine Embassy Guards sitting at a sidewalk café (El Salvador, 1985) or on a peacekeeping mission (US Marines in Lebanon barracks) should be and are considered acts of terrorism because the victims were noncombatants.

Agreed. As Kraft goes on to note, however, even experts on the subject have difficulty drawing the line on occasion. Still, I’d be happy if the press would at least apply the label to those bright line cases such as Okrent describes.

Update (1408): Brian Montopoli has a related piece today at CJR Daily, which links a piece I wrote back in June.

FILED UNDER: 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.