Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Defining “terrorism”

Recent political discourse seems to have forgotten Hezbollah's formal designation as a "terrorist organization"

A spokesman of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is featured in a video shot in an undisclosed location

Putting an end to "violence and terrorism" is how UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi described his effort at the recent Geneva talks. No further clarifications were given, but it is now understood that "violence" is practiced by the forces of Bashar al-Assad and his allies, like Lebanon's Hezbollah, and includes street-to-street combat, shelling of neighborhoods (sometimes with chemical weapons), and throwing of barrel bombs on towns. "Terrorism," meanwhile, is practiced by anti-Assad armed groups and includes street war, chopping off heads, and pretending that it’s all happening in the 7th century when Muslim armies invaded vast lands around the globe.


It is hard to tell the difference between the two kinds of brutality, except that Assad and Hezbollah are much more disciplined, well-trained, and better armed.


However, it remains strange how the anti-Assad forces, mostly Sunni, continue to be tagged as “terrorists” while Hezbollah, which is formally listed as a terrorist organization in both the United States and Europe, seems recently to have lost this label.


Not only has Hezbollah been classified terrorist for a long time, but there are also close to half a dozen UN Security Council resolutions that call on the party to disarm. The UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) has indicted five from Hezbollah's rank-and-file, while Bulgaria, Cyprus, and a few other countries have convicted Hezbollah militants of either committing acts of terror or of planning them.


Yet, despite all the UN resolutions and world verdicts against Hezbollah, many now seem to have ceased calling the party a “terrorist” one.


To understand this trend, one would have to trace the recent history of the usage of the word “terrorism,” which by the turn of the century was understood as the use of violence by non-state actors, or armed groups that have no address, groups that hit and hide and are not accountable before any government.


The Palestine Liberation Organization, Hezbollah, Hamas, and several other groups all fit that description. States, however, were never classified as such, and despite all the Arab efforts to coin the term "state terror" to describe Israel, the label has not taken hold.


Not only was Israel never described as a "terrorist state," but brutal regimes like those of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Ali Khamenei in Iran, Moammar Qaddafi in Libya, and Hafez al-Assad in Syria were never called “terrorists,” either. At best, these rogue regimes were described as "state sponsors of terrorism" for their role in funding, training, arming, and facilitating the activity of armed groups.


But then came Barack Obama, whose team turned these definitions – and history – upside down. The word terrorism was replaced by "extreme violence." In practice, even non-state actors – like Hezbollah and the Taliban – stopped being viewed simply as terrorists.


In today’s Washington, any non-state actor that has a defined chain of command, with whom the world can talk, is not a "terrorist group" anymore.


In the context of Syria, Hezbollah is believed to be a disciplined paramilitary force with known leaders. If there were ever a political settlement, it is assumed that Hezbollah will abide by it. On the rebel side, the problem is that many of the armed groups have no defined leadership or regional patrons that can make them abide by any deal. Rebels groups – like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) – are unpredictable.


Hezbollah, Nusra, and ISIS are all clearly violent groups. But because these two Al-Qaeda affiliates are not as well-funded or -organized as Hezbollah and Assad’s military and paramilitary groups, only they are being labeled as “terrorists.”


Since former President George Bush launched the global War on Terror in 2001, America has changed. Obama, however, has hit many reset buttons. He forgot that Hezbollah killed over 200 marines in the 1980s, or that the party deployed Ali Musa Daqduq, who trained and participated in the killing of American troops in Iraq and is now back home in Beirut.


In Obama’s view, let bygones be bygones, and Hezbollah is most welcome to join any political settlement, whether in Syria or Lebanon, even if it never abides by UN Security Council resolutions, disarms, or hands over those indicted by the STL.


As far as Obama is concerned, the only problem Lebanon faces today is the spillover from Syria. Solve the Syria riddle and Hezbollah will sheathe its sword and Lebanon, an ally and friend according to the American president, will return to normal.


All of this should teach Sunni terror groups a lesson: you can practice violence outside of any state mandate. You can fight in Syria, even if you aren’t Syrian (Hezbollah is Lebanese), just make sure that you organize your ranks into a defined hierarchy with known leaders, even if these leaders live in bunkers buried deep underground. If these armed factions manage to do that, they might be relabeled mere “violent groups.”


Then Brahimi might find it easier comparing oranges to oranges.


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain

One kind of terrorist. (AFP Photo/YouTube)

"In today’s Washington, any non-state actor that has a defined chain of command, with whom the world can talk, is not a 'terrorist group' anymore."

  • RaedBaroud

    After 66 years of Israeli occupation, we're all very used to false equivalence being drawn between a state military extremely well equipped with and using warplanes, helicopter gunships, cluster bombs, incendiary bombs, ballistic, air-to-surface and surface-to-surface missiles, tanks and every form of heavy artillery against civilians, and an opposition armed with guns and some rocket launchers, as we are to the international community referring to the former as a legitimate government fighting terrorism and the latter as terrorist groups. Indeed, every time that Israel launches an attack on Gaza, MEMRI and thousands of online hasbara rush to post grisly videos of Hamas atrocities proving the 'legitimacy' of the carpet-bombing with warplanes. Bashar al-Assad has watched and learnt the appropriate rhetoric not only from Tel Aviv but from Washington (his goons tortured suspects for the American and British intelligence services in the unending 'War on Terror', so this is hardly a surprise), and even puts an 'anti-zionist' spin on his slaughter -which must come as a surprise to the Palestinians in the camps in Yarmouk, Khan el Sheeh, Daraa, etc, while the 'international community' as always provides the same old moral equivalence arguments as ever.

    February 14, 2014


    raed baroud this is non sense ; the israeli army applies preventive defense by eliminiating source of threat and danger .. it is not their fault if cowards hide behind population to do their crime .. terror is terror ! being a car bomb at a mosque ( a sport in the arab world lately !) or an israeli bus .. killing children and civilians has no excuse ..

    February 17, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    This is such a stale and lame argument. Haven't there been enough discussion of the semantics of this word? We all know by now that, for those like Mr. Abdul-Hussain who have a clear stake and bias in one or the other side of any conflict, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter? It's got nothing with funding or who is better armed...It's whose side are you on! My definition of a terrorist is of someone who uses random violence (as opposed to targeted) against anyone, including both innocent people and military targets, to achieve a political goal. Applying this simple definition, I reach the conclusion that both sides in the Syrian conflict are terrorists. We knew long ago that the Assad regime and Hezbollah were terrorists (even when people like Mr. Abdul-Hussain supported them, though they seem to have changed their minds recently), and we knew all along that all the radical Sunni militants of Al-Qaeda vintage are also terrorists. This piece is a useless waste of electronic ink and time.

    February 13, 2014