However, this is false.
At least according to the US Department of State’s official definition of “terrorism”: premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.
The members of IS are hardly clandestine. While they have certainly committed numerous atrocities, they have done so openly and without fear of getting “found out”.
Nor are they a subnational group. The Islamic State is, in fact, a state. They have monopolized the use of force (pacified) a particular geographic area. In any reasonable meaning of the term, they have formed a government in northern Iraq and parts of Syria.
Don’t get me wrong. When I say that members of IS are not terrorists, I am not claiming that their actions are morally acceptable. On the contrary, they are a reprehensible group of people who are brutally murdering innocent people.
But they are not terrorists – not by the State Department’s definition, at least. In reality, there are quite a few definitions of terrorism, and surely the Islamic State qualifies for some of them.
What is Terrorism?
But what would it be that makes militants of the Islamic State “terrorists”? Is it that they kill people? Is it that they kill a lot of people? Is it that they are genocidal? Is it that they actively try to sow fear among their enemies? Is it that they try to extract political concessions from their opponents or other nations?
Many people, acting alone or on behalf of many other organizations, kill people. If a man catches his wife cheating and kills her in a crime of passion, nobody calls this terrorism. The man has committed a murder, but he is not a terrorist.
But what about someone who kills a lot of people? Take the various school shootings that have happened over the past few years in America. We tend to call the perpetrators “mass murderers”, which is an accurate term. We would label many of these people as psychopaths, but the term “psychopath” is only occasionally used in reference to terrorists.
Or maybe it is the genocidal aspirations of IS? Is it the fact that they are specifically targeting “infidels” like Christians and the Yazidis? But nobody calls the Nazi regime a “terrorist” one. The Hutus of Rwanda were not “terrorists”. Genocide is a horribly deplorable act, but it is not what constitutes terrorism.
What about the fear they are creating? No, this doesn’t hold either. Machiavelli said that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved, and many politicians to this day heed his advice. Fear is used as a tool all the time, sometimes even with positive intent and effect (such as making a child fearful of talking to strangers in vans who promise puppies and candy).
Is the defining feature of terrorism that the intent is to change the political scene somehow? But almost everyone tries to influence the political scene. By voting, you are trying to influence political outcomes. This doesn’t make you a terrorist. Lobbying organizations exist for the sole purpose of influencing politics. They are not terrorists either. And they often use fear as a tactic toward this end, too.
It seems to me that “terrorism” is something that people simply recognize without it possessing any specific characteristics. This is incredibly problematic, since the term is used in such important ways. The rights of innocent citizens can be taken away instantaneously upon mere suspicion of being a “terrorist”. With so much at stake, ambiguities are unacceptable.
The United States – Terrorist Organization?
The State Department’s definition of terrorism above excludes governments. This is necessary, because once you allow governments to be considered terrorist organizations, you’ve opened up a whole can of worms.
For you see, the government of our very own United States (and all other governments) would become a terrorist organization if we didn’t include that qualification.
Does the United States kill people? Check.
Does the United States commit “mass murder”? Let’s see…three recent wars in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Libya, drone wars in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, and so on. Even on US soil, you’ve got Ruby Ridge and Waco. These are just a couple of the big ones from recent years.
In these cases, an unfathomable numbers of casualties have been innocent civilians. In Iraq, by the end of major combat (April 30, 2003), the US killed over 7400 civilians. To date, over 130,000 civilians have died as a direct result of the invasion of Iraq by the US government. Since 2001, between 18,000 and 20,000 Afghani civilians have died as a direct result of the invasion by the US government. While not all of these people were murdered by Americans, it was a predictable consequence of conscious decisions made by US policy makers. Lowball estimates say that over 400 civilians in Pakistan, over 100 in Yemen, and a handful in Somalia, have been slaughtered in drone strikes. The true numbers are likely vastly higher.
Compare that with the Islamic State, which is being blamed for over 5500 civilian casualties in Iraq in the first six months of 2014. And when you consider that Islamic extremists were nonexistent in Iraq until the US government took out Saddam, and how the US government has been providing training and weapons for IS fighters, it is hardly a stretch to say that the US is at least partly responsible for these deaths as well.
What about genocide? Thankfully, the United States government has yet to commit a genocide on the scale of, say, the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide. But that doesn’t make them any less culpable for what was arguably a genocide against the Native Americans. Without a doubt, the Trail of Tears should be considered an act of genocide by any reasonable human being. And, while not a genocide, the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, along with multiple unnecessary nuclear attacks on the Japanese, should count for something.
Does the US government attempt to create fear in its enemies? Duh.
Does it deliberately try to affect political outcomes in other nations? I don’t even know where to begin. Documenting all of the meddling that the US government has done in other nations’ affairs would take volumes upon volumes. This Wikipedia article on covert regime changes is a start, but it hardly scratches the surface.
Beyond all of this, the US government tortures people – just like IS. And the US government offers huge amounts of material support to the Saudi government – the same Saudi government that committed 345 beheadings between 2007 and 2010. How many people has the Islamic State beheaded?
What is Terrorism – Revisited
As we’ve seen, terrorism is a tricky term. We all “know” who the terrorists are, but we can’t seem to pin down any particular meaning. At least not one that is consistent with who we “know” are or are not terrorists. So how did we come to our conclusions of what it means from someone to be a terrorist?
The term “terrorist” is a politically loaded one, and works to garner public opinion against any organization or individual accused of being one. Members of the Afghan resistance were considered “freedom fighters” when they fought against the Soviet Union, but the exact same people are considered terrorists today. Consider how differently Americans think about these people now than they did in the 80s.
The fact is, the US government will label people as “terrorists” in order to demonize them. This is exactly what is happening with the Islamic State today. The goal of the US government is to create terror in Americans in order to support increased domestic spy powers and decrease resistance to war.