The trouble with definitions

The glaring problem with newly adopted UN Resolution 2178, dealing with the movement of “foreign terrorist fighters” around the world, is the same problem that’s plagued the “War on Terror” since its inception: we (the US, or the US and its allies if you like) can’t or won’t really define what constitutes “terrorism” or “terrorist acts.” Given that this is a UN resolution and therefore, “binding” or not, has about as much weight behind it as a cease and desist letter from Lionel Hutz,

…er, sorry, Miguel Sanchez, the only possible way it could have any impact on how states respond to foreign fighters moving from or through their territory is if it were so tightly written and well-defined as to leave no wiggle room for countries to argue against international repudiation. Unfortunately, 2178 is neither tightly written nor does it do a good job of defining the target.

Which is not to say it doesn’t take a stab at a definition. It tries to define a “foreign terrorist fighter” thusly:

Expressing grave concern over the acute and growing threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters, namely individuals who travel to a State other than their States of residence or nationality for the purpose of the perpetration, planning, or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts or the providing or receiving of terrorist training, including in connection with armed conflict, and resolving to address this threat,

Well, OK, that defines a foreign fighter, but what separates a “foreign fighter” from a “foreign terrorist fighter”? Apparently a “foreign terrorist fighter” is a “foreign fighter who does terrorist stuff,” which I’m pretty sure is what the real braniacs call “begging the question.” You can’t define “terrorist” as “somebody who does terrorist things” without running into the teeny problem that you still haven’t defined what “terrorist things” are.

This is an important point, I think, because historically we don’t really have a problem with “foreign fighters” in general, just with the ones we decide are “terrorists.” After all, I assume nobody on the UN Security Council would have passed a resolution that would have retroactively made the WWII Eagle Squadrons illegal, right? Or that would paint the Marquis de Lafayette as a villain in hindsight? But what’s the difference between the Eagle Squadrons, from our perspective, and the Russian paramilitaries who have been fighting in eastern Ukraine, when viewed from the Russian perspective? Americans might actually be inclined to say that those Russians are “foreign terrorist fighters,” but on what basis? Or, to bring it to a finer point, why were Osama bin Laden’s mujahidin just “foreign fighters” when they were trying to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan, yet some of those very same people are “foreign terrorist fighters” today,  in Afghanistan, Syria, and wherever else they are?

There are lots of half-formed definitions of what constitutes terrorism out there, and in almost every case they’re either so broad as to encompass stuff that, for example, the United States likes to do from time to time, or so narrow as to be pretty much useless. One good example of the latter is in Resolution 2178 itself, where it states several times that it is particularly concerned with “those foreign terrorist fighters who are associated with ISIL, ANF and other cells, affiliates, splinter groups or derivatives of Al-Qaida.” Those are certainly the main groups on everybody’s mind right now, but surely they don’t encompass all the “foreign terrorist fighters” in the world, do they? The Lord’s Resistance Army engages in behavior that I think fits almost any definition of “terrorist,” and it recruits and operates all over central Africa, which means some of its fighters are “foreign terrorist fighters” no matter where they go. They’re certainly not related to Al Qaeda or Daesh in any way. What about Boko Haram? They’re terrorists, aren’t they? They’ve attracted foreign fighters to their cause. Yet you’re really mauling the definition of “affiliate” to claim that Boko Haram is an affiliate of Al Qaeda. But surely these groups have to be dealt with under any comprehensive program to interdict foreign terrorist fighters. So there must be another definition of “terrorist” at work here.

An example of a definition of “terrorism” that’s maybe too broad is found, hey, right there in Title 18 of the U.S. Code:

(1) the term “international terrorism” means activities that—

(A) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State;

(B) appear to be intended—

(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;

(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or

(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and

(C) occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum;

…because, I have to say, I’m having a hard time figuring out how the Iraq War or the Kosovo air campaign, for starters, don’t meet this definition. And while you may argue that, yes, those were in fact terrorist acts, I’m pretty sure the U.S. government would say otherwise.

As I said earlier, on the one hand this failure to define terms doesn’t matter, because there’s no enforcement mechanism on this resolution anyway, and most nations ignore the U.N. when it’s convenient for them to do so. But on the other hand, it does matter, because in the absence of an actual enforcement mechanism the only weight this resolution has behind it is the possibility that countries who violate it will get a lot of fingers wagged in their direction and a lot of international oppobrium lobbed in their general direction. That kind of thing loses its persuasive power when the offending nation can just say, “hey, those guys we just sent off to fight in Syria weren’t terrorists as far as we were concerned” and nobody is really in a position to challenge them on it.


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